Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy

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9780374157616: Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy

Epic in scope, precise in detail, and heart-breaking in its human drama, Former People is the first book to recount the history of the aristocracy caught up in the maelstrom of the Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of Stalin's Russia. Filled with chilling tales of looted palaces and burning estates, of desperate flights in the night from marauding peasants and Red Army soldiers, of imprisonment, exile, and execution, it is the story of how a centuries'-old elite, famous for its glittering wealth, its service to the Tsar and Empire, and its promotion of the arts and culture, was dispossessed and destroyed along with the rest of old Russia.

Yet Former People is also a story of survival and accommodation, of how many of the tsarist ruling class―so-called "former people" and "class enemies"―overcame the psychological wounds inflicted by the loss of their world and decades of repression as they struggled to find a place for themselves and their families in the new, hostile order of the Soviet Union. Chronicling the fate of two great aristocratic families―the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns―it reveals how even in the darkest depths of the terror, daily life went on.

Told with sensitivity and nuance by acclaimed historian Douglas Smith, Former People is the dramatic portrait of two of Russia's most powerful aristocratic families, and a sweeping account of their homeland in violent transition.

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About the Author:

Douglas Smith is an award-winning historian and translator and the author of three previous books on Russia. Before becoming a historian, he worked for the U. S. State Department in the Soviet Union and as a Russian affairs analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two children.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

FORMER PEOPLE (1. Russia, 1900)

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Russia was hurtling into the modern age. In the two decades before the First World War, the country experienced exceptional rates of industrial growth, outpacing those of the United States, Germany, and Great Britain. Under Minister of Finance Sergei Witte massive domestic and foreign investment was made in Russian industry, mining, and railroads. Between 1850 and 1905, Russia went from 850 miles of railroads to nearly 40,000. The oil industry grew to match that of the United States, and Russia surpassed France in steel production. In the early 1880s, St. Petersburg and Moscow were connected by the longest telephone line in the world. The first cinemas appeared in Russia in 1903, the same year the number of electric streetlights in St. Petersburg reached three thousand. By 1914, Russia had become the fifth-largest industrial power in the world.1 The pace and future promise of economic growth and power made the other powers view Russia with a combination of wonder, envy, and fear.2

Yet despite rapid industrialization, the explosive growth of Russia's urban centers, and unprecedented foreign investment, Russia in 1900 was still a feudal society. Its social makeup resembled a pyramid with a large base extending gradually to a narrow tip. At the bottom was the great mass of peasants, 80 percent of the entire population. At the top was the emperor, the autocratic ruler of a vast, multiethnic empire of almost 130 million people in 1897. In between lay several social groups defined by laws and customs that went back hundreds of years: the clergy, the townsmen, the so-called distinguished or honored citizens, the merchants, and the nobility.3 Unlike Western Europe or the United States, there was no large urban middle class or bourgeoisie. In the late 1890s, just over 13 percent of the population lived in cities, compared with 72 percent in England, 47 in Germany, and 38 in the United States. Russia's cities were home to the vast majority of the country's small educated elite, while in the rural areas less than a quarter of the population was literate.4

Not only was Russia still a traditional peasant society, but it remained politically mired in the past. Russia was ruled not by laws or institutions but by one man, the emperor. According to the Fundamental Laws of 1832, "The Russian Empire is ruled on the firm basis of positive laws and statutes which emanate from the Autocratic Power." The Russian emperor's power was understood as unlimited; imperial decrees, as well as verbal instructions and commands, had the force of law. This is not to say there were no laws or no sense of legality, rather, that the emperor had the freedom and power to decide whether he cared to recognize them.5

By the latter decades of the nineteenth century Russia's educated classes were growing increasingly concerned by the dichotomy of a modernizing society and an old-fashioned and rigid political system. While the country was moving into the modern era, the state seemed impervious to change. Tsar Alexander II had of course taken steps to modernize Russia during the era of the Great Reforms. In 1861, the serfs were freed, ending a horrific system of human bondage stretching back hundreds of years that, by the eighteenth century, had descended to a level of inhumanity akin to American slavery.6 In 1864, the legal system was reformed to create an independent judiciary in which all Russians, except peasants, the vast majority of the population, were to be equal before the law. The same year local society was granted greater authority over managing its affairs, chiefly in the areas of public education, health, and roadways, with the creation of zemstvos, elected institutions of local self-government separate from the central government. The "tsar-liberator" had approved a plan to consult with a small number of representatives of society to consider further reforms (the so-called Loris-Melikov Constitution) when he was blown up by a bomb thrown by members of the terrorist organization The People's Will on March 1, 1881.

