Paperback review: Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy, By Douglas Smith

Ghostly testimony from a world away

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The Independent Culture

"A new and hostile Russia glared through the large windows of the palace," wrote Tsar Nicholas's brother, the Grand Duke Alexander, after a ball in 1903. It sums up perfectly not just the hostility of the peasantry towards the upper classes before the revolution, but the huge sense of division between the poverty of most of the country and the luxury enjoyed by the very few. This would be the "last ball" of Imperial Russia, Smith notes in his excellent history of the Sheremetev and Golitsyn families, who would be decimated by what was to come.

That much is familiar to us, whether from history or novels such as Pasternak's Dr Zhivago, but Smith gives us the families' reactions in their own words, and it's perhaps surprising how many of them were in favour of the revolution in the early stages. Tsar Nicholas was nobody's favourite – Petrograd's February revolution was greeted with joy by Sergei Golitsyn's parents. But families were also split in their feelings – Sergei's grandmother was less convinced. They got used to sleeping with revolvers under their pillows, whilst the theatres continued to sell out.

Smith shows a class used to sophistication subjected to barbarity as the revolution descended into bloodlust, with both sides committing atrocities. But he also shows a lingering fascination for the aristocracy amongst the new ruling elite, especially in the 1920s, when the Golitsyns were allowed to carry on life almost as they had before, until Stalin's Great Terror of the 1930s. It is a sobering tale of the complexities of revolution, told with clarity and sympathy.