Monday, July 29, 2013

Russian Aristocrats from 1900 till the 1960's

Former People, The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, by Douglas Smith.  Just finished it.
The Communist Revolution was not the first and final revolution, this kind of thing had gone on for many years, maybe 40, riots and insurrections against the severe disparity of wealth and priveledge had infected Russia.  Some were rather big and cost the deaths of thousands to put them down.  What we think of as "the" revolution was a series of riots and strikes that drug on for months.  The Communists did not get to the front of the parade for a long time.  When finally the Tzar resigned a provisional government was set up and the battles were on.  For years Russia fought the Germans on one front, Finland on another, and a civil war with more heads than Medusa had snakes.  Bolsheviks and The Red Army - Communist sometimes together sometimes at odds, White Army, Blue Army, the US Army, the Japanese, Czechs, French, English and others, Cossacks, Black Army, the Cadets, the Monarchist, various ethnic and regional factions, unionist, the list is like snow in Siberia, it goes on and on, it was chaos as alliances formed and broke apart.   But the one thing most of these groups had in common, sometimes the only thing, they wanted to destroy the 2 million Aristocrats and Royals, about 1% of Russians, who owned 90% of the wealth.  Once it progressed a while the targets were broadened to include intellectuals, managers, shop owners, anyone who owned significant property or wealth and/or had people working for them.
It became a slaughter in some areas.  Many were forced to move from their estates and fine homes, scrambling to areas that seemed safe became a multiyear project to move and move again.  In the end most of the royals and aristocracy were killed, driven to exposure and starvation, spent decades in and out of gulags and prison towns.
One thing I was keen on was finding examples of gun control as it is the current popular cry that the Communist got control after in forcing gun control or taking all the weapons.  Scattered through the book were many examples that shed light on this myth.  The revolution was under way when the Communist started gaining influence, aside from mobs throwing stones and charging outnumbered guards at palaces and mansions, most the actual gun fire battles in the early weeks were between trained  soldiers as various officers took up one side or another and their troops fell in line.  As for the public, who had guns, the Aristocrats had them, as did a few country peasants.  Guns were not made for mass consumption as now, the poor naturally had very few.  In very few cases did the wealthy use the guns they had.  With 500 farmers in rags are on your lawn with pitchforks shouting for you to open the wine cellar and leave, firing a musket into the group is not a recipe for a long life.  Instead almost all talked, delayed, and tried to survive, for the short term it often worked.
As things got worse, lawlessness increased, mobs bolder, armies fighting one another and living off pillage, guns were taken, any and every group was taking guns from any and every group, the spoils to the strongest.  Lenin did not set the peasants on the wealthy but when he learned it was sweeping the nation he promoted it, again a case of politicians rushing to the front of a parade already under way.  One of the first things Lenin did when he was sure he was in control of the famed Summer Palace and the capital, he had 44,000 rifles handed out to peasants and street gangs.  The guns being taken from homes and enemies in skirmishes were being kept by who ever took them, they were plunder like jewels, a form of wealth.  Lenin increased the number of guns directly and indirectly, flooding them to local officials, police, and peasants.  Still it was a poor country and during WWII a charge always had a second wave, these guys had no weapons, they ran behind those who did, taking weapons from their own dead and continuing the charge.
Finally they purged everyone that had worked in government before the revolution, finally Lenin had to ask for a slow down, so many were driven into poverty, to other cities to hide, sent to prison, shot by mobs, starved, nothing worked.  Russia had been the 5th largest industrial power when he arrived, a couple years later they were 12% of their former self and much of this was inferior.  The electricity no longer worked, telephones were intermittent, no one understood the government machine or how to make it move.  They had to bring these people back to make it work.  But it was hell, clear into the 1950's these people were still being tormented, abused, jailed, cheated and living and dying like rats.
Few who could have in fact did leave Russia, they had such love for Mother Russia, the ones that left were hated by the ones that stayed.  In the end most never lived to old age.  The few that did saw the Communist leaders became the Aristocrats, living in their mansions, eating fine meals with rare beverages while the average Russian lived on potato and hog fat and in fear of being turned in by a neighbor for an impure thought. Stalin eventually killed his own, most the White Army, the largest and nearly successful, had been shot in the head, he now turned on the Bolsheviks having all the officers killed, even long retired, in some ciites thousands of old men were picked up and shot.  Then Stalin decided there were plots against him, the secret police cooked up fear and neighbor turned in neighbor and the Great Terror led to millions of deaths of normal Russians, many times more ordinary citizens than royals and aristocrats had been killed or starved when finally Stalin died.
Another interesting thing, not all the gulags and internal exile prisons were guard tower and fence prisons.  Many were remote god forsaken clap board towns in Siberia, so cold you feared pulling your pants down to shit.  If you want to eat you worked in the saw mill or the mine, otherwise starve, mandatory labor in a town of shacks, people had to work then get by with shelter on their own.  In some cases they could own guns to hunt, there is a picture in the book of two royals sent their out on a moose hunt.
"Former People", these were the royals and people who had formal titles.  They had almost no rights of any kind after the revolution, they were not even people, the slang in Russia for them was "former people".
It's a pretty good book, the hundreds of long Russian names are incredibly confusing though.


  1. It was Lenin, not one of the Beatles.

    Russia didn't fight Finland until the Winter War in '39 and then the Continuation War a couple years later.

    Finland declared their independence when the revolution occurred in Russia and then had their own civil war.

    1. Thanks K.
      I really whiffed that one, I went back and changed Lennon for Lenin. Thanks fro the note on Finland time line. In the book it mentions some troubles with Finland a number of times, I assume the Finns were restless during these years. It also brings up that during the various purges both official and by mobs, along with Jews, Finns living in Russia and later the USSR were killed or set on the run.


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