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Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy Hardcover – Unabridged, 25 Oct 2012

4.5 out of 5 stars 101 customer reviews

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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: 16.2 x 4.3 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (101 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 280,969 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"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

Book Description

The last great untold story of the Russian Revolution --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
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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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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
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.
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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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