Book Review: Tattered Banners

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Book available from Paul Dry Books

Warning: some of what follows is pretty ugly and upsetting.

History books usually cover the sweep of important events that have a greater or lesser impact on the country or countries being written about. What one gets is an attempt by the historian to make sense of the decisions and motivations and actions of the people in power—or chasing power—who caused the sweep of events, and then to examine the changes that came about because of those decisions, motivations, and actions. A very few books will also touch on how those events affected the lives of ordinary citizens, but for the most part, the reality of that sweep of events—the trail of butchered civilians and raped women, destroyed towns, destroyed lives, and destroyed cultures—is either unspoken or obliquely mentioned only in passing, as if it were something so taken for granted as to not merit recording. So if you, as an ordinary citizen, wish to understand what the lives of earlier ordinary citizens were like in a given war, or a given revolution, or a given upheaval, you have to rely on the personal accounts of survivors or eyewitnesses. You may read in a history book that Stalin slaughtered twenty million of his own people, but it means nothing on a visceral, human level, because—as Stalin himself said—”a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” He should know.

Tattered Banners (https://www.pauldrybooks.com/products/tattered-banners) is a personal account, a memoir, but what makes it stand out is that the author was in the unique position of seeing certain events before, during, and after World War One and the revolution in Russia, from the pinnacle of the aristocratic heap, so that he witnessed not only the events as they occurred, but was able to provide a stark and horrifying contrast between the Imperial Russia that was and the socialist paradise it became.

The author, Colonel Paul Rodzianko, was the son of General Paul Rodzianko and Princess Marie Galitzine, heir to the fabled Stroganoff fortune. But those are just words. Perhaps you envision the glimpses you have gotten on television of the British Royal family, or the accounts you have read of the lifestyles of dot-com billionaires with multiple homes and private jets, but such people today only count as mildly prosperous members of the upper-middleclass compared to unimaginable wealth of the Russian aristocracy. General Rodzianko and Princess Marie were at the highest echelons of that aristocracy, related the Tsar and Tsarina and—in some ways—even richer. Colonel Rodzianko relates how the Tsarina once asked his mother, “Do not wear emeralds the same night as I do. Yours make mine look pale.”

Are you beginning to understand?

Yet wealth in Imperial Russia was counted in ways very different from what you or I or even any of today’s billionaires might think. Wealth wasn’t money in the bank or the stock market or a business; it was land and what that land could produce, and the Rodzianko-Galitzine-Stroganoff family owned incalculable stretches of some of the most productive land in all Russia.

How much land? Let me give you an idea.

A few years before the war, Rodzianko’s father, the General, decided to clear some tracts of forest that had been untouched since they were given to an ancestor by Ivan the Terrible (first Tsar of Russia from 1548 to 1584). During the cutting, the workers came across a clearing with nearly one thousand human skeletons and rusted bits and pieces of military gear. By sending bayonets and buttons to Paris they were able to identify the skeletons as the remains of an entire regiment of Napoleon’s soldiers who had gotten lost during the retreat from Moscow and died of cold and starvation in a forest so vast they were unable to find their way out, a forest so untouched by man that their bodies had lain undiscovered for almost one hundred years. Nearly one thousand men. That’s a large forest, and that was just one of the Rodzianko family’s many holdings.

In his memoir, the colonel displays much of the arrogance and sense of entitled superiority that you might expect from someone at the apex of the food chain in that privileged world, but he also makes a very compelling—and prescient, considering he wrote the book before World War Two and before the world understood the full extent of the Soviet government’s bloody excesses—argument that the peasants and serfs were far better off under the Tsar than they ever were under the Bolsheviks and the world’s first socialist state. His argument that the peasants on the unimaginably vast farms and estates his and other families owned were all well-fed, well-clothed, and owned their own homes is undoubtedly true. What he failed to recognize, in part because he lived in such a rarified bell-jar of wealth and probably never even saw it, was the urban poverty that helped drive the revolution. Unfortunately, socialism always levels the playing field not by raising up the lowest and most impoverished group, but by reducing everyone one to the lowest, most miserable level. Everyone, that is, save the small group of the new elite who have managed to consolidate all power and wealth into their own hands and who believe they alone hold the moral high ground.

All wars and revolutions are made up of at least as many atrocities as high goals and worthy ambitions. Even the accounts of our justly revered American revolution rarely mention the cruelty and licentiousness that occurred on both sides. But the Russian revolution took both sadism and bestiality to new levels. I will give you just one example.

The Colonel’s mother happened to be on one of their favorite estates when the Bolsheviks, the Red Army, swept through. Following their noble purpose of leveling the playing field and turning Russia into a socialist paradise, they hamstrung the family’s hundreds of horses and then burned them alive for the crime of having belonged to aristocrats.

