Writing the Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy

by Douglas Smith

It was the winter of 2005 and I had been invited to dinner at the Connecticut home of Nikita and Maïko Cheremeteff. I was writing a book on one of Nikita’s ancestors, an eccentric aristocrat from the reign of Catherine the Great who had fallen in love with and secretly married one of his serfs, a brilliant opera singer who performed as “The Pearl.” We talked for hours about Russia, its beauties and tragedies, and about the fabled history of the Counts Sheremetev (as the surname is most commonly anglicized), one of the richest families under the tsars with palaces in St. Petersburg and Moscow, vast estates, and over 300,000 serfs. And then, in 1917, came the revolution. Within a few months the Sheremetevs, like the rest of the nobility, lost everything. Some in the family were arrested and executed, many, like Nikita’s father, fled the country with nothing more than what they could carry.

At one point during dinner, Nikita held up piece of silverware, something vaguely resembling a small pâté knife. “Douglas,” he said with a slight grin, “this is all that remains of the Sheremetev fortune.” I felt something click in my head. I had the subject of my next book: the final days of the Russian aristocracy.

The Russian revolution and subsequent civil war destroyed the tsarist ruling class. Like a violent storm, the upheaval scattered exiles throughout the world, making the task of tracking down their descendants particularly difficult. I began, not surprisingly, with the one sitting across the table from me. Nikita gladly pulled out family papers and photo albums and told me everything he could remember of the stories he’d heard from his father. He recalled how his grandparents while in Rome in the 1920s kept their bags packed in anticipation of their imminent return to Russia as soon as the Communists fell, a trip they obviously never made.

Before I left, Nikita gave me the names of family members to look up. So began the process of interviewing dozens of former nobles in the U.S., England, western Europe, Russia, and even north Africa, a process that kept me busy for almost five years. It’s not easy to ring up strangers on the other side of the world and ask them whether you might come for a visit to read their dead grandparents’ letters and sift through their photographs. You can’t help but feel you’re overstepping some boundary you ought not to cross, but, amazingly, almost everyone says yes, please do come, and so you do.

I remember well the bright spring day I spent in the Cotswold home of Katya Galitzine, a direct descendant of Catherine the Great and a member of one of Russia’s largest princely families. The gentle beauty of the English countryside made her grandmother’s memoirs, filled with harrowing tales of violence and narrow escapes from the Reds in the northern Caucasus, seem hard to believe, as if they were nothing more than the product of a rich imagination. Sitting in a well-furnished south Kensington flat or an Upper East Side condo and leafing through old faded photographs, one had the sense of peering into an ancient past, our ties to which had been severed long ago.

In Russia, however, the past felt much more present. Not only had the geographic distance been bridged, but the temporal distance as well. For most of the last century, these photographs I saw had been hidden away in the backs of desk drawers and overstuffed cupboards. The past for Russian’s former nobles, its “former people,” had been dangerous, often taboo. Only in recent years have they begun to reclaim this repressed history, and it still seems strangely new and fresh, as if some long-lost relative had unexpectedly shown up at the door.

Former People

Most of the Russians I met wanted to tell me their stories, no matter how traumatic they were. I recall sitting next to Konstantin Smirnov at his computer looking at the scanned photographs of his grandfather, Vladimir Smirnov. They began in the late nineteenth century, scenes of family picnics and New Year’s Eve parties, everyone drinking, laughing, having a good time. The final photograph showed his grandfather in profile and full face with his name and some numbers written across the bottom. At first the grim meaning of the image didn’t register, and I naively asked Konstantin about the photograph’s story. It had been taken on April 13, 1938, he told me, the day his grandfather was arrested. It was the height of Stalin’s Great Terror and members of the old nobility were among those targeted for repression.

No one in the family ever saw Vladimir again, nor were they informed of his fate, despite their many inquiries. In 1947, an official death certificate, which Konstantin showed me, was written up stating that Vladimir had died from “inflammation of the kidneys” on April 15, 1944. The certificate, however, was promptly filed away in the KGB archives and never sent to the family. Eleven years later the family tried once more to get information on Vladimir’s whereabouts. Only then, twenty years after his arrest, did the Soviet authorities admit to his death.

