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Monday 10 December 2012

Review: Douglas Smith, Former People

This is an important and interesting book. It focuses on just two Russian families (large clans, really) - the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns [Galitzines] - to tell the story of what happened to those Russian nobles who remained in Russia after 1917.  It is not a study of emigrĂ©s though they occasionally appear.

The best chapters are the early ones. Smith depicts a Nobility frustrated and disillusioned with Nicholas II - weak, incompetent, obnoxious. For the most part, the Nobility rallied to the Provisional Government after Nicholas's abdication. There was no serious movement to restore the Romanovs.

At the same time, the rural aristocracy was already under pressure from the peasantry. The peasants wanted land and, by 1917, they were willing to use any method to get it. In the year before the Bolshevik seizure of power, peasants were already burning, looting and killing in rural Russia - and rural Russia was most of Russia.

In response, the Provisional Government did not move fast enough. It made the mistake of pressing on with the unpopular war against Germany and it put off the question of Land Reform. But the peasantry was in no mood to "Wait for the Constituent Assembly". And the Provisional Government could not feed the cities.

During this period, violence was often extreme and deaths horrible - and it did not for the most part involve the Bolsheviks. As I read Smith, the Bolsheviks simply picked up and ran with the violent disorder of 1917, but channeling it and focusing it in the period of War Communism (beginning 1918 - beginning 1921).

Smith's narratives for the period of War Communism are some of the best parts of the book: there is detailed texture which gives a real sense of how the urban nobility began to be picked apart with arrests, executions, confiscations - and the rural nobility subjected to further - and now Bolshevik organised - repression. Likewise, Smith creates a vivid picture of what it was like to try to move about Russia - to escape from West to East, for example - during the period of War Communism when Reds and Whites and Czechs and psychopathic criminals like Semenov and Ungern-Sternberg all fought for control of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

From the beginning of the New Economic Policy [NEP] in 1921 until Stalin's consolidation of power at the end of the 1920s, the nobility in Russia enjoyed a period of respite - many of them finding jobs within the system and returning to former homes (or parts of homes). Their children began to orient themselves to the new order, not the old one.

But the 1930s brought renewed repression. Here Smith's chapters are less interesting because the story is less dramatic: it is about individuals being picked off, one by one, often repeatedly and eventually with fatal consequences whether before an execution squad or in the Gulag. By the end of the War, it is really all over for the nobility.

Despite his close focus on two families, Smith avoids sentimentality - as do most of his characters. I do have the feeling that there must have been more Bad Apples than he identifies - he has only one noble who denounces others to the Soviets and he has no plotters (perhaps there really were none). But these are quibbles in relation to a body of work which opens a new field in histories of the Russian Revolution.

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