Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy Hardcover – Oct 5 2012
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"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
About the Author
Douglas Smith is an award-winning historian and translator and the author of three previous books on Russia. Before becoming a historian, he worked for the U. S. State Department in the Soviet Union and as a Russian affairs analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two children.
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Top Customer Reviews
In'Former People', Douglas Smith focuses on two of Russia's grandest clans. the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns and follows their tragic stories through revolution, civil war, Stalin's terror and the gulag. Like many other nobles. the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns decided to remain in the Motherland even though it would mean outcast status, imprisonment, banishment to Siberia or death by execution or overwork and disease in the camps of the gulag. Smith has done tireless research and illuminates many little known aspects of this period of Russian history. One remarkable chapter called 'The Fox-Trot Affair' describes a period in the early 1920's when Lenin's New Economic Plan allowed a degree of normalcy and even a little prosperity to return to Russian cities.Read more ›
While this book's aim is neither meant to explore all of the socio-economic and political conditions or reasons for the Russian revolution nor to offer lessons for the present and future, - that is covered in many other books about that period -, Douglas Smith nevertheless weaves historical events and what led up to them skillfully into the narrative of experiences of his aristocratic subjects, which leads to mental association with them and contemplation about our own times.
As the author points out, it was not just the Russian aristocracy, which was singled out as 'class enemy', the aristocracy was only the most prominent and visible one, but included as class enemies were also the petty bourgeoisie, tsarist bureaucrats, intellectuals, trades people and anybody else not fitting into the Communist mold. The fate of the Golitsyn and Sheremetev families stands therefore as a proxy for the many others who perished and will forever be unknown. Douglas Smith provides us with a documentary human drama of the 'losers' on the stage that hitherto has been occupied chiefly by the protagonists of the revolution and how they shaped things afterwards. Despite this different perspective, the book never descends into what it could have become under a less accomplished pen: Facile accusation and generalization.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I found this book endlessly fascinating. I've studied Russian history for many years, but my understanding of what had happened to the Russian aristocracy after the Revolution was that most had either been killed or forced into exile. I was surprised to read about nobles who managed to live on good terms with Bolshevik commissars, and I was impressed with the strength and courage of others who survived years of imprisonment. Although they had to discard their titles and hide their family history, they never forgot their heritage, even though they continually warned their children not to talk about it. Among the large number of pictures are some that I found particularly affecting, primarily those from after the Revolution including the pictures of a noble couple's wedding reception in 1921, in which the guests all look threadbare and tense and the beautifully decorated table can't hide the fact that there was little or nothing to eat and drink.
The book primarily covers the Revolution and the next twenty years or so, with shorter chapters dealing with World War II, in which nobles served in the Soviet armies just as their forebears had served Russia in previous conflicts, and the modern era, in which it has once again become relatively safe to openly display an aristocratic heritage. In many ways Former People is also the history of the Soviet Union itself, covering the period from its brutal yet hopeful beginnings, through the chaos and horror of its forcible industrialization and militarization under Stalin, and finally its long decline and ultimate fall. Besides the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns there are many other stories of other noble families and individuals, and for the two principal families Smith has provided helpful family trees.
Former People is a well written and thorough study of how a group of people who before 1917 were stereotyped as frivolous bon vivants managed to cope with and survive the harshest change of fortune possible, doing so with dignity,determination, and strong religious faith.
The book begins in the years before the revolution, when a small educated elite were the rulers of a largely rural and feudal Russia. As the author calls them, they were "isolated islands of privilege in a sea of poverty and resentment." Many members of the nobility understood, and even sympathised, with the violence that erupted. Even members of the aristocracy who benefited from the system looked for restraint and ways to ease poverty and worried about the weakness of Tsar Nicholas II. When revolution eventually came, the aristocracy, alongside most of the population, blamed the Empress, and Rasputin, for the downfall. Count Sergei Shevemetev wrote, "the abnormal power of that woman (Alexandra) has led us precisely to that which any had foreseen." There were members of the aristocracy who welcomed the revolution and the abdication of the Tsar with relief - some who even tried to march in solidarity with the workers, but they were soon made aware that they were not welcome. Not only were they not welcome to support the revolution, they were, like it or not, enemies of it.
