At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Russian nobility numbered about 1.9 million people, or 1.5 percent of the population. The 1917 Revolution and the Russian Civil War would all but obliterate this class, as many nobles were dispossessed, killed or driven into exile. By 1921, Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the Cheka, could rightly boast, “The landowners as a class have disappeared, the bourgeoisie has been declassed, the political masters are now non-entities.” Indeed, as the Civil War ebbed, no more than 50,000 former nobles, or twelve percent of its prerevolutionary population, remained in Russia.
It is the story of those former nobles that stayed in Soviet Russia that Douglas Smith’s Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) seeks to tell. Through the trials and tribulations of two prominent noble families, the Sheremetevs and Golitsyns, Smith paints a general picture of how the former nobility experienced life and death under the Soviets. But that is not all. Former People is ultimately an incredibly readable, vivid, emotional human story of survival, accommodation, and reconciliation.