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'Mao: The Real Story' and 'Former People'

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Some hid jewels and coins in the hems of their clothes or their children’s toys and tried to flee, but staying and running were equally dangerous. Smith notes the fate of a pair of Russian princes: One was killed at home in his manor house while the other was beaten to death at a railroad station. 

Many who stayed felt trapped, but others simply loved their country too much to leave it. Smith quotes a source who estimates that, four years after the 1917 revolution, about 10,000 noble families – 12 percent of the prerevolutionary nobility – were still in Russia.

Many of the stories Smith tells are tragic, but there are also instances of great courage and resolve. There were servants who gave their lives to help the families to whom they still felt loyal, and there were aristocrats who bravely marched off to labor camps and learned to harvest cabbages and haul garbage with the best of them.

“People who had never been near a stove learned to cook,” wrote Alexandra Tolstoy, daughter of the novelist, who was turned out of her father’s estate. “They learned to do washing, to sweep streets ... what [else] was to be done?”

In China, tragic stories are as close as any thorough accounting of the life of Mao. Academics Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine are the authors of Mao: The Real Story, the latest major biography of “the Great Helmsman” and the first to take advantage of the recent opening of Russian archives containing a massive collection of documents on the history of international communism.

In their introduction, Pantsov and Levine assure readers that their account of Mao’s life is more balanced than that found in the 2005 bestseller “Mao: The Unknown Story,” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, which charged Mao with more peacetime deaths than Hitler and Stalin combined.

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