Saturday, May 11, 2013

Ci-Devants of the Russian Revolution: "Former People"

I realize this question will sound naive, but why do revolutionary movements have to be so cruel? After the former ruling class is overthrown and defeated, must it also be eradicated through oppression, violence, cruelty, degradation, etc? Can't the members of the former ruling class just be exiled? Those are the questions I kept asking as I read Douglas Smith's Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy.

As the book's blurb proclaims:

Epic in scope, precise in detail, and heart-breaking in its human drama, Former People is the first book to recount the history of the aristocracy caught up in the maelstrom of the Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of Stalin’s Russia. Filled with chilling tales of looted palaces and burning estates, of desperate flights in the night from marauding peasants and Red Army soldiers, of imprisonment, exile, and execution, it is the story of how a centuries’-old elite, famous for its glittering wealth, its service to the Tsar and Empire, and its promotion of the arts and culture, was dispossessed and destroyed along with the rest of old Russia.

Yet Former People is also a story of survival and accommodation, of how many of the tsarist ruling class—so-called “former people” and “class enemies”—overcame the psychological wounds inflicted by the loss of their world and decades of repression as they struggled to find a place for themselves and their families in the new, hostile order of the Soviet Union. Chronicling the fate of two great aristocratic families—the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns—it reveals how even in the darkest depths of the terror, daily life went on.

Told with sensitivity and nuance by acclaimed historian Douglas Smith, Former People is the dramatic portrait of two of Russia’s most powerful aristocratic families, and a sweeping account of their homeland in violent transition.

Even though Douglas Smith is focused on the fate of the aristocracy, he also describes the injustices meted out to the peasants (the former serfs) before AND after the Russian Revolution and the Civil War, especially under Stalin's Five Year Plans. As he notes, the great developments in infrastructure were all paid for by the crushing burden of taxation on the rural peasant and of course built by the slave labor of both peasant and former aristocrat. I thought this was a magnificent history, although I admit that I was sometimes confused about which generation of one of the two families he was writing about (but that's partly my fault)--it's like Tudor England, except the names are Vladimir, Pavel, Yelena, and Smith does provide a list of main characters, family trees, maps, and two sections of photographs of memebers of both families before and after the Revolution. Fascinating; makes me want to explore the fates of the ci-devants of the French Revolution!

(Note: I checked this book out from the public library)

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