The hallmark of a good portion of the 20th century was institutionalized violence to eliminate or subjugate large swaths of populations in the name of advancing mankind. It is this horror of the century just past that should make us thankful for the one we live in today. Despite the recent wars that have taken place, the unrest in some countries, and the fear of terrorism that we have decided to live under, we inhabit a relatively peaceful world as opposed to that of our ancestors. It would be a mistake, however, to forget our recent past. We ignore the lessons of history at our peril because those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and we should be aware of the tremendous capacity for man’s inhumanity to man.
One notable example is what the Communists did to their own people in Russia, and what they inspired large segments of the population to do to their fellow countrymen. Starting with the February revolution of 1917 and moving on to the Bolshevik coup in October, the cataclysm that the largest country on earth descended into is simply beyond imagination. It is described by some as an apocalypse; a river of blood and tears. That much of the atrocities that took place were sanctioned by governments and committed by ordinary people should give us great pause before we ascribe this evil solely to a small band of revolutionaries who believed in the implementation of classless utopianism through any form of violence necessary. Ripping apart one’s own country, stealing from each other, destroying on a massive scale, and the murder of innocents who were your own people, were seen as necessary means to an end. People like Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) and other writers helped to highlight and educate for the West what this system had brought about and what we had to fear from it. That the truth finally coming out had an impact on the rest of the world should not be underestimated.
In his recent book “Former People – The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy,” Douglas Smith has provided us with further insights into what happened in those dark days of Russia in the first half of the 20th century. Information that was once impossible to obtain has now been made available with the fall of the Soviet Union. Smith has done a great work in putting together the seemingly forgotten story of a whole segment of the Russian population who in many respects were the educated and skilled of the nation, and who also represented both the good and the bad of the country’s historical past.
Prior to World War I we find many warnings of the approaching storm, apprehension about the future, and recognition that the class system in Russia and the revolutionary activity would not permit the situation to remain stagnant. While the cascade would be triggered in Russia, for mankind as a whole, the eve of World War I was the moment before the turning of the Age. According to Smith, “One May night in Paris in 1914, … a reflective Baron Nikolai Wrangel turned and announced to Count Valentin Zubov: ‘We are on the verge of events, the likes of which the world has not seen since the time of the barbarian invasions. [. . .] Soon everything that constitutes our lives will strike the world as useless. A period of barbarism is about to begin and it shall last for decades.’” For Russia, it seems that many saw the very great danger of having large masses of people living in poor conditions, while a comparatively small number of nobility and landowners lived in sometimes unimaginable luxury. It is one thing to recognize a problem, and quite another to do something about it. A fatal flaw was that the Tsar refused to believe that there was a problem. He clung to the notion of a Holy Rus, a land where the peasant looked to the tsar as a father. In fact, it was the upper class liberals that the Tsar was most concerned about. This idea of a holy narod (people) was reinforced, unfortunately, by two of my literary heroes – Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.* Both of them believed in the ultimate goodness of the Russian peasant, that the Slavs were of a special character. Dostoevsky, a revolutionary turned monarchist, died in the late 19th century after the freeing of the serfs, and perhaps had reason to be hopeful. Tolstoy, on the other hand, a wealthy noble who sought to reject the trappings of nobility, lived until just before the revolution. He recognized that the old system of nobility and peasants was corrupt and that it had to end, in furtherance of that he preached non-violence. He always continued to believe, however, in the goodness of the simple people, the peasants with whom he loved to spend time. Nevertheless, just prior to Word War I the writer Ivan Bunin was warning that the upper class’s view of the peasantry was based on fantasy, and that the disparity between the classes was like no other country. His writings reflect that he knew what was coming.
When the revolution came, it was swift and fierce. There was little sadness over the abdicated Tsar, even among many of the nobility. What few could see at the time was that class hatred would be whipped up by the revolutionaries to become a whirlwind of theft, destruction and murder that would end up lasting for decades in one form or another. Those who had studied the French Revolution knew very well that it would not be bloodless. What they hoped for was a Napoleon, a strong man, who would step in and set things right after a short time. That did not happen. Instead, so much was lost, not merely in terms of wealth, but also of history, art, education, religion, and most importantly, humanity. It was all cast to the wind. Smith follows two families, the Golitsyns and the Sheremetevs, as each struggle to find their way in this new and strange world – often to their deaths.
It is fascinating to read the predictions that some of the nobility had at the time of these great difficulties. A month before Prince Vladimir Golitsyn died, he wrote his “Prediction” which stated concerning the communist regime: “[I]ts collapse will come about as a result of the power of inertia, and not under the blows of some external threat or the outburst of some storm; it will fall all by itself, under its own weight [. . .] But that sooner or later this will happen, I do not doubt for a single moment.” Within less than 60 years of this statement, he was proven correct. According to Smith, another nobleman, Nikolai Trubetskoy who became an émigré professor, held the remarkable view that the Bolshevik revolution was part of Russia’s unique historical path that “would eventually lead to the Communists’ shedding their Marxism for Russian Orthodoxy.” Anyone who has paid attention to Russia since 1990 knows that even this most unbelievable prediction has been borne out.
Beyond the palaces, wealth, and culture that were lost, the story of “Former People” is about the individuals and families. Often they demonstrated remarkable character that led many to sacrifice their lives rather than lie and denounce what they believed. Or when imprisoned, how often they would write to relatives urging them not to send food or money, knowing how much those who were free needed the materiel of life. Observers noted how the members of these families would often never complain about their losses or their fate. Early on, those who remained in Russia usually did so out of patriotism, and not because they could not get out. Many died for having made that choice. In the end, Smith struggles to understand the vagaries of life, the coincidences that led some to be saved and some to face misery, torture, and to die. “There was a randomness to the violence and repression that speaks to the illogical nature of Russian life in the twentieth century, indeed to the illogical nature of life itself, however much we may wish to think otherwise. There simply is no way to explain why some perished and some survived. It was, and remains, inexplicable. It was a chance or, as many Russians would have it, fate.”
Here, there is a great truth, and that is the illogical nature of life itself. There are circumstances and coincidences (so-called) that we can not explain. Truth is often stranger than fiction. In such a world then, it can not be that one’s circumstances – as important and influential as these may be – matter more than one’s reaction. In many of the very real people that Douglas Smith permits us to get to know, we see the true nature of human nobility brought out by the hardships that they faced – and that is sacrifice, determination, compassion, bravery, and most importantly, faith, hope and love. These people, having fallen from the heights, had to decide how to react. They had to know who they were when confronted with the most difficult of circumstances. A great many passed the test, and often lost their lives for it.
* This is not to say that these writers ignored the dangers inherent in a system of gross disparity. Tolstoy certainly recognized it. Furthermore, in February 1877 Dostoevsky wrote with insight on the topic of the industrial revolution: “What is needed is immense, continuous and growing production at reduced prices, in view of the terrible increase in the numbers of the proletariat. In providing the proletariat with earnings, we are also providing him with consumer goods at lower prices.” He also recognized the possibility and danger of a world war, and noted that, “[i]n that case say good-bye to production; and the proletarian would be out on the street. And the proletarian is dangerous out on the street.” Despite this understanding of the necessity of bread and circuses to keep a population at peace, it can be said that Slavophilia blinded the leadership to believe that Russia could be immune to these dangers inherent in humanity.