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Survivors From A Vanished World,
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This review is from: Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy (Hardcover)
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.
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Initial post: Nov 4, 2012 10:07:15 AM PST
Victoria Taylor Allen says:
Beautifully written review: even better than the one in the Times!
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