The sub-title of this book, “The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy”, sums up the theme – and what a compelling and tragic story the author relates. His purpose in doing so, he writes, is because “Losers are no less worthy of being remembered than winners, if only to help us appreciate the full richness of what came before and to preserve the memory of those unjustly forgotten by history.” For the reader, in a work that is detailed, evocative and full of anecdotes that bring this doomed social class vividly to life, there is the added spectacle of watching the world of Tolstoy and Turgenev – the world of country estates, serfs, palaces and princes – collapse almost overnight. It is like watching the Titanic setting out on its luxurious, invincible voyage, while knowing all along that within two hours of striking an iceberg it would be at the bottom of the freezing Atlantic Ocean.

Douglas Smith, a Russian scholar, concentrates on two ancient aristocratic families in these pages, the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns. Others, such as the Trubetskoys, the Yusupovs, the Bobrinskys and the Dolgorukys, are mentioned in passing or as they relate to the principle groups. As the families all intermarried, they all knew each other and all were caught up in the same catastrophe.

The Russian aristocracy had supplied Russia’s political, military, cultural and artistic leaders, some of them for nearly a thousand years. They did not all lead frivolous lives that were parasitic upon the country’s wealth, but all of them depended for their standard of living on the peasantry – 80% of the population. The serfs had been technically freed in 1861 but essentially their lot remained as it always had been, dependent on the kindness or tyranny of their masters. Although by 1914 Russia was the fifth strongest industrial power in the world, it was still, unlike England for instance, a feudal society. Unlike England, it had no large, stable, middle class; as Smith points out, 30,000 or so noble families lived on their estates or in their palaces in Moscow or St Petersburg, surrounded by “a vast sea of poverty and resentment.” In the mid-19th century, Count Dmitry Sheremetev owned 300,000 serfs and over one million acres and by 1914 the Sheremetevs’ monthly expenses were 75,000 roubles. The great families employed scores of servants, governesses and tutors, displaying a conspicuous life of privilege and luxury that makes Queen Victoria’s household seem thoroughly bourgeois by comparison.

Some members of this privileged elite, such as Count Pavel Sheremetev, were aware that their way of life would come to an end one day and had asked the question: “How to avoid revolution?” In a country of such complexity, ruled over by a decayed autocracy, they had no solutions. Finally the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 supplied a brutal answer. Most aristocrats would have echoed the opinion of Sergei Golitsyn: “We belonged to the class of masters, and this order seemed natural… [and] completely different from that of the peasants.” At Petrovskoe, the Golitsyns’ estate, “nothing in the house could be moved or altered”, reflecting the paralysis of the country at large. It did not help that the Tsar, Nicholas II, was weak, ineffectual and wedded to past glories, quite incapable of reading the signs of the times. After the failed revolution of 1905 the nobility, fearful of losing their privileges, realised that it was the ancient regime alone that was protecting them from the growing protests of disaffected intellectuals, terrorists, students and peasants.

The war of 1914-1918 provided the impetus to the anarchy and civil war that followed. Countess Sheremetev naively thought the Revolution of 1917 was “wonderful”; like many of her class and protected from reality, it seemed a romantic phenomenon that would soon pass and leave their way of life untouched. They had simply no idea of the abyss they faced or that their future would be beggary, exile, labour camps or death. There were some comic incidents: General Grigoriev evaded arrest by disguising himself in his own cook’s apron and hat; and Countess Kleinmichel, whose house was raided by a gang of marauders as she was sitting down to a banquet, watched from the window of a friend’s house across the street as the invaders sat down at her table and were served by her own servants. Later, she kept a pistol to hand, declaring “One must know how to die.”

The Revolution brought social breakdown, civil war, looting, murder and the wholesale destruction of the old estates. Former aristocrats, forced to sweep the streets or sell what few possessions they had left in local markets in order to buy food, watched the Communists move into their palaces just as in Animal Farm” the other animals watched the pigs take over the farmhouse. In 1918 Count Sergei Sheremetev told his son Pavel, “We have no present but we have a past and we must preserve it in the name of the future.” It was rare that this happened. At Petrovskoe, the Golitsyn estate, the artwork and furnishings were stolen by the local peasants, the rare volumes in the library were torn up for cigarette paper, maps of the Napoleonic wars were burned in stoves for heating, all the glass in the windows were smashed and the woodland cut down for firewood. The family butler wrote a sad appeal to his former master, now in temporary exile in Harbin in Manchuria, asking for help.

Prince Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky, fleeing to permanent exile aged 28, summed up the situation: “The fate of belonging to a class which, to use the picturesque expression of Trotsky, was headed for the dustbin of history, was too overwhelming.” Amazingly, Countess Yelena Golitsyn managed to live a full life, dying aged 87 in 1992. Three hundred of her relatives had been killed by the Bolsheviks; she told her grandson, Nicolai: “I forgave them long ago, but I will never forget.” This volume ensures that we too will remember them.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.