Former People

The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy

Former People by Douglas Smith

The story of how a centuries'-old elite, famous for its glittering wealth, its service to the empire, its promotion of the arts and culture, was dispossessed and destroyed along with the rest of tsarist Russia.

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Former People

The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy
Epic in scope, precise in detail, and heart-breaking in its human drama, Former People is the first book to recount the history of the aristocracy caught up in the maelstrom of the Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of Stalin’s Russia.

Filled with chilling tales of looted palaces and burning estates, of desperate flights in the night from marauding peasants 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, and its promotion of the arts and culture, was dispossessed and destroyed along with the rest of old Russia.

Yet Former People is also a story of survival and accommodation, of how many of the tsarist ruling class—so-called “former people” and “class enemies“—overcame the psychological wounds inflicted by the loss of their world and decades of repression as they struggled to find a place for themselves and their families in the new, hostile order of the Soviet Union. Chronicling the fate of two great aristocratic families—the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns—it reveals how even in the darkest depths of the terror, daily life went on.

Listen to Douglas Smith talk about Former People on KUOW Radio.

Reviews

Engrossing ... with richly detailed event and anecdote.

~The New York Times

Smith's engaging and, at times, heartbreaking account is an essential record of loss.

~The New Yorker

A mesmerizing tale.

~Newsweek

Suspenseful reading ... history at its most epic and its most achingly personal.

~Andrew Solomon, Best Books of 2012, Salon

In the process of sifting through the slews of personal letters, documents, and journals amassed by these sprawling interconnected aristocratic families, Smith was clearly won over by them. He is invested in their (former) cause, and he narrates the events of their lives with passion. Passion is the key word. The characters of this book believed in Russia--as a motherland, as a concept, as a unique people unified by an inexplicable force that might be called fate--so passionately, so purely, so utterly and often so selflessly, and it is this passion that Smith has translated onto the page. Former People is a thorough, extensively sourced history, and also something of a spiritual restitution.

~The New Republic

An engaging and absorbing book.

~The Wall Street Journal

A hauntingly written chronicle about the methodical annihilation of an entire class of people.

~Bloomberg

A poignant account ... this book will soften your heart.

~The Telegraph (UK)

An exemplary study.

~The Literary Review (UK)

A great book, a feat of scholarship and a dramatic triumph.

~The Wichita Eagle

Well-researched, fluent and substantial.

~The Observer (UK)

Douglas Smith’s Former People is a passionate and vivid story of the destruction of an entire class—the Russian aristocracy—during the Bolshevik Revolution.  What the Communists began with the nobility, they were to continue with writers, poets, artists, peasants, and workers. Smith restores the dignity, pathos, and endurance of a vanished and fabled elite.

~Michael Ignatieff, author of The Russian Album

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 A World on Fire: an Epic History of Two Nations Divided

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 an important book, but its  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 Russian aristocracy attracted fierce persecution in the Bolshevik Revolution, and yet its story has never been properly told. Now Douglas Smith has come along to fill the gap with a lively and well-researched account of the lives—and deaths—of prominent families. This outstanding book makes one wonder how the aristocrats could have been ignored for so long when we were trying to make sense of early communism. A tour de force.

~Robert Service, Trotsky: A Biography

Smith examines the much-neglected “fate of the nobility in the decades following the Russian Revolution,” when they were sometimes given the Orwellian title “former people.” The author of several books on Russia (The Pearl; Working the Rough Stone), Smith focuses on three generations of two families: the Sheremetevs of St. Petersburg and the Golitsyns of Moscow. He begins by showing their extravagant wealth before the revolution; in the late 19th century, Count Dmitri Sheremetev owned 1.9 million acres worked by 300,000 serfs. From the 1917 Bolshevik revolution until Stalin’s death in 1953, these families and others suffered, at best, severe persecution and impoverishment; at worst, murder by mobs or the secret police, or a slow death in the gulag. In his sprawling but well-paced narrative, Smith tells many memorable stories, including one of Vladimir Golitsyn’s son-in-law, who hid the fact that he’d been sentenced to death from his wife, who’d been allowed a three-day visit. Smith also provides fascinating background information, such as the Bolsheviks’ jaundiced view of “decadent” Western culture. Maxim Gorky said the foxtrot, popular among nobles during the 1920s and early ’30s, “fostered moral degeneracy and led inexorably to homosexuality.” This is an anecdotally rich, highly informative look at decimated, uprooted former upper-class Russians.

~Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

When the Bolshevik Revolution came in 1917, the new order began transforming aristocrats into paupers, exiles and corpses—a transformation that consumed decades.

Smith, a former U.S. diplomat and authority on the Soviets and author of several previous works (The Pearl: A Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia, 2008, etc.), takes a different approach to revolutionary history, focusing on the fallen class: Who were they? What had their lives been like? What happened to them? The author follows two aristocratic families (later, they intermarried), the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns, showing the splendor in which they lived and then the squalor into which they declined. The author is deeply sympathetic to their fates. Although he states that the aristocracy had, of course, flourished on the servitude of others, he tells such wrenching, emotional stories about his characters that it’s easy to forget who once wore the silken slippers. Smith’s research is remarkably thorough in its range and detail, so much so that readers may feel overwhelmed by such powerful surges of suffering. Searches, arrests, firings, confiscations of property, internal exile, imprisonments, tortures, executions, desecration of graves—these and other grim experiences Smith chronicles in his compelling narrative. He mentions significant historical events, but his intent is to show how these events affected his characters. He portrays with brutal clarity the truth of Orwell’s Animal Farm: A new aristocracy—a political one—emerged to enjoy the benefits of living on the labor of others.

Sobering stories about the politics of power—its loss, its gain—and the deep human suffering that inevitably results.

~Kirkus, Starred Review

[A] brilliant account.

~The Evening Standard (UK)

Now, for the first time, Douglas Smith--through a gripping saga focused on two prominent families, the Sheremetevs and Golitsyns--tells how an entire class was destroyed. ... An engrossing book.

~Maclean's (Canada)

Grimly fascinating.

~The Seattle Times

The author has done well to tell this tale. ... Mercy has never loomed large among Russia's historic virtues.

~The Sunday Times (UK)

This is a story of a mass experience told through individual perspectives. ... The pattern of their fate is so clearly drawn that their individual stories work as highlights and illuminations. Smith has written a remarkable, deeply affecting book.

~The Dallas News

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 1793-94, 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

Author Interview

Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy

​How did you first get interested in this story?

It was back in 2005 when I was writing a book on the scandalous love affair between Count Nicholas Sheremetev and his serf Praskovya Kovalyova, the famous opera singer who performed as “The Pearl.” I got to know some of the descendants of the count, now living in the United States, and became fascinated by their stories of what had happened to the family after the revolution. Their tales of loss and emigration, of desperate escapes from the Bolsheviks and the destruction of their ancestors’ way of life captured my imagination. I started reading everything I could find on the subject, but nothing seemed to satisfy my curiosity. It wasn’t long before I knew I had to write this book.

Why do you think no one had ever written such a book before?

I think there are a few reasons. For most of the past century the subject was taboo in the Soviet Union. It simply didn’t exist as a topic. The nobles themselves had been too traumatized to discuss these things publicly and the Soviet historical profession had no interest in even mentioning the subject. It was only with the reforms begun under Gorbachev in the 1980s that Russians began to uncover this repressed past. I was fortunate to come to this subject at just the right moment after a great deal of material had finally been published, the archives had been opened, and noble families were keen to talk about their experiences.

How did you do the research for the book?

Former People draws on an enormous amount of material, and the research for the book was a huge undertaking that took many years to finish. I worked along a few tracks simultaneously. I began by compiling a large bibliography of everything published on the subject in English, Russian, French, and German, slowly reading through all this material and taking detailed notes.

At the same time I visited archives in Russia and the United States in the hope of finding unpublished documents left behind by my subjects. Here I was aided by several archivists, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg, who were extremely knowledgeable and were able to point me in the right direction, and so saved me a great deal of time and led me to some amazing discoveries. Most of the documents I found in these archives (chiefly letters, diaries, memoirs) had languished unread and forgotten for decades, and so unearthing this material was a fascinating, and at times profoundly emotional, experience.

