11 July 2013

Former People

Author: Douglas Smith
Year published: 2012
Pages: 374
Time It Took To Read: A couple of weeks - not a beach book!

I don't know much about the Russian revolution. It was missed out of my GCSE history, because apparently the feudal system of 500 years ago is more important than something that happened barely a hundred years ago.
Like many others, my knowledge was mainly grouped around some names (Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky), a vague communist ideology, and the murder of the Tsar and his family in 1918. I've read quite a lot about the murder of Tsar Nicholas II, and it was a horrific murder. Discount, if you will, the politics and the status of the family. A husband and wife, their four daughters and their invalid son, along with some servants, were taken into the cellar of the house they'd been held at. They were told they were going to be shot (they went down believing they were to be moved), and the soldiers opened fire. Unfortunately, the family had sewn their jewels into the clothes, which sounds decadent, until you realise that this was pretty much the only liquid assets they had left to use if they managed to get out of Russia. These jewels acted as bulletproof vests. The family were stabbed with bayonets once the bullets ran out. It took ten minutes. Imagine watching your family gunned down and stabbed for ten long minutes. Once they were finally dead, they were burned, buried, moved around a bit and eventually found in 1981 and 2007, and reburied.
So, that's what happened to the monarch. But no monarchy exists without an aristocracy to support it and to marry into. This book deals with what happened to the noble class.
Russia in the early 1900s was plagued by poor government and civil unrest. A revolution was seen as inevitable and welcomed by many; rich and poor alike.The type of socialism employed by Lenin reversed the status quo. Rich estates were given to peasants, rich people were sent to work in the fields. Their possessions were either stolen, destroyed or simply removed from them by the government. Many nobles fled into Europe, where they had families or second homes. Indeed, the Tsar was trying to arrange to get out to Great Britain around the time he was arrested. The reluctance of George V in allowing his cousin to seek refuge meant they had to stay. However, many other nobles chose to stay, not wanting to abandon the motherland. They often spent long terms in prisons and work camps, and several were shot for treason. But as this book demonstrates, life went on. People married, they had children, they lived as best they could in their newly reduced circumstances.
Then Stalin came along. The nobility (along with other undesirables) were made official Outcasts. This forbade them to work, to own property/land, to seek healthcare or use legal services. They were imprisoned in gulags for long periods of time, with little or no warning, or reason. Sometimes, they were released for a few years, only to be rounded up and executed. Being sent to the gulag often meant death anyway, from starvation, dysentery, and other infections.

This book concentrates on the Golitsyn and Sheremetev dynasties. There is a lot of interbreeding, and repeated names, which makes it hard to follow - there's a family tree and list of characters, but I felt like having a notebook alongside, writing things as I went along would have been more helpful. I didn't feel particularly involved with anyone's plight and everytime I became absorbed, the narrative switched to someone else. By the time the action switched back, I'd forgotten who was who.
This book expects you to have more understanding of the Russian revolution than I do. That said, it is exceptionally well put together and researched, and heartbreaking. I just wish the author had concentrated on a couple of strong central characters and made the rest of the story revolve around them. The constant jumping around does not make for a cohesive read. He has not struck quite the right note between dry historical narrative and biography. On to something less arduous!

Book count: 31/50

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