The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Even by the standards of European monarchs, many of the Romanovs were terrible people. Peter the Great had his oldest son killed by torture. Earlier, Peter’s half-sister Sophia had tried to prevent him from assuming the throne, and if he had lost that contest he might well have paid with his life. Ivan VI succeeded his great aunt Anna when he had not yet had his first birthday, Anna having died of a kidney stone. He lost his throne before his second when Elizaveta, daughter of Peter the Great, staged a coup. Imprisoned, Ivan outlived two monarchs, although there were strict orders to have him killed should any attempt be made to free him. Those orders were carried out when Ivan was 23 and Catherine II, later known as Catherine the Great, was Empress. Catherine herself, born Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, took the throne by deposing her husband Peter III and having him killed.

The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore

No sooner had the Romanovs stopped killing each other than their subjects took up the task. The transition here is Tsar Paul. He was regarded as eccentric and was disliked by the more militant parts of the upper nobility. To be fair, he was not notably odder than his predecessors, though maybe he lacked the force of personality to make people go along with things. Eventually, senior nobles and rash generals began conspiring against him. Montefiore describes an elaborate and deadly dance among tsar, heir and conspirators. The tsar was growing more paranoid as he aged. The heir, Alexander, was in his early 20s and seeing his destiny open before him. The conspirators, particularly Peter von der Pahlen governor of Petersburg and chief minister, lured Alexander with tales of the tsar’s instability and of course the veiled threat that if his knowledge of the conspiracy was exposed his fate would be that of Peter’s son Alexei. (After all, Paul had eight other children, and women had ruled Russia for most of the preceding 75 years, so another empress was not out of the question.) The tsar wanted to see his eldest succeed him on the throne, but not prematurely. In the event, Paul was right to be paranoid. The nobles acted. Historians still debate the extent of Alexander’s involvement, and Montefiore comes down on the side of Alexander being involved but thinking his father was merely to be deposed with he himself ruling as regent. It’s possible that a young man might be naive enough to think deposition might not mean death; people can convince themselves of quite a bit, especially when a lifetime of absolute power is at stake.

After Paul, revolutionary elements cut out the nobility as middlemen in doing away with monarchs. Two of the last four tsars died violently. Alexander II was blown up in 1881 by members of an organization known as “People’s Will.” Nicholas II and all of his immediate family were shot by Bolsheviks in 1918, ending the line that had ruled Russia from 1613. There are currently three Romanov pretenders, though prospects of their return to a Russian throne, let alone ruling as autocrats, are slim.

Montefiore probably did not intend for his book to be an argument for abolishing all monarchies, although any honest history of the Romanovs ends up as such an argument. Instead he writes, “In some ways, this book is a study of character and the distorting effects of absolute power on personality.” (p. xix) Absolute power corrupted exactly as expected, but some of the Romanovs must have been very odd birds to begin with, judging from their actions when they were freed of most constraints. Empress Anna (reigned 1730–40, niece of Peter the Great), for instance, “made up for her lack of drinking by presiding over a circus of grotesques, including Beznoika the Legless Mama, Tall Daryushka the Handless and Garbuchka the Hunchback.” (p. 154) She arranged for fights among old women, was a fan of dwarf-tossing, and delighted in reducing noble courtiers to fools. Prince Mikhail Golitsyn she forced to become a cupbearer serving kvass; she renamed him Prince Kvassky. In his role as a jester, “Golitsyn’s specialty was to dress as a hen and sit on a straw-basket nest for hours clucking in front of the court. After mass on Sundays, Golitsyn and the other fools sat in rows cackling and clucking in chicken outfits.” (p. 154) Montefiore relates the consensus of historians’ views on Anna, and moderates them somewhat: “She has been condemned for her caprices, her cruelties and her German favourites … Yet there is some sexism in this as her shenanigans were no more grotesque than those of Great Peter himself.” (p. 156) Considering Peter’s record as Montefiore explores it over the better part of 50 pages including a chapter titled “The All-Drunken Synod,” that is a high bar to clear.

One of the best aspects of the book gets noted in Montefiore’s “Acknowledgements and Sources,” part of the introductory matter. He writes, “I have drawn on much neglected material on all the tsars’ reigns, mostly primary documents, some unpublished, many published in historical journals in the nineteenth century.” (pp. xxix–xxx) In later reigns, he draws heavily on diaries and personal correspondences of the principals, such as the roughly 3000 letters between Alexander II and Katya Dolgorukaya, the mistress who became his second wife. “Few historians have worked on this extraordinary trove and none has read it all, partly because the letters were for a long time in private hands and returned to the Russian archives relatively recently.” (p. xxx) He has delivered great historical spadework, and I am sure that there are revelations for people more versed or more invested in the Romanovs than I am.

Montefiore’s writing is never less than engaging, but for all that he says he aims to write character studies of all of the Romanov rulers by the end I was left mostly with the chapter titles for some of them — “Jupiter” for Nicholas I and “Colossus” for Alexander III — and a sense of a swirling mass of detail involving courtiers, favorites and rivalries among the nobility. Montefiore writes that he also wants to chronicle the senior noble families — such as the Sheremetevs, Gorchakovs or Dolgorukovs — who influenced Russia and tried to steer the dynasty to their own favor through the centuries, but this thread largely escaped me as I read through the lives of the emperors and empresses. Russia’s history outside the confines of the imperial family also takes place largely off the page. I am sure this was deliberate and served to keep the page count down to a manageable 657, not counting introduction and endnotes, but it leads to a narrative that sometimes feels shorn of context. (The last three pages concern Vladimir Putin, and they are ill-considered, particularly in regard to peoples who were formerly subject to Moscow.) The individual details and incidents related in the book are vivid, but in contrast to Montefiore’s first book about Stalin, there was not an overarching argument that stood out for me. Unless it’s that many of the Romanovs were terrible people, all of them profiting from and dedicating their lives to upholding a terrible system. With that, I fully agree.

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  1. […] Habsburgs were no Romanovs in terribleness, but power and wealth in the main line of the family brought out plenty of less […]

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