I have just been reading Former People; The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith. It is inevitably a sad story. Almost immediately, when the Bolsheviks began to seize and then consolidate power in Russia in 1917, the ancient aristocracy was hounded, either to death, beggary or exile. Some might say they got what they deserved; after all, a few thousand immensely rich families lived on the backs of millions of serfs and peasants, leading lives of unparalleled luxury and extravagance. But this is not the whole story. Some ancient families – Smith concentrates on two of them, the Counts Sheremetev and the Princes Golitsyn – understood the aristocratic ideal of noblesse oblige; they not only patronised the arts as aristocrats often do; they were also enlightened masters of their households and took seriously the preservation of the culture, civilization and history of their country, both on their huge country estates or in their city palaces.
By 1917 however, they were the wrong class on the wrong side of history. That was their tragedy. After his death aged 84 in 1932 in the small town of Dimitrov, where he had been exiled from Moscow with the remnants of his family, the former mayor of Moscow, Prince Vladimir Mikhailovitch Golitsyn, was found to have left a short piece entitled “Prediction” among his papers. It had been completed a month before his death and in it he expressed his conviction of the inevitable collapse of the new Communist order.
He wrote: “This regime does not have the ability to create – it knows how to destroy, to abolish, to cast off – but it is incapable of creating, and its celebrated ”achievements” amount to nothing, if not even less than nothing. And for this reason its collapse will come about as the result of the power of inertia, and not under the blows of some external threat or the outburst of some storm; it will fall all by itself, under its own weight…But that sooner or later this will happen, I do not doubt for a single moment.”
In the light of later history he was proved right. After 70 years of its grim, life-denying rule over its millions of captive populations, the Soviet Union broke up and Communism did collapse, almost overnight. You do not have to be acquainted with the pessimistic conclusion to “Animal Farm” to know, as Prince Golitsyn did, that without a spiritual vision a political system such as Communism will not last. I was also struck by Vaclav Havel’s memoir, To the Castle, of his time as President of Czechoslovakia (as it then was, before the Velvet Revolution) about the collapse of Communism in his country: its legacy had been mistrust of one’s neighbour, suspicion, political apathy, cynicism, a refusal to get involved in the “polis” and erosion of a sense of the common good. And Czechoslovakia was seen as one of the “soft” Communist countries at the time.
These reflections bring me to the news that has dominated this week: the resignation of Pope Benedict. Unlike Communism, the Church has survived for over 2,000 years. There have been great popes and bad popes, scandals and schisms throughout her history. But although a very human institution she has a divine founder and a constant vision of man’s supernatural dignity that has never been altered or watered down to suit worldly demands. I see Pope’s Benedict’s decision primarily as one made out of love for this same Church; he has been her devoted servant all his adult life and in the evening of his years he has humbly laid down his tools for another younger, more vigorous man to shepherd her.
Whatever sadness we might feel about his decision, out of personal affection for this shy, scholarly man, we must and will still rejoice to hear the words “Habemus Papam!” proclaimed from the balcony in St Peter’s Square when the time comes. The Church, founded by Christ and one, holy, Catholic and apostolic will, unlike Communism, continue to the end of time.