Sofiia Chuikina, Noble Memory: "Former People" in the Soviet City. Leningrad, 1920s-30s/Dvorianskaia pamiat': "Byvshie" v sovetskom gorode. Leningrad, 1920e-1930e gody.
Sofiia Chuikina is a sociologist who completed a dissertation at the European University in St. Petersburg. Her fascinating book examines the life of the Russian nobility after the October Revolution and, in particular, the ways in which this prerevolutionary elite ih Petrograd/Leningrad sought a "compromise between the past and the present" (9). Given the new government's hostility to the old bourgeoisie, so-called "former people" were forced to transform themselves in the Soviet era. Chuikina examines the nature of this transformation, how aristocratic traditions and memories were maintained, hidden, transformed, or extinguished under Bolshevik rule. The author dedicates the book to her grandmother, whose two-volume family chronicle and extensive stories about the past inspired her to explore the memory of aristocratic Russia in the Soviet era.
From the outset, Chuikina acknowledges that for the Russian nobility a great deal was lost in the revolutionary period. The story of the repression, emigration, and displacement of the old nobility is a familiar one, so she does not spend too much time on it. (1) She reminds us that people who had common noble surnames could not easily hide or transform themselves in the new society. Especially vulnerable to repression, they were also more likely to emigrate. Emigration was the choice of many petty noblemen as well, particularly those who lived close to the western border. For the others who stayed in war-torn Russia, life was not easy. Descendants of the Russian nobility were forced to hide or unlearn some of the values, language, and habits of their parents. In the process of editing and reconstructing their biographies, certain aristocratic memories and traditions were inevitably lost.
Chuikina covers this history of repression, silence, and secrecy, but it often constitutes a mere backdrop to her main story. Her primary focus is instead on how the old aristocracy adjusted to and accommodated the demands of Soviet life. Despite the discrimination against them, some members of the former Russian nobility found a place for themselves in the new society, both professionally and personally. Many did not wholly reject their social origin or prerevolutionary traditions and habits but rather sought to reconcile their Soviet and noble selves. This important book describes not a replacement of old values with new ones but a merging of two worlds. Parents and grandparents educated children in the style of the old aristocracy and shared family stories from before the Revolution. The descendants of the former nobility possessed hybrid identities or distinct Soviet-noble biographies. Sovietization appears as a profoundly significant if no less fragmentary and contradictory process. Chuikina describes not only how members of the old aristocracy experienced the process of becoming Soviet men and women but also how the state was greatly influenced, in turn, by a population it viewed as passe.
Dvorianskaia pamiat' describes a vibrant community of former members of the Russian nobility who socialized, lived, and worked in a country that considered them "class alien elements." According to Chuikina, the descendants of the old nobility lived in a kind of microsociety (mikroobshchestvo) that existed distinct from but not hostile to the larger Soviet community (151). The picture she paints is one of normalization rather than disruption, accommodation rather than opposition, preservation and endurance rather than defeat. We see a group that nurtured a dual identity that incorporated things noble and Soviet. Children were raised with their grandparents, nannies, tutors, and others who transmitted many of the habits and values of the old nobility. The author offers little evidence here of an atomization of society under totalitarian dictatorship. (2) Rather, despite their vulnerability to repression, the descendants of the Russian aristocracy continued to socialize together and to offer each other economic support and mutual protection. Chuikina includes powerful illustrations of how informal networks of mutual support and protection existed even within a subgroup of the population that was a target of repression. Dangerous "ties" notwithstanding, the former aristocracy continued to prefer its own company.
Chuikina catalogues the former nobility's individual experiences and responses to Soviet power. One such response was astute, apolitical accommodation. For example, many academics chose not to emigrate but to carve out aniche in the new society because they believed that their career would more likely advance in Soviet Russia than abroad. As a group, the noble members of the Academy of Sciences were neither defenders of the tsarist regime nor supporters of the Bolshevik government. According to the author, their interests were professional and material rather than political. They saw it as their duty to preserve the high quality of Russian scientific institutes and schools. With little attention to politics, these academics continued as usual to pursue their career ambitions under the new regime. Chuikina describes an old nobility that reconciled itself to the new regime, tried to understand the new rules of the game in order to survive, and sought a secure and comfortable existence to the degree possible.
