Former People

The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy

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.

Overview of the Book

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.

Former People was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, was chosen Book of the Year by Salon, and won the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize sponsored by Waterstones in 2013. It has been published in ten foreign languages.

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

Book Reviews

"A mesmerizing tale."

— Newsweek

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

— The New Yorker

"Engrossing ... with richly detailed event and anecdote."

— The New York Times

"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."

— Jennifer Siegel, 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 Daily Telegraph (UK)

"An exemplary study."

— The Literary Review (UK)

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

— The Wichita Eagle

"'Winners get more attention in the history books than losers.' So begins Mr. Smith's rationale for his stunning and brilliantly narrated book about the fate of the Russian aristocracy ... The book is a frightening analysis of the ways in which ideological purity gives license to murder."

— Rosemary Sullivan, The Wall Street Journal

"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

"Breathtaking ... a stunning book. A tale of despair and senseless cruelty but also of courage and sacrifice."

— de Volkskrant (Netherlands)


— La Razon (Spain)

"A book with the suppleness of the best fiction and the solidity of historical reality."

— La Nacion (Argentina)

"Humiliated, insulted, murdered. The revolution struck the Russian aristocracy with all its fury. Historian Douglas Smith describes its destruction in Former People, an enthralling book that reads practically like a novel."

— Deutschlandradio Kultur (Germany)

"An amazing, utterly captivating book."

— Nürnberger Nachrichten (Germany)

"An important, beautiful book."

— Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Germany)

"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