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 …