Their descendants are on a quixotic mission to recover property seized by the Bolsheviks over a century ago
Vera Obolenskaya stood looking at an ornate, cream-colored 19th-century mansion that sits on the Mytninskaya Embankment along the Neva River.
"I want to live here," she said, smiling.
In another world, she would have. The mansion belonged to her family nearly a century ago. It overlooks the State Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace and offers a stunning view of St. Petersburg.
The next moment Obolenskaya looked away, biting her lip. The flats in this plum property now belong to government officials, she said.
The historical center of St. Petersburg is studded with palaces once owned by Russian nobility. The Menshikov Palace, above, was built in the early 18th century by an aide to Peter the Great. It is now used by the Hermitage Museum.
The elegant, petite Obolenskaya is a descendant of nobles whose property was nationalized by the Bolsheviks following the 1917 Revolution. By her count, she is part of the 34th generation of the Obolensky family, a line of princes descended from the Rurik dynasty, which ruled Russia until the 16th century and is credited with founding the country.
In August, Obolenskaya will go to Moscow to attend the Russian Nobility Congress and try to raise the sensitive issue of restitution with the Russian government.
The restitution initiative comes as a response to recent proposals seeking to demolish many of St. Petersburg's crumbling historical mansions to vacate space for business centers.
Some of the land that comes with those mansions has gone into private hands, with the blessing of Governor Valentina Matviyenko. St. Petersburg has already lost many dozens of charming historical mansions as a result of this policy, which has infuriated thousands of St. Petersburg's residents, regardless of their origins.
For the few families that, like the Obolenskys, but is t, survived the Bolshevik purges, the story has the flavor of a personal drama.
"Descendants of some former owners of these places are still alive, and naturally they're all penniless, having been completely robbed by the Bolsheviks," Obolenskaya said with an indignant shrug. "Forcing them to compete with new Russians at auctions for the right to regain what was unfairly taken from them is very unfair."
Obolenskaya's feelings, however, are not widely shared in Russia, where generation after generation has been treated unfairly by the state.
"Restitution in Russia is not going to work for one simple reason: almost every family in the country has suffered from the state in one form or another," said Mikhail Amosov, a member of the liberal Yabloko party and former chairman of the Town Planning Commission of the St. Petersburg legislature. "After the Bolshevik Revolution the country went through the war, mass repression, ethnic discrimination, and much more. If everyone can't be compensated, then it would be unfair to do justice just to one category of people."
The experience of post-communist countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region shows that restitution can take different forms and does not necessarily involve the physical return of lost properties. Victims of totalitarian regimes may receive financial compensation, land, or bonds.
The Russian government has offered nothing so far, not even an apology.
Galina Arkhipenko, head of the real estate department of St. Petersburg's Culture Committee, cited a number of palaces and mansions that house museums and theaters and said it would be a disaster if these buildings were returned to their former owners.
"The former owners are remembered through the names of the buildings. Take, for instance, the Shuvalovsky Palace or the Sheremetev Palace," she said. "It's a sign of respect."
Not many aristocrats feel that respect.
"Respecting a person means at least talking to them, but the authorities speak about this as if we don't exist," Obolenskaya said. "They speak as if communists themselves built loads of palaces and estates, and now there are too many of them, so the state wants to share the burden of maintaining them. But they didn't build them, they expropriated them. A huge difference, isn't it?"
Obolenskaya admits the chances for restitution are slim. But what riles the aristocrat most is that the former owners are not even invited to weigh in on the fate of their mansions.
"The new Russian state shows no more respect for a human being than the Soviets did," she said.
THE ROAD HOME
Obolenskaya's grandparents escaped Russia shortly after the revolution.
"My grandparents were rescued by their own peasants, who warned them about the Bolsheviks' raid on their estate," she said. "Dressed in peasant clothes, my family members ran away and subsequently fled the country."
The family was not able to move their riches to France when they fled, and Obolenskaya's father earned a living by editing an émigré newspaper in Paris. She still wears antique pearl jewelry inherited from her grandmother.
Obolenskaya, 57, first came to the Soviet Union at age 26 on a business trip.
"Everything was gloomy and gray — buildings, shops, clothes, people's faces — apart from blood-red posters advertising the questionable benefits of the Soviet way of life," she said.
"When I think back, what comes to mind are horrendous hotels and scandalized tourists. I didn't really enjoy those trips because they were too supervised; I had very little liberty in choosing where to go and what to see. A few times, secretly, I was able to escape, call my friends from a street telephone booth — never from a hotel! — and go see them."
It was on one of Obolenskaya's visits to Russia that she met her husband, St. Petersburg violinist and artist Valentin Afanasyev, who is also of noble origin. They first saw each other at the first session of the Russian Nobles Assembly in Moscow in 1992.
One year later, they married in Preobrazhensky Cathedral in St. Petersburg. Theirs was the first official wedding between members of the nobility in the city since the Bolshevik Revolution.
"Even if there were such weddings in the Soviet years, it was done in secret as people were forced to hide their identity," Obolenskaya said.
In 1997, Obolenskaya and Afanasyev moved to St. Petersburg when she accepted an offer to run the local office of French travel agency CGTT Voyages. There were many reasons to come: Afanasyev, a native of the city, is more comfortable here; her ancestors are from here; and Obolenskaya welcomed the challenge of running a business in Russia during the transitional period.
