It’s a difficult time to drum up sympathy for the ultra rich. With all the talk about 1%ers and 99%ers (let's not forget the 47%ers) and the injustice and inequality of our current economic system, Douglas Smith's Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy might seem a little out of step with the contemporary dialogue. Then again, perhaps his reminder about how poisonous the politics of revenge can become is particularly prescient.
Smith writes a history of the Russian Revolution from the other side, from the nobility and the landowners and the aristocrats who lost their houses, their property, their money, and ultimately, for many, either their place in Russia or their lives. He tries to stitch together what was lost, which was more than just the grueling and oppressive social structure and a few nice palaces. The nobility was the source of so much of the great art, great science, and great philosophers that came out of Russia, and their knowledge and virtues were lost in the great conflagration of the revolution.
And yet the reader can never forget that the great wealth of knowledge came at the cost of keeping a large segment of the population in oppressive conditions. The people were starving, their access to education and mobility blocked, their destinies to live as slaves in the system of serfdom locked from birth.
I spoke with Smith about the relevance of the Russian Revolution to today's economic system and the attempt to have sympathy for men and women who attain their riches by "owning" serfs.
I got a sense of ambivalence from the authorial tone of this book. This entire class of people were wiped out, murdered or sent into exile, and yet they were also participating in atrocities and mass injustice. Were you ambivalent? When doing your research, did you ever want to yell at the man who was traveling with dozens of servants and his own personal cow to let some of this stuff go, stop being such a jerk?
When one looks at the grand sweep of Russian history and thinks about the horrors of serfdom that lasted for centuries, one can see, I think, the sources for much of the violence that erupted in 1917 with such ferocity. Even many nobles saw the revolution as the price for serfdom. It was a moment of historical reckoning. Yet, how much must one pay for the sins of one's forefathers? And for how long? And, a central question to this story, is destroying an entire class of people – almost two million – the way to construct a just society?
The legacy of the nobility is not a straightforward one. The nobles produced so much of the best of Russian culture (think Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff), yet they enjoyed their wealth and status thanks to a barbarous system of exploitation. In one of Russia's many tragedies, the revolution destroyed this privilege while at the same time laying the foundations for another cruel, exploitative system.
I did find my own sympathies waning a bit during the earlier sections. Not during the murders, obviously, but the looting. The "sharing" as they called it. Whether or not they were paying for the sins of their forefathers, they were, most of them, still participating in this oppression themselves. Not that this was the answer, but I found it difficult to be horrified that the people they were oppressing came in and took their jewelry and drank their wine. I found the scene with the dinner party that the peasants took over to be charming, really. Was that a problem for you, trying to retain the readers' sympathies for the nobility, when everyone wants to automatically root for the underdog?
Yes, that scene with the dinner party actually sounds almost like something out of a Buster Keaton movie, which is part of the reason I included it. I also liked the story of the man held up at gun point on the streets of Petrograd. His assailants take pity on him, now left out with nothing on a cold night, and give him a warm coat so he can get home before he freezes to death. Once there, he inspects the pockets of the coat to find it's stuffed with jewels and money, more than he had when he was robbed!
I generally agree with your point: the tragedy of the story is not the loss of property. As I wrote the book I was conscious of the fact that many readers would in the early chapters feel that what was happening to the nobility was the result of an age-old system of injustice, and so would find their sympathies divided. But I also knew that as they got further into the book, and were confronted with the never-ending repression against these people who had lost everything, suffered terribly, and were no threat to anyone, that they would come to empathize with them. It's too easy to talk about "class" (or "race," "religion," "ethnicity") and lose sight of the fact that we are really talking about people, but individuals like you or me. What's more, the whole notion of going after people of the upper class, as the Bolsheviks did, is shot through with absurdities: Lenin himself was born into a noble family and Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka [the original Soviet state security organization], was the descendant of Polish aristocrats. By their own logic, they should have been dispossessed and repressed.
I have had some Americans express to me the idea that these nobles owed their privileged status to birth, not merit, as if to justify their fate. These are invariably white, upper-middle class Americans. I must admit I find this astonishing: do they not realize themselves, I ask myself, that they owe much of their comfortable lifestyle to birth? Are they really so blind to the fact that the circumstances into which they were born (including the color of their skin) has given them a head start over most others in the world?
I was struck in the beginning of the book by the descendants starting to acknowledge the nobility in their past, reclaiming them almost. A friend and I were rooting around in genealogy and both discovered slave owners in our family tree, and immediately we both felt ashamed. I'm wondering if that is comparable to what the descendants you spoke to are going through – wanting to acknowledge the good in their family, but also feeling this dose of shame that comes with it.
After many decades of state-enforced silence, the sons and daughters of Russia's noble clans are now reclaiming their past in all its complexity. It is a fascinating thing to watch as they slowly rediscover their history. I don't think, however, that the fact that their ancestors owned serfs has the same meaning as it would for an American discovering their forefathers were slaveowners. First of all, this was never some dirty secret. Nobles largely were, by definition, serf owners. Second, during the Soviet period all school children were forever reminded of the evils of the old regime, and so there was no hiding from this fact. If anything, the rediscovery of the noble past has been in large part an attempt to go beyond the facile, propagandistic Soviet view of this class as little more than sybaritic parasites and produce a fuller and, I would argue, more accurate portrait.
There's been some cueing back to the Russian Revolution in the popular culture. Obviously people were quick to compare Occupy Wall Street to class warfare and peasant revolts, and then the latest Batman film was making references, albeit in an incredibly silly, shallow way. Do you see a lot of misinformation these days about what was really going on during the revolution?
My book has, for some, touched a nerve thanks to our own present concerns about class inequality, the growing wealth-gap, and the gilded lifestyles of the 1%. I can see why my book would have a certain resonance in today's world, but at the same time I would caution against comparing Russia in 1917 and the U.S. in 2012. Russia was a peasant society with a small educated class. It had an antiquated autocratic political system that allowed almost no opportunities for public initiative and expression. And it had been engaged in a bloody and senseless war (World War I) that pushed the country to the brink. None of these things are true for the U.S., which is not to say that the troubles now facing our country are not serious and warrant political action.
There were some great men and women profiled in this book. Fascinating, and accomplished. I'm just curious whose story was, to you, the most compelling as you were researching.
The most compelling figure, the one I most admire, is Prince Vladimir Mikhailovich Golitsyn (called The Mayor in the book). Born in Paris in the 1840s, he returned to Russia as a young man, studied at Moscow University, and went on to serve as the three-time mayor of the city. He was worldly, cultured, progressive, and full of curiosity and a true sense of humanity. He was a harsh critic of the tsarist system, and of the nobility's treatment of the peasants. He was born early enough to have witnessed serfdom, and he never shirked from describing it as the horrific, barbaric system that it was.
He was a vocal proponent of civil and political liberties, of freedom of the press and conscience, which drew the hostility of the state authorities and Russia's nationalist right. After the revolution, and the shattering of his family, many of whom were killed and imprisoned and left the country, he never bewailed their fate, but bore it with incredible dignity and strength. What's more, even though he harshly criticized the Soviet government, he never gave in to some misty nostalgia for the old order. Rather, he saw the illiberal nature of the USSR as the natural follower of the authoritarian tsarist order. And what I especially admire about him was the profound happiness he drew from simple things: writing, playing cards, being surrounded by his family. I especially recall one moment in his diary. Amidst the horrors of the civil war, he went out one sunny Moscow morning for a walk with his little grandson. Holding this boy's hand as they strolled slowly through the streets filled him, he wrote, with an ineffable happiness. What a man.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.