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The Russian Nobility Under the Red Terror

Douglas Smith
Count Pavel Sheremetev in his family’s room in Naprudny Tower at the Novodevichy ­Monastery, Moscow, where they were sent to live after being expelled from their apartment outside Moscow in 1929. Surrounding him are the remains of the family archive and library, including a photograph of his late mother.

When I was studying Russian at a British army language school in the 1950s, most of my teachers were Russian émigrés who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution. To a provincial like me they seemed a strange and exotic bunch. One bohemian used to walk around in a billowing duffel coat and baggy corduroys, with a long, ivory cigarette holder projecting skyward from his mouth. Another, with the stiff bearing of a former officer, was impeccably dressed in a suit and tie and invariably carried a gold-topped cane in one hand. A third was known to conduct some of his classes while lying down, or on hot days would speak from outside a window while looking in at his charges. They were adorned with a variety of un-English mustaches, had unpredictable manners, and ate unidentifiable kinds of food.

They all seemed to be from socially distinguished and even exalted backgrounds. My first teacher, who never uttered a word of English from the day we stepped into his classroom, was said to be a Baltic baron. Others included a prince, a couple of counts, a diplomat, a lawyer, an Orthodox priest, the last tsar’s former photographer, and the pilot of the tsar’s airplane. The whole establishment (there were two or three other branches besides ours) was led by an indomitable Anglo-Russian aristocrat called Elizaveta Hill, a dynamic woman who steamrollered her way through military regulations. She was a niece of General Evgeny Miller, former commander of the White Army in northern Russia during the civil war.

I was irresistibly reminded of those days when opening Douglas Smith’s new book, Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, and scanning the photos inside. Russia’s aristocrats, to be sure, seem to have had an irresistible propensity to dress up, and it’s sometimes hard to tell which are in fancy dress and which are wearing normal clothes for their time and place, but there are the mustaches, the exaggerated poses, and, in the case of the men, uniforms, uniforms, uniforms. It’s tempting to see them all as players in an extravagant comic opera, and that’s how we unwilling conscripts tended to regard our teachers, albeit with affection as we got to know them better.

We also shared a widespread feeling that they were the remnants of a lost breed, representatives of a doomed society that had finally died and was irrelevant to the onward march of history, however personable and nice its individual members might be. As Smith notes, history is generally written by the victors, and our teachers were on the side of the losers, whom no one wants to think about too much. But the whirligig of time brings revenge. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of the archives, history is being rewritten once more, enabling Smith to rectify a wrong with his passionate defense of Russia’s former ruling class, the Russian nobility, not in their old political role, but as prime victims of the successor regime’s policies of murder and repression.

His main subject is not the category of White Russians I met, who were émigrés, but those who stayed behind, either by choice or because they were stranded. What ensued in the Soviet Union was the systematic elimination of an entire class. “The destruction of the nobility was one of the tragedies of Russian history,” Smith writes. “For nearly a millennium, the nobility…had supplied Russia’s political, military, cultural, and artistic leaders.” They had provided the tsars with cabinet ministers, generals, officials, officers, and with “generations of writers, artists, and thinkers, of scholars and scientists, of reformers and revolutionaries,” including, he can’t resist adding, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution himself, Vladimir Lenin.

Former People takes its title from “Operation Former People,” a ruthless campaign initiated in Leningrad in February 1935 to finally rid the city of its former aristocrats, former princes, former barons, former counts, and all sorts of other representatives of the former nobility. It was set off by the mysterious murder of Sergei Kirov, first secretary of the Leningrad Communist Party, in December 1934, a murder attributed by most historians to the jealous Stalin, but it may have been the work of a deranged lone gunman. Whatever the truth, the murder became a pretext for launching the Great Terror, notorious for its show trials of Party leaders from 1937 to 1938, the elimination of the Old Bolshevik cadres in the Party and the entire command of the Red Army, together with a nationwide purge of the Party’s ranks at all levels.

The consequences of the purge for Soviet Party leaders and officials have been well studied and discussed, but the suffering inflicted on the wider population and especially members of the aristocracy is much less well known. Like many others, I think, I was not aware of the special measures directed against them, nor had I given much thought to the fate of those who failed to emigrate after 1917. In fact this aspect of the Great Terror was but the latest (though also the worst) of a series of persecutions dating back to the revolution, and the culmination of a process begun with the Soviet regime’s first peacetime bloodbath, the Red Terror, in 1918.

