Learn more about CCRLS
Reading recommendations from Novelist
Online learning resources
Cover image for Former people : the final days of the Russian aristocracy
Former people : the final days of the Russian aristocracy
First edition.
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
Physical Description:
xvii, 464 pages, 32 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
Before the deluge. Russia, 1900 ; The Sheremetevs ; The Golitsyns ; The last dance -- 1917. The fall of the Romanovs ; A country of mutinous slaves ; The bolshevik coup -- Civil war. Expropriating the expropriators ; The corner house ; Spa town hall ; Bogoroditsk ; Doctor Golitsyn ; Exodus -- NEP. School of life ; Noble remains ; The foxtrot affair ; Virtue in rags -- Stalin's Russia. The great break ; The death of Parnassus ; Outcasts ; The mouse, the kerosene, and the match ; Anna's fortune ; Happy times ; Poisonous snakes and the avenging sword: operation "former people" ; The great terror ; War: the end.
Examines the fate of two Russian aristocratic families in a detailed account of the Bolshevik Revolution's effect on the upper class, discussing the relentless lootings, harrowing escapes, humbling exile and imprisonment, and summary executions that took place during this violent time of transition.
Geographic Term:



Call Number
305.5 SMITH 2012

On Order



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.

Told with sensitivity and nuance by acclaimed historian Douglas Smith, Former People is the dramatic portrait of two of Russia's most powerful aristocratic families, and a sweeping account of their homeland in violent transition.

Author Notes

Douglas Smith is an award-winning historian and translator and the author of three previous books on Russia. Before becoming a historian, he worked for the U. S. State Department in the Soviet Union and as a Russian affairs analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two children.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

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 Sheremetsevs 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 Sheremetsev 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. 16 pages of b&w photos, 3 maps. Agent: Melissa Chinchillo, Fletcher & Co. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Kirkus 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.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

It is a daunting task to elicit sentiments of nostalgia or even regret for the demise of a social class that owed its elite status to birth rather than merit. Smith, a historian and former analyst of Russian affairs for the State Department, succeeds admirably in this wide-ranging and often moving account of the fate of the Russian nobility, from the Bolshevik Revolution to the Stalinist era. His narrative moves seamlessly from a general survey of the nobility to the deeply personal and tragic story of two noble families, the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns. Smith portrays the nobility as a class as being surprisingly diverse, encompassing non-Russians, religious minorities, and relatively impoverished families. He demolishes the facile caricature of the idle, decadent abuser of peasants, since many nobles had admirable records of service to the state in the military and in government bureaucracy. This is a superbly written and emotionally wrenching ode to a class doomed by the flow of history.--Freeman, Jay Copyright 2010 Booklist

Library Journal Review

The wide discrepancy between the Russian peasant class (who made up 80 percent of Russia's 19th-century population) and the nobility helped precipitate the Russian Revolution and the subsequent methodical elimination of the educated aristocratic class. Independent historian Smith (The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great's Russia) has meticulously researched the revolutionary and Soviet eras, focusing on two noble families: the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns. Using archival resources and both primary and secondary works, Smith gives us what he calls the first work to detail the nobles' everyday lives, as well as the consequences to the country of their elimination. By focusing on these two families, Smith brings to life another aspect of Russian and Soviet history in the first half of the 20th century. The profiled families embody what many of the Russian nobles endured, and their choices attest to the resiliency of the human spirit. VERDICT This work will be enjoyed by Russophiles and historians of the tsarist era, as well as those studying this period of Soviet history. Those who enjoy studying the Romanovs will appreciate learning more about the Russian aristocracy as a whole. As such, an important addition to Russian history collections.-Maria C. Bagshaw, Elgin Comm. Coll. Lib., IL (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Note on Dates and Spellingp. xi
Principal Figuresp. xiii
Family Treesp. xix
Mapsp. xxii
Prologuep. 3
Part I Before the Deluge
1 Russia, 1900p. 21
2 The Sheremetevsp. 34
3 The Golitsynsp. 43
4 The Last Dancep. 52
Part II :1917
5 The Fall of the Romanovsp. 69
6 A Country of Mutinous Slavesp. 92
7 The Bolshevik Coupp. 110
Part III Civil War
8 Expropriating the Expropriatorsp. 129
9 The Corner Housep. 141
10 Spa Town Hellp. 151
11 Bogoroditskp. 164
12 Dr. Golitsynp. 179
13 Exodusp. 200
Part IV Nep
14 School of Lifep. 213
15 Noble Remainsp. 224
16 The Fox-trot Affairp. 240
17 Virtue in Ragsp. 253
Part V Stalin's Russia
18 The Great Breakp. 267
19 The Death of Parnassusp. 275
20 Outcastsp. 285
21 The Mouse, the Kerosene, and the Matchp. 295
22 Anna's Fortunep. 310
23 Happy Timesp. 325
24 Poisonous Snakes and the Avenging Sword: Operation Former Peoplep. 336
25 The Great Terrorp. 345
26 War: The Endp. 357
Epiloguep. 371
Note on Sourcesp. 377
Notesp. 381
Bibliographyp. 417
Acknowledgmentsp. 437
Indexp. 443