Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy
Reviewed by Mark Le Fanu
What is it like to be a member of a class of people doomed to historical extinction? The Russian aristocracy hasn’t had a very good press. It’s common to meet people even these days whose attitude to the travails of the Russian upper classes at the time of the Revolution, and afterwards, is that they probably brought it down on their own heads. Those centuries of oppression — of wielding the knout on the backs of the poor — had to end in tears, didn’t they?
Serfdom was formally abolished in 1861, but no concerted move was made to give land back to the peasantry and thus encourage them to take a patriotic stake in society. Russia had no middle class to speak of, to act as a buffer or shock absorber. In its lack, peasant and nobility peered at each other over an unbridgeable gulf of hostility and misunderstanding.
‘It is understandable and it is forgivable that they hate us,’ remarked Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, one of the more prescient of the last generation of aristos, ‘for in fact we hate them with the same unyielding malice.’ This was written in 1917, in anger and despair. Douglas Smith’s book aims at — and succeeds in — providing some nuances around this epigram.
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