The Memoirs of Baron N. Wrangel 1847-1920: From Serfdom to Bolshevism

I’m reading the memoirs of Baron Wrangel, and you know, just from the dates in the title, that this man lived through some fantastic, turbulent times. Wrangel was to live through a number of Tsars, but when the book opens, Emperor Nicholas I ruled Russia “like a gamekeeper.”

Under his administration of the empire, based as it was upon a system of flogging, imprisonment and exile to Siberia, the great could indulge their caprices with impunity, and my father, like most men, was cast in the mould of his period. He carefully concealed his feelings under a mask of harshness.

The author argues that although society consisted of master and serf, ” in reality… the masters were also slaves.” People still remember the Décemberistes, but this is not a topic for discussionIn this culture of extreme censorship and conformity, Dostoevsky was sent to Siberia. Later Lermontov fell foul of the same Tsar and was exiled to the Caucasus twice only to meet his tragic death in 1841. Nicholas I wasn’t gentle with some of Russia’s greatest writers.

The memoirs begin, naturally enough, with Nikolai Egorovich’s childhood. His mother died when he was four and he only has a few fragmented memories of her.  It’s  a large household–four boys, three girls, many serfs, and two aunts. Aunt Ida is “shrewish and spiteful,” but Aunt Jeanne is completely different:

Aunt Jeanne, on the other hand, was a kind soul, simple-minded and good-hearted. Brought up when the Emperor Paul was still alive, at the “convent of Smolny for daughters of the nobility,” she retained the traditions of that period. Through fear of being thought “shameless,” she never spoke to young men, and would blush and cast down her eyes when replying to gentlemen of ripe years. She usually kept to her own apartments, and preferred playing with her pugs and listening to the song of her canaries to taking part in conversation in the drawing room. The amount of sweets she was able to devour was unbelievable. Even to watch her was enough to give one indigestion.

Our great delight was to ask her the time. The answer was invariably the same. “Thank God, I have never been compelled to learn that. For such things I have my women.” And she would ring for her maid.

“Tell me what time it is by this watch.”

What a culture of contrasts. A member of the nobility who calls her maid to tell the time, a nursemaid who faces down Nikolai’s father in order to spare the children a whipping, and serfs married to those “allotted” to them while the idea of free choice is a subject of hilarity.

Translated by Brian and Beatrix Lunn

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10 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction, Wrangel Baron N

10 responses to “The Memoirs of Baron N. Wrangel 1847-1920: From Serfdom to Bolshevism

  1. I read “The Three Emperors ” by MJ Carter one of which is Tsar Nikolai II and it’s unbelievable how clueless he was about the real world, locked up in his Tsar Residence. The book claims he wasn’t even able to tell which had more value a 25 rouble note or a gold watch. The Russian aristocracy seemed as well to be living in its own world utterly dependent on its maids and servants; one Russian lady admitted she couldn’t tie her shoelaces without the help of her lady-in-waiting

    • That sounds excellent. That’s one of the points the Baron makes is that everyone is a slave to the system. But you can read that and still be shocked when given details such as the shoe lace tying or the telling of time, because those details just hammer home the reliance on others.

  2. Jonathan

    It sounds interesting. Is this a new translation? Do you know when it was first published? I guess the baron fled Russia following the revolution.

    • It’s a Kessinger Legacy Reprint which comes with a warning that
      “many of the pages may be hard to read due to the blurring of the original text, possible missing pages” etc. I’ve had no problems so far, all the pages look ok to me, and only found one typo. Original publication date is 1927 (Lippincott).
      I looked at the end and it seems as though he lived in Russia through some of it (there was a part about his wife queuing at the bakers) and other details but then escaped.

      This is going to be excellent.

  3. Baron Wrangel, what a great name! I’m not at all familiar with this. Those quotes speak for themselves – I look forward to hearing more about it.

  4. I thought, at first, the book was from General Wrangel (commanding general of the White Army) as I couldn’t really discover any detail about the book until I actually had the physical copy in my hands. I’ve yet to discover if this Wrangel is related to the more famous General Wrangel. I would imagine that there’s a connection somewhere. There’s something remarkable on every page so far.

  5. Sounds like a fascinating book. The quotes are great.

  6. Fascinating. I don’t know how you find these books.
    I’m looking forwad to reading your next posts about it.
    It is shocking to see how a leading class can be so disconnected from their country. I can’t wrap my head around the idea that some of them didn’t even speak Russian.

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