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Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy [Hardcover]

Douglas Smith
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

It is a daunting task to elicit sentiments of nostalgia or even regret for the demise of a social class that owed its elite status to birth rather than merit. Smith, a historian and former analyst of Russian affairs for the State Department, succeeds admirably in this wide-ranging and often moving account of the fate of the Russian nobility, from the Bolshevik Revolution to the Stalinist era. His narrative moves seamlessly from a general survey of the nobility to the deeply personal and tragic story of two noble families, the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns. Smith portrays the nobility as a class as being surprisingly diverse, encompassing non-Russians, religious minorities, and relatively impoverished families. He demolishes the facile caricature of the idle, decadent abuser of peasants, since many nobles had admirable records of service to the state in the military and in government bureaucracy. This is a superbly written and emotionally wrenching ode to a class doomed by the flow of history. --Jay Freeman

Review

“[An] excellent history . . . A sobering tale of the complexities of revolution, told with clarity and sympathy.”—The Independent

 

“Absorbing . . . How could one ever think that these people were monsters? They were gallant souls; and Smith’s book memorialises them beautifully.”—Mark Le Fanu, Spear's

 

“Smith re-creates what [the Russian nobility] experienced with an intimacy that brings the whole history of these years vividly and grotesquely alive.”—Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs

 

“Smith has performed a real service in drawing attention to this widely overlooked segment of the Russian population and the horrifying persecutions its members endured. His book inspires awe and pity in equal measure, and expands our understanding of a forgotten people. It's hard to believe that this it he first book of its kind devoted to the 10 percent of White Russians who remained in the society Union after the revolution and civil war and we can hope it will lead to others.”—Michael Scammell, The New York Review of Books

“With urgency and precision, [Smith] chronicles the fate of the nobility from the dawn of the revolution . . . He is invested in their (former) cause, and narrates the events of their lives with passion . . . Former People is a thorough, extensively sourced history, and also something of a spiritual restitution.”—Yelena Akhtiorskaya, The New Republic

“Although many of the aristocrats thought the end of their caste 'obvious and unavoidable,' few foresaw the destruction of a way of life. Smith's engaging and, at times, heartbreaking account is an essential record of that loss.”—The New Yorker

Former People is ultimately an incredibly readable, vivid, emotional human story of survival, accommodation, and reconciliation.”—Sean Guillory, New Books Network

“Engrossing . . . with richly detailed event and anecdote.”—Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times

“An engaging and absorbing book.”—Jennifer Siegel, The Wall Street Journal

“A remarkable, deeply affecting book.”—David Walton, GuideLive

“Smith examines the much-neglected 'fate of the nobility in the decades following the Russian Revolution,' when they were sometimes given the Orwellian title 'former people.' The author of several books on Russia (The Pearl; Working the Rough Stone), Smith focuses on three generations of two families: the Sheremetsevs of St. Petersburg and the Golitsyns of Moscow. He begins by showing their extravagant wealth before the revolution; in the late 19th century, Count Dmitri Sheremetsev owned 1.9 million acres worked by 300,000 serfs. From the 1917 Bolshevik revolution until Stalin’s death in 1953, these families and others suffered, at best, severe persecution and impoverishment; at worst, murder by mobs or the secret police, or a slow death in the gulag. In his sprawling but well-paced narrative, Smith tells many memorable stories, including one of Vladimir Golitsyn’s son-in-law, who hid the fact that he’d been sentenced to death from his wife, who’d been allowed a three-day visit. Smith also provides fascinating background information, such as the Bolsheviks’ jaundiced view of 'decadent' Western culture. Maxim Gorky said the foxtrot, popular among nobles during the 1920s and early ’30s, 'fostered moral degeneracy and led inexorably to homosexuality.' This is an anecdotally rich, highly informative look at decimated, uprooted former upper-class Russians.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“When the Bolshevik Revolution came in 1917, the new order began transforming aristocrats into paupers, exiles and corpses—a transformation that consumed decades. Smith, a former U.S. diplomat and authority on the Soviets and author of several previous works (The Pearl: A Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia, 2008, etc.), takes a different approach to revolutionary history, focusing on the fallen class: Who were they? What had their lives been like? What happened to them? The author follows two aristocratic families (later, they intermarried), the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns, showing the splendor in which they lived and then the squalor into which they declined. The author is deeply sympathetic to their fates. Although he states that the aristocracy had, of course, flourished on the servitude of others, he tells such wrenching, emotional stories about his characters that it’s easy to forget who once wore the silken slippers. Smith’s research is remarkably thorough in its range and detail, so much so that readers may feel overwhelmed by such powerful surges of suffering. Searches, arrests, firings, confiscations of property, internal exile, imprisonments, tortures, executions, desecration of graves—these and other grim experiences Smith chronicles in his compelling narrative. He mentions significant historical events, but his intent is to show how these events affected his characters. He portrays with brutal clarity the truth of Orwell’s Animal Farm: A new aristocracy—a political one—emerged to enjoy the benefits of living on the labor of others.

