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Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy [Hardcover]

Douglas Smith
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 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.


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Review

“[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

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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gripping, highly readable history! Nov. 10 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The stereotypical view regarding the Russian nobility is of a decadent group of privileged people dancing on the edge of a volcano as revolution foments beneath. Once the Bolsheviks seized power, we generally think of the aristocrats as either being killed or fleeing into exile in Paris or the south of France. While we may be shocked by the brutal executions of the nobles and the destruction of their beautiful palaces and estates, there is also a general opinion --as Douglas Smith points out in his excellent 'Former People'--that the Russian nobility had it coming. But in 'Former People' Smith gives a more nuanced picture of a class that also encompassed Russia's artists and intelligentsia, many of whom supported political reform, and even the revolution. And although there was indeed a White Russian diaspora following the Civil War, a remarkable number of former nobles remained and tried to make a new life in the Soviet Union.

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.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A timely warning? Jan. 28 2014
Format:Paperback
'A timely warning for the shape of things to come' according to Fay Weldon in her book recommendations for Christmas 2012 in the UK's Daily Telegraph. Why so? Does she see similarities with the confident pre-revolutionary Russian aristocracy and today's self absorbed consumer societies of the rich world? What could follow, if the gulf between haves and have-nots is allowed to grow or if other calamities should cause serious social disruptions with all they could bring?

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.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Time to pay the piper Dec 8 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A well-written and well-documented account of the lives of some of the richest families of Tsarist Russia after the Revolution of 1917 swept away their privileges and left them wallowing in the morass of poverty, ill-treatment and degradation that the common people had endured for 300 years.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  121 reviews
92 of 93 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Survivors From A Vanished World Oct. 13 2012
By John D. Cofield - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Douglas Smith's engrossing history of the fate of the Russian aristocracy after 1917 focusses primarily on two families, the Golitsyns and the Sheremetevs. They lived opulent lives in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and on various country estates, taking leading roles in the Tsar's government and in the military, patronizing artists and musicians, and travelling in private rail carriages, limousines, and the earliest airplanes. This charmed world came crashing to an end in 1917, with the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II and the subsequent seizure of power by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Many nobles fled from Russia, while others died or were murdered during the Russian Civil War and the earliest days of the Soviet Union. But many survived and remained in their motherland, hoping that the turmoil would run its course and that some sort of return to the Old Regime would occur. Instead, things went from bad to worse as Lenin was succeeded by Stalin and the nobility, now known as "former people", became scapegoats for the new government as it struggled to create a socialist utopia. Counts and Princes were sentenced to long years of penal servitude in the gulag, often without ever being told what crimes they were supposed to have committed, and their families eked out a bare living, sometimes in a corner of their old estates and palaces, sometimes in Siberian or Arctic exile.

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.
37 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An engrossing story about the fate of two Russian noble families Oct. 4 2012
By Nina Bogdan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a valuable contribution to the study of Russian history as Douglas Smith has delved into a topic that has been largely ignored - the fate of individual noble families in post-Revolutionary Russia. In his book, Smith focuses on two of the most prominent and important families in Russian history - the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns. Smith effectively combines general history and the experiences of individual family members during the Revolution, the Civil War and the Stalin era to create an involving and fascinating account.
48 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I could not put this book down! Oct. 8 2012
By Robert Atchison - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
It just arrived two days ago and I finished it out in two days. I was absolutely absorbed in it and could not put it down. What an incredible tragedy the revolution and its aftermath was for Russia. I had thought I would not have a great deal of sympathy for those in the nobility (and middle classes) who chose to stay behind after the Bolsheviks took over, but here in this book their stories come alive. I have to say I am embarrassed my prior ignorance. I recommend this book with five stars.
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Former People Nov. 2 2012
By S Riaz - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
Although I have read many books about Russian history and, in particular the Russian Revolution, this is a story that I don't think has ever been told before. The term 'Former People' was, rather chillingly, applied to members of the Russian Aristocracy after the revolution and this book tells of how the Russian elite was dispossesed and destroyed in the years between 1917 and WWII. The author has taken two major Russian families of this class - the Shevemetevs and the Golitsyns - to illustrate what happened to a whole group of people, allowing us to hear the very human stories of the catastrophe which overtook them.

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.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Full of engrossing stories of survival and heroism Nov. 2 2012
By Paul Richardson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In May 1914 in Paris, the Baron Nikolai Wrangel offered a rather prophetic vision to Count Valentin Zubov:

"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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