CODE OF NOBILITY
Obolenskaya's fluent Russia is delivered with a slight French accent. She speaks deliberately, avoiding slang. She is passionate about fine living and fine arts but gives little of herself away in conversation.
Obolenskaya never raises her voice, preferring instead to calmly offer suggestions rather than straightforward arguments, and always addresses people by their names. When she speaks at roundtables or in television discussions, she avoids confrontation — even when she is ridiculed by her opponents as a throwback — and resorts to subtle irony.
"It is encouraging to see a Communist politician regretting the loss of historical mansions and opposing rampant construction in the heart of the city...especially if you remember how many of such buildings had been demolished by the Bolsheviks," she said during a live talk show on St. Petersburg's 100TV in June.
"Vera is hugely charming, and she's always surrounded by the most interesting people," Irina Arsentieva, a manager with Obolenskaya's agency, said. "Her environment both at work and at home is carefully, almost artfully, arranged."
The French influence, with its emphasis on food and elegance, is unmistakable in Obolenskaya's and Afanasyev's somewhat bohemian flat, which overlooks a quiet street in central St. Petersburg. Although not luxurious, it has carved wooden furniture, a table set with fine silver and porcelain, an old piano, his abstract paintings, and numerous photographs of ancestors on the walls.
"She never really emphasizes her title, and I've never seen her telling anyone," said Arsentieva, who has known her boss for nine years. "But everyone in the office has gotten to know about it eventually. When we ask her about her family or life in Paris, Vera's very keen to talk."
"I never hide my origin because it is an integral part of my identity," Obolenskaya said.
Obolenskaya and Afanasyev, who teaches at the St. Petersburg State Conservatory, spend much of their spare time strolling the streets of the historical center and frequenting St. Petersburg's classical halls. Their favorite is the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, which occupies the former headquarters of the Russian Noble Assembly.
Although she describes the reforms in the country as random and uncoordinated, Obolenskaya sees many positive changes and is optimistic about the future.
"It is most encouraging to see that many Russian people are still strong, intelligent, and good-hearted despite all the turbulence the country has been through," she says. "But of course, all that boorishness and selfishness, which I believe is the legacy of 80 years of communism, is still there. The drivers easily run over people, the nouveaux riches behave as if their money gives them license to act as they please."
She misses French courtesy: on the banks of the Neva River, neighbors rarely greet each other, passing by with indifferent faces, something she says would be unthinkable in France.
"Of course, you can't compare French and Russian societies, simply because civil society in Russia hasn't yet been formed," she continued. "But what can you expect after 80 years of the continual destruction of democratic values?"
It was reform that Russia needed at the beginning of the 20th century, not revolution, Obolenskaya said. "Monarchy had outlived itself, and a competent liberal reform would have helped Russia to embrace democratic values and institutions, like a strong and independent parliament, for example," she said. "Instead, the country was forced into a bloodbath. There are better ways to achieve social equality than a massacre that takes millions of lives."
After she moved to Russia, Obolenskaya was sad to see that along with the nobility, the concept of noblesse oblige had disappeared.
"The revolution broke the tradition of a particular family upbringing: self-respect, independent thinking, a benevolent heart, the qualities essential for a politician, for example," she explained. "Some aristocrats who stayed in the country were frightened by repressions and encourage their children to forget all about their background for their own safety. As a result, this culture vanished, evaporated. Most regrettably, the very same qualities are missing in the new political elite that rules Russia now. Greed and an insatiable appetite for personal gain dominate politics."
Coming back has meant facing the lingering Soviet-era attitudes of the Russian people toward the nobility.
"What really frustrates me is the manner in which some people — and unfortunately it happens very often — ask me when they hear my last name, 'Oh, are you from those, errh, what are they called, the aristos?' "
Obolenskaya and her husband find themselves struggling to explain what they describe as "the mass cowardice of the people."
"Among themselves, many people speak very critically about the authorities but would never take action, like a street protest, a strike, or any other form of resistance. It shows that after decades, cowardice has seeped into the people's genes," Afanasyev said, sitting in the couple's flat. "Several generations have to pass until the fear starts to evaporate."
And people must better understand their own country's history, he suggested.
Obolenskaya said, "When I talk to the people I see that they know nothing [about Bolshevik brutality]," she said. "They look at me in disbelief and horror when I tell them that in the tsarist times, members of families' of rebels did not suffer from persecution but the Bolsheviks killed even distant relatives of the nobles."
Under the Bolsheviks, being related to a non-proletarian was considered a crime, according to Irina Flige of the historical branch of Memorial, a St. Petersburg human rights group. But the families of dissidents were not treated unfairly under tsarist rule, she noted.
"After 1825 when a group of officers from noble families staged an uprising seeking to end the tsarist rule and kill all members of the Romanov family, the five leaders were executed, and a group of others sent to exile; but not a single member of the rebels' families was persecuted," she said.
Lenin's brother, Dmitry Ulyanov, was executed for plotting an assassination of Tsar Alexander III but no members of the family were punished.
Obolenskaya believes that restitution and an apology for the Bolshevik crimes are necessary for the future stability of Russia. She is convinced people need to support it, if only for the safety of themselves and their children. Otherwise, there is always a risk that a new president or a new Duma will launch a new, irreversible expropriation campaign," she said.