|"Comrade Lenin Cleanses the Earth of Filth" by Viktor Deni. November 1930|
Written by Douglas Smith, Former People: The Destruction of the Russian Aristocracy is not a cheery read. It is a very well written and horribly compelling history of the Bolshevik Revolution. “Former people” is a term applied to the tsarist ruling class, the class enemies of the revolution. Their story is told primarily through the grim fate of two noble families, the Sheremetovs and the Golitsyns. As Smith says -
History, we are told, is written by the victors. What is less often stated, though no less important, is that history is usually written about the victors; winners get more attention in the history books than losers.
The Sheremetovs and the Golitsyns certainly lost, although many nobles saw, however dimly, the inevitability of a Russian catastrophe. They knew Tsar Nicholas II was hopeless and they also knew things had to change and would change sooner or later. What they did not foresee was how ruthless, how astonishingly rapid and catastrophically devastating that change would be.
As the historian Evan Mawdsley commented, “The Civil War unleashed by Lenin’s revolution was the greatest national catastrophe Europe had yet seen.” Russia descended into savage anarchy beyond imagination. “War and strife, famine and pestilence—the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” Mawdsley wrote, “devastated the largest country in Europe.”
However, there are also a few touches of grim irony to remind us that human nature is not changed by even the most severe political turmoil.
The famine gripping Russia in those years spared no one, except for the new elite; the Sheremetevs’ remaining chef left them around this time to cook for Lenin and his comrades in the Kremlin.
Inevitably the hypocrisy took many forms.
Bunin reveled in pointing out the hypocrisy of Red leaders who preached “war on the palaces” and then moved into them as soon as the owners had been evicted. He was revolted by this “new aristocracy”: “Sailors with huge revolvers on their belts, pickpockets, criminal villains, and shaved dandies in service jackets, depraved-looking riding britches, and dandy-like shoes with the inevitable spurs. All have gold teeth and big, dark, cocaine-like eyes.”
With equal inevitability, some journalists had allegiances they were happy enough to share with their readers.
The British reporter Walter Duranty arrived in Moscow in 1921. Among his earliest impressions of the Soviet capital was the dreadful condition of the old aristocracy.
To another Western reporter, Edwin Hullinger, the same scene testified to the revolution’s great achievement. Having stripped away the institutional foundations upon which class and caste had been built, the revolution had exposed people’s true essence:
As proof, Hullinger quoted the words of a former countess. “Yes, many of us can see that the Revolution was for the best,” she told him. “It made us into living, real people. Many were only existing before. We have gained confidence in ourselves because we know we can do things. I like it better. I would not go back to the old. And there are many young people of our class who think as I do. But we paid a terrible price. I presume it was necessary, however.”
As a single example of that terrible price, here is the story of one life briefly told.
Consider the case of Professor Nikolai Nekrasov, the last governor-general of Finland before the revolution and a former minister in the Provisional Government. An excellent engineer, he had been arrested several times, most recently in 1930, when he was sentenced to ten years. He was brought to Dmitlag as an inmate specialist, yet was given his own newly constructed house in the “the free sector” along with a car and driver. He was released in 1935 but chose to stay on and worked at Dmitlag until the project was finished. In 1940, he was arrested for a final time and then shot.
The Former People story is well told and well worth reading, but to my mind the most lasting lesson of Smith’s book is a forceful reminder of something we already know. Former People sets before us an important political lesson to be drawn from the Bolshevik Revolution – the eternal role of political enemies.
Political parties, factions and movements all need enemies. Even the effete parties of our floundering democracies need them. There is an absolute political necessity to have or to invent the Outsider, the one who is responsible for present woes, the one who must be destroyed in order to set things right, who must be hated in order to relieve the faithful from any possibility of doubt.
Life, comrades,” Stalin announced in 1935, “has become better, life has become more cheerful.” His words became the defining slogan for the mid-1930s, the brief three years from 1934 to 1937 between the end of the First Five-Year Plan and the Great Terror.
The same year Stalin made his famous remark, the newspaper Komsomolskaia Pravda ran a series of articles on “Teaching Hatred” by such luminaries as Maxim Gorky and Ilya Ehrenburg. Hatred, it turns out, was not to be condemned but instilled, encouraged, and celebrated, for persons “who cannot hate with passion are unlikely to be able to love with passion.”
One is left with the impression that even our politically correct laws against hate speech may not be what they seem. By inventing haters we have surely invented yet another enemy. The person or social group accused of hating may in turn be hated with impunity. People who used to speak their mind on subjects now closed for debate perhaps. Former People we might almost say.