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Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy

3.97  ·  Rating Details ·  922 Ratings  ·  168 Reviews
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 ...more
ebook, 496 pages
Published October 2nd 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published October 1st 2012)
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Nancy Oakes
Jan 01, 2013 Nancy Oakes rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I'm not so sure why people are so negative about this book, but I found it to be an extremely well written, captivating and eye opening account of the end of a class of people and how they struggled to adapt just to survive.

As always, stay here for the short discussion; for a longer one move on over to my online reading journal by clicking here.

At the center of this book are two families, the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns. Count Sergei Sheremetev (1844-1918) descended from a line of aristocrat
Jun 17, 2017 Anatoly rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Fascinating subject which was also well researched. The problem was the scope of information. Too much too handle. Smith gives us so many personal stories, but although this is important it`s hard to keep track of all the names and events.
And still, interesting, chilling and tragic account of the last days of Russian aristocracy.
Oct 05, 2012 Daniel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, nonfiction
Smith has written an interesting book which manages to both entertain and captivate the reader. I literally could not put it down. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in history, Russia or the Cold War. I am even planning on suggesting that the Russian history professor at my college incorporate the book into his course on the Cold War.
Edwin Mcallister
Mar 30, 2015 Edwin Mcallister rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's interesting to read a history of the Russian revolution that does not focus on the pre-Revolutionary excesses of the Russian nobility. Smith's view of the Russian peasantry who murdered two million "class enemies" in the years after the war is pretty grim - ignorant, angry, dirty, sadistic. He has almost nothing good to say about Lenin, who despite being born into a noble family himself, was very explicit about the need to use state power to murder "former people," those the Bolsheviks deem ...more
Margaret Sankey
May 11, 2013 Margaret Sankey rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Haunting reconstruction of the chaotic and prolonged expropriation of stuff and crushing of the former Czarist aristocracy by the Bolsheviks. Using surviving documents, Soviet records and interviews with remaining family members in North America and Russia, Smith illuminates 1917-1935 through two families, the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns, as they attempt to navigate the new world of Revolutionary Russia. He gives enough background that you know why the peasants want to kill them and destroy ho ...more
Mar 08, 2013 K. rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Information overload! I consider myself to be erudite and scholarly, but this was like reading someone's thesis. The book takes a truly fascinating subject and makes it dry. Although there were family trees in the front, it was difficult to keep track of the different family members and time periods as things skipped around making everything disorienting. The research was meticulous, but it was a difficult read, I was hoping for something that was accurate but told the overarching story of this ...more
Dec 14, 2012 Louise rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The fate of the Romanovs after the revolution has been well covered but that of the other nobles has not. This book is the first that I know of to fill that gap. It profiles the Sheremetev and Golitsyn Families. Both had great wealth and for many generations were close to the tzars. Their fate helps to tell the story of early 20th century Russia.

The book begins with a list of family members, genealogy charts and some excellent maps. At first, I flipped back to these as I read, but given the many
Elizabeth K.
Dec 12, 2012 Elizabeth K. rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2013-new-reads
I confess when I first picked this up at the library, I was thinking it was going to be a Downton Abbey but with Russians kind of a book, and then it turned out to be a more serious history, with historical analysis and everything, so more of a dense read than I was expecting. But still awesome! And it will come in useful for at work when faculty ask me what I've read lately, because this doesn't seem as weird as saying The Black Stallion Returns which is usually what I've been reading.

