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117 of 120 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Former People
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...
Published on 2 Nov 2012 by S Riaz

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Compelling
This is a compelling book. It addresses the decimation and gradual erradication of an entire class of people in Russia. The tragedy is how greatly many of the upper class tried to fit in and welcome the changes of the revolution. Nevertheless they were uprooted, sent to gulags, tortured, imprisoned and murdered. This tremendous suffering was, for the most part, met...
Published 17 months ago by Godbless


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117 of 120 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Former People, 2 Nov 2012
By 
S Riaz "S Riaz" (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Former People (Kindle Edition)
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.

Of course, the revolution took place during WWI and most of the nobility, unsure of the changing world order and wishing to be patriotic, had brought their capital back to Russia. In the Civil War everything was taken from them. The nobility went to great lengths to try to hide their valuables - even going to the extremes of dismantling cars and burying them or sewing sugar between sheets. However, they were stripped of everything as the terror went on unchecked. "There is nothing immoral," Trotsky coldly affirmed, "in the proletariat finishing off a class that is collapsing; that is its right." Of course, the nobility were not the only ones who suffered, as concentration camps appeared, executions increased and famine swept the country. Many former nobles understood the feelings of those who had lived in poverty for so long and asked whether the tsarist or the soviet regime was the most criminal. Still, the murder of the Tsar and his family shocked a nation and when it was clear that the Red Army was winning by 1920, many fled into a life of exile. By 1921 Russia was in ruins, with ten million dead and millions more having abandoned the country.

We then come to the years of Stalin and the labour camps, or gulags, where so many people perished - many of them from the nobility who remained in Russia. 'Former People' were seen as a threat - there was nowhere left to hide. Many disappeared into the abyss of Stalin's Terror - never to be seen again. They were outcasts, not allowed to work, humiliated and starved. During 'Operation Former People' in 1935, more than 39,000 were expelled from Leningrad. As WWII approached, the remaining 'Former People' were accused of being pro-German, defeatists, traitors and spies. It seemed that the terror, and the hunt for them, was never ending.

This is a book of great human tragedy, but also of love and friendship and of the human will to survive and adapt. There are stories of personal misery, of great estates reduced to ruin, artwork and libraries plundered and damaged, people arrested, torture and murder. I read the kindle edition of this book and the illustrations, as so often in kindle books, are at the very end of the book. Do make sure you scroll to the end and look at these though, as many are very moving - none more so than two photographs of Vanya Tribetskoy. There is one of Vanya as a young girl, pretty and carefree. The second is her prison photograph. Vanya died a prisoner in the gulag at the age of only twenty four in 1943. Yet, to look at her, you would think she was double that age and the photo of what that poor young girl was reduced to, show her suffering as no words can. Of course, even the nobility themselves, understood that their lives of privilege could not continue indefinitely, but this is a moving and tragic account of a group that may have been labelled 'Former People', but were people nonetheless.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Former People Honoured, 16 Mar 2013
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This review is from: Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy (Hardcover)
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.' But the account on serf girl Praskovia who married her boss count Nicolai Sheremetiev in the earliest years of the 19th century, had far less principal players than `Former People.' It is rather hard to keep track of the identity of twenty-something people brought on stage here, and how they are related to one another in some way. The fact that `Former People' is not consistently chronologically written doesn't help. Added problem is that virtually all Russians are named after a handful of saints, so everybody is Nicolai, Pyotr, Mikhail or Tatiana. Smith could have made it easier on his readers to include the patronymics of his protagonists, and made use of the female surname form: it seems a miscalculation to not let us distinguish e.g. Nicolai Vladimirovich from Nicolai Sergeyevich, and not have Sheremetieva, Golitsyna and Trubetskaya for the ladies. As much as I came to care for these people as a group, caring for the individuals was smothered in this lack of clarity, and said extensiveness of the book. Halfway I found myself tired of returning time and again to the family trees on the first pages. All in all, be prepared for an insightful, heart-wrenching history, and a skilful if dense record.
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41 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Belaya Kost: the forgotten victims of Bolshevism, 23 Nov 2012
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Lance Grundy (Great Britain) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Former People (Kindle Edition)
In 1917, on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, there were nearly two million so-called 'nobles' living in Russia. A diverse group, they had essentially governed the country for over 500 years and their contribution to the nation was immense. Most of the country's artists, poets, musicians, writers and military leaders came from the noble class - as did many of the scientists and industrialists under whose tutelage Russia had experienced phenomenal levels of industrial growth [by 1914 Russia was experiencing greater industrial growth than Great Britain, Germany and the United States]. Paradoxically, the noble class also produced many of the revolutionary socialists who would bring about the upheaval which would ultimately destroy them. Indeed, Lenin himself was a noble who, according to the cousin of the Russian writer Nabokov, "spoke in the manner of upper-class, salon snobs".

