'Mao: The Real Story' and 'Former People'

Russian, Chinese lives lost in the rush to a new brotherhood.

Mao: The Real Story By Alexander V. Pantsov with Steven I. Levine Simon & Schuster 755 pages Former People By Douglas Smith Farrar, Straus & Giroux 464 pages

“Communism is not love,” Mao Zedong once famously pronounced. “Communism is a hammer which we use to crush the enemy.”

When cold-war-era Westerners heard those words, they trembled, assuming that the Chinese leader aimed to flatten them. But two new books out this fall emphasize the horrific degree to which – in both China and the Soviet Union – it was their fellow countrymen that the Communists destroyed instead.

Former People, by Douglas Smith, tells the long-overdue story of the many ways in which the Russian aristocracy was crushed by the Soviet hammer and sickle. Because the subject was forbidden in the Soviet Union until the Gorbachev era, Smith says his is “the first book in any language to examine the fate of the nobility in the decades following the Russian Revolution....” 

Soviet leaders decided early on that, postrevolution, Russian nobles should simply cease to exist, and so they dubbed them “former people.” (Nicholas Nabokov, exiled noble and father of novelist Vladimir Nabokov, wrote that “former people” was just another way of saying “not yet slaughtered.”)

This once-cosseted group (about 1.9 million people or 1.5 percent of the Russian population at the time of the revolution) almost overnight found themselves reviled and powerless. Their servants turned on them, their property was confiscated, and they were jailed and killed by the score.

Some hid jewels and coins in the hems of their clothes or their children’s toys and tried to flee, but staying and running were equally dangerous. Smith notes the fate of a pair of Russian princes: One was killed at home in his manor house while the other was beaten to death at a railroad station. 

Many who stayed felt trapped, but others simply loved their country too much to leave it. Smith quotes a source who estimates that, four years after the 1917 revolution, about 10,000 noble families – 12 percent of the prerevolutionary nobility – were still in Russia.

Many of the stories Smith tells are tragic, but there are also instances of great courage and resolve. There were servants who gave their lives to help the families to whom they still felt loyal, and there were aristocrats who bravely marched off to labor camps and learned to harvest cabbages and haul garbage with the best of them.

“People who had never been near a stove learned to cook,” wrote Alexandra Tolstoy, daughter of the novelist, who was turned out of her father’s estate. “They learned to do washing, to sweep streets ... what [else] was to be done?”

In China, tragic stories are as close as any thorough accounting of the life of Mao. Academics Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine are the authors of Mao: The Real Story, the latest major biography of “the Great Helmsman” and the first to take advantage of the recent opening of Russian archives containing a massive collection of documents on the history of international communism.

In their introduction, Pantsov and Levine assure readers that their account of Mao’s life is more balanced than that found in the 2005 bestseller “Mao: The Unknown Story,” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, which charged Mao with more peacetime deaths than Hitler and Stalin combined.

Pantsov and Levine are not as unfailingly negative as are Chang and Halliday. They credit Mao with genuine leadership skills and at least some degree of idealism. But in the end, the personal picture that they paint of Mao from youth on up – “harsh, bitter, and headstrong” and generally oblivious to the suffering of others – coincides in many ways with that of “Mao: The Unknown Story.”

And when it comes to the most grievous of what Pantsov and Levine call Mao’s “numerous errors” – the massive Chinese deaths from starvation during the Great Leap Forward – they, like Chang and Halliday, suggest the death toll could be as high as 30 million or 40 million.

Both books end – like much of the communism itself – with ironic twists of fate. Pantsov and Levine’s biography closes noting that a granddaughter of Mao’s recently graduated from an American university with an MBA. Smith’s final pages are set in a Russian T.G.I. Friday’s, sharing chicken Caesar salad and bottles of Perrier with Nikolay Trubetskoy, the descendant of two prominent families of “former people.” Trubetskoy’s ancestors include a Russian count who – bravely? foolishly? – refused to abandon his country when the Soviets took power. 

“We have no present,” Count Sergei told his son, “but we have a past and we must preserve it in the name of the future.” The patriotic aristocrat died shortly thereafter, but Trubetskoy – today a self-made executive – is that future.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s books editor.

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