My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The thing you learn/are reminded of is that Russia was regularly convulsed by violence and insurrection in the decades before, you know, John Reed goes plotz with proletarian delight. This cycle of destruction and death is both backdrop and thread in “Former People,” giving gruesome context to the Bolshevik takeover and propelling countless landlords on midnight flights for their lives.
Particularly compelling are the galleries of photographs that rib the book; these flip past as a kind of tragic stop-motion animation, depicting the steep falls of lordly families in ways that words can’t describe. The despair in the faces is not unlike those mug shots of meth users that can be found on the Internet.
The Times saw in the “evocative photographs of counts and princesses” an eerie echo of Russia’s new, gilded wealth. The Telegraph found “admiration at the victims’ courage,” trudging to poverty or worse in deep snow. I was struck by a different, slightly sour note.
By concentrating on them Smith perhaps gives the unintended impression that the quality of their suffering was unique.
(Wow. For once, a reviewer and I see eye to eye.)
Books, of course, have their focus, but because “Former People” is possessed with a pop-history quality — lots of breezy anecdotes, plenty of fudging about dates — its focus at times rang melodramatic. The Russian nobility never merely fled their stately homes, they did so with stoic determination, often with a well-bred blend of cleverness and elan. Which perhaps they did. But there are lots of excerpts from personal letters, and consequently lots of wistfulness for the good old days — which, it is worth remembering, were pretty terrible for nearly everyone else.
What the author does is perform a creditable job in illuminating the related outrages against the aristocracy, which have been relegated to sideshow status in the intervening years. “Former People” makes a readable companion to a history on the Russian revolution, and unlike most history books written today, neatly caps a glaring hole in the record. Just don’t be surprised if you roll your eyes now and then.