The author asserts that for members of the former Russian nobility, discrimination and favoritism coexisted. An intellectual elite, they acquired special status in Soviet society. She argues that Soviet leaders appreciated the usefulness of the educated nobility and specifically instructed purge commissions in the 1930s not to target "former people" who were useful. Chuikina states that the purging of the Soviet bureaucracy was often an act of economic rationalization "masked by ideology" in which redundant workers were dismissed through a kind of recertification process (56). The assertion is consistent with her larger point that education and skill represented a kind of protective armor that shielded many members of the former nobility from political attack. While this was probably true in some cases, members of the former bourgeoisie were largely purged for ideological reasons alone. (3) Alien elements could not be trusted. In September 1930, while waging an attack against so-called wreckers in industry, Stalin wrote, "we know everything about the intrigues of the bourgeoisie and its robber-arsonists and wreckers, and we plan to rake them over the coals." (4)
Chuikina views the Russian nobility as a supremely adaptable and resourceful group. Under the old regime, its members held various jobs (in the government and the military, as writers and publishers) and had a range of hobbies, including art and music. The skills, knowledge, and abilities of this broadly educated elite enabled them to adapt well as political circumstances changed. In the 1920s and 1930s, one could find members of the former nobility in all ranks of society and in all professions, although the nobility tended to be concentrated in certain professions, namely, in museums, theaters, and the academy (universities, institutes, the Academy of Sciences). A recurring theme in the book is that the educated former nobles possessed a social network that facilitated their adaptation in the revolutionary period.
Although her principal focus is the nobility's survival and transformation in the Soviet era, Chuikina emphasizes the variety of individual experiences. Some people were able to overcome obstacles and discrimination, others were not. Two members of the same family could have vastly different fates. The author also describes the significance of age and gender as predictors of future success. She notes that the most vulnerable group within the former nobility were elderly or middle-aged women who lacked work experience, were deprived of rights to a pension or a ration card, and made money selling their personal items on the streets or singing arias for a few kopeks. Chuikina states that the ability of the older generation (born 1870-90) to adapt to new Soviet circumstances was greatly limited. Even the most loyal and useful specialists became the victims of Soviet terror, and their quality of life declined relative to the prerevolutionary period. Those who did quite well in Soviet society still could not forget what they had lost--their relatives, friends, and family homes.
The next generation fared much better. Chuikina asserts, "the transformation [rekonversiia] of the active part of those descendants of the nobility born in the 1910s was successful" (91). Educated in the 1920s and 1930s, these noble children acquired professional and social status that was equivalent to the prerevolutionary status of their parents. This fact was responsible for the group's political loyalty and patriotism. The author stresses, however, that their success in the Soviet era was not entirely their own doing. According to Chuikina, the parents deserve a lot of credit. It was this older generation that engineered their family's transformation from prerevolutionary nobility to Soviet intelligentsia. Despite the discrimination that these former people confronted, they raised their children for the new Soviet society. At the same time, they attempted to reproduce the elite education and upbringing that they themselves had enjoyed in prerevolutionary Russia. Chuikina's research is distinctly focused on those families that preserved noble traditions yet did not reject Soviet power. For example, the author argues that the decision of many parents to home-school their children was practical rather than political, but this assertion may simply reflect the likelihood that her elderly interviewees were disinclined to state otherwise. Andrei Sakharov, who was home-schooled as a young man in the late 1920s and early 1930s, wrote: "I have little doubt that the home-study program was Uncle Ivan's idea." (5) Sakharov's twice-arrested Uncle Ivan was highly critical of the Soviet system and of Stalin, and he did not believe that children should waste their time in Soviet schools. Perhaps descendants of the former nobility were reticent about their own Uncle Ivans. Chuikina conducted exhaustive research with a variety of rich sources.