Upon coming to the throne, Alexander III tore up the Loris-Melikov Constitution and issued an imperial manifesto reasserting undiluted and absolute autocratic power. Minister of the Interior Count Dmitry Tolstoy baldly stated the new program of the government with a single word, "Order."7 Counterreforms were instituted to undo or limit the reforms of the 1860s. In the summer of 1881, the government issued new Temporary Regulations intended to keep the peace and protect public order. The regulations invested the government with ever-greater power to monitor, arrest, and exile its subjects without recourse. Houses could be searched; businesses and schools closed; any sort of gathering, whether public or private, prohibited. The regulations even gave the government power to deny town councils and zemstvos the right to meet and to dismiss from such bodies anyone considered politically unreliable. Intended to last only three years, the Temporary Regulations were repeatedly renewed by Alexander III and later by Nicholas II, creating a state of near-martial law.8

Alexander III brought renewed repression, but little else. If some could see in Alexander the revived spirit of Peter the Great with his cudgel, others just saw the cudgel.9 He had no need of society, even its most conservative, pro-autocratic members. In March 1881, a group of aristocratic conservatives founded the Holy Company to safeguard the life of the new tsar and take the fight to the revolutionaries. When its members, who included Count Sergei Sheremetev, dared suggest that repressive measures alone might not be enough to defeat the regime's enemies and some sort of changes to the government ought to be considered, the emperor's ministers denounced the Holy Company and forced it to disband. According to Minister Dmitry Tolstoy, the Holy Company was infected with "noxious liberalism."10

Alexander III's son and heir Nicholas was at Livadia, in the Crimea, when, in October 1894, he got the news that his father was dead. According to Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, his brother-in-law, a stunned Nicholas took him by the arm and said, "What am I going to do, what is going to happen to me, to you, [...] to mother, to all of Russia? I am not prepared to be a Czar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling." The grand duke, and history, would confirm the truth of Nicholas's words. Alexander Mikhailovich wrote that Nicholas's personal qualities, while "praiseworthy in a simple citizen," were "fatal in a Czar."11 Weak, indecisive, overwhelmed by the responsibilities of rule, and mindlessly beholden to "fate," Nicholas did prove to be fatal to himself, fatal to his family, and fatal to Russia.

From the start of his reign, Nicholas pledged to continue to rule in the spirit of his late father. Nicholas maintained tight censorship of the press, furthered the policy of limiting the power of the zemstvos, restricted the autonomy of Russia's universities, and renewed the Temporary Regulations. When, in January 1895, a delegation of zemstvo representatives wished him a long and successful reign and dared mention their desire to play a role in communicating to the government the wishes of the people, Nicholas stopped them by calling their desire a "senseless dream." "Let all know," he told them, "that in devoting all my strength to the people's well-being, I shall safeguard the principles of autocracy as firmly and as unswervingly as did my late, unforgettable father."12

But he could not, and he did not. Where the father had known what he wanted, the son was never sure; where the father had been resolute, the son had trouble making and sticking to a decision. Intent on showing that his hand was firmly on the rudder of state, Nicholas insisted on overseeing nearly every decision that attended administering a great empire. It did not take long for the ill-equipped emperor to become overwhelmed and then paralyzed by indecision. When confronted with difficult problems, Nicholas was apt to go pale, light a cigarette, and fall silent.13 Society wits quipped that "Russia did not need a constitution to limit the monarchy since she already had a limited monarch." Confusion, incoherence, stasis, and a sense of aimless drift began to emanate from the office of the emperor and infect the government.14

Nonetheless, there was one aspect of Russian political culture that survived the reign of Alexander III. The Russians call it proizvól, a word that lacks any clear English equivalent but is most often translated as "arbitrary rule." Proizvol was evident in the workings of the Okhrana, the secret police, an organization that was charged with combating terrorists but that seemed to suspect everyone, even the emperor's loyal subjects, of subversion. Proizvol was evident in the sweeping authority of the provincial governors, who often ruled over vast regions of the empire as venal satraps. The educated classes, particularly the men in the zemstvos whose work the governors obstructed and whose authority they tried to thwart, resented their power the most. The state's interference in the zemstvos proved to have far-reaching consequences: by 1900, the zemstvos were dominated by the nobility, and in cracking down on them, the government turned its most important ally into an opponent.15

 

At the end of the nineteenth century, the nobility comprised almost 1.9 million people, about 1.5 percent of the entire population of the Russian Empire. The nobility was a diverse group, divided by nationality (Russians, Poles, Georgians, Baltic Germans), religion (Russian Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Lutheranism), education and wealth (from a great deal of both to little of either), and political outlook (from reactionaries to revolutionaries). There were hereditary nobles, whose privileged status passed to their offspring, and personal nobles, whose did not. So great was the diversity among the empire's nobility that historians continue to debate whether it even deserves to be considered a distinct social class.16 If there was one thing that defined a noble, it was, as a commentator wrote in "The Tasks of the Nobility" in 1895, a certain quality "of being among the chosen, of being privileged, of not being the same as all other people."17 The Russian nobility was never, however, a class of idle rich. Rather, it had always been a service class that initially derived its privileges and then increasingly its own identity from serving the grand princes of Muscovy and later the tsars of imperial Russia whether at court, in the military, or in the administration.