Colonel Rodzianko’s early descriptions of the extravagant elegance of his own lifestyle and life at the Imperial Court as a member of the ultra-elite Corps des Pages and later the even more elite Chevalier Guard, make his later descriptions of the terrible privations of Russians of all classes even more appalling. To his credit, he makes light of the losses his family experienced and his own desperate efforts to stave off starvation and provide food for his family, in one case selling his few remaining horses and his car to pay a hotel bill and obtain food for his wife and children. He also rightly gives credit to the privileged and pampered wives and daughters of the aristocracy who proved themselves far better suited to survival than their husbands and fathers. The men learned only he arts of war: “For the bitter mercenary struggle for bread and butter that lay ahead they could not have been more pathetically equipped. Indeed, when the time came, the women of Russia adapted themselves skillfully, for they could sew, teach, open hat shops. But the remnant of officers who escaped could not join the armies of other nations, and that was all they were fit for.”

There were of course notable exceptions to that statement. Vladimir Nabokov is one of the most dramatic examples, having done tolerably well for himself, both as author and professor of comparative literature at Wellesley College, where one of his students was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Colonel Rodzianko earned his post-revolutionary bread and butter as a horse trainer in both England and Ireland, two countries where men pride themselves on their highly refined equestrian skills. Many lesser known aristocratic émigrés parlayed artistic and linguistic talents that were considered unexceptional in Imperial Russia into professional careers throughout Europe and the United States. My sister has a portrait and a bust of our mother as a young girl, both of which were done by an itinerant Russian émigré who had made his way to America with nothing but the skills all aristocrats were expected to have as hobbies in their native Russia. How did a generation of men and women come to have such highly developed talents and educations? To quote Rodzianko, “The Russian aristocracy was the most cosmopolitan in the world. We thought in Russian, spoke French and English between ourselves and used German for technical discussions…[snip]…Like all Russian children of our class we had to submit to hours of work under French and German tutors…”

Unlike most of the displaced Russian officers, Rodzianko was able to obtain a position the British Army, where he was assigned to help Great Britain in its (sadly) brief and abortive effort to fight the Bolsheviks in Siberia. In that capacity, he was one of the very few officers in the civilized world who went into the village (Ekaterinburg) where the Imperial family was murdered. His description of the terror of the peasants, the horror of what he saw and what he was able to learn of the Imperial family’s last days, the brutality with which they were treated and eventually shot and stabbed to death, and the crude attempts of the Bolsheviks to hide their actions and the bodies… It does not make for easy reading.

In an intentionally ironic footnote, he writes of being able to rescue the young prince’s spaniel, which somehow, miraculously, was not clubbed to death by the Bolsheviks soldiers as was the Grand Duchess Anastasia’s Pekinese. He took the spaniel, named ‘Joy’ by the murdered young prince, back to England and when it died, he had it buried with a tombstone aptly inscribed, “Here lies Joy.”

Based on recent news stories of the suppression of protests in Moscow, joy has not yet returned to Russia under the dictator Vladimir Putin, any more than it did under the Soviets, even after one-hundred years.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Tattered Banners”

  1. This is one of your finest reviews yet. It brings to mind the chapters in Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” which feature the sad tales of many Russian emigres after the Bolsheviks took power. Notably Boris, the former Russian army colonel who lives a semi-destitute life in Paris as a waiter. A lot of former dukes, princes, generals, officers, etc. found themselves having to adapt or die in foreign lands.

  2. I majored in History at Cincinnati and wrote my senior paper on the Peasant’s Crusade. I have always been amazed by how little “social history” makes its way into the books — for me, the life and the sweat and the blood and the tears is all about the actual people who lived during these historical times. Not much is said for these peasants who marched through foreign lands, hundreds of miles from their homes, to take up arms against what they considered to be the infidels; only to die of fever from the heat, or to be slaughtered by marauding armies. I regret to say that my study of Russian History was only done in broad-strokes, like you pointed out, with only a bigger picture of the sweep of events. I really enjoyed reading your review of this book and I intend to pick it up and read, read, read. Thank you very much.

  3. Will have to add that to my reading list. The revolution is still impacting Russia and why it’s still a mess. Not that had the elites pre-Bolshevik prevailed the place would necessarily be better now. They needed one like the US or France to potentially fix their mess, but they never got one. Let too much suffering go on for too long….while the elites live it up.

    Now Uncle Bernie Marx and Pocahontas Warren (sorry I couldn’t resist) seem to to think we need another Russia revolution under the new and improved scheme called “Progressivism.”

  4. Thank you for sharing this review. Russian history has been an ongoing study in tragedy, missed opportunities, inequity and suffering for centuries beginning with the establishment of the first tsars in Kievan Rus. I will be interested to read Rodzianko’s views on his era and his countries past. Best wishes

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