Former People: The Destruction of the Russian Aristocracy

Former People

The Destruction of the Russian Aristocracy

Douglas Smith

The last great untold story of the Russian Revolution

Epic in scope, intimate in detail, heartbreaking in its human drama, this is the first book to recount the history of the nobility caught up the maelstrom of the Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of Stalin’s Russia. It is a book filled with chilling tales of looted palaces, burning estates, of desperate flights from marauding thugs and Red Army soldiers, of imprisonment, exile, and execution. It is the story of how a centuries’-old elite famous for its glittering wealth, its service to the Tsar and Empire, was dispossessed and destroyed along with the rest of old Russia.

Drawing on the private archives of two great families – the Sheremetovs and the Golitsyns – Former People is also a story of survival, of how many of the tsarist ruling class, so-called "former people" and "class enemies," abandoned, displaced, and repressed, overcame the loss of their world and struggled to find a place for themselves and their families in the new, hostile world of the Soviet Union. It reveals how even at the darkest depths of the terror, daily life went on—men and women fell in love, children were born and educated, friends gathered, simple pleasures were cherished. Ultimately, Former People is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780330520294
Publication date: 09.05.2013
Number of pages: 496
Dimensions: 197mm x 130mm

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Never Forget: the importance of Douglas Smith's Former People

Non-fiction Editorial Director Georgina Morley talks about her love of Russia and why Former People by Douglas Smith is such a significant book

Sometimes a book comes along that you were born to publish. Douglas Smith’s brilliant, harrowing account of the destruction of the Russian aristocracy after the Revolution is one such. The proposal popped into my inbox and I was sufficiently intrigued to begin reading it straightaway. Within a page or two, I knew that this was a book we had to acquire. 

Now, I freely admit to being biased. I’ve been fascinated by Russia and Russian history since childhood. I had a copy of Russian Revolution folder in the marvellous – and much-missed – Jackdaw series (a great envelope full of facsimile documents designed to make any history-loving child salivate). I read Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra when I was twelve and War and Peace when I was fourteen. I visited – and marvelled at – Leningrad when I was a student. Three decades on I’m lucky enough to come to work and publish history books. 

But Douglas Smith’s book is really very special indeed because it tells a story that hasn’t been told before. Anyone with half a notion of twentieth-century history will know that the Tsar and his family were murdered and that that there was a bloody civil war in Russia in the years following the Revolution. They’ll know that, with Stalin at its helm, the Soviet regime became ever more cruel and abusive to its citizens. We know about the artists and the intellectuals who were sent to Gulag. We know about the peasants whose pitiful strips of land were taken from them in the great march of collectivisation. Acres of print have been given over to these important topics. 

But no one, until now, has looked at what happened to the Russian nobility – a vast swathe of people whose lives were turned upside down by the revolution and whose families were decimated – whether by murder, imprisonment or flight into exile.  Former People is their story. What struck me particularly is that Doug Smith tells that story by following just two families – the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns. We get to know them as they try, against often insuperable odds, to come to terms with the enormous changes they are faced with. To sum it up, I can do no better than quote the closing paragraph of the book:

Of Nikolay Golitsyn’s four grandparents, three died behind bars. Vladimir Trubetskoy was shot in Central Asia in 1937, and his wife, Eli, died of typhus in Moscow’s Butyrki Prison in 1943, the same year Vladimir Golitsyn perished at Sviyazhsk. Only Nikolay’s grandmother Yelena Golitsyn lived a full life, dying of natural causes in 1992, aged eightyseven. I ask Nikolay whether his grandmother talked much about her life and all that had befallen her family, both the Sheremetevs into whom she had been born and the Golitsyns into whom she had married. Yes, he tells me, she did. What stood out most was the time Yelena told him that three hundred of her relatives had been killed by the Bolsheviks. He once asked her whether she was still angry at their killers and whether she could ever forgive them. I forgave them long ago, she explained to Nikolay, but I will never forget.

And nor should we.

Praise for Former People

'A fluent account of what befell the Russian Aristocracy' – Guardian

'This book will soften your heart . . . a poignant account of two of Russia's noble families'  Telegraph

'Douglas Smith's exemplary study provides what is, remarkably, the first full scholarly examination of this cataclysm.'  – Literary Review

An 'engrossing reassessment of this erased segment of that country’s society' – New York Times

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