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Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy Paperback – September 24, 2013

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (September 24, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1250037794
  • ISBN-13: 978-1250037794
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (134 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #127,768 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

It is a daunting task to elicit sentiments of nostalgia or even regret for the demise of a social class that owed its elite status to birth rather than merit. Smith, a historian and former analyst of Russian affairs for the State Department, succeeds admirably in this wide-ranging and often moving account of the fate of the Russian nobility, from the Bolshevik Revolution to the Stalinist era. His narrative moves seamlessly from a general survey of the nobility to the deeply personal and tragic story of two noble families, the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns. Smith portrays the nobility as a class as being surprisingly diverse, encompassing non-Russians, religious minorities, and relatively impoverished families. He demolishes the facile caricature of the idle, decadent abuser of peasants, since many nobles had admirable records of service to the state in the military and in government bureaucracy. This is a superbly written and emotionally wrenching ode to a class doomed by the flow of history. --Jay Freeman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“Engrossing...With richly detailed event and anecdote.”—Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times

“An engaging and absorbing book.”—Jennifer Siegel, The Wall Street Journal

“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

“Smith has written a remarkable, deeply affecting book.”—The Dallas Morning News

“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

Former People is ultimately an incredibly readable, vivid, emotional human story of survival, accommodation, and reconciliation.”—Sean Guillory, New Books Network

“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

More About the Author

Douglas Smith is an awarding-winning historian and translator and the author of four books on Russia. His latest book, "Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy," was published in 2012. It was named a best book of the year by the Kansas City Star and Salon and won the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize. "Former People" is being published in eleven foreign languages.

Over the past twenty-five years Douglas Smith has made many trips to Russia. In the 1980s, he was a Russian-speaking guide on the U. S. State Department's exhibition "Information USA" that traveled throughout the USSR. He has worked as a Soviet affairs analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich, Germany specializing in Russian nationalism and served as an interpreter for late President Reagan.

Smith has taught and lectured widely in the United States, Britain, and Europe and has appeared in documentaries for A&E and National Geographic. He lives in Seattle.

His new book, "Rasputin: The Biography," will be published in 2016.

Customer Reviews

I found this book very well researched and written.
Carolyn Blevins
This is a book of great human tragedy, but also of love and friendship and of the human will to survive and adapt.
S Riaz
I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading non-fiction.
P. Kast

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

100 of 101 people found the following review helpful By John D. Cofield TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 13, 2012
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.
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40 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Nina Bogdan on October 4, 2012
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.
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52 of 54 people found the following review helpful By Robert Atchison on October 8, 2012
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.
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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful By S Riaz TOP 500 REVIEWER on November 2, 2012
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.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Paul Richardson on November 2, 2012
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.
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