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Modern Russia and the Russian Aristocracy by Nikolai Tolstoy

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Modern Russia and the Russian Aristocracy

Since there is clearly no possibility of the Russian aristocracy recovering its pre-revolutionary power and prestige, it may well be asked whether it possesses a role at all in the current dire state of Russian affairs. In two major respects the Russian nobility differed from its Western European counterparts, and those differences are still felt today. First, Russia had never known a feudal system. Second, she never evolved a well-established and independent middle-class. In both respects this was a tragedy for the evolving Empire. Parliamentary constitutional government without security of property and an educated, financially secure bourgeoisie must remain essentially insecure.

Despite this, the Russian nobility’s contribution to high culture remains surely without parallel in any other country. As Geoffrey Hosking commented, “what other European nobility could boast a cultural output to match Pushkin, Lermontov, Tiutchev, Turgenev, Tolstoi, Glinka, Musorgskii, and Rakhmaninov?” This list could easily be expanded, for instance by adding the names of Rimsky-Korsakov and Nabokov.

At a broader level, 19th century Russian nobles were generally highly cultured, speaking French or (to a lesser extent) German and, later in the century, English. A fundamental distinction, too, should be drawn between the great aristocracy and those who technically bore the rank in consequence of Peter the Great’s Table of Ranks. Only the former comprised an aristocracy in the customary use of the term.

At the time of writing, horrific crimes perpetrated by Putin’s Red Army in Ukraine have alienated many people across the world from everything Russian, at times to an irrational degree. Yet ironically it was the Bolshevik regime—the very regime that formed Putin—that abolished the name of Russia at its inception. In order to understand the current war in Ukraine, it is necessary to recognize that Putin’s project is not rooted in the long and storied history of traditional Russia, but in the much more sordid history of the USSR. While Putin and his government may have explicitly distanced themselves from the Soviet Union’s Marxism and atheism, in reality they are still motivated by many of the same malign purposes. 

For many years, it was only among the million and more Russians driven into exile that Russian culture and religion were preserved. As Solzhenitsyn remarked,

Russia Abroad—that great spiritual world, in which Russian philosophy was flourishing, there were Bulgakov, Berdyayev, Lossky, whose Russian art enchanted the world, there were Rachmaninov, Chaliapin, Benois, Diaghilev, Pavlova, the Don Cossack Chorus of Zharov, profound studies of Dostoevsky were being undertaken there (at a time when he was generally reviled by us), that the incredible writer Nabokov-Sirin existed out there, that Bunin himself was still alive and had been writing for these twenty years.

Today, the great majority of Russian noble families has become assimilated into the cultures of their host countries. Yet it must be rare that they do not remain profoundly attached to their roots. That the centuries-old achievements of their order had not been forgotten, despite decades of persecution and denigration under the Soviet regime, is illustrated by the state of affairs immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. An amusing incident was cited to me by the late Prince Georgi Wassiltchikov, a former CIA officer who visited his ancestral homeland at the time of collapse of Soviet power, flying to the Caucasus with a Party boss on a business trip, his companion jovially threw an arm over Georgi’s shoulders, exclaiming: ‘So you see, Prince, your lot are now in fashion!’

It is not widely known that immediately following the Soviet collapse a conference of the Russian nobility was organised by Moscow to discover what the exiles might contribute to the newly liberalized government. My father, who as a boy in 1920 escaped the Red Terror by the skin of his teeth, was among those invited. It is gratifying, too, that the College of Heralds was revived in 1991, under the patronage of the late Grand Duke Vladimir, heir to the Russian Imperial Throne.

In the case of my own family, a reunion of the Tolstoys has for some time taken place every other year at Leo Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana. While some live in Russia, the majority travel from homes around the globe. Thus, I live in England with my family, while my brother Andrei resided in Moscow until the recent invasion of Ukraine.

A few years after the fall of Communism, I was invited by President Yeltsin to inspect the secret Russian archives in order to understand better the British Government’s concern to suppress evidence of the betrayal of over a million Russian prisoners of war and refugees to Stalin after the War. Before being driven in a ministerial car to inspect the various holdings, I was invited to meet General Dmitri Volkogonov, who exercised overall control over the state archives. During his explanation of arrangements for my inspection, he paused to remark, “I hope you can see that your name still carries weight in our country.” 

