Friday, June 28, 2013

The 'Former People' once known as nobles

'Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Ancestry' by Douglas Smith is a compelling, well-written account of what happened to the nobility in post-revolutionary Russia. It is a history of the subset of the victims of the conflict but they are paradoxical victims in that they had presided over or benefited from an autocratic system of striking inequality and structural violence. This was replaced, ironically, by a totalitarian system of embedded hierarchy and greatly magnified structural violence, led, yet more ironically, by a 'former person', namely Lenin, whose family had noble origins!

It paints a vivid, personalized picture of people's multiple, complex responses both to the Revolution, its aftermath and the long journey (for those who stayed in Russia) into the darkness that was Stalin's rule.

However, in painting a picture of the nobility, it rather relegates their 'enemies' (or even friendly forces from other social groupings) to ciphers. It is akin to reading a Jane Austen novel where the servants (for the most part) are firmly relegated to 'below stairs status' or 'deus ex machina'!

We get to see the extraordinary violence that the Revolution unleashed only from one perspective and come to understand nothing virtually of why, what motivated it and why did it take hold with many but not with some? It is a history long on narrative, wonderfully organised, but short on analysis or even reflection. It restores a necessary perspective on one group but does so often by relegating other groups into a lumpen proletariat who are simply angry, envious and vindictive which is frankly too simplistic a characterization. 

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