It primar
You may say 'oh, this is a book about rich idle people who got what they deserved'. Or 'why should I care about what happened to a bunch of rich guys whose estates got burnt to the ground?' Well yes, these were rich people. Specifically, these were people from two branches of aristocracy, Sheremetev and Golitsyns -- two very powerful, very rich families. Yet the book is heartbreaking. You may think they got what was coming, but surely these people did not deserve the fate given to them by the Bo ...more
Nov 10, 2012 Laura rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Laura by: Bettie
From BBC Radio 4 - Book of the Week:
By Douglas Smith. Revealing account of what happened to the Russian aristocracy in the Bolshevik Revolution. Read by Robert Powell.
Marsha Altman
Jun 13, 2017 Marsha Altman rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed the book. The writer is entertaining and really brings the subject to life - but I want to make it clear that I had JUST finished a book on the Romanov dynasty when I started this, and I have at least a cursory knowledge of the Russian Revolution, so that probably helped a lot. People who are new to the topic of Russian history will probably be lost. I wasn't able to keep track of all of the names (there were lots and lots of Vladimirs) but I also didn't try, and the book worked ...more
Mar 10, 2014 Emily rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, 2014, history
This book opens by telling us that "Russian nobles were one of the first groups subjected to a brand of political violence that became a hallmark of the past century" and the author uses the Sheremetev and Golitsyn families to illustrate the wide variety of experiences of the former nobility, ranging from execution, to exile in the U.S. as a successful businessman, to moving in and out of the gulags multiple times during the decades between 1917 and 1945. The most striking thing was the way the ...more
Nov 26, 2012 Pctrollbreath rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This is a well written and interesting book which highlights an aspect of history that is not well known. I found it a difficult, but worthwhile, read.

For a book about "former people", the real eye opener was just how connected they remained even after their fall from power. A regular theme is how these ex nobles immediately start pulling favours from high ranking red officials as soon as something bad happens. Not always successfully, but with enough success to suggest that the relationship bet
Karen Blinn
Dec 29, 2012 Karen Blinn rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Douglas Smith has written about the "former people" who lived in the Soviet Union from the founding of the USSR until Stalin's death. They were those who were aristocrats in tsarist times. This is a disturbing but fascinating book as it reveals the depth of the Bolsheviks' hatred toward these people. The equivalent of racism, there was nothing the former people could do to remove the stigma from themselves as it was only based on who their ancestors were. They could be model citizens and hard wo ...more
Moon Rose
I remember being confused with Russia and the Soviet Union when I was still a very young student. Growing up during the last remnants of might of Communism and still unfamiliar with the legacy of tsarism, I thought at first that they were two different countries. It was only much later on that I understood that they were one and the same country separated only in history by an ideology that aggravated a massive sprout of hysteria, changing the political and social landscape of the country into t ...more
Mar 18, 2014 Max rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: russian
Former People is a revealing look into the end of an era and the chaos that followed. Smith shows the sweep of early 20th century Russian history personalized by the details of two extended noble families: The Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns. The details become overwhelming and tedious at times as Smith tracks numerous family members with similar experiences and similar names. It is easy to get confused and the text can feel repetitive. For example, accounts of pillaging and burning of estates dur ...more
The premise - the untold story of the super elite - is an odd one; when you think about 'unheard voices' and 'untold stories', you don't generally think of Muscovite princes and Lithuanian royalty. One of my profs in undergrad joked that every other Russian emigre wrote a memoir on their revolution experiences and indeed Nabokov plays with the idea of the tedium of the tragic emigre story in A Russian Beauty. But, I suppose it's true that the majority of nonfiction works that discuss the effects ...more
Apr 17, 2012 Bettie☯ rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: BBC radio listeners

Late 19th century. Russia races towards industrialisation, and the people want change.

blurb: From the last days of the monarchy to the Red Terror of the Bolshevik Revolution and then Stalin's 'Operation Former People', the hundreds of thousands of families who formed the Russian nobility were subjected to a series of bloodthirsty purges.