I mention this brief exchange because I believe it suggests one way in which Russian nobles in particular, and White Russian émigrés generally, can contribute to a post-Putin restoration of Russia’s position in the world. Nothing is more tiresome than to read of cancellation of concerts by Russian composers and removal of books by Russian authors. How many times is it necessary to explain that composers and authors of genius like Rachmaninov and Nabokov were driven from their own country to live in permanent exile after 1917? And what connection can there be between Tchaikovsky or Turgenev and the Bolshevik regime and Putin’s subsequent injustices? The extent to which the USSR, as well as Putin’s current attempt to reclaim the USSR’s former ‘glory,’ represent a cruel aberration in Russian cultural history is revealed by the fact that Dostoevsky’s works were prohibited for decades by the Soviet government and condemned out of hand or ignored by Soviet intellectuals.

Contrary to what many Western journalists and politicians persistently assume, there exists little continuity between Imperial Russia and the Soviet regime, just as there was no ideological or political identity between pre-war France and the Vichy regime. (On the other hand, it is an ironical fact that both the Soviet Union and Vichy were in large part the creation of successive German governments). No-one seeks to bring back the pre-revolutionary order in Russia, but it is dangerous and false to assume that Russia has remained an incorrigible tyranny throughout her history, and that Putin is but the latest in a succession of oppressive despots. Indeed, the assertion plays strongly into Putin’s hands, being broadly what he himself claims.

Members of the Russian nobility are in a strong position to correct damaging misrepresentations of Russian history. Over more than a millennium of Russian history, we find the same names involved in public events century after century. Like Hungary up the Great War, Russian society was profoundly aristocratic. Particularly striking is the relative exclusivity and continuity of noble names. The fact that every male member of a Russian noble family (and every female, until her marriage) bears the same title tends to a misconception that there existed a proliferation of noble families. In reality, the contrary is the case, as is illustrated by the surprising fact that fewer hereditary titles were created during three centuries of the Russian Empire than were created in the single decade of its Napoleonic counterpart. 

Thus, Russian nobles are, I suggest, particularly well-placed to speak out in their host countries against the more egregious misrepresentations of their country’s history being currently banded about. Their very names attest to a richer and more promising era. It may fairly be asserted that each noble family represents a colourful and recognizable strand of Russian Imperial history. Thus, when the Pushkin State Museum hosted an exhibition devoted to our family in 2009, its massive catalogue was entitled The History of the Tolstoy Family—The History of Russia. Similarly-titled exhibits could easily be assembled focusing on many other well-known Russian families.

Reverting to the future role of the Russian nobility at home and abroad, it is a regrettable fact that bad history is all too often dangerous ‘history.’ Originating from ignorance rather than malice, the frequently-encountered assertion that Russia is endemically a land of tyrants and oppressors leaves the country with little hope of amelioration of the current dire political and economic situation. For Russian despots following the Revolution this represents a decidedly helpful belief.

Although rectifying such misapprehensions is primarily the task of historians, I suggest that the Russian nobility, spread as it is across much of the globe, should seize every opportunity of politely exposing historical error and reminding the world that the Red dictatorship has always ruled by force and lies, and possesses no legitimate title to rule the Russian lands.

A couple of instances may serve to illustrate the point. While the Putin regime denounces Ukrainian resistance to oppression as ‘Nazi’ or ‘Fascist,’ it is ironical that Western commentators likewise employ ‘Fascist’ as a term of opprobrium for Putin’s brutal armed forces, and ‘Tsar’ in a misguided attempt to denigrate the dictator. These misnomers are not merely wrong, but unwittingly serve in part to let Putin off the hook. The only country to experience genuine Fascism was Mussolini’s Italy. During the same period that the Soviet regime slaughtered millions of its own citizens, Fascist Italy sentenced twenty-five people to execution. For all its manifest iniquities, Fascism differed radically from Communism, in that it was certainly authoritarian—but not totalitarian. Major institutions of the pre-Fascist Italian state, such as the monarchy and the Church, were preserved and eventually contributed to its downfall. The secret police (OVRA) never practised torture, an abuse which (it goes without saying) has permeated Soviet punitive practice from the beginning. In Italy, some 10,000 political opponents of Mussolini were exiled to islands off the Italian coast, where they underwent relatively mild custodial treatment. At the same time in the USSR, millions of helpless victims were transported into the hell of Gulag.

