Royal Treatment: Three New Books on the Russian Aristocracy and Its Aftermath

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In anticipation of the new film adaptation of Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley, comes a trio of nonfiction books on the twilight of the Russian aristocracy.

“The end of the nobility in Russia marked the end of a long and deservedly proud tradition that created much of what we still think of today as quintessentially Russian,” writes former U.S. diplomat Douglas Smith, “from the grand palaces of St. Petersburg to the country estates surrounding Moscow, from the poetry of Pushkin to the novels of Tolstoy and the music of Rachmaninov.” In Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy (Farrar , Straus and Giroux), Smith tells the story of the 1917 revolution and its aftermath from the perspectives of two of Russia’s old noble families, the Sheremetevs of St. Petersburg and the Golitsyns of Moscow.

In many cases, the nobles themselves had long known their time was up.  “Russia jumped off the rails on February 27,” wrote Catherine Sayn-Wittgenstein in her diary, “and will not stop until she has fallen to the very bottom of the slope.” With that in mind, it’s hard not to look at Emmanuel Ducamp’s The Summer Palaces of the Romanovs: Treasures from Tsarskoye Selo (Thames & Hudson), photographed by Marc Walter, as evidence of why the revolution might have come about in the first place. The Tsar’s Village residence, fifteen miles south of St. Petersburg, was built 300 years ago and sumptuously refurbished by Catherine the Great, who never met a shiny surface she didn’t like. The walls are literally lined with jasper, amber, gilt, and many mirrors, making Catherine’s palace—and the one she built for her grandson, Alexander, where the ill-fated last tsar, Nicholas II also lived with his family—examples of rococo at its most dizzying, the brilliance of Russia’s artistry meeting the pinnacle of its excesses.

In Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1945–1956 (Doubleday), Anne Applebaum’s much-anticipated follow up to her Pulitzer Prize–winning Gulagthe Washington Post columnist opens the archives on the events that followed the Red Army’s arrival in Poland—and the fateful decisions made to appease Stalin at the Yalta conference. Applebaum’s exhaustively researched account should dispel once and for all any lingering romance with the Cold War era: Filled with broken jazz records, sham referendums, quashed demonstrations, forced collaborations, and absurdist propaganda campaigns, this human-scale portrait evokes a sense of life under a regime in which any form of honest expression—artistic, intellectual, religious—was an act of dissent. “If civil society could be so deeply damaged in nations as disparate, as historic and as culturally rich as those of eastern Europe,” she warns, “then it can be similarly damaged anywhere.”

All the books can be purchased on



Via – Keira Knightley was photographed by Mario Testino for Vogue, October 2012

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