Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Former People The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smiith

The focus of the Russian Revolution usually leads us straight to the Ekaterinburg and the assassination of the Tsar and the murders of his family.  The Bolsheviks tried to eliminate nearly every member of the Imperial Family, but their real goal in establishing a new (and repressive) society was to destroy and eliminate the ruling classes: Russia's own aristocracy.

Douglas Smith's Former People The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: $30.00) is a heart-rendering and passionate accounting of an entire class of people: the titled, wealthy landowners being wiped away largely through murder and exile.

Smith focuses on two families: Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns, although all of Russia's noble families were deeply affected by the wrath of the revolution.

At one moment, these families were at the center of Russia's art, culture and politics.  They were educated, they married well, and they were rich.  They also cared deeply about their country, and, at first, could not comprehend that their world was completely erased by the Soviets.   They became the "former people" or "class enemies" who were to be eradicated from the new Soviet Union.

This mean exile, poverty, imprisonment and death.  A small number of the these families were able to leave Russia, but most chose to stay, believing that their world would survive.  It didn't.  From inexplicable wealth to hunger,  the former people endured tragedy and terror. They learned to hide their fear, and trust for the new system -- and justice -- was non-existent. 

Several of the younger descendants embraced the growing power of the Soviet Union.  They were eager to show their pride in the new society's accomplishments, but it was all for naught.  Their world was brought to an end by an unjust and unfair system.  

Douglas Smith, a former State Department employee, is an analyst on Soviet history and politics.    The amount of painstakingly honest research is utterly outstanding.  Smith's bibliography is prodigious and breathtaking, especially as this is the first book to focus on the demise of Russia's princely families.

Former People is a must read, a truly definitive book that defines a standard for a serious,  well-researched history-cum-biography-cum social commentary.  This book should win a few awards.  It definitely a superb book that should be read ... one cannot fail to be drawn into the stories of truly proud people who were stripped of everything.




  1. Great review. I heard the author speak at Hillwood Museum last night, was a great lecture.