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.

Given what those who remained behind had to suffer, what comes through most strongly is how tenacious and resilient they were. Forced out of their palaces and off their palatial estates, they adapted with admirable fortitude and resilience to the privations they had to endure. While the civil war was still raging in Siberia, several members of the Golitsyn family, including Vladimir’s third son Alexander, a medical doctor, with his wife Lyubov and their children, abandoned Moscow and found themselves traveling and living in a railroad boxcar for several months.

With about sixty people in a boxcar, each family fashioned itself a small apartment among the shelves and bunks that lined each car, putting up makeshift curtains as room dividers and washing and bathing from a tin washbasin. It was bitterly cold most of the time. A single wood-burning stove served to heat the whole car. The windows were completely frozen over and frost formed in the corners near the upper bunks. Alexander was depressed by the communal life of the boxcars, the endless delays, and the enforced inaction.

Lyubov, much busier as all the mothers were, remembered these months with much warmer feelings. “Everything had a special aura of love…and somehow torn away from reality as if it was not of this life.” She was happy to share with others and make sacrifices even for strangers. “Sometimes in the evening, when the sun was setting, the mood was quite evocatively poetic…. It was a time of love and helpfulness to each other. And living close to nature, all around.” The Golitsyns joined the rump of the defeated White Army in Harbin, just over the border in northeastern China, and eventually made their way to Canada and the United States.

It’s a well-known fact of human nature that adversity can bring out the best and worst in people. The remnants of the upper classes who stayed in central Russia were no exception, and Former People chronicles numerous examples of families who responded with dignity and courage to living in cramped apartments, working at humble jobs, eating poorly, and wearing worn clothing. Danger was never far away for long and their situation was always precarious. Fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, and sometimes children could be taken away at any moment, and many were killed, yet the survivors tried desperately to live “normal” lives, celebrating birthdays and holidays (and unavoidably attending funerals) together, going for picnics or outings and even having modest parties, no matter what the difficulties or how humble the fare.

As relative peace returned to the country, some of the younger Sheremetevs got involved in a farcical episode called the Fox-trot Affair, for which Americans were inadvertently responsible. The fox-trot was introduced to Russia at dances organized by visiting members of the American Relief Administration (ARA), which was active in the country from 1921 and 1923 as part of the effort to help Europe’s starving population after World War I. The free and easy Americans were enormously popular among the decimated ranks of the former people, and the fox-trot was an immediate hit in Moscow—but not with the authorities or, surprisingly, with some pillars of the literary establishment.

The bard of the Soviet proletariat, Maxim Gorky, maintained that the fox-trot encouraged moral degeneracy and led inevitably to homosexuality. Anatoly Lunacharsky, commissar of enlightenment, wanted to ban the fox-trot—and all syncopated music—from the country altogether (and he succeeded some months later). Even the former firebrand and Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who had shocked the prerevolutionary public with his bold antics, yellow blouse, and his “Slap in the Face of Public Taste,” denounced the dance as “bourgeois masturbation.”

Since the authorities already regarded the ARA as both a foreign political threat and a source of cultural contamination (which sounds familiar in the age of Putin), they easily found a pretext to crack down. In 1924, most of the young dancers were placed under arrest, and many were sent to the recently established birthplace of the Gulag, the islands of Solovki, while others were banished to the provinces. Not long afterward, the remaining Sheremetevs were evicted from the Corner House, where their family had lived for three centuries.

Using the vicissitudes of the Sheremetev and Golitsyn families as prime examples of the disaster that befell the entire Russian nobility after the October Revolution is a good idea, but it’s a pity Smith didn’t place these families squarely at the center of his book and organize the whole story of the White Russians around their experiences. This would have saved him from shifting back and forth in time as he tries to integrate their stories with a general narrative. As it is, after 150 pages the reader is still returning periodically to 1917, and after 250 pages is no farther forward than 1920. The author’s enthusiasm for yet one more anecdote and yet one more diary entry is understandable, and they do bring a certain richness of texture, but not all of the stories are as fascinating as he seems to think, and their repetitiveness entails a confusing chronology and a plethora of often similar names that is quite bewildering (the opening paragraph of chapter twenty has eleven first names, all with the last name of Golitsyn).

