Douglas Smith is an awarding-winning historian and translator and the author of four books on Russia. He studied German and Russian at the University of Vermont and has a doctorate in history from UCLA. He served as an interpreter for late President Reagan. Smith has taught and lectured widely in the United States, Britain, and Europe and has appeared in documentaries for A&E and National Geographic. He is the recipient of numerous awards and distinctions, including a Fulbright scholarship and a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Study Center. His newest book, Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, was published in 2012 with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the U.S. and Macmillan in the U.K.
Theodora Clarke: Why did you decided to write a book about the Russian aristocracy during the Revolution?
Douglas Smith: The previous book I did was called The Pearl, which was this remarkable story of forbidden love between Count Nikolai Sheremetev and one of his serfs, who was the lead singer in his opera company and performed as ‘The Pearl’. I was fascinated by the story. As part of the research I tracked down descendants–some of the Sheremetevs– who were living in the States. They would tell me the stories about what had happened to their family during the Revolution. I went to dinner one evening with Nikita Sheremetev. There were all these beautiful Russian things on the walls and I asked, ‘How did your family get this out during the Revolution?’. Nikita said ‘Oh no, we got these in Paris and New York later’. He held up a silver pate fork and he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, ‘Douglas, this is all that remains of the Sheremetev fortune’. Something clicked in my head, and I knew I had the subject of a book. I started to read as much as I could, I went to Russia and started poking around and it was clear that no-one had done this story. To me it seemed such a huge forgotten chapter of the Revolution and of the Soviet story.
TC: What was it that specifically attracted you to the two families featured in your book? What made their story stand out?
DS: When I first got started I felt like Columbus; I was out in the ocean and I didn’t know what I was going to find or where I would end up. But I knew I wanted to describe the whole story, to talk about the entire noble class. However, to make it engaging and approachable to the reader you have to get down to the personal level. I started to try to figure out who I would write about and I ended up with the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns for a few reasons. First, I wanted families who stayed in Russia. I didn’t want it to be a story of the emigration; I wanted it to be about those who didn’t leave. They were a little bit of the aristocracy that remained. Second, I needed people who left behind really good source material because you can’t tell the story if they didn’t leave anything. I was fortunate that these families had left a lot. Also, their families intersected at various points, which was true of much of the aristocracy. They intermarried and they spent time together. It was also interesting because the patriarch of the Golitsyn family was very much a Westernising, liberal critic of the regime whereas the patriarch of the Sheremetev family was very much a Slavophile, reactionary supporter of the old order. So it brought together a lot of different pieces in a nice way.
TC: One of the things I noticed when I started reading the book was that it’s almost like a novel; there is so much attention to detail and personal stories. It’s not like many of the history books I’ve read and in many ways is more accessible. As a historian what would you say is your essential objective? What are you trying to achieve?
DS: In this particular book? First and foremost I want to tell a hugely important story of twentieth century Russia that hasn’t been told in English or Russian. It’s been written out of the history books so this book is recapturing a lost history. Secondly, though, I think it’s a sin to bore people. When I write I want to write a book that my mother is going to pick up and enjoy, that anyone can pick up without the need for ten years of graduate school to understand what’s going on. I think the story is so personal and so dramatic that it lends itself to this kind of telling. It’s about people’s lives and that’s something anyone can relate to. You don’t need to be from this background or to have lived this experience to imagine what it would have been like to have your family members arrested or taken out and shot or your home invaded.
TC: You mentioned about the importance of the material you had to work with. How significant were archive documents to your research?
DS: They were hugely important, there’s no way I could have done this book without them. I knew that I had to first get in touch with these families that survived. Through the Sheremetevs I was put in touch with members of the extended aristocracy and nobility, in the West but also in Russia. The first thing I did was to get to know them and to convince them that they could trust me with very sensitive personal things: letters, diaries, memoirs and photographs. I also knew that I would have to look in archives so I visited archives in the States where émigrés had deposited things. I also visited the main archives in Moscow and St Petersburg. Most of the material that I have in terms of primary source material is utterly new. No-one has ever seen this stuff or worked with this material, particularly as a lot of it is from private family collections. It’s amazing for me that I have Golitsyns and Sheremetevs reading the book saying ‘I didn’t know any of this; this is a discovery to me’. That has been very rewarding.
TC: What has the reception of the book been like in Russia? Did you find it difficult to work in Russian archives with such a sensitive subject?
DS: Working in the archives was fine. Although it was interesting that when I started the book and was working in the Lenin Library in Moscow, I went to the thematic section with millions of drawers on the Revolution and I couldn’t find anything on the nobility. I went to one of the librarians and said, ‘Excuse me, I must be overlooking the section on the Revolution and its relationship to the nobility’ and she looked at me as if I were mad. She said to me, ‘Of course not, because they didn’t have anything to do with the Revolution’. I knew I was on the right track because they were denying it. That’s reflective of a certain mentality I think that is still there. My publisher has sold quite a lot of foreign rights already and it’s coming out in various languages but not Russian. They have not been able to find a Russian publisher. I don’t think that’s a coincidence or just business; I think there is a certain sensitivity there still and people aren’t sure how to make sense of all of this or how much they want to make sense of it. I hope there will be a Russian edition, but until there is a Russian edition it will be hard to know really what Russians think of this. The people that I got to know there whilst working on the book were very supportive but beyond that it’s hard to know.
TC: Obviously you’re working with such a huge volume of information; how did you approach the topic of the Revolution? Where did you begin?
