Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy

Douglas Smith, Author
Douglas Smith. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (496p) ISBN 978-0-374-15761-6
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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.)
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