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Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy [Unabridged] [Hardcover]

Douglas Smith
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (66 customer reviews)

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Book Description

25 Oct 2012
Epic in scope, intimate in detail, heartbreaking in its human drama, Former People is the first book to recount the history of the nobility caught up the maelstrom of the Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of Stalin’s Russia. It is a book filled with chilling tales of looted palaces, burning estates, of desperate flights in the night from marauding bands of thugs 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 empire, its promotion of the arts and culture, was dispossessed and destroyed along with the rest of old Russia. Drawing on the private archives of two great families – the Sheremetovs and the Golitsyns – it is also a story of survival and accommodation, of how many of the tsarist ruling class, so-called 'former people', managed to find a place for themselves and their families in the hostile world of the Soviet Union. It reveals, too, how even at the darkest depths of the terror, daily life went on - men and women fell in love, children were born, friends gathered. Ultimately, Former People is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Macmillan; 1 edition (25 Oct 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0230749062
  • ISBN-13: 978-0230749061
  • Product Dimensions: 24 x 16.5 x 4.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (66 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 133,600 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"Absolutely gripping, brilliantly researched, with a cast of flamboyant Russian princesses and princes from the two greatest noble dynasties and brutal Soviet commissars, this is a important history book but it is really the heartbreaking human story of the splendours and death of the Russian aristocracy and the survival of its members as individuals." --Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem, The Court of the Red Tsar and Catherine the Great and Potemkin

"Former People provides a fascinating window onto a lost generation. Filled with intimate detail, drama and pathos, this is a book as much about renewal and reinvention as about the end of an era." --Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana and A World on Fire

"The Russian aristocracy attracted fierce persecution in the Bolshevik Revolution, and yet its story has never been properly told until now. Douglas Smith's outstanding book is a vivid and well-researched account of the lives and deaths of prominent families. It is a tour de force." --Robert Service, author of Trotsky: a Biography and Spies and Commissars

"It is very refreshing to see the Bolshevik Revolution described through the eyes of a prominent group of its many victims. The Red Terror of 1918-22 lasted longer than its French counterpart of 1793-4, claimed far more innocent lives, and inflicted immeasurable physical and social damage. Douglas Smith has found a way of exploring this tragedy with empathy, and of exposing the appalling human cost." --Norman Davies, author of Europe: A History and Vanished Kingdoms

"Heartbreaking and harrowing, the till now untold story of the systematic destruction of the former Russian aristocracy under the Soviets is brought chillingly to life by Douglas Smith in this powerful and important new book."
--Helen Rappaport, author of Ekaterinburg and Magnificent Obsession

"Brilliant... Smith masterfully conveys the terrifying isolation of the nobles far flung properties in 1917 as deserting soldiers, brutalised in the First World War, returned to incite the local peasants to murderous vengeance against their landlords" --Evening Standard

"Smith's narrative is pervaded by a profound rage against the savagery with which the victors in the class struggle pursued the vanquished… The author has done well to tell this tale" --Max Hastings, Sunday Times

About the Author

Douglas Smith is a Resident Scholar at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies and an internationally recognized expert in Russian history. He is the author of numerous articles and three critically acclaimed books, the most recent of which is The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia. Before becoming a historian, Douglas Smith worked with the U.S. State Department in the Soviet Union and as a Russian affairs analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich. He lives in London and Seattle with his wife and two children.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
116 of 119 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Former People 2 Nov 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Although I have read many books about Russian history and, in particular the Russian Revolution, this is a story that I don't think has ever been told before. The term 'Former People' was, rather chillingly, applied to members of the Russian Aristocracy after the revolution and this book tells of how the Russian elite was dispossesed and destroyed in the years between 1917 and WWII. The author has taken two major Russian families of this class - the Shevemetevs and the Golitsyns - to illustrate what happened to a whole group of people, allowing us to hear the very human stories of the catastrophe which overtook them.

The book begins in the years before the revolution, when a small educated elite were the rulers of a largely rural and feudal Russia. As the author calls them, they were "isolated islands of privilege in a sea of poverty and resentment." Many members of the nobility understood, and even sympathised, with the violence that erupted. Even members of the aristocracy who benefited from the system looked for restraint and ways to ease poverty and worried about the weakness of Tsar Nicholas II. When revolution eventually came, the aristocracy, alongside most of the population, blamed the Empress, and Rasputin, for the downfall. Count Sergei Shevemetev wrote, "the abnormal power of that woman (Alexandra) has led us precisely to that which any had foreseen." There were members of the aristocracy who welcomed the revolution and the abdication of the Tsar with relief - some who even tried to march in solidarity with the workers, but they were soon made aware that they were not welcome. Not only were they not welcome to support the revolution, they were, like it or not, enemies of it.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Harrowing fate of Russian aristocracy 16 Jan 2013
By Mhr
History is usually written by and about winners. Thus, most books on the history of early 20th century Russia are mainly about the October Revolution, the victory of the Bolsheviks in the ensuing civil war and the "proletarian dictatorship" under the Soviet regime. Experiences of individuals are normally dealt with only briefly, with victims reduced to mere statistics (i.e. "deaths of 3 million civilians, 2 million soldiers", etc.)