Ironically, until Mussolini eventually fell under Hitler’s spell, Fascist Italy and Soviet Russia enjoyed warm relations. In 1922, Mussolini’s Italy was the first state to extend formal recognition to the Soviet Union. In 1933, both countries entered into a solemn Pact of Friendship.

Where Fascism drew a line, the Soviet Union overstepped it with enthusiasm. It was Lenin who introduced the first slave labour camps into Russia, and these camps swiftly evolved into the monstrous system of Gulag; created the Red Terror as a fundamental instrument of the state; banished every manifestation of political, religious, and social independence; and set in motion malevolent plans to bolshevise the world. From 1939 to 1941, Stalin gleefully entered into open military and economic alliance with Hitler, both countries incidentally identifying themselves as “Socialist.”

Horrors unleashed on the world by Communism massively outstrip crimes perpetrated by Fascism on a scale so large as to make any comparison futile.

It is to be feared that the lingering love affair between influential elements of a shallow intelligentsia in the West with Soviet Communism still exerts an unconscious but potent influence on much media commentary. In short, civilized Russians, especially those living abroad, should vigorously call for a spade to be called a spade. Fascism has been dead to the world since 1945 and bears no relevance whatever to the hideous crimes perpetrated by Putin’s barbaric hordes in Ukraine. 

It is Communism that remains the relentless foe of civilization, and White Russians are better placed than most to point this out.

Again, identifying Putin as a ‘Tsar’ distorts historical perception to an even greater degree. No Russian Army in pre-revolutionary modern times ever behaved with the savagery practised by all Red Armies since the Revolution. Under Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, the Red Terror became a leading instrument for imposing Soviet power on their defenceless victims at home and abroad. The closest parallel to the barbarous behaviour of Putin’s new Red Army in Ukraine is that of its predecessor in 1945, during the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States, Poland, and Eastern Germany. Far from turning a blind eye to the tidal wave of murder and rape inflicted on civilian populations, Stalin gloated over Red Army crimes.

With reference to this grim subject, it should be recalled that it was Tsar Nicholas II who summoned the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 in order to regularize the conduct of war so far as was possible to accord with humanity and decency. When, in 1929, the Geneva Convention further refined the Hague provisions with regard to humane treatment of prisoners of war, the Soviet Union was the sole country of note to decline participation. As a direct consequence, millions of Red Army troops who fell into Nazi hands died in horrible conditions. This outcome was accepted with delight by Stalin, who correctly anticipated that a high proportion of his repressed subjects would otherwise have seized the first opportunity of fighting against their country’s oppressors.

The use of ‘Tsar’ as a term of opprobrium for Putin is as historically inapt as it is ideologically incongruous. I hope all Russians living outside Putin’s prison-house will challenge the foolish euphemism whenever it is employed. Fascism and National Socialism ended their sordid existences more than two generations ago, and it is Communism that remains the enemy of mankind, which, if not checked, will destroy civilization worldwide.

What has united the civilized world against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is less the unprovoked aggression (evil though it is) than the savage barbarities perpetrated by his Red Army against the population as a whole. Soldiers rarely behave like saints, but I am unaware of any major atrocities authorized by the pre-revolution Russian Army during the Great War. In contrast, use of overt terror on a mass scale was introduced as an instrument of conquest by the Soviet regime from the outset. Communist barbarity derived in the main, not from deep roots in Russian psyche and history, but from the alien and imported ideology of Karl Marx, with its emphasis on class war to the death, and liquidation of entire populations. Today’s war against Ukraine is the child of this communist barbarity.

Today’s Russian aristocracy, at home and abroad, can play a significant part in resisting the dire threat of communism, whose legacy continues to unfold in the tragic events of our own day. In the happy event of its downfall, Russian aristocrats can assist in restoring a Russia which draws on the best, not the worst, of her historical achievements. I also believe that it would be a blessing, both for Russia and the world, were the country to enjoy the advantages of a constitutional monarchy, such as have been long enjoyed by the more prosperous and stable countries of Europe.

Count Nikolai Dmitrievich Tolstoy-Miloslavsky is an Anglo-Russian historian and author who writes under the name Nikolai Tolstoy.