She describes her main source as the autobiographical narrative which she locates in family chronicles, letters, published and unpublished memoirs, and extensive personal interviews. Between 1997 and 2002, the author interviewed 23 members of the former Russian nobility, mostly women (20 out of 23 interviewees), including a few who lived in Paris. Chuikina's source base, however, is broader than the 23 interviews suggest. In 1997-2002, the author also participated in several interview projects sponsored by the University of Helsinki. The inclusion of these biographical narratives brings her total number of interviewees to nearly 100, although many were not members of the nobility but their neighbors and friends. The book also includes wonderful photos from personal and family archives.
The story that the book tells is, to a large degree, a function of Chuikina's remarkable sources. It is not indicated whether the family chronicles and autobiographies were penned long after the 1920s and 1930s, but there is no ambiguity in the case of interviews. Here, there is a great distance between the speaker and the period. The author interviewed many of St. Petersburg's elderly residents whose recollection of the 1920s and 1930s has been filtered through decades of subsequent Soviet experiences. Catherine Merridale worked with similar subjects, and described the difficulty she encountered in her interviews with Gulag survivors in the late 1990s. Merridale noted that large parts of these personal stories came "in a fixed, prepackaged form" that included "generality, chunks of Solzhenitsyn, rumor, snatches from the Book of Revelation" as well as "well-rehearsed, state-sanctioned fable." (6) Despite such challenges, interview sources such as those used by Merridale and Chuikina can be extremely insightful, but assessing their value and limitations is no easy task. Apart from the problem of memory, there is the issue of silence. The author notes that more than half of the former members of the Russian nobility whom she approached declined to be interviewed. She acknowledges that her interview sample includes few noble men and women who failed to adapt to Soviet circumstances or whose entire families had been deported. It appears that individuals whose relatives experienced repression because of their social origin were reluctant to talk. There is a silence that surrounds terror, as Russian historians know. Yet the story of the Russian nobility in the Soviet era is not exclusively a tale of terror, but one of adaptation, conformity, and compromise. This is the story that Chuikina tells so well.
Dept. of History
University of South Florida, Tampa
4202 East Fowler Ave.
Tampa, FL 33620-8100 USA
(1) See, for example, Sergei Golitsyn, Zapiski utselevshego (Moscow: Orbita, Moskovskii filial, 1990); Serge Schmemann, Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village (New York: Vintage, 1999); and I. S. Rat'kovskii, Krasnyi terror i deiatel'nost' VChK v 1918godu (St. Petersburg: Izdatel'stvo Sankt-Peterburgskogo universiteta, 2006).
(2) In her study of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, Hannah Arendt argued that totalitarian dictatorship injected suspicion into personal relationships and thereby created atomized individuals (Tatalitarianism: Part Three of "The Origins of Totalitarianism" [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968], 172-76). In addition to Chuikina, other scholars of the Soviet Union have challenged this notion in recent years. See, for example, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Tear Off the Masks! Identity and Imposture ih Twentieth-Century Russia (Princeton, NJ: Princiton University Press, 2005), 222; and Oleg V. Khlevniuk, Tie History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 342.
(3) See, for example, Golfo Alexopoulos, Stalin's Outcasts: Aliens, Citizens, and the Soviet State, 1926-1936 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), 13-17, 180-82; Fitzpatrick, Tear Off the Masks, 91-93, 232; and Oleg V. Khlevniuk, In Stalin's Shadow: The Career of "Sergo" Ordzhonikidze (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1995), 81-85.
(4) Lars T. Lih, Oleg V. Naumov, and Oleg V. Khlevniuk, eds., Stalin's Letters to Molotov (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 214.
(5) Andrei Sakharov, Memoirs (New York: Knopf, 1990), 27.
(6) Catherine Merridale, Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 189-90. On doing oral history in Russia, see also Donald J. Raleigh, "Introduction," in Russia's Sputnik Generation: Soviet Baby Boomers Talk about Their Lives, ed. Raleigh (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 1-24.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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