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

30 October 2013

By Pan Macmillan

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.