I knew from the start that I could not write this book without the help of Russian noble families. I began by asking the descendants of the Counts Sheremetev in the United States for information, which they graciously offered. They were also able to put me in touch with other members of the nobility, both in and outside of Russia. And so my circle of contacts within the nobility grew, and soon I was corresponding with and meeting people from all over the United States, Russia, England, Europe, and even north Africa.

I have been moved by the generosity with which my requests for information were met. These families suffered terribly in the years following the revolution, and their collections of family photographs and letters speak in a direct and profoundly personal way to this harrowing past. Asking strangers not only to read such intimate papers, but to quote from them for publication is not easy, and I always tried to approach this delicate matter with the utmost sensitivity.

When I began my research, I wasn’t at all sure how I would be received, especially as an outsider with no Russian blood and no claims to noble lineage. (Indeed, most of my ancestors were poor farmers from Scotland and Sweden, as far from the nobility as you can get!) Yet I was repeatedly surprised by how generous, open, and helpful these descendants of the nobility were, and I can only recall one or two instances when my requests for help were turned down.

So not everyone shared their family stories with you?

No, I’m afraid not. One person—I’ll keep the name to myself—is sitting on a large family archive in Russia that she refuses to let anyone see. When I got her name and address, family members told me she’d never let me look at the archive, for they had already tried themselves and been rebuffed. I took this as a challenge, and for several years I would visit this person in the hope she would eventually relent. I brought her gifts and books and flowers every time I came. I even gave her copies of her grandfather’s letters that I had found in various Russian archives.

After my fourth visit in as many years, I thought she might finally relent. She opened up the massive trunk containing her grandfather’s diaries—the treasure I had been longing to read—pulled out one volume and held it out to me. I remember thinking, “Yes, this is it, this is the moment!” But then, just as I was reaching out to take the dusty, crumpled notebook from her hand, she dropped it back into the trunk, shut the lid, and turned the key. My heart sank. I went back once more, but by then it was clear I was never going to get a look at that diary or anything else in her trunk. I find I keep thinking about what secrets lie buried there and whether I’ll ever get the chance to find out.

Were there any surprises in the course of your research, anything you hadn’t expected?

Oh, yes, quite a few, to be honest.

One of the biggest was the basic chronology of the story. I went in thinking, perhaps naively, that the war against the nobility lasted only for a year or two following the revolution and that the book would cover the years 1917 to, say, 1919. But as I worked, I realized I’d have to push the book back to the end of the Civil War in 1921, then to the end of NEP in 1928, and then, finally, to the outbreak of the Second World War. When I first began, I never could have imagined I’d be writing a book that spanned almost half a century.

Another surprise was the reaction of the vast majority of the nobility to the revolution. I had not expected there to have been, at first, such a wide acceptance, and in some instances approval, of the fall of the Romanovs. This was new to me. More shocking, however, was the strength of character, the stoicism and quiet resolve, which so many of the people in my book displayed over decades of inconceivable repression and hardship. I still find it remarkable how few people bemoaned their plight or even complained. I’m not sure I even understand all the reasons for this reaction. I admire it and it continues to fascinate me. It’s hard for me to imagine another elite experiencing something similar and handling it with such grace and dignity.

What do you want your readers to take away from the book?

I’d like them to be able to finish the book with the feeling that they had just been shown a chapter of history that was utterly foreign and new to them and with a greater appreciation for just how horribly Russia suffered in the first decades of the last century. I think few people, particularly in the West, have any awareness of how bloody and destructive these years were, and this was even before the carnage of World War II.

I also hope they will feel empathy for the women and men whose lives I describe in Former People. While working on the book, I had people in the West ask me why I was even bothering with the nobility, implying that they had gotten what they deserved and that their fate need not concern us. If I’ve done my job, no one will read Former People and continue to think that the fate of these people does not speak to all of us.

Read the Prologue