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Belaya Kost: the forgotten victims of Bolshevism,
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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.