In "Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy," Seattle historian Douglas Smith tells the story of the fall of the Russian nobility, which controlled the wealth and power in Russia until the Bolshevik Revolution put an end to their reign over the vast country.

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‘Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy’

by Douglas Smith

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 pp., $30

History, it’s often said, is written by the winners. By and large it’s also written about the winners: Historians would rather explain how a nation or social group succeeded than examine the fates of those defeated or left behind.

The books about ancient Rome could fill a library; about Carthage, barely a shelf. And the Loyalists usually are little more than a footnote in histories of the American Revolution (except in Canada, of course).

Few groups were as much on the wrong side of history as the aristocracy of Imperial Russia. This tiny, glittering class, which dominated the vast empire before 1917, found itself squarely in the cross hairs of the new Bolshevik government: Besides having an ideological imperative to hate the nobility, the Bolsheviks feared them as a possible source of counterrevolution and craved their immense wealth to fund their utopian schemes, line their own pockets, or both.

Douglas Smith, a Seattle historian, former State Department worker and Russian-affairs analyst, tells the story of the nobility’s destruction, individually and as a class, in “Former People” (the title being one of the Bolsheviks’ favorite epithets for fallen aristocrats). His book, organized around two interrelated families, the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns, is at once grimly fascinating and frustratingly myopic.

The nobility amounted to fewer than 2 million people, or slightly more than 1 percent of Russia’s pre-1917 population. In a country that was still overwhelmingly poor and rural (some three-quarters of Russians were peasants), nobles commanded the army and navy, filled most important government posts and controlled the nominally free peasantry.

Their estates, Smith writes, “represented small, isolated islands of privilege and authority amid a vast peasant sea of poverty and resentment.”

The Sheremetevs and Golitsyns were near the top of this hierarchy, and their wealth staggers the imagination. Dmitry Sheremetev amassed more than 1.9 million acres of land and 300,000 serfs to work it; his son and heir Alexander “never traveled without a large retinue of servants and domestics, his musicians and choristers, and even cows from his villages to assure a ready supply of fresh milk.”

Working largely from family letters, diaries, memoirs and oral histories, Smith does a fine job of describing just how the Sheremetevs and Golitsyns lost their privileges, estates, livelihoods and, all too often, their lives.

Palaces are looted and burned with numbing frequency; family members are chased from one safe haven to another, until they flee Russia altogether or are killed. Death or survival could depend on a lost wedding ring, a missed train or a commissar’s whim.

But Smith’s empathy with the fallen aristocrats (many of whose descendants he interviewed) is so strong that he tends to gloss over the brutal inequities of the old regime they were such an integral part of.

Yes, theirs was a gracious and cultured life, but in Tsarist Russia the privileged few really did own nearly all the good things in life, while the mass of people were mired in ignorance and grinding poverty. After centuries of this, is it any wonder they wanted revenge?

Some aristocrats, at least, were aware that their lifestyles and positions were indefensible. Even after the Bolsheviks had begun persecuting his fellow nobles, Prince Vladimir Golitsyn, the former mayor of Moscow, called the revolution “the work of Godly Providence and righteous retribution for our sins.”

Drew DeSilver is a business reporter for The Seattle Times.