DS: For me the first place I started was with what has already been published; what is already out there. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Reading this book I found that there was a fair amount on the Revolution. There was a good deal of memoir literature so I wanted to make sure that someone hadn’t done it. After that I was talking to lots of people and I think you need to get to know the archivists. I have a very good working relationship with archivists in St Petersburg and Moscow and I relied very much on their expertise; these are people who are trained and spend every day there. Sometimes I find things they don’t know about but they are ultimately your local guide. Cultivating those relationships is really important, and these specialists steered me in the right direction and discovered things that I didn’t even know were there.
TC: What you writing process? Do you do all the research first?
DS: No. I’m really slow and methodical. I typically like to do at least fifty per cent of the research because I am always feeling the story is going to change with the more work I do on it. So I don’t want to start writing too much, so I do at least half of the research before I do my book proposal and then start trying to get an outline of generally where the book is going to go. Then I’ll start writing and then invariably as I write I see holes and gaps and then I go back and fill in that last bit of research. There’s no way I could just start writing before I’d dug deep.
TC: So how long did it take you to complete this book?
DS: I think this one took me about five years. The Pearl, my previous book, took seven. It took me eight years to do my PhD!
TC: As an American you’ve now spent more than a decade writing about Russian history. What was it specifically about Russia and the Soviet period that attracted you to writing about it?
DS: At university I studied German and Russian languages and I started going to the Soviet Union in 1983 where I worked for the US State department for a while. I became fascinated with the country through the language and the time I spent there. You can’t do that without becoming fascinated by the history.
TC: There are so many anecdotes and personal stories in the book. What is your favourite nugget of information that you found?
DS: That’s a tough question, there are so many to choose from. I think one of the chapters that I wrote that I found most fascinating is called ‘Dr Golitsyn’. It’s the story of Prince Golitsyn who was a medical doctor. In 1917 he took his family to Siberia thinking that they would be able to avoid the upheavals of Moscow and St Petersburg. They got caught up in the whirlwind of the Revolution’s spread and then the Civil War. For years they went back and forth on the trans-Siberian railway, escaping across the snow from Red Army soldiers. This one chapter could have been a book in and of itself. It feels almost like Doctor Zhivago, and that’s why I called the chapter ‘Doctor Golitsyn’. They ended up finally escaping to Manchuria, even though the family was scattered at various points. Eventually they got to Seattle in the US and from there to L.A where he became a successful doctor. His children went into the film industry in Hollywood and one of his sons won multiple academy awards. The story of that particular family was the most amazing I felt.
TC: I noticed that you also wrote about the destruction of art and culture in Soviet Russia. All the great aristocratic families had been such important patrons of the arts and then that entire class in society was removed.
DS: I think that the level of destruction that happened is staggering. Sometimes when working on this book I was amazed that anything survived in Russia because so much was destroyed. Entire libraries and noble estates were torn apart and the papers used to roll cigarettes amongst other things. I think the most amazing story about the attempt to preserve art in Russia is that of Count Pavel Sheremetev, who was the only titled male member of the family who stayed in Russia; all the others left. His father told him on his deathbed that it was his job to preserve the things, not for the family, but for Russia. He tried to do that in the remaining years of his life, right up until the 1940s when he died of starvation during the War. He ended up having to move constantly but he really did try to save every painting, document and historical item that the family had had. Most of it was gone but he ended up in a single room in a tower of the Novodeivichy monastery. There are photographs in the book where you see him in his room in the 1930s surrounded by mounds of paintings and historical documents. This love of the cultural heritage and patrimony and this willingness to go to any extreme to preserve it is really remarkable.
TC: In terms of future projects will you continue to look at Russia or will you now tackle a new area?
DS: I hope there’s a lot more Russian stuff that I can do. I’m deep into a book now on Rasputin and I’m trying to use the same approach that I did with this subject. Obviously it’s very different in that so much has been written about Rasputin but very little effort has been made to dig deep in the archives, to really go back to the sources that we need to tell his life in an honest way. It’s always a retelling of the same old outlandish myths and legends. I’ve been working in archives in half a dozen countries digging up stuff that no-one’s ever seen.
TC: My final question is what advice would you give to the young and upcoming historians of today?
DS: I think I was really fortunate as a graduate student. I went to UCLA and had the most amazing advisor. He was a specialist in late nineteenth century Russia. What he did for me and his other students was that whenever we wrote something for him we would have to come into his office. He would go over our papers sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph and would rip them to pieces. It was sometimes humiliating but what he did for me was to show me that being a good historian is not just what material you bring together and what discoveries you make. It’s a literary art; what people are ultimately left with are the words on the page. Anyone who wants to be a good historian and do well at it obviously has to do the research and go to the ends of the earth to find sources but really you have to focus on your writing. Writing is a craft, learn how other writers do it and learn their tricks. That’s one of the skills that everyone should aim for.
Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy
Epic in scope, precise in detail, and heart-breaking in its human drama, Former People is the first book to recount the history of the aristocracy caught up in the maelstrom of the Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of Stalin’s Russia. Filled with chilling tales of looted palaces and burning estates, of desperate flights in the night from marauding peasants and Red Army soldiers, of imprisonment, exile, and execution, it is the story of how a centuries’-old elite, famous for its glittering wealth, its service to the Tsar and Empire, and its promotion of the arts and culture, was dispossessed and destroyed along with the rest of old Russia.
Yet Former People is also a story of survival and accommodation, of how many of the tsarist ruling class—so-called “former people” and “class enemies”—overcame the psychological wounds inflicted by the loss of their world and decades of repression as they struggled to find a place for themselves and their families in the new, hostile order of the Soviet Union. Chronicling the fate of two great aristocratic families—the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns—it reveals how even in the darkest depths of the terror, daily life went on
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Interview conducted 14 November 2012. All content ©Russian Art and Culture.