Friday, April 25, 2014

FORMER PEOPLE by Douglas Smith (non-fic)

The subtitle of this book is The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy.  Douglas Smith has written a definitive and well-researched book about the decline of the Russian aristocracy.  He is a well qualified historian having worked and lived in the Soviet Union for many years. 

At the turn of the 19th century Russian had a long established class of nobles, much like those who lost their lives and fortunes in the earlier French Revolution.  And, for many of these nobles well versed in history, the Russian Revolution came as no surprise.  Nicholas II was a weak ruler with poor and greedy advisers.  But this book is not about Nicholas and his sad end, it is about the noble families who were landowners, government officials, military elite and dilettantes. They were a diverse group and many, in one of history's tragic ironies, even supported the overturning of the old order.   The story we follow is mainly about the fortunes of two great Russian families, the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns whose members chose to stay in Russian rather than flee.  What became of them and their progeny is a somber yet fascinating tale. 

The majority of the nobility had left Russia by 1921. According to one source, more than 12 percent of the prerevolutionary nobility, about ten thousand families or some fifty thousand individuals, was still in Russia. The revolution and civil war had torn the nobility in two...A chasm began to open between the nobles who had stayed and those who had departed that grew wider in the coming decades, and left family members strangers to one another.

There was a short interlude after the Great War when members of these noble families were able to find work in the new Russia.  They had the education and skills that the peasants and workers did not possess.  However Lenin and the Bolsheviks feared their presence and what they represented even as they depended on them for their skills.  When the ruthless Stalin came into power and the Communists gained control of the government, they were determined to wipe out every member of the old ruling class.

The fortunes of the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns quickly descended into nightmare by the mid-twenties.  Their great estates had been either destroyed or taken over by local governments, plundered or left to fall into ruin.  The peasants turned on them, and many members of the family were murdered or sent off to hard labor in Siberia.  Those who survived adjusted as best they could, living in poverty, growing their own food, some using a skill such as music to entertain those who used to serve them, and some serving as curators of the estate museums they spent their childhood living in.  By the end of World War II, 95% of Russia's country estates had disappeared. They moved from town to town keeping one step ahead of their persecutors.  Sometimes they were helped by sympathetic peasants, sometimes they were betrayed and were carted off in trains to work on government rail lines, in mines or building roads.  What they were able to save from their former lives was quickly sold sometimes for mere pennies to unscrupulous black marketeers.  Yet, babies were born, old people died, and a few descendants of the Sheremetevs and Golitsyns managed to survive, hiding the pride they still felt in their aristocratic ancestry. As poor as they were, they were noble in spirit to the end.

I highly recommend this readable book to any who love history and wish to learn more about the end of the Russian empire and the mighty who had fallen but whose spirit was not defeated.

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