Collective Memory and Reconversion of Elite: Former Nobles in Soviet Society after 1917

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Collective Memory and Reconversion of Elite: Former Nobles in Soviet Society after 1917
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    C HAPTER T WO  C OLLECTIVE M EMORY AND R  ECONVERSION OF E LITE : F ORMER  N OBLES IN S OVIET S OCIETY AFTER 1917 S OFIA T CHOUIKINA   The fate of Russian nobility, a group that had been suppressed and nearly liquidated after the October Revolution, began to interest Russian society in the late 1980s, which was a period of historical reexamination. This newly found interest inspired a wide scope of social action: the previously obscure memoirs of aristocrats were found and published; genealogical research became widespread among the descendants of nobles; the post-Soviet nouveau riche began to imitate the lifestyle of  pre–revolutionary nobility; and some decrepit palaces and estates were reconstructed, or even in very rare cases the ancestral estates were privatized by the descendants of owners. In several Russian towns associations of descendants of nobility were formed. Provincial museums augmented their exhibits with information about the noble families who had historically resided in the area. Small towns constructed statues commemorating their old regime mayors. Émigrés of noble descent began to return to Russia and to participate in the reconstruction of the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Pinçon and Pinçon-Charlot, 1997). The return of the memory of nobility to the social scene was all the more spectacular, considering that in the preceding decades it was completely absent from the public life of society. In the interwar period, from 1917 to 1941, the pre–revolutionary elites were often mentioned in newspapers as negative personages, remnants of the old order, subject to discrimination and repression. After World War II these “former people” disappeared entirely from public discourse. Post-Soviet appeals to the memory of the Russian aristocracy rarely alluded to the experience of those descendants of nobility who actually lived their lives in the USSR. While currently the image of the Russian pre–revolutionary elite is very important as an invented tradition (Hellberg-Hirn   2003) the consequences of the social suppression of nobility within the structure of Soviet society have been largely ignored. Historical research has focused on the adaptation strategies of the old elites and other marginalized groups of Soviet society in the 1920s–30s on the basis of archival documents (Channon 1987; Rendle 2008; Smirnova.2003). My article highlights the  process of the dissolution of the former nobility in Soviet society from a sociological  perspective, exploring the creative potential of collective memory and its ability to form social groups and boundaries. This study seeks to understand how the collective memory of the tsarist regime influenced the adaptation paths of the former nobles in the post–revolutionary Russia; the impact of the memory of survival in the Stalinist Russia in forming new identities and social groups in the postwar era; and finally the echoes of the pre–revolutionary elite’s transformation in contemporary Russian society.    My analysis centers on twenty-three in-depth biographical interviews, which I conducted in the mid-1990s with women and men born in the 1910s into noble families. I also exploit other autobiographical sources produced by that generation— memoirs, letters, family chronicles—contrasting them with the interviews and memoirs of representatives of other social strata who were young in the 1930s. 1  My respondents, who were interviewed in their waning years, were born on the eve of the October Revolution, witnessing the demise of the old regime in their childhood. Their youth corresponded to Stalin’s modernization of the 1930s; and their adult lives  played out in postwar Soviet society. This generation of nobility willingly or unwillingly contributed to the formation of a new social structure, having become an inseparable part of it. Not only had they integrated into this society as individuals, but they also formed a particular social milieu within Soviet society. This research is inspired by the discussion among French sociologists about the role of collective memory in the long-term reproduction and reconversion of the old elites. 2  This discussion makes use of Maurice Halbwachs’s concepts of “social frames of memory” and “collective memory,” (Halbwachs   1992) while the concept of “reconversion” of social position issued from the theoretical perspective of Pierre Bourdieu (Bourdieu, Boltanski, and de Saint-Martin 1973). The concept of “reconversion” explains the mechanisms of indirect reproduction of social position of an elite threatened by a social decline. Reconversion is most often effectuated under the pressure of circumstances, following from the impossibility of reproduction of the class position by ordinary means. In this theoretical approach the class position is defined by the volume and the structure of capital (social, economic, symbolic, and cultural). Reacting to decline, individuals and social groups tend to mobilize the existing capital in order to transform their mode of existence and obtain some missing resources and gradually their social position changes. When statistically a social or professional group significantly diminishes or disappears, it means that  behind these figures hides the process of reconversion by hundreds or thousands of  people. 