At the top of the nobility was the aristocratic elite, roughly a hundred or so families with great landed wealth dating back to at least the eighteenth century. These nobles often held high positions at court or in the government.18 The aristocracy was typically old, titled, and rich. It intermarried and had a sense of itself as a self-defined group. Aristocrats belonged to the same clubs and salons, and the young men served in the elite imperial guards regiments like the Chevaliers Gardes, the Horse Guard, and the Emperor's Life Guard Hussars. Part of the aristocracy (including the Golitsyns, Gagarins, Dolgorukys, and Volkonskys) descended from the ancient princely dynasties of Riurik and Gedymin; others came from nontitled boyar families of the Muscovite court, most notably the Naryshkins and the Sheremetevs, a branch of which acquired the title of count under Peter the Great; or from other old noble families that had served in the cavalry units, such as the Shuvalovs, Vorontsovs, and Orlovs.19

Princess Sophy Dolgoruky, born into the aristocracy in the final decade of the tsarist empire, recalled how "[i]n the old days any lesser mortal who had not been born into the privileged caste was considered not 'born.' 'Elle n'est pas née' was a phrase to which my youthful ears were quite accustomed, if my grandmother referred to one who had married into the select club of European aristocracy, but was unable to claim a title in her own right." (Nevertheless, as Sophy points out in her memoir, Grandmother chose to remain silent about the fact that her great-grandmother had been bought at a slave market in Constantinople by an Austrian prince and then handed over to the Polish count Potocki as the winnings in a card game.) While the members of this tiny elite held different interests and attitudes, they all, according to Sophy, prized education, possessed unimaginable wealth (though this was never mentioned, for to do so showed an utter lack of breeding), and lived in "a luxury that was a natural part of existence."

So, for instance, sheets and pillow-cases were changed daily. All were of very fine cool linen with the personal initial and crown (to indicate the title) embroidered on every item. Underclothes naturally would never be worn twice and towels were changed immediately after use. The tablecloths covering the long tables and the napkins intricately folded at each place would have the family coat of arms actually woven into the centre. Obviously each big house had its own laundry on the premises, together with a plethora of servants who, with their families, lived, feudal fashion, in two sides of the house round the courtyard, above the stables and garages. Thinking back to the Dolgorouky household it [sic] seems incredible that such a number of people were needed to care for the physical comfort of one family.

In the large marble-floored front hall sat the svetzar whose only duty was to open the door and lay down the strip of red carpet to car or carriage, so that the shoes of those arriving or departing should not be sullied by contact with the pavement. To keep him company in the hall were the couple of liveried footmen on duty that day--or when my uncle was in residence--a couple of Cossacks in full uniform.20

Below the aristocracy lay the great mass of nobles who filled the ranks of the officer corps and the civil administration or had gone into the so-called free professions as lawyers, doctors, teachers, or scientists. About half of all urban nobles were either in state service or in these professions around the turn of the century; the next largest category was rentiers.21 The nobility had traditionally been the landowning class, and this remained true right up to 1917. Until the emancipation in 1861, the nobility had for centuries lived off the labor of millions of serfs, labor that made some nobles fabulously rich. If there is one image of the prerevolutionary landed nobility that has stuck in the popular imagination, it is that of the Ranevskys in Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. Impecunious, trapped by tradition, doomed to oblivion by the forces of modernity, Lyubov Ranevskaya cannot bring herself to cut down the orchard and rent out the land for summer vacationers ("Summer cottages, summer residents--I'm sorry, it's all too vulgar," she says with a sigh) and loses her estate and everything she holds dear.22

It is tempting to take Chekhov's play for sociology and to see in the story of the Ranevskys the plight of the entire Russian nobility, an ancient class inescapably shuffling toward extinction. But the reality was never quite so bleak. The lower rungs of the rural nobility were indeed becoming more impoverished, and many were forced to sell their lands; between 1861 and 1905, the rural nobility lost an average of 1 percent of its land a year through either sale or foreclosure. Nonetheless, as late as 1915, the nobility still ...

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