Sobering stories about the politics of power—its loss, its gain—and the deep human suffering that inevitably results.”—Kirkus (starred review)

“Absolutely gripping, brilliantly researched, with a cast of flamboyant Russian princesses and princes from the two greatest noble dynasties and brutal Soviet commissars, The Former People is an important history book—but it’s really the heartbreaking human story of the splendors and death of the Russian aristocracy and the survival of its members as individuals.”—Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem and Catherine the Great and Potemkin

Douglas Smith's Former People is a passionate and vivid story of the destruction of an entire class—the Russian aristocracy—during the Bolshevik Revolution.  What the Communists began with the nobility, they were to continue with writers, poets, artists, peasants, and workers. Smith restores the dignity, pathos, and endurance of a vanished and fabled elite.” —Michael Ignatieff, author of The Russian Album; professor, Munk School, University of Toronto.

“Former People provides a fascinating window onto a lost generation. Filled with intimate detail, drama, and pathos, this is a book as much about renewal and reinvention as about the end of an era.”—Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and A World on Fire: an Epic History of Two Nations Divided

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 owned more land than any other group.23 Moreover, for wealthier nobles selling land was not a necessity but a smart economic move; nobles across Europe were then taking advantage of the steep rise in land values to sell off land at a great profit and invest in stocks and bonds. Indeed, by 1910, nearly one-half of the nobles in St. Petersburg were living on income from such investments. Count Sergei Sheremetev and his half brother Alexander owned more than forty-six commercial properties in St. Petersburg and Moscow from which they earned solid returns. Count Alexander also sold land to invest in banks and stock corporations that proved quite profitable. In 1914, Count Sergei Sheremetev built one of St. Petersburg's first shopping centers, the so-called Sheremetev Passage. And in 1910, in contrast with Chekhov's Madame Ranevskaya, Count Sergei saw nothing vulgar at all in leasing a good deal of the land at his ancestral home of Kuskovo to Muscovites looking for summer dacha plots.24

 

For hundreds of years the Russian tsars had relied on the nobility to maintain order over the countryside. Even after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the nobility continued to serve as the de facto rulers of rural Russia until 1917 as a result of the dearth of state administrators at the local level.25 The thirty thousand or so noble families that remained on their estates in the early years of the twentieth century represented small, isolated islands of privilege and authority amid a vast peasant sea of poverty and resentment, for even forty years after emancipation, the legacy of serfdom remained profound.26 The peasants were still angry that upon receiving their freedom they had not been given land, which they had traditionally considered theirs since they were the ones who worked it; rather, to compensate the nobility, the peasants had been forced to purchase land through redemption payments to the state. Landownership had become an increasing source of anger as the rural population exploded, creating a serious land shortage. Peasants were forced to rent noble lands, often at high rates, leaving them with little to show for their hard work at the end of the season. The peasantry sank deeper into poverty and eyed the local nobleman's lands with ever-greater hunger. Most peasants in the black-soil Russian provinces subsisted on bread, pickled cabbage, and onion. So hard was life in the countryside that more than three-quarters of peasant army recruits called up in 1891 were declared unfit for service because of poor health.27

Even after winning their freedom, Russia's peasants had been kept in a servile status and lived in a separate world from that of their former masters and other privileged segments of society. Peasants alone lived according to the customary law of the village; they were not entitled to freely sell their land as individuals; they paid proportionally higher taxes than the nobles; and until 1889, just to leave their villages, they were required to obtain passports, which were granted only if they had paid all their redemption payments, taxes, and debts to the commune.28 Nobles and peasants were divided not just by an economic barrier but by an even more important cultural barrier. The nobles, by and large, were Europeanized; they were children of the reforms of Peter the Great. The peasants were not; they lived in a different cultural and psychological world of tradition, habit, and religion that had changed little since the days of early Muscovy and one in which the nobles were viewed wearily as fallen Christians and, at times, forces of evil.29

