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16 November 2018


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Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy

by Douglas Smith, FSG ($30)

In May 1914 in Paris, the Baron Nikolai Wrangel offered a rather prophetic vision to Count Valentin Zubov:

We are on the verge of events, the likes of which the world has not seen since the time of the barbarian invasions... Soon everything that constitutes our lives will strike the world as useless. A period of barbarism is about to begin and it shall last for decades.

The catastrophe of World War I hit Russia harder than any other country. Nearly one in three Russian soldiers who served were killed or wounded. In the war, Civil War, famine and purges that spanned 1914-1924, some 20 million Russians (and Jews and Ukrainians and many other peoples of the Empire) lost their lives.

The failure in war toppled the teetering monarchy. The aristocracy soon followed, in a bloodletting and emigration that crippled both the economy and the society.

As Smith points out, citing Fedotoff-White, for the Bolsheviks, “the will to destroy was stronger than the will to create.” They were adamant that the old order – the landed aristocracy – had to be obliterated if the “revolution” was to survive. And it was. By Smith’s estimates, nearly 90 percent of the Russian aristocracy fled or was wiped out by the Bolshevik Thermidor. Yet the story of their fall has been little told.

Smith, whose previous work was the masterful historical tale The Pearl, ably alternates between a general historical narrative of the times and micro studies of two families – the Golitsyns and the Sheremetyevs – who were among the richest and most powerful aristocratic clans, yet whose decline was no less precipitous for all that.

Packed full of engrossing stories of survival and heroism, brutality and horror, this is the “forgotten” history of how the upper crust of society was torn away, and the cost Russia paid, then and now.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Sep/Oct 2012