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"Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy," by Douglas Smith

Jeff Glor talks to Douglas Smith about, "Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy"


Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?

Douglas Smith: While researching my previous book, "The Pearl," the story of the fabulously wealthy aristocrat Count Nicholas Sheremetev who scandalized Russian society by marrying his serf, the great opera star Praskovya Kovalyova, I got to know some of their descendants now living in the US. One evening over dinner, I heard the tales of how the family had narrowly escaped Russia with their lives following the revolution, leaving everything but what they could carry in a few suitcases. Their stories of riches to rags fascinated me from the start, and I immediately knew I had to write this history.


JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?

DS: Many things surprised me, but nothing more than the quiet strength and stoicism with which these people bore their sufferings. Their resolve was utterly remarkable and I still find it incredible to consider how they not only survived, but were able to find happiness amidst such loss and hardship.


JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?

DS: If I weren't a writer my dream job would be to work as an art restorer. I find the whole idea of saving crumbling frescoes or damaged paintings romantic and important.


JG: What else are you reading right now?

DS: I just finished Joseph Roth's "The Confession of a Murderer Told in One Night." My first love, before Russia, was Austria, especially the world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I studied German for a long time and lived and worked in Vienna for two years, where I first learned of Roth. His life and work fascinate me, and reading his writings in the German magically takes me back both to my own days in Vienna and to the lost world of central Europe before the Great War.


JG: What's next for you?

DS: There's perhaps no more amazing character in Russian history than Rasputin. Like so many people, I've long been intrigued by this mysterious figure. While working on "Former People," I've also been hunting down Rasputin, digging up long forgotten documents in archives around the world. My idea is to write a biography of Rasputin that reveals his staggering complexity as a person and his importance for understanding the final years of the Romanov dynasty. It's an amazing tale.


MORE VIDEO:

Historian Douglas Smith talks about how wealthy Russia's aristocracy really was before the Bolshevik Revolution. Author Douglas Smith talks about his next project: A more complete and complex retelling of the legendary, and infamous Rasputin.


For more on "Former People," visit the Macmillan website.