3  French sociological studies of elites from the 1990s provide me with a detailed empirical account of the process of reconversion of the descendants of old elites in the twentieth century and the role of collective memory in this process (Saint-Martin 1993; Mension-Rigau 1990, 1998; Le Wita 1998; Pinçon and Pinçon-Charlot 1989; 1995). A collective belief in the social existence of a group, despite social change and the loss of privileges, and a belief in the group’s srcinality and superiority form the  background for the construction of group boundaries and for the persistence of a model of education. An effective intergenerational transmission helps to effectuate a long-term reconversion of symbolic, social, and cultural capital into economic capital, and thus maintain a relatively high social position and avoid decline. In this sense, collective memory can be seen by and of itself, as a form of capital. Despite the fact that the life paths of the European nobility and upper-class  bourgeoisie in the twentieth century are incomparable to their Russian counterparts 1  For these purposes I used interviews from the archive of Renvall Institute for Area Studies (Helsinki), conducted in 1997–98 by K.Gerasimova and myself. 2  I use the word elite  in a general sense, without referring to discussions about meritocracy, democracy or power elite. The term “old elite” I use to designate the descendants of the privileged families of the ancien regime  (nobility, gentry, catholic and protestant bourgeoisie) whose descendants belong to the upper class or to the upper strata of the middle class and for whom family memory functions as a sort of resource in their social life. 3  For example, instead of inheriting a family business, the descendants of entrepreneurs can invest in a quality education, obtain prestigious diplomas, and become top managers. Thus the number of entrepreneurs would decline, whereas a group of managers would emerge. This case is described in Bourdieu, Boltanski, De Saint-Martin,  Les stratégies de reconversion.      (given the difference in their respective historical situations), this theoretical approach  proves useful in understanding the Russian case. The autobiographic sources, especially interviews, made possible the study of functioning of the memory of stigmatized and disenfranchised elites as a collective representation and as a social  practice. I will first examine the characteristics of the noble memory under the tsarist regime and the first wave of reconversions in the 1880s, then I will pass on to the study of the coping strategies of the elder generation of nobles (parents and grandparents of my respondents). In the third section I will describe the pattern of education at home in the Soviet period based on the collective memory of the old education model, then I will examine the influence of Soviet educational institutions and the formation of a new milieu of Soviet society on the base of the old elites. Finally I compare the family memory of the Russian former nobles with their French counterparts. Noble Memory and the First Wave of Reconversion at the End of the Nineteenth and Beginning of the Twentieth Century There were numerous and varied aspects of noble collective memory at the end of the nineteenth century: genealogy and family history, the ancestral estate, all kinds of memorial objects, configuration of relations within the milieu (neighbor network in the provinces, network of alumni, balls, etc.). All these different forms of collective memory served as family memory, because the extended family was a nucleus in which all the activities intersected. Of course, by the end of the nineteenth century, as was observed later in the Soviet period, some nobles consciously broke relations with their milieu of srcin, but the majority of individuals tended to rely on social relations and thus reproduced the collective forms of living where the instrumentalization of the past played a central role. Transmission of family memory was an indispensable part of the process of upbringing and education, as a family’s past was itself a status symbol. The stories of glorious ancestors told to children—which were often illustrated by portraits hanging on the walls of manorial estates—spoke of notable, often glorious, events in which ancestors had taken part. The moral of these stories was that a young member of the family was predestined to serve the family and the country as did his relatives. The young listener was in turn later to become an example of virtue for future generations. Knowledge of genealogy, of the family’s coat of arms, and of well-known relatives all gave one the opportunity to be accepted into circles of people of same social  background. The average noble family history at the beginning of the twentieth century was not free of ambiguities. The last quarter of the nineteenth century was in many ways a critical