I was also made uneasy by the absence of a larger setting. The White Russians have acquired a double glamour from the juxtaposition of their once-glittering lives and their tragic fall into the depths of persecution and poverty. Smith is by no means impervious to this glamour, and while he briefly acknowledges the injustices of tsarist rule, he mostly shies away from such questions as whether the powerful Sheremetevs and Golitsyns were implicated in any way in those injustices, and if so, how. Did the peasants who looted their palaces and burned down their manor houses have personal reasons for revenge, or were they driven wholly by ideology, liquor, and greed? And what about the importance of the Okhrana, the tsar’s secret police, as a model for the later Cheka and OGPU?

The one exception Smith makes is for events during the civil war. Anti-Semitic pogroms were a staple of the tsarist regime before the revolution, and though the Bolsheviks were not above attacking Jews, the White Army continued the tradition in its pure form. The talented novelist and short-story writer Ivan Bunin, himself a nobleman, was at one point approached by the Whites to support their program, but when he asked what they stood for, they said their party had two planks: constitutional monarchy and opposition to the Jews. What this meant became clear when the White Army launched pogroms in Ukraine and Siberia:

As bad as anti-Jewish violence had been under the tsars, it exploded with the collapse of any central authority. In the cauldron of the civil war, the Jews became defenseless scapegoats. The atrocities reached their height in 1919. Homes were destroyed, women and girls were raped and mutilated; entire families were brutally murdered. Much of the barbarity was carried out by the Whites who believed bolshevism to be a Jewish plot against Christian Russia.

Smith goes on to refer to an age-old Russian tradition of anti-Semitism, instanced by the pogroms of a Ukrainian Cossack leader, Bogdan Khmelnitsky, whose excesses occurred some three centuries earlier. Such special pleading calls for caution on the part of the reader, and it would be interesting to know, for example, if Alexander Golitsyn and his family, traveling through Siberia in a boxcar, knew of the pogroms, and if he did, what he thought of them.

None of this detracts in any way from the horrible ordeals inflicted on the former people en masse under Soviet rule, nor does it justify their persecution and executions without benefit of trial. While their members were undoubtedly singled out for punishment, millions of ordinary Russians were singled out too and suffered as much. A good example is the Great Terror of 1935–1938 set off by Kirov’s murder. That same Zinoviev who had launched the first big campaign of class warfare against the former ruling class in 1918 was now himself accused of complicity in the murder and subjected to the first Moscow show trial, along with several other leaders, before being executed. The revolution was swallowing its children, and further show trials led to the execution of several dozen more Party veterans known as the Old Bolsheviks. Mass purges then spread outward in ever-widening circles to embrace the army, the intelligentsia, the clergy, so-called kulaks, or rich peasants, and ultimately just about anyone who had crossed swords with or incurred the wrath of Party officials anywhere in the country.

Smith doesn’t completely ignore this phenomenon, but tracks the impact of the purges on the former nobility in isolation from the larger campaign of repression, which in their case was decisive. A mere three months after Kirov’s murder a top-secret directive had been drafted for Genrikh Yagoda, chief ringmaster of the purges, recommending that Operation Former People be set in motion. The goal was to rid Leningrad forever of the last remnants of these “obvious class enemies,” within a mere four weeks. A scurrilous press campaign depicted them as “venomous chameleons, trying to take on a Soviet appearance,” “tsarist scum,” “poisonous snakes,” “parasites,” and “vermin.”

The campaign in Leningrad was followed by similar ones in Moscow and other major cities in Russia. Neither frail old men and women nor children were spared arrest or execution, while thousands were sent to the Gulag or into exile. Within a month, the Leningrad officials succeeded in expelling or liquidating over 39,000 citizens, 11,000 of them former people. A key element of the operation was the Party’s insistence that the children and grandchildren be expelled as well, for though many of them had not known anything but Soviet Russia, they were by definition hereditary enemies. After two more years of terror, very few former people were left in the main population centers at all, and those few were mopped up when World War II reached Russia in 1941. In the eyes of Stalin and his subordinates, Russia had been “cleansed” at last of the tsarist scum.

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 is the first book of its kind devoted to the 10 percent of White Russians who remained in the Soviet Union after the revolution and civil war, and we can hope it will lead to others. Meanwhile it would be good to have a companion volume on the 90 percent who got away, some of whom I first glimpsed in that army barracks in south London.