The Romanovs 1613 – 1918 – Simon Sebag Montefiore
One of the endless debates about history is whether it should be a litany of dates, battles and the deeds of the ruling class or whether it should take a more thematic approach and try to determine what life was like for the hoi polloi who had to survive as events unfolded. Sebag Montefiore, in this engaging romp through the reigns of the 21 tsars and tsarinas who ruled Russia, is firmly in the former camp.
He also doffs his cap to whose Twelve Caesars set the standard for tittle-tattle about the great and not so good. Sebag Montefiore does not hold back in his expose of the foibles, dalliances and infatuations of this strange and ruthless family. They ruled with an iron fist and were brutal in their attempt to protect their autocratic position. Tellingly, he suggests that Russia is addicted to autocratic rule and what followed the revolution up to this day is tsarism in a different guise.
I must confess I have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to polysyllabic Russian surnames and so much of the narrative which is a litany of plots and coups blended with periodic murders and mayhem and stirred with battles, wars, treatise and occupation of territories – the size of the empire grew at a rate of over 50 square miles a year – can be bewildering at time. Fortunately, Sebag Montefiore incorporates a dramatis personae at the start of each chapter – great for those reading the book in hard copy but a bit of a bugger for those wrestling with an electronic version.
Along the way we meet bride shows at which the prospective bride for the tsar or tsar-in-waiting was selected, an early version of a celebrity gameshow or, perhaps given the lubricious characters that were the tsars, I’m sane, get me out of here. Too many of the Romanovs had a predilection for dwarf dancing and had gargantuan sexual appetites.
But there were some bright spots. Michael I, the first Romanov, restored order after the Time of Troubles following Ivan the Terrible’s death, Peter the Great turned Russia towards the west and established it as a credible European superpower, Catherine the Great expanded the empire to incorporate the Ukraine, dissolved Poland and turned the future Romanov dynasty into an essentially German family and Alexander I took Paris following Napoleon’s retreat, irking Stalin who only got to Berlin. And then Alexander II abolished serfdom but paid for it with his life at the hands of an assassin’s bomb in 1881, having survived five previous assassination attempts.
The pace of the book visibly slackens when we get to Nicholas II and the October revolution of 1905, the emergence of the influential Rasputin and the Russian revolution of 1917/18, the author’s previous specialist subjects.The account of the murder of Nicholas and his family is harrowing as the narrative of the botched executions unfolds. I did not know (or perhaps had forgotten) that following Nicholas’ abdication, his uncle, Michael Alexandrovich, became tsar, albeit for a day.
Sebag Montefiore’s style is a mix of archaisms, neologisms and ugly modernity. I was delighted to be reacquainted with coelobite, although I had never considered it to be a natural antonym of sybarite. The resurrection of the obsolete adjective lethiferous was a joy but his determination to parse rendezvous as a verb was irksome.
A rattling good read and very much a reversion to the Govian and Suetonian view of history.