When the Bolsheviks seized power in the October Revolution they declared a 'war on privilege' and legally abolished all classes of nobility. Making no distinction between 'good' or 'bad' nobles, between 1917 and 1941 they launched several successive waves of terror against anyone they considered to be "bourgeois" - including the so-called 'progressive' or left-wing nobles who had opposed Tsarism and supported reform. Publically vilified as "class enemies", "socially alien elements", "remnants of the old bourgeois world" or "former people", tens of thousands of them were killed. As the situation inside Russia began to deteriorate many "former people" managed to escape. Many more though did not. This book tells their story.

Exploring the tragedy of the Bolshevik Revolution from the perspective of some of its first victims, "Former People" is a well-written, interesting and historically important account of how an entire class of Russian society was destroyed in the aftermath of one of history's bloodiest revolutions. Focusing for the most part on the post-revolutionary fortunes of two of Russia's oldest aristocratic families, the liberal Golitsyns and the more conservative Sheremetevs, Smith's book is a testament to what he describes as "the strength of character, the stoicism and quiet resolve" which so many former people displayed over decades of inconceivable repression and hardship. Researching it took many years and as well as using documents found in the recently opened Soviet archives [letters, diaries and memoirs] Smith worked at length with the modern-day descendants of Russian noble families both in and outside of Russia. Many of the sources he quotes from had, he said, "languished unread and forgotten for decades and unearthing the material was a fascinating and at times profoundly emotional experience".

Told in five parts and spanning just over 40 years, Smith's account provides an intriguing new take on the Russian Revolution. In Part 1 he introduces us to the Russian nobility in all their pre-revolutionary 'glory'. Indeed, at this point, many readers will wonder how they will ever sympathise with these decadent nobles, many of whom "lived off the numbing toil of the peasant serfs". However, as we read in parts 2 and 3 about how the "old world" was swept away by bloody revolution, Smith's admiration for how these people coped with the cruel, humiliating and sometimes murderous treatment they received at the hands of the Soviets becomes infectious. By Part 4, "The New Normal", those former people still alive have adapted to their much reduced circumstances and have made new lives for themselves [having come to an unspoken accommodation with a Soviet regime which still needed their knowledge, skills and experience to make its socialist utopia viable]. Part 5 sees the Red Terror sweeping across Russia in the 1930s and Stalin launching a purge of the remaining nobles - "Operation Former People" - under which 75,388 former persons were exiled or shot in Leningrad alone. The book ends with the outbreak of the Second World War.

I enjoyed this book enormously and found myself sympathising and empathising with the former people and their experiences under the Soviets. The book is an inspiring testimony to some of the best aspects of human nature and illustrates people's ability to adapt and succeed even in the face of great adversity. On his website the author says that he hopes that, after having read this book, people feel that "they have just been shown a chapter of history that was utterly foreign and new to them" and "if I've done my job, no one will read 'Former People' and continue to think that the fate of these people does not speak to all of us". For me, Smith has succeeded on both counts and I'm grateful to him for having taken the time to write such an interesting book. Without doubt five stars.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Compelling, 8 July 2013
This is a compelling book. It addresses the decimation and gradual erradication of an entire class of people in Russia. The tragedy is how greatly many of the upper class tried to fit in and welcome the changes of the revolution. Nevertheless they were uprooted, sent to gulags, tortured, imprisoned and murdered. This tremendous suffering was, for the most part, met with stoicism and true nobility. I wept several times...

