Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith - review by Nikolai Tolstoy

Nikolai Tolstoy

White Blood

Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy


Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 320pp £25 order from our bookshop

Many years ago I knew an elderly Russian lady living in Somerset. Like many of her generation, she had undergone dramatic experiences at the time of the Revolution. One particularly frightening episode took place on her estate, when a young peasant fell desperately in love with her, and went so far as to express his devotion. My friend tactfully explained that she was unable to return his feelings. However, when the Revolution swept across the countryside, the young man revived his suit, explaining that the new order had swept away artificial distinctions of birth and wealth. When she apologetically explained that in fact nothing had changed with regard to their personal relationship, he departed in anger. Shortly afterwards, he lay in wait for her and shot her in the head with a revolver. Miraculously saved by surgery, she showed me the bullet she had preserved as a memento of this alarming incident.

This experience illustrates an often under-appreciated element of the Revolution: indeed, it is widely dismissed by luminaries of the academic world, such as the late Eric Hobsbawm. The Revolution’s major causes, ranging from social unrest to the traumatic breakdown caused by the Great War, are very properly examined in extenso.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

East of the Wardrobe

Follow Literary Review on Twitter