Former people : the final days of the Russian aristocracy

by Douglas Smith

Paper Book, 2012




New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.


Examines the fate of two Russian aristocratic families in a detailed account of the Bolshevik Revolution's effect on the upper class, discussing the relentless lootings, harrowing escapes, humbling exile and imprisonment, and summary executions that tookplace during this violent time of transition.

Media reviews

Wall Street Journal
Mr. Smith has written an engaging and absorbing book. If an exploration of the tragic fate of previously pampered people does little to expand our understanding of the Soviet system, his book does offer an opportunity to revisit some of its more horrific aspects.

User reviews

LibraryThing member delphica
I confess when I first picked this up at the library, I was thinking it was going to be a Downton Abbey but with Russians kind of a book, and then it turned out to be a more serious history, with historical analysis and everything, so more of a dense read than I was expecting. But still awesome! And it will come in useful for at work when faculty ask me what I've read lately, because this doesn't seem as weird as saying The Black Stallion Returns which is usually what I've been reading.

It primarily looks at two prominent families, starting in the last years of the tsar and then covering the years of the revolution(s), Lenin, and through Stalin. As you might imagine (or maybe not, because I for one was imagining Downton Abbey with Russians, as I mentioned), things did not go well. The author does a great job of outlining the political and social upheavals they faced, and putting them in context alongside the sufferings of the peasants, the horrors inflicted upon the Jews, and the general dismal state of things for just about everyone else in Russia as well.

It's a tragic story, but also mesmerizing. And, as an added bonus, all the people and place names make you feel like you're reading Tolkien. We're fleeing the Tauride Palace and headed to Irkutsk, but avoiding the Ataman Semenov! I especially liked the accounts of families who fled east ahead of the Red Army, on the Trans Siberian Railroad. This is no doubt informed by my love of The Endless Steppe (hardship! living in boxcars!) and I feel like so many accounts from this era mention the beauty of Siberia, despite the fact of its being the site of exile. I dream of visiting Lake Baikal, which I just now read is the world's oldest lake. I don't even know how that is determined, but it makes the appeal even greater. The oldest lake in the world!
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LibraryThing member Clara53
"Former people" - the very phrase invokes ghostly images. And though it's a rather loose translation of the Russian word "lishentzy" - meaning "people without any rights in the society", it's an adequate phrase, in the light of events portrayed in the book, to describe former nobles and aristocrats, those that didn't leave Russia after the Revolution of 1917. That's how the author refers to them throughout the book, concentrating on the fate of two most prominent noble families and their descendants - the Sheremetevs and the Golittsyns - but also touching upon countless more former nobles (counts and countesses, princes and princesses, aristocrats and landlords) and their lives on the brink of and after the Revolution. The book describes the futility of their efforts to stay afloat in this new political climate that totally disregarded them by not allowing them to work, or if they could find work to barely survive, they had to constantly be in fear of imprisonment for some dreamed up crimes against the new government. The paranoia of Lenin and Stalin is not a secret anymore, and it reflected on many more citizens in those first decades of the new state (up until Stalin's death in 1953), not just former nobles, but Douglas Smith collected invaluable evidence of how this particular class of people was treated. It only shows that it was Russia who lost - because all these people were highly educated and they could have been a great asset to any society in that regard (and they were more than willing to serve in professional capacity of any kind, even though stripped of all their possessions).

I think the author says it best in the end, summarizing his story:

"... the events described in this book, or, more precisely, the causes behind them, lie beyond reason, as much as we might like to think otherwise.... There was a randomness to the violence and repression that speaks to the illogical nature of Russian life in twentieth century... There simply is no way to explain why some perished and some survived. It was, and remains, inexplicable. It was chance or, as many Russians would have it, fate."

