When Emperor Nicholas II abdicated the Russian throne in 1917, there was no counterrevolution. The monarchy had lost the confidence of Russian society from the nobility to the peasantry and the last Tsar found himself almost entirely alone. Nicholas returned to the Alexander Palace under house arrest accompanied by a single member of his household. The response of Russia’s diverse nobility to the March Revolution ranged from optimism for the country’s future under a more representative government to grudging acceptance of the sweeping political changes.
By the 20th century, the Russian nobility consisted of at least 1.9 million people or 1.5 of the population of Nicholas II’s Empire. Since there was only the beginnings of an urban middle class in Late Imperial Russia, the nobles held most of Russia’s wealth and were the most educated sector of society, staffing the professions, the officer class and the cultural elite. Despite the violence suffered by numerous noble country estates in the wake of Nicholas II’s abdication, the nobility largely aspired to contribute their skills to the new regime and help build a prosperous Russian state. The Bolshevik Revolution in the fall of 1917 permanently changed the fortunes of the nobility. For Vladimir Lenin, ironically a member of the hereditary nobility, Russia’s aristocracy were “Former People” tainted by class origins that could never be overcome by themselves or their descendants.
Douglas Smith’s moving account of the destruction of the Russian nobility, Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, is the first book in any language to focus on the fate of Russia’s nobles after the Revolutions of 1917. The terrible human cost of Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent Stalinist regime has been discussed in Orlando Figes’s recent works including The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia and A People’s Tragedy but Smith’s work documents the unique hardships faced by the nobility by chronicling the fortunes and tragedies of two noble families: the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns. In contrast to the thousands of nobles who fled Russia after the Bolsheviks came to power, the majority of the members of both the Sheremetev and Golitsyn families remained in Russia during the Soviet period with terrible consequences. Very few would still be alive by the end of the Second World War.
Although Nicholas II plays little part in the narrative after his abdication, the worldview of the Sheremetev and Golitsyn patriarchs sheds light on the decisions made by the last Imperial family in 1917 and 1918. A number of recent works, most notably The Fate of the Romanovs by Greg King and Penny Wilson have criticized the last Imperial family for not making more effort to flee Russia. Although Nicholas was alienated from the nobility at the time of his abdication, he had enjoyed a typical noble upbringing including military service in the officer corps. The former Emperor would have shared the sentiments expressed by Count Sergei Sheremetev and Prince Vladimir Golitsyn: that leaving Russia in its time of turmoil was a kind of cowardice and that the Bolshevik regime could not possibly survive in the long term.
The persecution of Russia’s nobility, even those who attempted to assimilate into the Soviet regime also sharply illuminates the violence inherent in Lenin’s ideology. Popular audiences usually associate Soviet atrocities with the rule of Joseph Stalin but the quotes Smith provides from Lenin’s writings demonstrate that the first Soviet leader viewed social class as a fixed category and was determined to eliminate whole families based on their ancestry, regardless of their acceptance of his rule. Lenin believed that Robespierre had not gone far enough during the Terror that followed French Revolution because he only sent “active” opponents to the guillotine instead of eliminating anyone who might be a passive opponent. In common with Jung Chang’s and Doug Halliday’s biography of Mao Zedong, Mao: The Unknown Story, Smith reveals the full scope of the atrocities perpetrated by a 20th century tyrant.
The publication of Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy will hopefully contribute to more balanced teaching of the Russian Revolution in high schools and universities. Smith observes that history is not only written by the victors but about the victors. Since there was no restoration of the monarchy in Russia as there was following the English Civil Wars and French Revolution, the voices of the nobility were obscured. The surviving members of Russia’s noble families observed that foreign visitors to the Soviet Union were not interested in their stories. Volumes of primary sources prepared for undergraduate European history survey classes still focus on the writings of the victors of the Russian Revolution rather than the victims. Douglas Smith’s groundbreaking work will hopefully address this imbalance, restoring the fate of the nobility to its true place in Russian history.