The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover, 9780374157616, 496pp.
Publication Date: October 2, 2012
Epic in scope, precise in detail, and heart-breaking in its human drama, "Former People "is the first book to recount the history of the aristocracy caught up in the maelstrom of the Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of Stalin's Russia. Filled with chilling tales of looted palaces and burning estates, of desperate flights in the night from marauding peasants and Red Army soldiers, of imprisonment, exile, and execution, it is the story of how a centuries'-old elite, famous for its glittering wealth, its service to the Tsar and Empire, and its promotion of the arts and culture, was dispossessed and destroyed along with the rest of old Russia.
Yet "Former People "is also a story of survival and accommodation, of how many of the tsarist ruling class so-called "former people" and "class enemies" overcame the psychological wounds inflicted by the loss of their world and decades of repression as they struggled to find a place for themselves and their families in the new, hostile order of the Soviet Union. Chronicling the fate of two great aristocratic families the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns it reveals how even in the darkest depths of the terror, daily life went on.
Told with sensitivity and nuance by acclaimed historian Douglas Smith, "Former People "is the dramatic portrait of two of Russia's most powerful aristocratic families, and a sweeping account of their homeland in violent transition.
“[An] excellent history . . . A sobering tale of the complexities of revolution, told with clarity and sympathy.”—The Independent
“Absorbing . . . How could one ever think that these people were monsters? They were gallant souls; and Smith’s book memorialises them beautifully.”—Mark Le Fanu, Spear's
“Smith re-creates what [the Russian nobility] experienced with an intimacy that brings the whole history of these years vividly and grotesquely alive.”—Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs
“Smith has performed a real service in drawing attention to this widely overlooked segment of the Russian population and the horrifying persecutions its members endured. His book inspires awe and pity in equal measure, and expands our understanding of a forgotten people. It's hard to believe that this it he first book of its kind devoted to the 10 percent of White Russians who remained in the society Union after the revolution and civil war and we can hope it will lead to others.”—Michael Scammell, The New York Review of Books
“With urgency and precision, [Smith] chronicles the fate of the nobility from the dawn of the revolution . . . He is invested in their (former) cause, and narrates the events of their lives with passion . . . Former People is a thorough, extensively sourced history, and also something of a spiritual restitution.”—Yelena Akhtiorskaya, The New Republic
“Although many of the aristocrats thought the end of their caste 'obvious and unavoidable,' few foresaw the destruction of a way of life. Smith's engaging and, at times, heartbreaking account is an essential record of that loss.”—The New Yorker
“Former People is ultimately an incredibly readable, vivid, emotional human story of survival, accommodation, and reconciliation.”—Sean Guillory, New Books Network
“Engrossing . . . with richly detailed event and anecdote.”—Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times
“An engaging and absorbing book.”—Jennifer Siegel, The Wall Street Journal
“A remarkable, deeply affecting book.”—David Walton, GuideLive
“Smith examines the much-neglected 'fate of the nobility in the decades following the Russian Revolution,' when they were sometimes given the Orwellian title 'former people.' The author of several books on Russia (The Pearl; Working the Rough Stone), Smith focuses on three generations of two families: the Sheremetsevs of St. Petersburg and the Golitsyns of Moscow. He begins by showing their extravagant wealth before the revolution; in the late 19th century, Count Dmitri Sheremetsev owned 1.9 million acres worked by 300,000 serfs. From the 1917 Bolshevik revolution until Stalin’s death in 1953, these families and others suffered, at best, severe persecution and impoverishment; at worst, murder by mobs or the secret police, or a slow death in the gulag. In his sprawling but well-paced narrative, Smith tells many memorable stories, including one of Vladimir Golitsyn’s son-in-law, who hid the fact that he’d been sentenced to death from his wife, who’d been allowed a three-day visit. Smith also provides fascinating background information, such as the Bolsheviks’ jaundiced view of 'decadent' Western culture. Maxim Gorky said the foxtrot, popular among nobles during the 1920s and early ’30s, 'fostered moral degeneracy and led inexorably to homosexuality.' This is an anecdotally rich, highly informative look at decimated, uprooted former upper-class Russians.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“When the Bolshevik Revolution came in 1917, the new order began transforming aristocrats into paupers, exiles and corpses—a transformation that consumed decades. Smith, a former U.S. diplomat and authority on the Soviets and author of several previous works (The Pearl: A Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia, 2008, etc.), takes a different approach to revolutionary history, focusing on the fallen class: Who were they? What had their lives been like? What happened to them? The author follows two aristocratic families (later, they intermarried), the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns, showing the splendor in which they lived and then the squalor into which they declined. The author is deeply sympathetic to their fates. Although he states that the aristocracy had, of course, flourished on the servitude of others, he tells such wrenching, emotional stories about his characters that it’s easy to forget who once wore the silken slippers. Smith’s research is remarkably thorough in its range and detail, so much so that readers may feel overwhelmed by such powerful surges of suffering. Searches, arrests, firings, confiscations of property, internal exile, imprisonments, tortures, executions, desecration of graves—these and other grim experiences Smith chronicles in his compelling narrative. He mentions significant historical events, but his intent is to show how these events affected his characters. He portrays with brutal clarity the truth of Orwell’s Animal Farm: A new aristocracy—a political one—emerged to enjoy the benefits of living on the labor of others.
Sobering stories about the politics of power—its loss, its gain—and the deep human suffering that inevitably results.”—Kirkus (starred review)
“Absolutely gripping, brilliantly researched, with a cast of flamboyant Russian princesses and princes from the two greatest noble dynasties and brutal Soviet commissars, The Former People is an important history book—but it’s really the heartbreaking human story of the splendors and death of the Russian aristocracy and the survival of its members as individuals.”—Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem and Catherine the Great and Potemkin
“Douglas Smith's Former People is a passionate and vivid story of the destruction of an entire class—the Russian aristocracy—during the Bolshevik Revolution. What the Communists began with the nobility, they were to continue with writers, poets, artists, peasants, and workers. Smith restores the dignity, pathos, and endurance of a vanished and fabled elite.” —Michael Ignatieff, author of The Russian Album; professor, Munk School, University of Toronto.
“Former People provides a fascinating window onto a lost generation. Filled with intimate detail, drama, and pathos, this is a book as much about renewal and reinvention as about the end of an era.”—Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and A World on Fire: an Epic History of Two Nations Divided