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LibraryThing member khiemstra631
Douglas Smith has written about the "former people" who lived in the Soviet Union from the founding of the USSR until Stalin's death. They were those who were aristocrats in tsarist times. This is a disturbing but fascinating book as it reveals the depth of the Bolsheviks' hatred toward these people. The equivalent of racism, there was nothing the former people could do to remove the stigma from themselves as it was only based on who their ancestors were. They could be model citizens and hard workers in the new world in which they found themselves, but it mattered not. Former people suffered waves of persecution in which they were declared ineligible for both jobs and housing. Entire families would return home from work at the end of days and find their names on a list of "Non-people" and their belongings out on the sidewalk. Smith specifically follows two families, the Golitsyns and the Sheremetevs. Some of them fled when Russia fell to the Red forces at the end of the civil war while others could not bear to leave the Motherland. Most of those who stayed died while those who left prospered. Interestingly, there are now more Golitsyns in the United States than there are in Russia. This is a truly fascinating and disturbing book that chronicles how evil man can act toward his fellow man.… (more)
LibraryThing member xuebi
Douglas Smith has written a fascinating and informative account of the end of the Russian aristocracy during the early twentieth century. The story of how an entire class of people were subjected to brutal and often arbitrary repression is heart-breaking - even more so as Smith focuses on two families: the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns whose personal stories bring a human perspective to the end of an era. Yet, not all the events are so grim: often there are glimmers of hope, love, and simple pleasures that provide some comfort amid the terror of Communist Russia.

Smith has used unprecedented access to family archives and utilises a number of important secondary sources too. This has allowed him to write one of the first books on this subject ever. This book is epic in scope and yet intimate in detail and is illuminating for the resilience of those described therein, and their perspective on the most tumultuous forty years of Russian history.
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LibraryThing member briandrewz
A haunting look at the days following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and what happened to the aristocrats of Russia's old order. The story isn't a happy one. Douglas Smith has given us a book that tells of the struggle to survive of the Russian aristocracy following the fall of Tsarist Russia. Mainly focusing on the Golitsyns and the Sheremetevs, this book is heartbreaking. So much loss and devastation.… (more)
LibraryThing member thcson
According to the author, this book is the first in any language to examine the fate of the Russian nobility after the revolution of 1917. He has gained access to the diaries and letters of various members of two noble families. These sources are particularly pertinent in the first half of the book which deals with the Bolshevik coup and its immediate aftermath. He has also plowed through an enormous amount of reports and petitions to trace the ultimate destinies of various "former people" in Stalin's terror persecutions in the 1930s, which is the main topic of the second half of the book.

The first half was in my opinion more interesting than the second, perhaps because the members of these families still had the leisure and comfort to write down their thoughts and experiences in early years of the tumultuous revolution. The author ties the political twists and turns of 1917 closely to individual stories, and explains why his political ideology based on liquidation of the nobility worked in Lenin's favour.

By the second half of the book, which focuses mostly on the 1930s, the members of the noble families were already leading a meagre existence. Here the author sticks closely to the stories of various individuals, without saying much about Stalin's totalitarian state, or the reasons that may have motivated his mad totalitarianism. The terror needed a target and it's clear that the former nobility remained in the bullseye as long as it could be identified. However, the author could in my opinion have intertwined personal accounts more strongly with political events. I would in fact recommend the second half of this book to be read in conjunction with a more general work on Stalin's Russia just to clarify the context.

Nevertheless, this is a book worth reading. It provides a good number of biographic portraits and serves as a reminder of the tragic individual fates of the millions of victims that were unjustly killed in the Soviet Union in these years.
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LibraryThing member sscarllet
Russia is such an interesting and almost mysterious country. This book makes a sometimes shadowy time in history come alive and tells stories of people who were long forgotten.

I sometimes struggle with books about the guy on top being overthrown by the little guy. The way the Russian peasants lived was atrocious, and the high glitz and glamour of the Russian Aristocracy makes it even more so. However, should people be punished for an excess that they didn't create? Should they pay for it with their lives? I'm not so sure. While this book can't answer that question (what book could) it does give real food for thought in an easy to read manner.… (more)
LibraryThing member Suzanne_Mitchell
Interesting but hard to get into and the Russian names were confusing ( many of the same names)

The riveting and harrowing story of the Russian nobility caught in the upheaval of the Revolution

Winner of the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize
Named a Best Book of the Year by The Kansas City Star and Salon

Epic in scope, precise in detail, and heartbreaking 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. 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. 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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