Of course, the revolution took place during WWI and most of the nobility, unsure of the changing world order and wishing to be patriotic, had brought their capital back to Russia. In the Civil War everything was taken from them. The nobility went to great lengths to try to hide their valuables - even going to the extremes of dismantling cars and burying them or sewing sugar between sheets. However, they were stripped of everything as the terror went on unchecked. "There is nothing immoral," Trotsky coldly affirmed, "in the proletariat finishing off a class that is collapsing; that is its right." Of course, the nobility were not the only ones who suffered, as concentration camps appeared, executions increased and famine swept the country. Many former nobles understood the feelings of those who had lived in poverty for so long and asked whether the tsarist or the soviet regime was the most criminal. Still, the murder of the Tsar and his family shocked a nation and when it was clear that the Red Army was winning by 1920, many fled into a life of exile. By 1921 Russia was in ruins, with ten million dead and millions more having abandoned the country.
We then come to the years of Stalin and the labour camps, or gulags, where so many people perished - many of them from the nobility who remained in Russia. 'Former People' were seen as a threat - there was nowhere left to hide. Many disappeared into the abyss of Stalin's Terror - never to be seen again. They were outcasts, not allowed to work, humiliated and starved. During 'Operation Former People' in 1935, more than 39,000 were expelled from Leningrad. As WWII approached, the remaining 'Former People' were accused of being pro-German, defeatists, traitors and spies. It seemed that the terror, and the hunt for them, was never ending.
This is a book of great human tragedy, but also of love and friendship and of the human will to survive and adapt. There are stories of personal misery, of great estates reduced to ruin, artwork and libraries plundered and damaged, people arrested, torture and murder. I read the kindle edition of this book and the illustrations, as so often in kindle books, are at the very end of the book. Do make sure you scroll to the end and look at these though, as many are very moving - none more so than two photographs of Vanya Tribetskoy. There is one of Vanya as a young girl, pretty and carefree. The second is her prison photograph. Vanya died a prisoner in the gulag at the age of only twenty four in 1943. Yet, to look at her, you would think she was double that age and the photo of what that poor young girl was reduced to, show her suffering as no words can. Of course, even the nobility themselves, understood that their lives of privilege could not continue indefinitely, but this is a moving and tragic account of a group that may have been labelled 'Former People', but were people nonetheless.
"We are on the verge of events, the likes of which the world has not seen since the time of the barbarian invasions... Soon everything that constitutes our lives will strike the world as useless. A period of barbarism is about to begin and it shall last for decades."
The catastrophe of World War I hit Russia harder than any other country. Nearly one in three Russian soldiers who served were killed or wounded. In the war, Civil War, famine and purges that spanned 1914-1924, some 20 million Russians (and Jews and Ukrainians and many other peoples of the Empire) lost their lives.
The failure in war toppled the teetering monarchy. The aristocracy soon followed, in a bloodletting and emigration that crippled both the economy and the society.
As Smith points out, citing Fedotoff-White, for the Bolsheviks, "the will to destroy was stronger than the will to create." They were adamant that the old order - the landed aristocracy - had to be obliterated if the "revolution" was to survive. And it was. By Smith's estimates, nearly 90 percent of the Russian aristocracy fled or was wiped out by the Bolshevik Thermidor. Yet the story of their fall has been little told.
Smith, whose previous work was the masterful historical tale The Pearl, ably alternates between a general historical narrative of the times and micro studies of two families - the Golitsyns and the Sheremetyevs - who were among the richest and most powerful aristocratic clans, yet whose decline was no less precipitous for all that.
Packed full of engrossing stories of survival and heroism, brutality and horror, this is the "forgotten" history of how the upper crust of society was torn away, and the cost Russia paid, then and now.
As reviewed in Russian Life magazine.
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