The Fate of the “Former People”: Social Modernization in Russia Compressed

Review—Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy,
by Douglas Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 464 pp.former people-Douglas Smith

In 1946, George Kennan argued that the “ideology, and the circumstances of power” inherent in the Soviet regime required the Communist Party to have enemies to point to in order to legitimize its exercise of complete and exclusive control over the economic, political and social life of all citizens of the U.S.S.R. Kennan believed that by the end of World War II, it had become increasingly difficult to target internal “enemies of the revolution”—the purges of the 1930s could hardly have been more effective at eliminating them. But the war, and the subsequent competition among the victors for regional and global influence, allowed the Party to point to external enemies: the capitalist regimes of the West. Thus, with Kennan’s help, the Cold War was initiated.

But who were these “enemies” within the Soviet Union prior to the Second World War? Douglas Smith goes a long way to bring home the reality of one group of these “counter-revolutionaries”—the so-called “former people.” His marvelously researched and detailed work puts names, places, feelings and brutal authenticity to the broad view of Soviet repression in the decades following the 1917 revolutions. This important work brings us much closer to an understanding of what it must have been like to live, and die, together with all of your family, as a “class enemy,” in fact a “former person,” in your own country. This designation of “former people” is applied here to members of the nobility and aristocracy of Tsarist Russia, a class whose elimination was a fundamental goal of the Bolshevik revolution.

It was not enough, however, that all members of the former noble class should be dispossessed; stripped of all title and privilege and made to live like everyone else, on the fruits of their own personal labor. For centuries, serfs—the mass of the peasantry, bound to noble estates—were no more than slaves, and their masters were above the law. The resentments that had accumulated under this socio-economic arrangement exploded in Russia after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, and the propertied nobility were the main targets of popular rage. As the Bolshevik Party, which would become the Communist Party, consolidated its monopoly of power throughout the former Empire, it saw the potency of these resentments and successfully harnessed them to its own purposes. Any failure of the regime to make good on its promises or provide for the needs of society was easily argued to be caused by the machinations of these class enemies, these “saboteurs.” By insisting that the destruction of these internal foes was critical to the survival of the revolution, the Party was able to justify its all-encompassing control, and the arrest, imprisonment, exile and execution of millions of its citizens.

The histories of two important, wealthy and old aristocratic families are looked at—the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns; specifically the children and grandchildren of Count Sergei Sheremetev and his wife Yekaterina, and those of Prince Alexander Golitsyn and his wife Sofia. We get a little background, and a glimpse into the lives of these families at the start of the 20th century. At this point Smith does well to document the contrasting views of members of the Russian nobility regarding the state of Russian society and politics, and the need for—or inevitability of—revolution. The writings of some of these, even after the revolution, show recognition of the injustices and inequities of the age-old traditions of Russian governance and class; some are even said to acknowledge their fate as “a moment of historical reckoning.”

The book traces the fates of members of these families, and others, through the periods that are generally outlined in Western historiography: the February revolution, the Bolshevik coup, the Civil War, the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the Stalin-era. While not adding anything to or challenging the accepted views, these stories support the basic academic narrative of the revolution and its aftermath, and give an important personal connection. The sufferings of real individuals, specifically on the basis of family origin, are told in detail: people in and out of jail; houses in town requisitioned for use by the government or as housing for soldiers and workers; expropriations of wealth and the efforts to hide it (sewing jewelry into curtain hems, burying wine in gardens, etc.); estates in the country being looted and destroyed; exile to places such as Siberia or Central Asia; being stripped of rights as official “outcasts”; forced labor in camps or on vast infrastructure projects; summary executions; death in prison.

The overall effect of this book is to bring home the necessary understanding that all of this really happened; the history emerges from the fog of the Cold War. In its presentation, though, it felt like reading two books at the same time: an academic text on the history of the early Soviet period by someone like Harvard’s Richard Pipes on the one hand, and a historic drama by the likes of Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn on the other. Smith’s efforts to trace the individual fates of numerous members of two families within the context of particular periods of Soviet history makes for some back-and-forth chronological hopscotching.

There is a nice five-page list of principle figures, and a family tree for each of the two families, but one person—Olga Sheremetev—is absent from these, even though she is mentioned at least a dozen times, and quoted almost as much. The only clues to her relationship with the family of the Count (other than her surname) are that she had an apartment across the courtyard from the Corner House (the Sheremetev home in Moscow), and that her husband’s name was Boris. There is a Boris mentioned in the list of figures, as the son of the Count, but no listing there for his wife. As Boris is quite a common name in Russia, one is left to assume that Olga’s husband is the son of the Count, or not.

A more important question involves the degree of ambiguity in the use of the term that is the title of the book—“former people.” Nowhere does Smith clearly outline the origin of this term, or give a definition of its meaning to Russians at the time. It is claimed in the prologue that the nobility was given “a designation as ‘former people’” by the Bolsheviks, and the term is used consistently throughout the discussions of the Civil War and the NEP. It is, however, cited only twice as part of official language at the time: brief mention in a document of the Joint State Political Directorate (Russian: Obʺedinënnoe Gosudarstvennoe Politicheskoe Upravlenie, or OGPU—a forerunner of the KGB) “from the early 1930s,” and reference to “Operation Former People,” which name is not elaborated on and which began after the assassination of Kirov in 1934. A much more detailed explanation is given for the meaning and importance of the official label of “outcast/disenfranchised” person. Given the book’s title, this reader would like to see how and when the “designation” of nobles as former people happened, in what context, and to what extent it was used—in official documents, in the press and in common speech.

Even with these oversights this book is an important addition to the canon of English language history of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet period. Making these momentous events more tangible and immediate is invaluable. I appreciate the point of view of what Smith calls the “losers” of the Russian Revolution. It makes me yearn for an equally detailed telling of the story from the point of view of the peasants, or of the typical worker. Of course, one of the advantages enjoyed almost exclusively by the “former people” of that time was literacy, which unfortunately means that the point of view of the peasantry is at this point a comparative loss.


Special Thanks: to Kat Humphrey, for bringing this book to my attention, gifting a copy to me, and her time and formidable expertise in proofreading and editing.

© 2013, John Dougherty. All rights reserved

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