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Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy Paperback – September 24, 2013
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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.
“Stunning and brilliantly narrated.” ―Rosemary Sullivan, The Wall Street Journal
“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)
“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
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Top Customer Reviews
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 author did a fabulous job setting personal stories on the background of political and social events happening at the time (true, it is hard to fugure out who is who).
I learned a lot - for instance, that the February revolution was really no surprise for anyone. Nobility was hated by everybody - by the peasants (and workers who mostly had their gripes against the burzhui) who felt being exploited and by the non-titled intelligencia as a whole - who felt let down for the country being badly governed and by the incompetence of the imperial government. The nobles themselves felt guilty for running the country into disaster. In comparison, of course, everyone subsequently understood that it is better to be governed by the incompetent dillusional nobles rather than by the pragmatic Bolsheviks. The author does, however, acknowledge that the Whites and the anti-Bolshevick resistance did not have the positive agenda. It became obvious at some point that the Bolshevicks had more to offer to more people, and the Whites, unfortunately could only offer the status quo - which was unacceptable to anyone. Sad, and a missed opportunity.
Purely from the human perspective, I was wondering when does one understand that nothing good will ever happen in their lifetime and things will only get worse? When 1/3 of the family is brutally executed, 1/3 is in prison, 1/3 hiding in a mouse hole in Siberia, all ptoperty expropriated and all legal rights stripped down, when do you finally realize that it's time to flee? Scram? Run for the border? When is enough is enough? Where they dillusional like their relatives governing Russia before 1917? It certainly is a cautionary tale ... And a warning to the new Russian elite - nothing is for ever, disparity and arrogance breeds jealousy and violence.
I am also saddened by the loss of Russia's cultural heritage that burned in the flames of 1917. So much was lost! It is amazing that Russia did not degenerate into some primitive society of semi literate traglodites after systemically killing and pushing away their most educated and most intelligent people. Simply astounding.
For all the misgivings and faults of this book, it is an excellent work. It is a tribute to those millions killed and humiliated after the 1917, albeit there is no token of any kind that can redeem Russia's grievous debt to those countless people, both noble or not so much, but "byvshie" or "former" nonetheless. This is a small step. I hope it is translated into Russian so that Russian citizens can read it as well (including President Putin, first and foremost).
We can never turn the clock back, but when we can better see the past - we can better understand the present and can better foresee what may happen in the future.
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