Nobles and peasants continued to behave as masters and subjects well after 1861. As late as 1910, when Princess Barbara Dolgoruky rode out among the peasant women near her family estate, the peasants would drop to their knees in respect. The princess found the age-old habit distasteful and so strictly forbade them from doing it in the future. Henceforth, they remained standing, for the peasants were used to doing as their masters instructed, at least when they were present.30 Alexander Davydoff, born into a prominent noble family in 1881, was stunned by what he saw after leaving the city to return to run the family estate of Sably in 1905. Both the landowners and peasants seemed to be content to play hypocritical, dishonest roles with each other. The former typically adopted an aloof, superior, and sententious attitude (or, what he found even worse, one of treacly sentimentality), while the latter adopted a pose of false ignorance and "voluntary humiliation" and then tried to cheat the master behind his back. "It is evident that each side tried to cheat the other," he wrote, "but whereas the peasants guessed perfectly well the thoughts of the landowners, the latter were incapable of piercing the stone wall of the dissembling character of the peasant." This legacy of serfdom, in Davydoff's estimation, pervaded all such relations. The peasants excelled at "trickery," what he called "the usual weapon of the weak against the strong."31

Land hunger and the rise of industrialization forced many peasants to leave the countryside to seek work in the new factories, and by 1900, the working class numbered roughly 1.7 million, about 200,000 fewer than the number of Russia's nobles. Working conditions in the factories were horrible, and workers had almost no way of protesting their condition. Not only were workers denied the right to organize, but they were even prohibited from assembling merely to discuss common problems.32 One female worker recalled later: "My family was technically free, but the spirit of serfdom and slavery still lived on." Men, women, and children worked long days, sometimes as much as eighteen hours, and their small pay could rarely keep up with the rise in the price of goods. Many went hungry for long stretches; life was brutish and crushing and without hope.33 The influx of peasants to the cities created terrible housing shortages. Workers were housed in barracks, tenements, and dank cellars; some workers slept in the factories under their machines. There was massive overcrowding, filth, and disease. Typhus, cholera, and tuberculosis were rampant. By the 1870s, St. Petersburg had the highest mortality rate of any major city in Europe. There were no protective labor laws, but few dared complain out of fear of being fired. For as bad as being a worker was, it was better than the existence of the urban poor and unemployed. The slums that sprang up in Russia's major cities were dark, hostile places rife with banditry, prostitution, murder, and lawlessness. Some slums were so bad the police did not dare enter. Girls and boys as young as ten sold themselves on the streets for a few kopecks. The people of this shadow world survived by theft or begging or they died of starvation.34

 

Recalling the early years of his life in Russia, Vladimir Nabokov wrote: "The old and the new, the liberal touch and the patriarchal one, fatal poverty and fatalistic wealth got fantastically interwoven in that strange first decade of our century."35

Nabokov was born in the last year of the nineteenth century into a wealthy noble family. His grandfather Dmitry Nabokov had served as minister of justice under Alexander II and III, and his father, also Vladimir Dmitrievich, was a prominent liberal Westernizer and, after the Revolution of 1905, a leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party (the Kadets). Vladimir Dmitrievich's political views confounded his mother, and she simply could not understand her son's liberal notions and his commitment to fundamental change. How was it, Nabokov writes in Speak, Memory, that "my father, who, she knew, thoroughly appreciated all the pleasures of great wealth, could jeopardize its enjoyment by becoming a liberal, thus helping to bring a revolution that would in the long run, as she correctly foresaw, leave him a pauper."36

The Nabokovs' great wealth included a fine home in St. Petersburg, the estate of Vyra, and a domestic staff of fifty-five. At Vyra the peasants looked to Nabokov's father as the bárin, the master, and would come to the manor house for help settling their local disagreements or for special favors and subsidies. Inclined to be generous, Nabokov père typically acquiesced to their requests, at which point they would raise him up and toss him in the sky three times, higher and higher with each throw. The custom made the Nabokovs' old governess uneasy. "One day they'll let him fall," she observed prophetically.37

It is one of history's tragic ironies that the origins of the revolution that would destroy the Russian nobility were in fact laid by the nobility itself. Throughout the late 1780s and early 1790s, as the revolution raged in France, Russia's polite society followed with nervous agitation in the pages of the Moscow and St. Petersburg Gazette the news of the burning and looting of the châteaus and the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.38 The tales of violence coming out of France brought to mind the attack on the nobility that had swept over Russia in the 1770s, when a Don Cossack army deserter named Yemelian Pugachev led a mass rebellion of the poor and dispossessed against the established order. Proclaiming the end of serfdom, taxation, and military service, Pugachev set out to exterminate all landlords and tsarist officials and unleashed a paroxysm of bloodshed and terror across an enormous swath of territory. By the time the Pugachyóvshchina was put down, tens of thousands of Russians had been killed and raped, and their homes looted and burned. There had been other peasant revolts before, but nothing of such magnitude, and the name of Pugachev seared itself into the memory of noble Russia, never to be forgotten.39 Alexander Pushkin immortalized the Pugachyovshchina in his novel The Captain's Daughter, famous for its oft-quoted line "God save us from a Russian revolt, senseless and merciless."

