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Harrowing fate of Russian aristocracy,
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.