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Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy

Douglas Smith

(Picador; US: Sep 2013)

Douglas Smith’s Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy is a welcome addition to the popular histories of the Romanovs and their ilk that have emerged since Soviet Union archives became accessible to researchers in the ‘90s.


The awesome fall from grace suffered by Imperial Russia´s aristocrats following the 1917 Revolution provides rich source material for popular history, and the tales of narrow escapes from bloodthirsty Bolsheviks fueled Cold War political antagonisms for decades prior to the Soviet Union’s fall. Former People does little to trouble the tone set by these stories of aristocratic tragedy and Bolshevik cruelty. But while Smith might be motivated to document the very real human tragedy suffered by Russia’s former aristocrats – and this is the book’s unapologetic agenda – Smith is too good of an historian to allow sympathy to cloud his research.


Former People documents the fate of two of Imperial Russia’s most illustrious and wealthy families: the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns. Smith follows the fates of their members during the revolutions and Civil War that played out across Russia between 1917 and 1922, and he continues to track the fates of those who chose to remain in the Soviet Union.


Before the bread riots in Petrograd in February 1917 snowballed into a series of mutinies, riots, and government resignations that led to Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication, the Golitsyns and Sheremetevs enjoyed the kind of wealth and influence known to only a handful of families among Imperial Russia´s nobility. When the Sheremetev patriarch died in 1871, his two sons divided 1.9 million acres of property, including dozens of palaces across Russia. Prior to the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, Count Sheremetev had owned around 300,000 people.


The last Golitsyn patriarch spoke French as a first language (not unusual among the elite) and was the last Imperial mayor of Moscow. Although incredibly wealthy by any standard, the Golitsyns did not compete with the Shermetevs in terms of property, and many of their members possessed liberal views at odds with the autocratic Tsar.


When bread riots turned into abdication, few among the aristocracy were surprised, and quite a few actually welcomed the possibility of change. Despite an incredible rate of industrialization in the years before World War I, Russian institutions had changed little from the time of Catherine the Great. After the 1905 Revolution inspired in part from Russia’s humiliating defeat to Japan that same year, Nicholas II rejected even tepid reform. The Tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana, spied on many hopeful reformists, including members of the Golitsyn and Sheremetev families. As food and fuel shortages combined with massive casualties and rumors of treachery at the very top of the Imperial government, most aristocrats had been living with a sense of impending doom for years before the spark struck.


In the months following the 1917 Revolution, aristocrats attempted to live as usual despite the increasing street violence and anti-bourgeois rhetoric. The targeting of particular aristocrats was not yet systematic, but it occurred with enough frequency to cause alarm. Elderly Countess Kleinmichel was about to welcome guests to dinner at her Petrograd mansion when servants rushed in to tell her that armed men had broken through the back door. The Countess and her dinner guests fled across the street in the snowy night to the home of one of her guests. Horrified, they watched through the windows as all of the lights in the house were turned on and the armed men moved more tables and chairs into the dining room. The armed guards were joined by the servants as they proceeded to enjoy the food and wine intended for the Countess’s guests.


The situation only deteriorated into the summer of 1917. At Lily and Boris Sheremetevs’ estate, threats and thefts culminated in Prince Boris being beat to death while hiding in the local train station. His wife barely managed to escape by disguising herself with the help of a maid. Thousands of estates were plundered and burned, their owners fleeing or killed, in the summer and autumn of 1917.


After the Bolshevik coup of November 1917, nobles were officially classified as former people. Not only did this mean they were placed on starvation rations, but it also meant that they were required to show proof of work in order to qualify. Former princesses in their 70s were made to clean public toilets and shovel snow while former Tsarist generals moved heavy stones uselessly from one location to another. Children were forbidden from attending schools. In some cities, the local soviet authorized collective rapes of bourgeois women and girls in the name of reeducation. By February 1918, 75 percent of land had been confiscated from its former owners. Urban mansions were appropriated for state agencies or turned into museums of the former way of living.


Members of the Golitsyn and Sheremetev families fled the increasingly violent cities, although few of them fought against the Reds during the Civil War. During this period, the decision whether to leave Russia drove a wedge between and within families. One branch of the Golitsyns followed the White Army during its long retreat across Siberia, eventually reuniting with their father who was working as a doctor in Manchuria. From there they moved to California, where their descendants became involved in film production, earning Academy Awards while their relatives languished under Stalin.


After the Bolshevik victory in the Civil War, Lenin initiated the New Economic Program to help reboot the economy. NEP permitted small-scale enterprise while large enterprises remained in the hands of the state. For the younger generation of Golitsyns and Sheremetevs who had come of age during the Revolution, the early ‘20s were an exciting period. Despite having lost almost all of their material wealth, some of them remained in apartments in their former mansions. One Sheremetev actually served as curator of a museum, formerly his country estate.

Stalin´s ascendancy at the end of the ‘20s prevented the former aristocracy from living as normal Soviet citizens. As family names were blacklisted, the younger members were expelled from universities and prevented from obtaining work. By the ‘30s, the families had been expelled from Moscow and Saint Petersburg and from positions they held in cultural institutions, including the museums they had used to call home. Smith skillfully documents the terrors of this period, and the accounting of who survived the persecutions of the ‘30s and privations of World War II is devastating. All but the very young and the very old were caught up in the terror and never seen again.


Former People is richly-detailed without being anecdotal and sympathetic without being nostalgic. Smith has made a sophisticated intervention into a burgeoning area of historical interest for the general public, and Former People captivates as well as informs. The excellent archival research done to illuminate the post-Civil War history of aristocratic families who remained in Russia is especially useful – most studies of a similar vein tend to finish where the bulk of Smith´s work begins to take off. Former People will satisfy a diverse and discriminating readership.

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