My only quibble is that I found it hard to follow the cast of families and to work out which generation was which as there were errors or lacunae in the family trees.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My Rating of 'Former People', 29 Jun 2013
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This review is from: Former People (Kindle Edition)
I was attracted to this book, initially, by its Title. ( a crazy reason) As I read it, I found that I could not put it down and the title told it all. The royalists became effectively people who did no longer exist. Their lands were taken over, wine cellars consumed, artifacts looted (sometimes wilfully destroyed) and the whole intent was to create a society in which wealth was to be destroyed.
I would recommend such a book to any serious student of history, especially Russian history.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Harrowing fate of Russian aristocracy, 16 Jan 2013
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This review is from: Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy (Hardcover)
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. During and after the Revolution of 1917, it was exacerbated by the "class struggle" championed initially by the Bolsheviks, and later by the Soviet regime. Brutality was justified by the idea of "class hatred" by "proletariats", the oppressed working class, against the former ruling and privileged class. The irony is that Lenin came from an aristocratic family.

The author quotes many letters and memoirs written by members of the above two families. Many of them are a moving testimony to human endurance and courage. One is struck by their close kinship and stoic attitude against the background of terrible hardship all their family members suffered. One of the members of the Golitsyn family, Prince Vladimir Mikhailovich Golitsyn, a liberal, reformist former mayor of Moscow, expressed his conviction in the inevitable collapse of Soviet Russia when he wrote the following note before his death in 1932:

"This regime does not possess the ability to create - it knows how to destroy, to abolish, to cast off - but it is incapable of creating, and its celebrated "achievements" amount to nothing, if not even less than nothing. And for this reason its collapse will come about as a result of the power of inertia, and not under the blows of some external threat or the outburst of some storm; it will fall all by itself, under its own weight.... But that sooner or later this will happen, I do not doubt for a single moment."

Prince Golitsyn's prediction came true nearly sixty years later. Instead of eliminating the class division, the "former people" were replaced by a small number of elites who exploited the nation. The book mentions some anecdotes - reminding the reader of "Animal Farm" - that already started to appear in the 1930s, betraying the original revolutionary ideal of establishing "a classless society."

The book has many old photographs of members of these noble families, most of whom died an untimely and cruel death. I believe this book should be compulsory reading for those interested in Russian history.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Russian History Lesson, 17 Jan 2013
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This review is from: Former People (Kindle Edition)
Excellent, informative book. Shocking and disturbing, but very detailed. A compilation of historical data, and family histories. For me, the unbelievable slaughter and depredation makes this the Russian equivalent of Cambodia's 'Killing Fields'.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I cannot give an an adequate review, I am overwhelmed by the story of the circumstances of Russia during 1917 & WW11, 19 Nov 2013
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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 ideological fantasy! It is an education into how to cause the overthrow & take over of an agrarian society, in which education had been restricted only to a section of the people, so that change in circumstances was impossible. The book illustrates how easily unenlightened repressive governance creates desperation & how, in these circumstances, those who intended to take over Russia set about it, by the a ruthless everyday destruction of the whole country. How poverty, hunger & brutality can be turned & directed by one class on another. The author tells us how people have been tortured-&-torture, murder-& murdered (by intensely personal tragedies) names, faces, families! In depth Historical detail of how Russia was ruled 1st.-Tzar, 2):- Bolsheviks. 3):-Stalin. 20 million people died. The shocking story of what people will do to each other without good Governance.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Former people., 10 April 2013
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This review is from: Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy (Hardcover)
A harrowing story detailing the lives of two aristocratic families, land owners and hierarchy post the revolution. A real eye opener, I hadn't realised the depth and intensity of suffering these people were to endure, the prolonged and systematic destruction of generations of family members.
Took the book on holiday with me as a pleasant trawl through the demise of the Russian aristo's, instead I couldnt put it down and was often close to tears. Its well written, detailed and gave me a new insight into how the new soviet age began. Its not a pleasant read but a must for anyone not familiar with the period.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy, 16 Jan 2013
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This review is from: Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy (Hardcover)
This book has been a long time coming, and it was worth the wait. Douglas Smith has continued in the tradition of Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag Archipelago, but focused on the fate of the former aristocrats, and their vicious persecution at the hands of Stalin. I was intrigued at the way the Bolsheviks decried the culture of the Former People, as they classified them, and their lavish lifestyles, yet as soon as they were ejected from their palaces and estates, the Bolsheviks moved in!!! I admired the way that they accepted their fate without undue complaint and tried to adapt to the new way of life under communism. They displayed strong, loving family ties and a committed work ethic. None of this, however, saved them from their fate, as former aristocrats and landowners they were destined to be destroyed.
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Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy
Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith (Hardcover - 25 Oct 2012)
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