The Russian aristocracy, the pillars of the society, supplied the country's political, military, cultural and artistic leaders for many centuries. This recently-published book, as the subtitle shows, is about these aristocrats who were systematically annihilated by the Bolsheviks, the Soviet regime and Stalin. The author focuses on two ancient noble families: the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns.

All aristocrats, as well as minor landowners, had their properties destroyed or confiscated, possessions stolen, became destitute, were stripped of their rights and classified as "outcasts" or were murdered outright or sent to gulags to perish. They were called "former people". A relatively small number of them were lucky enough to survive or escape abroad. Under the "Great Terror" unleashed by Stalin in 1937-38, the non-aristocratic professional class was also decimated.

The sheer scale of destruction, barbarism and cruelty inflicted upon the former ruling class is staggering and tragic. As the Russian society started to disintegrate and anarchy spread across the country in the early 20th century, particularly after the first revolution of 1905, violence was committed against the landowners by mobs spurred by revolutionaries.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Former People Honoured 16 Mar 2013
By faun070
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is as noble as its subjects - just for giving their stories the attention they deserve. Following the 1917 revolution up to WWII, the fate of Russia's nobility as a group matches that horrid fate of a certain other people, but is less well-recorded. Thoroughly researched and ably written, this book zooms in on two noble families, the Golitsyns and the Sheremetievs (and the related Trubetskoys), both tremendously wealthy and influential during the Imperial days. The stories, anecdotes and events pertaining to each and every family member after said days, taunt your ideas of physical and psychological maltreatment possible to human beings. The book praises the resilience of the former people, as they came to be known during the bolshevik regime, and explains how cleverly that regime pulled the strings of the peasants and workers to have them help exterminate the nobility: promises of getting to keep stolen land and properties and facilitating that process doesn't bring out the best in people. True, from their days as serfs the lower class were exploited in the old regime (as they were again later) and the book describes how the troubled nobles, in spiritual fashion, appear to have acknowledged this, believing themselves to be the generation to settle ancestral accounts. One anecdote that haunts me is that of a grave robbery in a monastery, when the thieving Bolsheviks kept hearing ghostly singing and didn't dare to go back. So far the many assets of this book. The weak points come with the amount of stories there are to tell - and are told. Douglas Smith has delved into the Sheremetiev archives before, the result of which was wonderfully told in his book `The Pearl. Read more ›
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars HIghly recommended.
Fascinating subject....the writing could have done with a little editing, in places (quoting the same line from Trotsky - about it being appropriate to exterminate a class which... Read more
Published 20 days ago by A. Tolmie
3.0 out of 5 stars Documentary
This is a well written book but it is quite hard work and is not exactly light summer reading. It is more like a book documentary than a particular story as so many families are... Read more
Published 27 days ago by B. G.
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Interesting book, very keen on reading about foreign history, that we didn't really learn about at school
Published 1 month ago by Caroline
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant.
What a book1 It gave me a completely new perspective on Russia and the Revolution. A must for anyone interested in Russian history. Brilliant.
Published 1 month ago by Mr. John F. Marcham
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant historical writing !
An amazing book, the fruit of most impressive research, and telling a fascinating, moving and largely untold story. Read more
Published 3 months ago by sgeoff
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
Anyone interested in modern Russian history should read this. Drawing on memoirs, letters and other sources, Smith recounts the grim and seldom told story of the fate of the... Read more
Published 6 months ago by happyexpat
4.0 out of 5 stars Engaging and well researched
This account of the fall of the Russian aristocracy is a harrowing, well written and well researched book, which captures the lives of the families involved in great detail.
Published 7 months ago by Melanie Stevenson
5.0 out of 5 stars hidden history, only now told.
heartbreaking, a people who were put down like rats just because they did'nt conform soviet russia revealed as pityless
the world should know how these people suffered
Published 8 months ago by tommy
5.0 out of 5 stars Russia during the revolution
The book is interesting from the beginning and tells the story of an aristocratic family and its total dissolution during the Russian revolution and though harrowing at times in... Read more
Published 9 months ago by alice
5.0 out of 5 stars I cannot give an an adequate review, I am overwhelmed by the story of...
The author has brought such breadth & research into the circumstances that caused human beings to encourage the committing of monstrous crimes upon each other in the name of an... Read more
Published 9 months ago by karin chu
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