I assumed this was the end of the story, but then Konstantin pulled up yet another document, this one from the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was from Sergei Mironenko, director of the State Archive of the Russian Federation, and contained detailed information on Criminal Case P-52079 concerning Smirnov, Vladimir Fyodorovich. According to this document, Smirnov did not die of natural causes after all. Rather, he had been found guilty by a commission of the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) of “active participation in a counterrevolutionary terrorist group as specified in Statute 58, Paragraphs 8 and 11 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR.” He was sentenced to death and shot on August 20, 1938. A tribunal of the Moscow Military District later reviewed Smirnov’s case, and on April 28, 1958 it issued Decision No. 3022/D overturning the twenty-year old sentence of the NKVD. The bureaucratic language of the letter belied the unspeakable crime carried out against Vladimir Smirnov. “The Military Tribunal has countermanded the conviction and ended the case against him due to a lack of proof of a crime.” Nowhere in the document is the word “innocent” to be found.

The Soviet government lied to its citizens. It denied the truth and it kept secrets. But as I found, the story I was researching wasn’t just a simple case of the state versus the people. In fact, it still isn’t, for not everyone is ready for the truth to come out.

Count Pavel Sheremetev was the only male in his family to remain in Russia after the revolution. His archive is now in the possession of his only grandchild, Dunya. When I went to see her in Moscow, she looked older than someone of her age, but then Russia has a way of doing that to people. We shook hands once I had crossed the threshold of her apartment, as Russian custom demands, and I presented Dunya with some flowers and small gifts. She showed me into her living room and asked me to sit.

A family that had once dwelled in palaces had been reduced to a few dingy rooms, the wallpaper faded, the plaster stained by water damage. Pointing to a large trunk, Dunya said that this was all that remained of the family archive, including the diary her grandfather had kept for his entire life. She asked if I’d like to see it.

I was surprised and excited, though I did my best not to show it. Some in the family had told me that Dunya was unlikely to meet me, and even if she did, she’d not let me see anything. And now here I was, in her apartment about to be handed her grandfather’s diary. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

I can still see her as she stood up from the trunk, smoothed her skirt, and then stretched out her hand. She was holding a tattered notebook, bringing it closer to me. I reached out to take it, and then, suddenly, Dunya’s hand retracted, and before I know what was happening she had dropped the diary back into the trunk and shut the lid.

Stunned, I tried not to show any reaction. I kept talking, asking questions about her family and doing my best to assure her I was not a threat and that she could trust me with her family secrets. She listened politely, but batted away all my requests to read the diary: The ink had faded, the handwriting was too difficult, the pages were too brittle.

And then she came to what I think was the real reason. The diary contained many painful things, she said, especially for the family members who had left Russia. The revolution had not just destroyed the nobility as a class, it had forced people to make difficult decisions about their duties to family, to their country, and to themselves. I can’t say for certain, but I do wonder whether Dunya’s grandfather felt betrayed by his brothers who left Russia. Their lives as exiles weren’t easy, but they were nothing like the hardships he endured. Pavel must have recorded all of this, and certainly more, in his diary.

I left that day discouraged but hopeful Dunya would eventually acquiesce. I visited her a few more times over the years, bringing her books, sweets, even copies of her grandfather’s letters I had come across in the archives. She was always welcoming and happy to talk about her family, but she never did let me read the diary.

For a long time I was upset. Didn’t she realize I was on her side? I wanted to tell her story, I wanted the world to know how her family had suffered. How could she not see that? And then, gradually, her resistance brought out feelings I had not recognized before, or at least not wanted to. In knocking on the doors of these impoverished aristocrats was I not, on some level, no different than their Soviet oppressors? Nearly everything had been taken from them, and here I was hoping to take what little remained. Dunya’s grandfather was long buried and then I appeared asking her to dig him up just so I might take a closer look. As a historian I still wish she would have shown me the diary, but I respect and I think I now also understand her reasons for keeping this little bit of her family’s inheritance for herself.
Douglas Smith is an award-winning historian and translator and the author of three previous books on Russia. Before becoming a historian, he worked for the U. S. State Department in the Soviet Union and as a Russian affairs analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two children. His most recent book, Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, is now available.

For more information, visit: http://www.douglassmith.info/


Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy from Farrar, Straus and Giroux on Vimeo.