Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy
By Douglas Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 496 pp.
In nineteenth-century Russia, it was possible for a single family to own 300,000 serfs and 1.9 million acres of land. Those were among the privileges enjoyed by the Sheremetev family, who consorted with the tsars and could trace their ancestry back to the boyars of the sixteenth century. They were at the top of the 100 families of the Russian nobility, the 1.5 percent of the population that dominated society. Smith, with a sure hand and graceful prose, traces what happened to them and to another illustrious family, the Golitsyns, during and after the 1917 revolution. Their fates were more complex than one might imagine. Nearly all perished, but in different times and circumstances. Some fell victim to the chaos and violence of the early years of Bolshevik rule. Others survived until the late 1920s but were shunted into cramped corners of their former mansions and reduced to menial labor. Still others were eliminated in Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937–38. A very few lived out their lives in Paris, Southern California, or the post-Stalin Soviet Union. “Former people” was the official label applied to Russia’s decimated nobility. Smith re-creates what they experienced with an intimacy that brings the whole history of these years vividly and grotesquely alive.