This disparate group of people ranged from the entrenched monarchists of the old tsarist regime to the impoverished rural nobility who struggled to make a
Jan 15, 2013 James rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Douglas Smith offers an up-close view of the fate of two major Russian Aristocratic families -- the Golitsyns and Sheremetevs -- as well as many others related to them following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and through to the Stalin era and WWII. He carefully notes how the transition from privilege, luxury and political eminence within the Tsarist state came suddenly and with incredible brutality as the revolution swept across Russia. How these aristocrats managed to survive in an increasingly ...more
Jun 04, 2016 Liudmila rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a wonderfully written and well researched book! From the very first pages I was engrossed in the interwoven personal stories of the most prominent families of the Russian aristocracy and got to know so many realities that were coexisting during the times of tumultuous change. The author conveys a morbid atmosphere of a period in history when the people who were the main creators of arts and Russian culture were suffering the most during the post-revolutionary period. In a nutshell, a hig ...more
(review written Nov 2015) I actually read this book a while ago, either early this year or late last year but in a period when I was away from Goodreads and I only remembered it now when looking for some other related books and Goodreads showing it

It's fairly long and not that easy a read as it follows various branches of a few Russian aristocratic families and their destinies after the revolution, so sometimes names/relations can be confusing

For someone who grew up under a communist regime the
Anson Bentley
Dec 21, 2012 Anson Bentley rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Revealing the consequence of extreme, disproportionate overindulgence and imbalance by the haves over the have nots resulting in a philosophy/ideology of 'All must be equal at any cost' which was, not only tellingly hypocritical, but, the scourge of the 20th century and beyond. Very fitting and timely as a reminder of the present situation the world finds itself in. Beware, lest history repeat itself and thrust upon mankind a new monster much more evolved, sophisticated and sinister than before.
Petra Eggs
For a long book it says so little. Or perhaps, coming from Russian peasants as I do, I didn't have the right frame of mind, the right sympathies to appreciate it. I did appreciate the plight of the 'former people' but didn't care about them at all. 3.5 stars.
Oct 11, 2012 Wendy marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
This was highly recommended to me by the owner of our local indie bookstore. He said he read it in 24 hrs. - couldn't put it down.
Carey Combe
I think the scope was too large (i have read better accounts of all the events) but I thought the conclusion tied it all up so well (maybe better at the beginning), I gave it an extra star.
Jul 18, 2012 Douglas rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Hope you all like my new book! Is it bad to say I did?!
Mar 30, 2017 Rachel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A sweeping account of a lost piece of Russian history only recently coming to light. Smith does an excellent job tying together complex threads of the ever changing political climate while never forgetting the human element of the countless tragedies. I particularly appreciate that he never tried to simplify the causes for the extermination of an entire people group. Relying heavily on original sources added a poignant immediacy to the chaos people were swept into. This excerpt in particular cap ...more
Feb 09, 2016 Denis rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
When a book of History is devoted to the fate of the Russian aristocracy during and after the revolution, one, prejudiced, may wonder: first, is that a subject really worth reading about and, second, wouldn’t such a project be a very partial, and therefore biased, vision of the cataclysmic events that shaped the fate of Russia in the last century? Douglas Smith, from the first to the last page, and with a palpable conviction, shows us how wrong we may have been to hold such assumptions. Whatever ...more
Alexandra Grabbe
How does an upstart regime strip members of an established elite of its humanity? Once the initial murders are committed, continue harassment through arbitrary arrests and debase the deposed class further by referring to any surviving members as “former” people. The Bolsheviks, who took power in Russia at the Revolution, treated the aristocracy this way. By following two aristocratic families, historian Douglas Smith shows that the Soviets may have wiped out the nobility as a class, but their at ...more
Frank Kelly
May 11, 2013 Frank Kelly rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2013

The demise -- no, demolition -- of the Russian nobility following the Russian Revolution is a story of devilish horror and inhumanity. It was, in some ways, self-inflicted by decades of materialistic abuse and willful ignorance of the terrible plight of peasants and serfs. And from it all sprung the plague of communisim and its natural offspring, Stalinism.

Douglas Smith's book is an utterly mesmerizing account of the downfall. The numbers, statistics and stories he has assembled to tell their st
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Douglas Smith is an awarding-winning historian and translator and the author of four books on Russia. He studied German and Russian at the University of Vermont and has a doctorate in history from UCLA.

Over the past twenty-five years Smith has made many trips to Russia. In the 1980s, he was a Russian-speaking guide on the U. S. State Department’s exhibition “Information USA” that traveled througho
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