The terrible persecution of the aristocracy by the Bolsheviks

The release of the 8-episode UK limited TV series A Gentleman in Moscow, based on the 2016 novel by Amor Towles, starring Ewan McGregor as Count Alexander Rostov and premiering on Paramount+ on 29 March 2024, highlights the persecution of the Russian aristocracy and nobility by the Bolsheviks. This persecution lasted since after the Russian Revolution of 1917 until the significant reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s. It was only then that the surviving aristocrats and their descendants regained more extensive rights and freedoms.

This persecution was severe and widespread, for the Bolsheviks regarded the aristocracy as class enemies and representatives of what they called the old oppressive regime who needed to be eliminated, and they did not stop until their near eradication.

In the years following their seizure of power in 1917, the Bolsheviks carried out widespread confiscations of aristocratic wealth, land, and property, without compensation. Tens of thousands of nobles were arrested, imprisoned, and executed, especially during the Red Terror campaign of 1918.

Discrimination and repression became institutionalised under communist rule. The Bolshevik government disenfranchised them, stripped away their civil rights, and barred them from good jobs and education. During the Soviet man-made famine of 1932-33, the aristocracy in Ukraine and other areas suffered terribly from the starvation policy directed against them.

The authorities kept aristocrats who had escaped the initial Red Terror under close surveillance, always threatening them with arrest. The lucky ones fled Russia, becoming exiles and emigrants. The unfortunate remnants of the Russian nobility were finally allowed to return to Soviet cities in the 1930s. Still, they remained impoverished and marginalised by the regime for decades afterwards.

The destruction of Russia’s centuries-old aristocracy was one of the most culturally profound consequences of the Bolshevik revolution, and their repression knew few limits in the 1920s and 1930s. They earned the derisive nickname ‘former people,’ which summed up the total marginalization, dehumanization, and disenfranchisement that the nobility experienced under Bolshevik rule.

They were forced to wear distinctive clothing, such as an armband, to mark them publicly as ‘former people’. They were taunted, abused, and spat on in public by Bolshevik supporters because of their former aristocratic status. They were constantly subjected to grotesque humiliations and abuses, including these.

Bolshevik officials often raped noble ladies or forced them and their daughters into prostitution. Despite their education, aristocrats were assigned to hard manual labour such as street cleaning and their children barred from higher education or decent employment because of their family’s former status, suffering from severe food insecurity and malnutrition because of discrimination in food rationing systems. The term “former people” deliberately denied the humanity and human rights of these formerly privileged Russians.

As well as targeting individuals, the Bolsheviks embarked on a systematic campaign to erase aristocratic culture, heritage, and identity. They looted, destroyed, or converted artworks, libraries, and mansions and outlawed old aristocratic traditions and customs. Their innocent children were denied education and opportunities simply because of their family lineage, perpetuating marginalisation.

The murderous Bolsheviks sent all aristocrats to the brutal Soviet Gulag forced labour camps, where they faced harsh conditions, hard labour, and high death rates alongside other ‘enemies of the revolution’.

I highly recommend “Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy” by Douglas Smith. This well-known and widely respected book examines the fate of Russian nobility after the Bolshevik Revolution. In it, Smith explores the lives of several prominent aristocratic families and their experiences during the tumultuous period of Soviet rule. It is wrenching.

He mentions the fate of members of some of the wealthiest and most influential families in pre-revolutionary Russia who could not flee into exile. He tells of their lives and fortunes dramatically altered by the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath. “Former People provides a compelling account of their struggles, losses and resilience in the face of revolutionary upheaval and social transformation. The Golitsyns, the Sheremetevs, the Yusupovs, the Obolenskys, the Stroganovs, the Galitzines, the Trubetskoys, the Naryshkinsand the Belosselskys-Belozerskys are some of the families that appear in this splendid book. 

In short, the Bolshevik onslaught targeted not just aristocratic wealth and power but their very cultural existence and identity across generations through systematic violence and repression on an immense scale. This systematic persecution amounted to genocide against the aristocracy by the Bolshevik government in its crusade against the old order. Its legacy still looms large in Russia.

Genocide is defined as the intentional destruction of a people, in whole or in part, as defined by the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention. This persecution has had traumatic effects on several generations of former aristocratic families, scarring them to this day. When will the current Russian government apologise for these past crimes?

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