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.
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!
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.