Starting to read Former People: The Last Days of Russian Aristocracy written by American historian Douglas Smith, you might get an impression that you are about to read another saga about two oldest families in Russian Empire. The first pages are dedicated to the detailed recitation of three generations of noble men and women belonging to the Sheremetev and Golitsyn families. You might also fool yourself thinking that it will be a story of the relationship between two oldest clans set against the background of the dramatic changes of late 19thcentury. Partially it is! But when you finish the book you are convinced – that this long list of names is memorial stone to all those who despite their aristocratic and noble backgrounds became the outlaws and state enemies of Russia after October 1917.
Throughout short, yet very capacious story of the falling-off of the Sheremetev and Golitsyn families Douglas Smith puts a very thin, almost translucent, narrative of great love, honour and absolute denial of separating one’s own destiny from the destiny of their motherland. All rare and precious opportunities for migration were considered by them as the betrayal of their country. Fanatical and almost mystical patriotism forever bounded these families with Russia.
The Sheremetevs were conservatives who truly believed in monarchy and supported the royal family till the last minute. Golitsyns were much more liberal and open-minded and advocated reforms and innovations as only possible way for the future development. Despite all the differences, both families found themselves in the same position in post-revolution Russia. Smith’s draws a picture of this new world where former Russian elite suffering from the physical and mental traumas were trying to find their place in the new Soviet reality. Forced to constantly move from one place to another they often strove to find the decent work and bearable environment to live in. Both families did not avoid arrests and were suspected in all the assassination attempts of the Party Leaders. However, neither destroyed palaces, burned houses, conflicts with the Red Army, nor arrests and executions made these people stop loving and respecting the order they used to live in.
Smith tells his readers a number of fascinating stories. For example, there is one of Pavel Sheremetev, son of the Great Count Sergei Sheremetev and the head of the family, and his undivided love to Irina Naryshkina. Upon Pavel’s return from Crimea to his family’s nest in Petrograd in 1918 his love was rejected by Irina for the second time. Many years before she chose the Great Duke Sergei Dolgoruky over Pavel and got married with him.
Pavel’s heart was broken in pieces, but so was the world around him. Petrograd at that time was ruled by the former criminals and plebs, and was full of chaotic movements. Sheremetev’s house by Fontanka River was searched and raided by Bolsheviks a number of times. The family considered sending Pavel out of the country to cure his wounds. However, he could not imagine his future and his life anywhere but in a turmoil Russia, at home, next to his family.
In the middle of the 1930’s part of the Golitsyn family were forced to move to Dmitrov, a small town close to Moscow. They were able to meet with other “former people”, workers of Dmitlag (Dmitrov Correctional Labour Camp), to discuss music, literature and share priceless memories. Grandchildren of the Great Duke Vladimir Golitsyn were born already in Soviet Russia; they were Soviet kids and could hardly have nostalgia of pre-revolution times. Nevertheless, they learnt the old traditions carefully kept by the family. Even the New Year’s Eve, considered to be bourgeois and strictly forbidden in Soviet Russia and Orthodox holy days were still celebrated in the close family circle.
Even that didn’t last for long. The new wave of repressions in 1937-38 and the later involvement of the Soviet Union in World War II put an end to the long history of the Russian aristocracy. The last who survived after the endless arrests and exiles were followed and destroyed. Only those who left Soviet Russia in the early 1920’s or took the chance to do it later in 1930’s kept guise of former epoch. Lives of the Sheremetev’s and Golitsyn’s relatives abroad lead them by different paths. The brother of the Great Duke Vladimir Golitsyn, Alexander, migrated to the USA during Civil War and had a successful medical practice. All his children made careers in Hollywood. While grandchildren of Vladimir Golitsyn were going to the Soviet cinemas to watch “Lenin in October” and “Chapaev”, his nephews, Alexander and George, shared stage with Fritz Lang and Greta Garbo.
The son of the Great Count Sergey Sheremetev, Boris, moved to France only after the death of his father who considered migration as cowardice and betrayal of the motherland. In Paris, however, Boris could hardly make his living even when his daughter married Carl Faberge, the grandson of the legendary jeweller, – the best her husband could do for living was fixing the radios.
Douglas Smith tells about the hundreds of broken lives, pointless hopes and endless lacerations. His story, however, is no only about the great aristocratic families. He shares with his readers the great historical secret of the entire epoch, which until now was safely kept in family archives and crypts.