Former People, by Douglas Smith

Review published on January 4, 2013. Reviewed by Erin Britton

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“Former people” was the dehumanising term used to describe members of the former aristocracy after the Russian Revolution and with his Former People Douglas Smith has used the stories of two prominent aristocratic families – the Shevemetevs and the Golitsyns – to exemplify what happened to such people as the events of the Revolution overtook them.

When first introduced as they were in 1900, it is hard to feel sympathy or even understanding for either family. Both were old aristocratic families of the highest level (although the Shevemetevs has far more to do with the then current imperial family than the Golitsyns) possessed of extreme wealth and isolated from the day-to-day realities of life in Russian. While their wealth and privilege came from the toil and, indeed, often extreme suffering of the Russian peasantry, the nobility seemingly had little interaction with or consideration for their lowly compatriots. Despite this, perhaps that the revolution did not come as a complete surprise. There had been uprisings before and the precarious state of the subjugation of the citizenry should have been clear, particularly to those who played a role in government.

However, once Former People moves on to the events of the Revolution and beyond, the true nature of the tragedies that befell both the Shevemetevs and the Golitsyns makes for grim and affecting reading. As near perfect symbols of everything that was seen as rotten in “old” Russia, noble families like these bore the brunt of the hatred and violence that engulfed the country. Person after person (and these are big families – luckily there are lists of principal figures and family trees to help keep things in order), regardless of age, infirmity or actual blameworthiness, is subjected to house arrest, confiscation of property, arrest, torture and execution. Many family members simply disappeared. Former People is filled with personal tragedies and as such is a very emotional read.

Additionally, as Douglas Smith comments, the destruction of the nobility was one of the tragedies of Russian history as a whole. For as long as people could remember, the nobility had supplied Russia’s political, military, cultural and artistic leaders and so the end of that class effectively marked the end of many things that could be considered quintessentially Russian. Despite the anger felt towards them, the nobility had played a massive role in Russian life and so their loses were ultimately felt by the country as a whole. Of course, it’s also worth remembering that the fate of the nobility actually foreshadowed the fates of many other groups that would eventually be classed as undesirable and so enemies of the Revolution. Once the more obvious enemies of the new Soviet state were taken care of, new enemies quickly emerged.

Using the examples provided by the fates of the Shevemetevs and the Golitsyns, Former People tells the story of how the Russian elite was dispossessed and destroyed between the revolutions of 1917 and the Second World War. As such, it’s a story filled with drama – from the looting of palaces and the burning of estates to night-time escapes from marauding peasants and the Red Army – and human tragedy but which also shows the occasional moment of compassion and the strength of the human spirit.

As well as considering the form and impact of the destruction of the nobility in general, Former People provides a fascinating window into the Russian aristocracy as individuals rather than as a class. While every noble experienced the revolution and the transition to the new Soviet order in his own way, “what happened to the Shevemetevs and the Golitsyns, and how they reacted to these events, were true for the majority of the nobility.” The fate of the Russian nobility is often overlooked in histories of this period but, as Former People makes clear, it is a fascinating, traumatic topic filled with individual stories that really deserve to be told.

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