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Former People

The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy

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Epic in scope, precise in detail, and heart-breaking 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. Filled with chilling tales of looted palaces and burning estates, of desperate flights in the night from marauding peasants and Red Army soldiers, of imprisonment, exile, and execution, 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.

Yet Former People is also a story of survival and accommodation, of how many of the tsarist ruling class—so-called "former people" and "class enemies"—overcame the psychological wounds inflicted by the loss of their world and decades of repression as they struggled to find a place for themselves and their families in the new, hostile order of the Soviet Union. 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.

From Publishers Weekly

Jul 30, 2012 – 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. 16 pages of b&w photos, 3 maps.

Customer Reviews

Former People

Great book that captures the human experience of post-revolutionary Russia. It demonstrates the strength of the human spirit and the ruthlessness of our nature. So many lessons and told in a very readable fashion.


This is a part of history that has been completely forgotten. The nobility in Russia were always painted as ruthless and idle, yet as the author shows through chronicling the stories of two great Russian families, many members served the country as doctors, statesmen, writers and artists. Many sympathized with the peasants and even joined the communists at first. As the most educated members of society, they would have been the best able to help Russia rebuild after the Revolution- and many of them did. Sadly, the brutish thugs who cared more for revenge and or acquiring the spoils of victory for themselves than for rebuilding their own country won the day.

What these families suffered was incredible- and oddly the ones who suffered the most were the generation that could hardly be blamed for the excesses of the nobility in Imperial Russia. The luckiest escaped and some managed to use their talents to shine in the free world- as one Branch of the Gostelyn family ended up working in Hollywood as actors and oscar nominated art directors. Those who could not escape faced starvation, endless sentences in the gulags or were murdered by gangs or some kind of random police force.

What made this book worth reading was the depiction of the sense of honor and mental toughness that these people had- they truly faced their troubles in such an admirable way. It was remarkable to hear of their tireless spirit and relentless hope in the wake of such tragedy.The story told that these elites were who they were simply as an accident of birth is brought down by the examples in ths book- they really were a noble people and in destroying them, the communists sealed their own fate as they were never able to draw on the talent and strength of a class of people who had, for better or worse, controlled the country for centuries.

Former People
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  • $9.99
  • Available on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac.
  • Category: Europe
  • Published: Oct 02, 2012
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Seller: Macmillan / Holtzbrinck Publishers, LLC
  • Print Length: 496 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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