Former People; the last days of the Russian aristocracy – Douglas Smith

Have you ever wondered what happened to the Russian aristocrats who didn’t manage to escape the Russian revolution in 1971?  Being interested in 20th century revolutions I have often wondered what happens to the previous elite who don’t manage to flee whatever upheaval they are in the middle of.  This book endeavours to give you an idea by following the stories of members of the Sheremetev and Golitsyn families.

It follows their stories from the start of the 1917 revolutions up to the death of the last member who would remember living as privileged members of society and then living  through the revolution.

As you would expect a lot of the family members ended up disappearing into the gulags or being shot, although not necessarily in the early days of the revolution.  It surprised me how many of them managed to live on the fringes of the new society for quite a long time before coming to the notice of the Soviet regime.

One of the main challenges of this book is the Russian tradition of naming children after other family members.  This makes it really confusing trying to work out which Vladimir or Sergei the author is referring to when he is explaining a part of their life.  It also doesn’t help that the different stories are interwoven.  I usually like my history books to have a narrative thread, keeping the different strands of events on a timeline but in this case it might have been more straightforward to organise the book into a biographical chapter on each person.

It was interesting to have a different perspective on the Russian revolution and, whilst I can completely understand why the revolution happened, it is good to be reminded that not all the aristocracy were isolated and unaware of the appalling conditions the rest of the populace suffered.

This isn’t a book you can, or want, to read in large chunks; you have to be able to concentrate on what you are reading.  I struggled to read it at times but I felt strangely bereft having finished it.

I wouldn’t recommend it to a casual reader but I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about what happened.

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