Interview with Douglas Smith, winner of the 2013 Pushkin House Book Prize for ‘Former People’

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

Where does your interest in Russia come from?

It doesn’t spring from some childhood dream. It was more of a coincidence. I was taking German but one of my professors at university recommended Russian. I took it as a lark and fell in love with the language from the very beginning. Studying, and going as a student to Leningrad in the early 1980s, I became fascinated by the culture. I worked for the State Department, as a post-graduate and took a scholarly approach. But after my first academic book, I found increasingly I wanted to write works that - while taking advantage of my academic background - would engage a broader readership. I was fascinated by Russian history. It was frustrating when I went to cocktail parties that my work seemed so abstract and people would get a strange look on their faces and drift away. History is one of those things unlike physics that there’s no reason it shouldn’t be approachable and capable of being understood by lay people.

Where did the idea for Former People come from?

It grew out of my previous book The Pearl on the illicit love century love between Count Nicholas Sheremetev, Russia’s richest aristocrat, and Praskovia Kovalyova, the greatest opera diva of her time. I got to know descendants of the Sheremetev family, some of whom were living in the US, and talked to them about their family and history. One jokingly held up a little pate fork and said this is all that remains of the family fortune. I thought what a remarkable story, what would it be like to be from that wealth and lose everything overnight and be hunted by the enemy. No-one had really done it.

What is the overall theme in the book?

There was a crushing loss: of material things, a way of life, family cohesion, life, freedom. The degree to which an entire class of people who had lived a certain way for hundreds of years, and derived much of their power from serfdom, experienced an overpowering sense of tragedy. The destruction of their way of life did not usher in a bright new tomorrow as some imagined in 1917. They showed incredible stoicism. I had expected many would be bewailing their fate, but was struck how they bore up to this loss and strain so well and showed determination to get on with their lives. Americans are constantly complaining but these people lost everything. You don’t find this incredible anger at their fate, but a desire to make sense of it and continue.

What was most surprising discovery in your research?

They all lost everything in material wealth. Every family was touched, lost loved ones from imprisonment, execution, death in camps, prison, civil war. What’s remarkable, and it may be quintessentially Russian, is a randomness, an illogical element to their fate. There were some great princes who somehow managed to survive. You would have thought Vladimir Galitsin would be ripe for repression but he was allowed to survive, for instance. A few went along and joined the Reds. Others somehow slipped through.

What was the reaction to attempting a sympathic portrait of such a privileged group?

That was one of the main reasons no-one had tried to write this history before. Among a lot of my western colleagues, there’s a sense that these people got what was coming to them, that we needn’t be surprised, concerned or terribly interested. There’s a good deal of Russians who feel the same, that this was their fate, written in the laws of history. What’s telling is that the nobility are simply the first victims of the Bolsheviks. The same tactics that were extended against the elite are later used against the peasantry in greater numbers. Then under Stalin against the old Bolsheviks themselves. They are simply the first victims.

Did the aristocratic families cooperate with your research?

I was generally very well received. I got to know a lot of people. So much of the material I obtained is not in state archives but in family collections. I was able to convince most people as an honest scholar that they could trust me. There were only two issues: a women in New York city, born an émigré, who let me use family documents, but was appalled when I showed her the manuscript and said I could never understand aristocracy. Plus there was a Sheremetev descendant in Moscow who keeps her grandfather’s diary. Everyone said she would never lend it to me. I did everything I could to convince her. She would not let me see it. To this day, I still don’t fully understand her reasons. For a while I was upset, but they took everything from her grandfather. Maybe this was her way of not giving up everything.

How well is Russia understood in the west?

People are shocked when I tell them what happened: terrorist activity before 1917, the first world war, revolution, civil war, famine; the tens of millions of people who were killed even before the Nazi invasion in 1941. I think people have no conception of just what Russia went through in the first forty years of the twentieth century. It’s like a black hole. It’s a tragedy and one thing I hope my book will add a little bit to is people’s greater awareness of the level of violence that swept over Russia. We are ignorant of that in the US. There is much visual evidence of Nazi Germany, and the country forced to make it public. In Russia there is so little visual evidence. I hope my book also much speaks to the larger issues and events that happened in the early twentieth century. I still think it’s a country that is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. After these events, add on Stalinism and the second world war. Russians have never really been able to honestly and openly address the horrors that befell their country. It’s all very much still repressed memory. There were attempts since Gorbachev to finally come to terms with it, but now we see Putin shutting down debate. It’s like the conversation is stopping when it never really penetrated very deeply.

What are your plans for your next book?

The first part of Former People deals with Russia on the verge of the revolution. Everywhere I looked I couldn’t get away from Rasputin, so I’ve been working for three years on him. My goal is a definitive biography based on material never seen, to be published in 2016 on the centenary of his death. A hundred years later, people are still stuck with him either as a saint or as a devil. I’m hoping that by unearthing new material, I will overturn some long-held beliefs over what he did, and build up a much better picture of who he was. He was an expression of a decadent, dying Russia who was only possible in that particular time and place.