February 26, 2013

Feeling sorry for The (ex-)Man

We are all busy people, and you can be forgiven (a bit) if you have not already noticed Michael Scammell's fine review of Douglas Smith's Former People:  The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, appearing in the latest New York Review of Books (here, sorry, sub. required).

There is no doing justice to this thing here, but here are a few choice bits:
When I was studying Russian at a British army language school in the 1950s, most of my teachers were Russian émigrés who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution...  Russia’s aristocrats, to be sure, seem to have had an irresistible propensity to dress up, and it’s sometimes hard to tell which are in fancy dress and which are wearing normal clothes for their time and place, but there are the mustaches, the exaggerated poses, and, in the case of the men, uniforms, uniforms, uniforms. It’s tempting to see them all as players in an extravagant comic opera, and that’s how we unwilling conscripts tended to regard our teachers, albeit with affection as we got to know them better.
The fox-trot was introduced to Russia at dances organized by visiting members of the American Relief Administration (ARA), which was active in the country from 1921 and 1923 as part of the effort to help Europe's starving population after World War I.  The free and easy Americans were enormously popular among the decimated ranks of the former people [that is, surviving aristocrats], and the fox-trot was an immediate hit in Moscow - but not with the authorities or, surprisingly, with some pillars of the literary establishment. 
The bard of the Soviet proletariat, Maxim Gorky, maintained that the fox-trot encouraged moral degeneracy and led inevitably to homosexuality.
The White Russians have acquired a double glamour from the juxtaposition of their once-glittering lives and their tragic fall into the depths of persecution and poverty.  Smith is by no mean impervious to this glamour, and while he briefly acknowledges the injustices of tsarist rule, he mostly shies away from such questions as whether the powerful Sheremetevs and Golitsyns were implicated in any way in those injustices, and if so, how.  Did the peasants who looted their palaces and burned down their manor houses have personal reasons for revenge, or were they driven wholly by ideology, liquor, and greed?
The talented novelist and short-story writer Ivan Bunin, himself a nobleman, was at one point approached by the Whites to support their program, but when he asked what they stood for, they said their party had two planks:  constitutional monarchy and opposition to the Jews.
It would be interesting to know, for example, if Alexander Golitsyn and his family, traveling through Siberia in a boxcar, knew of the pogroms, and if he did, what he thought of them. 

This is a terrific review of a book about things most Americans know nothing about.  Very much worth your time.


Blogger First Sea Lord said...

Our Corresponding President in Exile has of course just released "To Russia With Love," co-writing the autobiography ofthe estimable Vic Fisher, State Constituion writer, escaper of Stalin and Nazis, and friend of Steller; frankly the excitement level you describe here in these otherwise excellent excerpts are several notches down the ladder in comparison!

February 27, 2013 at 10:14 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home