There are subjects that we think we understand. Then there are books we read that completely demolish the illusion of that understanding.
Such is “Former People – The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy” by Douglas Smith. I thought I had a pretty good understanding of Russia, its history, its culture, its politics.
Not so much, I’ve come to realize.
Historian Douglas Smith’s insightful and well-researched book on the Russian aristocracy shines an objective yet nuanced light on a country that we as Westerners too often view as simply an adversary on the world stage.
First, Mr. Smith levels any preconceived notions we might have about aristocracy in general, and the Russian aristocracy in particular: they were well-educated, well-bread, and selfless service to the country, dutifully committing their lives and talents in the military, local and national government administration, foreign service, and the arts. (Tolstoy was a count, if you’ll recall.)
Yes, much of their vast wealth was derived from land ownership, land which was cultivated by serfs, most of whom were no more than slaves. This economic system of course inhuman and unjust, and it could not endure. Ironically, more than a few of the aristocracy were in favor of social and economic reforms. Just as ironically, this system of serfdom was the cause of a revolution that would promise much, but in reality only bring even more inhumanity and injustice, but that is another story.
Mr. Smith provides a broad and informed perspective, but he focuses primarily on two prominent aristocratic families and the divergent paths individuals in each of those took before, during, and after the revolution of 1917. Some chose to stay and, committed to duty and country, work to help the new society navigate the chaos. Some left and built new lives abroad. As you can imagine, when members of the same family held different opinions of what to do and why, the results were emotional…and sometimes tragic.
His detailed and fair narrative will dissolve any preconceived notions you might have about Russia, and at the same time provide help you understand why the country is the way it is today.
Worthwhile. Compelling. Well done.
What are your reading right now?
9 thoughts on “What I’m Reading Now”
I’ll add that book to my list. I am currently reading “The Reopening of the Western Mind” The resurgence of intellectual life from the end of antiquity to the dawn of enlightenment by Charles Freeman.
This looks like the kind of book I’d enjoy, Byron. Thanks for the recommendation.
My church’s book club recently read “The Dictionary of Lost Words” by Pip Williams. Probably not one I would have sought out on my own, but I really did enjoy it and I feel like I learned a few things from this heavily fictionalized account of the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Our next pick is “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Outside of that, I’m reading Michelle Obama’s “The Light We Carry” and liking it a lot so far.
I really enjoyed “The Dictionary of Lost Words” too. I used to work with Pip and she is such a lovely person. It is great to see her doing so well as an author. Her next book “The Bookbinder of Jericho” is next on my list!
For bedtime reading, I’ve been going through the collected novels of P.G. Wodehouse: witty, hilarious, and relaxing before bed. “The Code of the Woosters” is my favorite so far. During the day, I’ve been reading Shelby Foote’s narrative on the Civil War. While some historians have criticized Foote for being overly apologetic of the Confederacy, it is still a fantastic account of the period and a great reminder and lesson of how great men of the past have succeeded through the worst of times (for those of you who have seen Ken Burn’s The Civil War, you’ll recognize Foote as one of the main contributors from that series).
I love Wodehouse! His books are so funny and weirdly comforting. I find myself turning to them anytime I feel stressed. I love his Jeeves and Wooster series and am just staring Blandings Castle.
“The Great Bridge” by David McCullough. Fascinating account of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, but not as entertaining as hearing him lecture on the subject. RIP.
I read 1776 by him in high school and loved his work, I’ll check this out too! I moved to NY last summer and building out a NY history section in our little home library, so this would be perfect. I also really liked “When the Astors Owned New York” by Justin Kaplan in case you have a similar interest for more Manhattan history.
If you enjoy McCullough, of all his books I have read, “The Wright Brothers” is my favorite. But his speeches on youtube are even better. Great voice. But for NYC history, in addition to “The Great Bridge,” try “Mornings on Horseback” about T. Roosevelt. You also would likely want Robert A. Caro’s “The Power Broker” about legendary NYC civic developer Robert Moses.
It is hard to forget “The Katyn Massacre.” More than 20,000 Polish people brought to the Katyn Forest and buried in a mass grave by the Russians during WW2. I never learned of it in school. As a Polish descendant, I took up an interest in the history of Poland later in life. Knowing history helps us to see what to be prepared for in future.
I appreciate your book recommendation and look forward to learning more through reading it. Thank you.