FORMER PEOPLE: THE LAST DAYS OF THE RUSSIAN ARISTOCRACY
By Douglas Smith
TWILIGHT OF THE ROMANOVS: A PHOTOGRAPHIC ODYSSEY ACROSS IMPERIAL RUSSIA
Edited by Philipp Blom and Veronica Buckley
Thames & Hudson, $70
IT IS interesting to imagine what would have happened if Lenin had missed the train from Stockholm and never arrived at Petrograd's Finland Station on April 3, 1917. The Bolsheviks might have gone ahead and started the revolution without him (indeed, it was already well under way), but history could have turned out differently as far as the Russian nobility was concerned. There might still be one.
Alas, Vladimir Ilych caught his train. Amid the subsequent revolution, the assassination of Tsar Nicholas and his family, civil war and its protracted aftermath, the story of the vanishing nobility remains a terrible and almost unbelievable catalogue of oppression, persecution and systemic violence, incarceration and murder.
The members of Russia's nobility were hardly representative of the huddled masses (countless millions of their compatriots were to disappear as well) but they were, in their own right, a significant proportion of the population. They might not have been rendered entirely extinct (many fled, for example to Europe and the US), but their standing and numbers within the country were appallingly and irrevocably diminished. In effect, between 1917 and World War II, an entire class system was destroyed. If Lenin and Stalin and their respective revolution and great terror hadn't wreaked enough damage to the nobility, the war finished them off.
Incredibly, it has taken almost a century before someone has been able to tackle the subject in anything other than superficial detail. This is not so much a matter of scholarly neglect as plain denial and wilful concealment on the part of the former Soviet Union, whose grey-faced masters declared the fate of the nobility a ''belye piatna'', or black spot.
As Douglas Smith writes in his introduction, this forgotten history was concealed for generations until the cultural thaw in the Gorbachev years. Even those born of the old nobility in the 1930s and '40s were ignorant of their past, as if no life had existed before 1917, and taught to believe that silence was better than an active mind. As recently as 2006, when Smith asked a librarian at the Moscow State Library why there was no reference to the nobility in the card index to the revolution, he was rebuffed: '' … the revolution had nothing to do with the nobles, and they had nothing to do with the revolution''.
But they did. Before the revolution, for almost 1000 years, the nobility was more than the top of the system: it supplied Russia with the political, military, artistic and cultural energy that made the nation what it was. What was known as ''belaya kost'' - ''white bone'', or the equivalent of ''blue blood'' - was as efficiently indispensable to the system as corpuscles are to a functioning bloodstream.
The problem for Smith, in attempting to form an unknown history of such vastness and complexity into a comprehensible narrative, was how best to represent the lives and fates of an estimated 2 million people who suffered or perished. His answer - and what makes Former People so engrossing - was to concentrate on two of the grandest, most venerable families: the aristocratic Sheremetevs and the princely Golitsyns. Fortunately, because the Golitsyns were such a large and diverse family, the line survives in Russia to this day. Unfortunately, that of the Sheremetevs, a smaller and therefore more vulnerable family, did not.
What they both had, however, was extraordinary optimism. This was embodied in the two patriarchs, Count Sergei Sheremetev (1844-1918) and Vladimir Golitsyn (''the mayor'', 1847-1932). These men, utterly different in character and philosophy, were united in keeping hope alive in the face of appalling odds and the steadily diminishing family ranks.
The mayor, fortunately (for us), lived long, kept diaries and indeed wrote his memoirs, which he called his ''departure into the past''. Through these, one is able to comprehend what the revolution meant to those most susceptible to it.
Certainly, Golitsyn was not afraid to hold the mirror up to his own class and the feudal system: ''June 20, 1918. Who is to blame that the Russian people, the peasant and the proletarian, proved to be barbarians. Who, if not all of us?''
Barbarism, though, certainly had its part to play. Not only directly, by marauders and murderers, but insidiously, too. Former People is not merely a catchy title for a book; it was the actual name given to an operation conducted in the early 1930s, during Stalin's reign of terror. It was a top-secret Soviet plan, designed to rid Leningrad of five groups of enemies, the two largest of which consisted of families of ''former big landowners'' and ''former aristocrats''. Operation Former People - the horror of that past tense! - had a four-week deadline.
Who were some of those arrested? Former Prince D.B. Cherkassky, an accounts assistant at the Aurora sweets factory; former Baroness V.V. Knoring-Formen, a sanitation worker at Cafeteria No.89; and Count A.S. Lanskoy, a labourer at an electrical factory. Former people, formerly important, now no longer important. But still persecuted because of their past.
The twilight of the Russian empire, when princes, princesses, counts and countesses were present rather than former, is beautifully documented through period images in Twilight of the Romanovs. Especially fine are the many three-colour photographs by the pioneering Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, who was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas to document the outlying regions of empire. It took him 10 years, and he used a specially outfitted railway car.
One of Prokudin-Gorsky's finest photographs, from 1909, is of three north-western farm girls staring straight into the lens, unsmiling, carrying bowls of berries. Several pages earlier is a photograph of two girls and a woman standing in the shallows of the Gulf of Finland; all are smiling. The girls are Grand Duchesses Tatiana and Olga with the Tsarina's lady-in-waiting, Anna Vyrubova. It is 1914. Three years later, the duchesses and their family would be murdered by the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg. Vyrubova lived until 1964. Such was the wretched indiscriminate nature of the times.