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Imperiled by power ‘Former People’ charts the desperate struggle for survival of Russia’s aristocracy in the face of evil.

  • Published Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012, at 6:46 a.m.

“Former People” by Douglas Smith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 464 pages, $30)

The sudden disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989 opened many of its locked and shuttered government archives, libraries and spy vaults to historical view.

Building on the epochal work of Alexander Solzhenytsin and Robert Conquest, a number of Russian-speaking historiographers and researchers have delved since into totalitarianism’s vilest and most shameful secrets, producing revolutionary insights and perspectives, as well as classic books that will live forever. Scholars like Orlando Figes (“People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution”), Simon Montefiore (“In the Court of the Red Tsar”) and Timothy Snyder (“Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin”) not only clarify our understanding of the communist world-project, but deepen our understanding of human nature and our intimate 2-million-year connection to evil.

Douglas Smith’s “Former People” is such a work – one of profound historical understanding, deep sympathy with social and moral problems, and care for detail both in the natural environment of culture and personal psychology.

Smith, an award-winning historian and translator as well as a former employee of the U.S. Department of State and Radio Free Europe, writes in an engaging but challenging style that brings alive an entire way of life – that of the Russian aristocracy balanced on the knife-edge of doom, illuminating an ancient tradition about to be eradicated from the face of the Earth by Marx’s march of history and class struggle.

Former people are the Russian nobility, some 2 million of whom occupied a distinct social class at the turn of the 20th century and who formed the backbone of the tsarist civil administration, scientific endeavor, exploration, the Army and agricultural pursuit. They were fabulously rich and lived a life of luxury on unimaginably huge plantation estates, where they summered, raised their children, danced and dined, and generally lorded it over the serf-peasants who worked the lands and paid rent.

They held life and death in their hands, and theirs was a charmed existence, one lived despite the clear presentiment of disaster after a series of peasant uprisings, assassinations and revolutions which shook, but did not destroy, the autocracy represented by Nicholas II, an ineffective dunderhead whose entire family managed to tunnel beneath knowledge to reach the rock-bottom of superstition in the person of the mystic and seer Rasputin, who managed the Empress’ mind.

Choosing two aristocratic families, the Sheremetovs and the Golitsyns, Smith manages to create an atmosphere of engagement in the reader who, by the end of the book, feels as though he knows these people. The Sheremetovs were boyar by birth, courtiers who had descended from Ivan the Terrible’s father, interested in the army and state politics. By contrast, the Golitsyns were relative progressives with an intellectual turn, many serving as explorers, linguists, artists, and musicians, while maintaining their links to the civil and political administration of Tsardom. One or two members of the families intermarried.

“Former People is, however, a great and depressing tragedy, as marvelously compelling to read as it is distressing. During the February revolution of 1917, the cards were on the table, and by the October Bolshevik coup d’ etat, all the nobles, counts, princes and their cohorts were on the run from social revenge at the hands of the peasants, soldiers, workers and political commisars.

During the Civil War (1918-22) some nobles fled to Crimean spa towns or to the Soviet near east, hiding out in villas or villages. Many fled to Europe, while others psychologically were unable to leave their homeland because of familial or patriotic reasons. Huge pogroms and riots swept the land, and most of their great estates were looted and burned to the ground, along with countless art objects, furniture and priceless libraries. They themselves were hunted like animals, though there was a brief respite during the mid-1920s, when Lenin was dead and the government was seeking a new beginning for communism.

Stalin, killing his way to power, raised the ante considerably. A new constitution created The Great Break with the past, as Five Year Plans from 1928 on industrialized the state and created huge prison-garrisons where slaves built canals, dug for diamonds and felled forests to finance factories and armaments. Legislation made the aristocracy an outcaste of “former people” with no rights, not even the right to eat, work or have a home. On the run, those who remained lived in hovels, begged for food and dreaded the Gulag or typhus. Only a few survived, and those who did only suspended above the abyss on the slenderest of threads.

“Former People” is a great book, a feat of scholarship and a dramatic triumph. At its core is the problem of evil, a problem as puzzling and profound as the universe itself and which, unlike the mystery of the galaxies, lies at the core of human nature.

Gaylord Dold is a professional writer living in Wichita.

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