About a year after the start of the revolution, the Soviet official Grigory Zinoviev announced that as part of a campaign of class warfare being launched against “counterrevolutionaries,” 10 percent of Russia’s population (ten million people) would have to be annihilated. “Do not look in the file of incriminating evidence to see whether or not the accused rose up against the Soviets with arms or words,” said Martin Latsis, his colleague and boss in the Cheka: “Ask him instead to which class he belongs, what is his background, his education, his profession. These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused. That is the meaning and essence of the Red Terror.” This chilling expression of class warfare in its purest form took a heavy toll on the nobility, though a considerable number of the ten million survived the Red Terror (and the many persecutions that followed in later years) and stayed on, either by sheer luck or by keeping a low profile and either resisting the temptation to emigrate or not having the means to do so.

There were good reasons, of course, for Russia’s peasants to hate their former masters. For generations the Russian monarchy and nobility had lived off their labor and the fruits of that labor. The spectacular palaces of St. Petersburg and Moscow, the lavish city and country mansions of the nobility, and the luxurious lives they led depended entirely for their material support on the institution of serfdom, a system little different from American slavery in practical terms. Even after the abolition of serfdom in 1861, noble families had continued to live lives of privilege on their estates, while being maintained and served by impoverished peasants starved of land and by hungry workers in the cities.

Wiser heads among the nobles understood this. Even the conservative and pro-monarchist Count Sergei Sheremetev had described their dilemma well before the revolution started. “A decisive turning point is approaching. Where does Russia’s future lie, where are the current masters taking her?” Not long afterward and before the revolution was over, the liberal mayor of Moscow, Vladimir Golitsyn, noted in his diary, “One cannot help but see that we…are paying for the sins of our forefathers, and particularly for the institution of serfdom with all its horrors and perversions….” In another entry, after witnessing the savagery unleashed by the revolution, he asked, “Who is to blame that the Russian people, the peasant and the proletarian, proved to be barbarians? Who, if not all of us?” Who is to blame? What is to be done? These were the “accursed questions” that had haunted Russian intellectuals throughout the nineteenth century, and the answers, when they came, proved devastating.

For his last book, The Pearl, about the serf mistress of an eighteenth-century Count Sheremetev, Smith studied the history of the Counts Sheremetev, one of the wealthiest and most distinguished families in tsarist Russia, in great detail, and was given access to a huge cache of diaries, letters, and personal memoirs amassed by the family, including a great number from the twentieth century. This inspired him to draw on that same material to put a human face on the fate of the aristocracy in Soviet Russia, and to dramatize their experiences in uniquely personal terms.

His other family of choice is that of the Princes Golitsyn, an equally distinguished clan (Prince Nicholas Golitsyn had been Tsar Nicholas II’s last prime minister) linked to the Sheremetevs by marriage, but based in Moscow instead of the Sheremetevs’ St. Petersburg (though both families had residences scattered throughout Russia). What the members of these two large and once-influential families endured over a period of sixty years offers a vivid picture of what it was like to be on the receiving end of the Soviet purges, and though the elder generation mostly died of natural causes, their sons and daughters and nieces and nephews and grandchildren were rarely so lucky.

Their first great ordeal came in the aftermath of the revolution itself, when revolutionary forces invaded the palaces of the nobility and terrorized their families with murder, rape, and violence, while confiscating huge quantities of money, paintings, and furniture. Enraged peasants, whipped into a frenzy by the Bolsheviks, ran riot in the nobility’s country mansions, also looting and raping, and, according to Smith, making a beeline for their lavishly stocked wine cellars. A grim paragraph about the Obolensky family sums up the results for the worst-hit of the victims:

Prince Vladimir Obolensky was killed at his estate in early 1918; later that year his older brother Alexander was shot at the Fortress of Peter and Paul in Petrograd. Prince Mikhail Obolensky was beaten to death by a mob at a railroad station in February 1918. Prince Pavel Obolensky, a cornet in the Hussars, was shot by the Bolsheviks in June 1918 and left for dead…. Princess Yelena Obolensky was killed at her estate in November 1918; her dead body was burned along with her manor house. Many more Obolenskys suffered similar horrific fates; they included seven members of the family who perished in Stalin’s prisons years later.

The next big wave of killing began during the civil war. In 1920, as the Red Army overran parts of southern Russia, about 50,000 White soldiers and their supporters were executed in short order, and many thousands more were killed after the collapse of the White Army in Siberia in 1922. In the latter case, the executions were accompanied by an unimaginably brutal campaign of torture by the Cheka that has been compared to the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition. It was then that the debate about whether to stay or leave, begun in 1918, reached its zenith and a last wave of emigrants slipped away. By the end of it, up to three million of the “former people” had left Russia, including nine tenths of the upper classes, splitting the nobility in two, and leaving only about 50,000 families inside Russia.

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