The specter of another Pugachyovshchina forced Russia to consider reform from above or face revolt from below. In 1790, Alexander Radishchev published A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, a burning indictment of serfdom and the oppression of Russia's poor at the hands of the rich and a thinly disguised call to overthrow the monarchy. Catherine the Great ordered all copies of the book confiscated and destroyed (it remained banned until 1868) and its author sentenced to death (she commuted the sentence to Siberian exile). A noble, Radishchev as a young man had studied in Europe, where he had fallen under the influence of the French philosophes and the ideas of the Enlightenment that instilled in him a profound hatred of tyranny. Radishchev is often considered the founding father of the Russian intelligentsia from whom descends a long line of men and women committed to reforming, or even destroying, the Russian political and social order.40

That the first critic of Russian autocracy was a nobleman is not surprising considering that for most of the eighteenth and early years of the nineteenth century, the nobility formed the core of the small educated elite. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Peter the Great set out to modernize Russia, and to do so, he forced his noblemen to adopt the ways of their Western European peers. An unintended consequence of Peter's embrace of Europe was that the nobility learned not only the latest technology and forms of polite behavior (shipbuilding from the Dutch, manners from the French) but also to think for themselves and to compare life at home with the more advanced and open societies of Western Europe. State service was obligatory for Russian noblemen until 1762. By then the ethos of service had become deeply ingrained in the nobleman's self-identity, so much so that even after the emancipation from state service, most noblemen continued to serve. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, the nobleman's understanding of service had begun to change, and increasingly the object of service shifted from that of the state to the Russian people or nation.41

If by the time of Radishchev at least one nobleman dared call for radical change, thirty-five years later some even dared act. On December 14, 1825, a group of officers and members of the guards regiments, many of them from high aristocratic families, rebelled on St. Petersburg's Senate Square. The Decembrists, as the rebels came to be called, advocated the end of serfdom, a constitution, and basic liberties. Their revolt was quickly put down and its leaders were executed or exiled to Siberia by order of Tsar Nicholas I. These noble sons became martyrs to future revolutionaries, who, though forced underground, nurtured their dream of radical change. "Our sorrowful task will not be for nothing," the poet Prince Alexander Odoevsky averred following the revolt. "The spark will kindle a flame."42

The middle years of the nineteenth century produced a new generation of noble revolutionaries, such as radical populists Alexander Herzen, the "father of Russian socialism," and Mikhail Bakunin, the anarchist and theorist of peasant revolution. This new generation of Russian revolutionaries went abroad to escape tsarist censorship and prisons. In London, Paris, and Geneva, Bakunin mingled with revolutionaries and communists and wrote on the Russian peasants' propensity for violence as a tool for revolution and the overthrow of the tsarist state and the noble landlords. Bakunin's ideas influenced the other great Russian anarchist, Prince Pyotr Kropotkin.43 Radical nobles did more than just theorize revolution. Nikolai Sablin was born into a hereditary noble family in the Vologda province in 1849. A poet, populist, and member of The People's Will, he committed suicide just as police were about to arrest him in 1881 in connection with the assassination of Alexander II. Before putting the gun to his own head, he fired off three shots to warn his comrades.44

By the latter decades of the nineteenth century, the revolutionary intelligentsia had become a much more socially diverse group and had largely shed its noble origins. Still, it should perhaps not be too surprising that Russia's greatest revolutionary was himself a nobleman. Vladimir Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, was the son of a hereditary nobleman and actual state counselor, whose title brought with it the right to be addressed as "Your Excellency." After his father's death, Vladimir lived with his mother and siblings at their mother's family estate near Kazan. Just like other young noble boys, he loved to hunt, swim, and sail. His mother's family money allowed Lenin to spend his time reading and studying Marx; later the family money helped subsidize Lenin after he devoted himself full time to the revolution. Lenin was neither the family's only nor its first revolutionary. In 1887, his older brother Alexander was arrested and hanged for taking part in a plot to kill Alexander III.

Exiled to Siberia in 1897 for his political activity, Lenin claimed noble status in order to soften the harshness of his punishment. During his many years in Western Europe before the revolution, Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, hired domestics to help with the cooking and cleaning. When it suited him, Lenin had no qualms about admitting his noble background. In 1904, in Geneva, he registered at a private library as "W. Oulianoff, gentilhomme russe."45 Lenin never fully shed his noble origins. When Nicolas Nabokov, a cousin of the writer, went with his tutor in the spring of 1917 to hear Lenin speak from the balcony of the Kschessinska mansion, what he noticed first was that he spoke in "the manner of upper-class salon snobs." How odd, young Nicolas found it, for someone whose manner of speech reflected Nicolas's own class to stand up there and say such hateful, unpatriotic things about Russia.46

FORMER PEOPLE Copyright © 2012 by Douglas Smith

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