Sunday, January 6, 2013

Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, by Douglas Smith

Ferrar, Strous and Giroux, 2012
464 pp


"One cannot help but see that we, the people of the present century, are paying for the sins of our forefathers, and particularly for the institution of serfdom with all its horrors and perversions."
                                       --- Prince Vladimir Mikhailovich Golitsyn

 Face it -- the way history is related can either be boring enough to use as a sleep aid or it can be vivid and leave a lasting impression or at the very least, a desire to go deeper and find out as much as you can about a certain topic.  Former People belongs in the second camp. Once I picked it up, I couldn't put it down.  For some people it might be just another dry account of something that happened in the distant past making them wonder why we should care, but for me it was a stunning chronicle of an entire group of people whose way of life came to end. That's not to say that there weren't other people in Russia whose lives weren't completely transformed or lost during this time,  and it's not to say  that anyone should care more about the nobility  any more than the lives and fates of every other living human being caught up in this maelstrom;  the last days of the aristocracy just happens to be the topic of Smith's most excellent book.  

At the center of this book are two families,  the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns.  Count Sergei Sheremetev (1844-1918) descended from a line of aristocratic nobles who were very close to Russia's imperial throne,  dating back to the 1500s.  Sergei, a devoted patriarch and  a "pillar of mindless Russian conservatism,"  firmly believed in autocratic rule and did not support the introduction of Western European institutions into his beloved Russia. He and his wife Princess Yekaterina Vyazemsky had seven children who grew up along with and were friends with the children of Nicholas II, and they had a number of servants, estate managers, governesses, valets and tutors.  Prince Vladimir Golitsyn (1847-1932), known as "the Mayor,"  could trace his family's lineage back to the 14th-century founder of Lithuania.  Much more liberal minded than Sergei Sheremetev, Vladimir was "ambivalent toward his own social class, preferring what he called 'an aristocracy of culture and intelligence, an aristocracy of lofty souls and sensitive hearts' ".   Former People takes the stories of these two families through the period of Stalin's Great Terror and examines how they (and others of their class) came to be known as "former people, " and how being determined as such affected their lives.  It also looks at how they coped -- sometimes leaving Russia altogether, but more often than not staying in their homeland and trying to rebuild their lives in order to survive. Around the stories of these two families, the author examines the historical events leading up to their downfall.

The rulers of Russia, the  "isolated islands of privilege in a sea of poverty and resentment," really never cared about the plight of the poor, and under Nicholas II, events would come to a head.   Nicholas was an inept tsar, and even a great many of the aristocrats who would attend the lavish palace balls were often horrified at how he was ruling Russia. With the Russo-Japanese war bringing defeat to Russia,  strikes by workers, revolutionary agitation, and events like Bloody Sunday in 1905 where innocent people were fired on by Nicholas' Imperial Guard, resentment that had long been simmering started to boil.  Even Nicholas' promises of reform were not enough since he was bound and determined to maintain autocratic rule.  Russia's entry into World War I was also a losing cause, once Nicholas took over as supreme commander.  In the countryside, peasants who only wanted some say and stock in the land they worked were frustrated and angry as well. Add in the strange relationship between the Imperial family and Rasputin, the economic downturn due to the war and other factors -- a revolution was pretty much inevitable, and its main targets were the privileged classes.  As the author notes,
"the violence of the February Revolution represented an attack of the masses on privileged Russia, those marked with the word burzhui, was a term of scorn used for all of privileged Russia. Extremely malleable and with a long history, the term "burzhui" could denote the cultured elite, the rich, the intelligentsia, Jews, Germans, or even the revolutionaries themselves. It had nothing to do with a specific social class but stood in the eyes of the downtrodden for "the enemy" and, particularly from 1917 on, the enemy of the revolution.  The people stood in opposition to the burzhui in the sense of "us versus them" or "the masses verses the classes."  In the countryside, the peasants used the term to refer to all their enemies, especially the gentry and the monarchists."
There was also a sense that with revolution came freedom, but only for the "poor and the marginalized."  Anyone who might be viewed as trying  to limit this newly-found freedom was an enemy of not only the revolution, but the of "the people" as well.  A number of aristocrats were arrested, many of their estates were taken over by the poor or by the Bolsheviks, and even members of the privileged classes who were sympathetic to the promises of the revolution were considered enemies. House searches were common occurrences as were multiple arrests and even executions stemming from baseless charges. As Trotsky noted later, " There is nothing immoral in the proletariat finishing off a class that is collapsing; that is its right."

As the Revolution moved on into a civil war, as Lenin died and Stalin took his place, as Stalin cemented his leadership through purges and other repressive measures,  Former People follows the fates of the Sheremetevs, the Golitsyns and other "former people" in their efforts to survive and to come to terms with their new lives.  While the aristocrats are the main area of study here, the author makes it very clear that they  were certainly not the only people who suffered, especially under Stalin.  Concentration camps arose, large numbers of  the workers and peasants who had earlier been active in supporting the Revolution now found themselves victims of a ruthless regime and were brutalized, starved, put into prison, executed or simply vanished.

There's obviously much more to this story than I've mentioned here -- Lenin's own (ignored) background from the nobility;  the unofficial countryside wanderers who helped fuel the flames of already-existing resentment among the peasant class; the heist of the century where the Bolsheviks looted banks, the treasury and private art collections; a more in-depth look at the Russian civil war, revolutionaries and later officials who often helped others escape fates that could have been much worse than they were -- there's a wealth of information in this book that tells the story of the end of one era opening into another.   These stories are all related in a way that puts human faces on tragedy, never verging into a boring account.   Using a wide variety of primary sources including diaries kept at the time,  along with secondary works, the author has put together this amazing and fascinating book that is literally impossible to set aside.  There are family trees of the Sheremetevs and Golitsyns that are helpful; I copied them so I wouldn't have to keep flipping back and forth each time I needed them as a reference.   It is a fantastic book that will appeal to people who have any amount of interest in this time period and I most highly recommend it.  And perhaps while it's easy to feel that the aristocrats brought a lot of their future woes on themselves,  and that their fate as a class only scratches the surface of  the suffering that people endured under  the Romanovs and the Soviets,  it's also difficult not to feel sorry for them as human beings along with the millions of others who lost lives and loved ones in this tumultuous time period.


  1. Dear Nancy,
    How thrilled and flattered I was to read your review of my book. I am always so glad to hear from readers such as you who have enjoyed the book and understood what I was trying to do with it.
    Thank you very much.
    Best regards, Doug Smith

    1. Oh my -- I should be thanking you for writing such an excellent book! I loved it.

  2. Mr Smith
    Wonderful book!! Best read in a while. I am looking forward to your book about Rasputin. Please write more!!!

  3. Mr Smith, you ought to know that the Russian aristocracy has a terrible tradition of anti-Semitism. Like all the European aristocracies, their power was based on the idea of racial superiority. In the world democracy happened because people overthrew aristoracies. The alternative was fascism. The Russian Revolution had its extremes but helped to rid the world of the menace of fascism.

  4. As was told by countess Xenia Sheremetev, amongst many others of my Russian relations, this book is a must. Most people who want to understand Russia, even in the present times should read this great book, which deals with a tragedy, that for us Russian nobles, who were born in exile, was part of our lives, even if we were born almost half century after the bloody revolution.