Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy
By Douglas Smith (Macmillan 464pp £20)
Many years ago I knew an elderly Russian lady living in Somerset. Like many of her generation, she had undergone dramatic experiences at the time of the Revolution. One particularly frightening episode took place on her estate, when a young peasant fell desperately in love with her, and went so far as to express his devotion. My friend tactfully explained that she was unable to return his feelings. However, when the Revolution swept across the countryside, the young man revived his suit, explaining that the new order had swept away artificial distinctions of birth and wealth. When she apologetically explained that in fact nothing had changed with regard to their personal relationship, he departed in anger. Shortly afterwards, he lay in wait for her and shot her in the head with a revolver. Miraculously saved by surgery, she showed me the bullet she had preserved as a memento of this alarming incident.
This incident illustrates an often under-appreciated element of the Revolution: indeed, it is widely dismissed by luminaries of the academic world, such as the late Eric Hobsbawm. The Revolution's major causes, ranging from social unrest to the traumatic breakdown caused by the Great War, are very properly examined in extenso. However, there is no escaping the fact that a significant contributing factor, emphasised by such disparate writers as Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gorky and Bunin, was the existence of widespread lawlessness amounting to savage rejection of all civilised norms among a disproportionate number of the population. This factor has been fruitfully examined in studies by Anna Geifman (Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894-1917) and Joan Neuberger (Hooliganism: Crime, Culture, and Power in St Petersburg, 1900-1914).
The class which initially bore the brunt of the tidal wave of barbaric cruelty that swept remorselessly across Russia from 1917 onwards was the nobility. By the close of the Civil War in 1921, virtually the entire social stratum had been butchered or exiled, and its property destroyed or expropriated. Douglas Smith's exemplary study provides what is, remarkably, the first full scholarly examination of this cataclysm. As he shows, an entire civilisation, built up painfully over centuries, was all but eradicated. At a cultural level, the contribution of the Russian aristocracy was probably unparalleled. As Geoffrey Hosking has observed: 'what other European nobility could boast a cultural output to match Pushkin, Lermontov, Tiutchev, Turgenev, Tolstoi, Glinka, Musorgskii and Rakhmaninov?'
Nor was it only people who vanished from the face of the country. Some 95 per cent of Russian country houses, many of modest pretensions, were destroyed in a frenzy of hatred against the old regime. No distinction was made between nobles who supported the autocracy and the considerable proportion that opposed it. A terrible upsurge of barbarism had been anticipated by many. Smith cites a dire prophecy uttered by one Russian nobleman to another in Paris on the eve of the Great War:
We are on the verge of events, the likes of which the world has not seen since the time of the barbarian invasions ... Soon everything that constitutes our lives will strike the world as useless. A period of barbarism is about to begin and it shall last for decades.
The aftermath of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in February 1917 saw a wave of lawlessness that swept across the country during the summer and autumn before the Bolshevik putsch in October. Much of the responsibility for the mayhem and bloodshed lay with Nicholas's ineffectual conduct of government generally, and the war effort in particular. More immediately, the Provisional Government plunged the country into chaos, foolishly seeking popularity by abolishing the police, the Okhrana (the secret police) and the Corps of Gendarmes. The army was fatally weakened by the notorious Order No 1, which, together with other irresponsible measures, effectively undermined military discipline.
Not a few nobles blamed their own order for the part it had played in failing to implement peasant and proletarian demands. Yet a great deal of them had behaved honourably towards their dependents and their country. When the Great War broke out, many nobles (as well as the Tsar himself) withdrew funds held in western European banks as a sign of patriotic commitment to the war effort. Today's oligarchs might mark the precedent.
Until the country was torn apart by Bolshevism and civil war, most nobles accepted the dramatic changes instituted in 1917 as justified and potentially beneficial to the country. As Smith rightly observes,
revolutions produce counter-revolutions. Yet it is one of the remarkable things about the February Revolution that it produced no counter-revolution seeking to restore the Romanovs. The nobility and indeed the entire Russian elite - precisely those who stood to lose the most from the fall of tsarism - either embraced the Revolution or at least grudgingly accepted it. Apart from a few isolated voices, there were no calls for a return to the past. Rather, the nobility immediately pledged itself to the new Provisional Government.
In his farewell address to the Russian army, Nicholas II himself urged submission to the Provisional Government. The proclaimed political policy of the leaders of the White Armies emphasised restoration of the democratically elected Constituent Assembly, forcibly dissolved by the Bolsheviks in January 1918.
But, however patriotic their motives and conduct, to be a noble in post-1917 Russia was perilous indeed. Among numerous examples, Smith cites the horrible fate of members of a branch of the Obolensky family in 1918. Prince Vladimir was killed at his estate at the beginning of the year; his elder brother, Alexander, was shot in the Peter and Paul Fortress; Prince Mikhail was beaten to death by a frenzied mob, while Princess Elena was murdered on her estate in November, her body flung into the flames of her burning house.
The Bolshevik leadership wasted no time in claiming for themselves the fine houses from which their victims had been driven, which they crammed with plunder seized from the 'enemies of the people'. The extent to which greed as much as rage characterised the revolutionary elite is set out in all its sordid details - an essential aspect of Communist triumph that has been recently documented by Sean McMeekin in his magisterial exposé History's Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks (2008).
Meanwhile, however, the reign of terror engulfed the vast Russian countryside, much of it perpetrated by soldiers returning in droves from the front, following the Provisional Government's incompetent prosecution of the war. Bestial acts of cruelty and senseless vandalism became daily events, and by the end of the year most surviving nobles had fled their estates. The consequence was effectively a war against civilisation. Smith interleaves his judicious account of public events with harrowing pictures of the desperate plight of individual members of celebrated noble families. How landlords actually treated their peasants proved almost immaterial in the end, as the persecution inflicted on Leo Tolstoy's daughter at their family estate illustrates.
The garrulous and ineffectual premier Alexander Kerensky was led into grotesque misjudgements of the march of events, guided in part by his simplistic belief that the Russian Revolution would follow the path of the French. In fact the historical circumstances were dissimilar in essential respects, and in August 1917 Count Sergei Sheremetev proved very much nearer the mark with a Russian parallel. He believed that the country was descending into a second Pugachevchina: the terrible Cossack uprising led by the brutal Emelyan Pugachev against Catherine the Great in 1773-5, which subjected much of the country to a deluge of blood and suffering.
Douglas Smith describes in vivid detail for the first time the plight of those Russian nobles who either were unable to emigrate or elected to remain in their suffering country. The late Denis Brogan once described a particular type of his fellow historians as 'success snobs', concerned only with the victors among past events. Smith's fine work does much to correct this unscholarly approach, while telling a remarkable tale of human resistance and endurance under appalling circumstances.
History, in any case, may take remarkable turns unanticipated by the 'success snobs'. Not long after the fall of Gorbachev, our daughter Anastasia returned to live in Russia for a year. The first social occasion she attended was the Moscow Ball of the Russian Nobility.
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Nikolai Tolstoy has written extensively on Russian history, including a history of his own family, which will soon be published in Russian by Yasnaya Polyana.