period for the Russian nobility. With the abolition of serfdom in 1861 and the series of “great reforms” of the 1860s the strong position of agrarian elite was undermined and gave way to the development of capitalism in the country. The following decades saw significant changes in the economic condition of nobility and gentry; elite social classes of a new type began to form, and the estate of the landed gentry became more and more stratified; part of it gradually transformed into capitalist landowners, the other part was ruined. The less fortunate landowners migrated to the towns and cities, reconverted themselves into the “bourgeois”  professions, and dissolved into the urban educated middle classes. The fate of unprofitable noble estates was omnipresent in the imagination of the epoch, as is    reflected in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.  The high aristocracy also lived through a  period of crisis, as even the richest families who possessed multiple estates and could afford to live from land rent saw their fortunes decline and were forced to find new solutions to stabilize their status and income. Possible solutions included investments in natural resources, purchasing actions in or constructing factories and various companies, and last but not least being employed by the military or civil service. The traditional family order, even if it was still decidedly patriarchal, was destabilized as well. The economic crisis of nobility affected both men and women: while men were increasingly forced to seek gainful employment dowerless noblewomen faced decreasing marriage prospects. Whereas their sisters were often left in a state of celibacy, impoverished noble men sought the daughters of rich entrepreneurs with large dowries: fusion of nobility with the new elites was becoming commonplace. Schools for women became more numerous and diversified; in the period the first schools of higher learning (“courses”) for women were formed, providing instruction in history, literature, foreign languages, and medicine. Unmarried women increasingly worked and came to be financially autonomous rather than living as dependents within the extended family. Marriages based on love became more frequent, but were often confronted by resistance within the family. World War I, which took many men’s lives and stimulated women to start working outside family, struck once more at the traditional order (Meyer 1991). On the eve of the revolution, many occupations were still prohibited for the higher classes and could be practiced only as a hobby. The custom to opt for a traditional education and occupation (in jurisprudence, the military, or agriculture) was maintained to a large extent, but a modernist search for self-realization by profession  penetrated the noble milieus. The circle of acquaintances of both landed and urban nobility became more socially mixed. University students, professionals, and artists were received willingly as guests. The fusion of different milieus of the Russian educated strata was very active. Despite the evident crisis of the noble estate, it continued to exist; and not merely de jure. Prestigious schools and various mechanisms of social protection continued to reproduce social inequality and impede the rise of educated commoners in society. A large section of the noble estate tried at all costs to maintain their habitual lifestyle. Faced with economic decline and the rise of the new elites, symbolic markers creating appearance of nobility became extremely important. The instrumentalization of the  past played a crucial role in the justification of the nobility’s social status. The noble families mobilized all forms of memory in order to validate their privileges. At this time a noble was increasingly defined by how much he or she was anchored in tradition—by the influence of this tradition on his childhood, education, life path, and  biography. As difficult as the economic and political crises in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were, the symbolic superiority attached to the representatives of noble estate and their own sense of distinction had not been seriously challenged  before 1917. The wealthy bourgeoisie and non-noble bureaucrats attempted to copy the aristocratic lifestyle; the alternative bourgeois capitalist identity had not yet formed, therefore the bourgeoisie in Russia did not yet represent a social class with  political clout (Mironov 1999; Clowes, Kassow, and West 1991; Balzer 1996). The October Revolution brought about a total change in the symbolic order of Russian society. Former distinctions like a title, a famous family name, a graduation paper from a prestigious educational institution, the possession of real estate and landed     property turned into forms of “negative capital.” As a rule, the wealthier and more notable the family was under the old order, the more persecuted it was under the Soviet regime. Consequently, after 1917 gentlemen who did not emigrate and stayed willingly or unwillingly in the Soviet Union faced the problem how to survive, how to adapt to the new regime, what to be, with whom to associate, how to feel, and how to  bring up their children.
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