The Romanovs, Simon Sebag-Montefiore

One of those books that you can’t put down – that force you to eat all meals one-handed and stay up far too late.  And then re-read all over again as soon as you’ve finished.

The Romanovs was a gift from my lovely chum @kelanajo, and while I don’t read much non-fiction, with a blurb that read ‘Game of Thrones meets War and Peace’, I knew I was onto a winner. The book covers the rise and fall of the Romanov dynasty, who ruled Russia from 1703 – 1917.

Montefiore himself states that this isn’t an attempt to create a definitive account of the Romanovs, but to show how each personality dealt with the challenges of autocracy.  This approach doesn’t shy away from the failures and grotesqueries of autocracy, but also avoids easy judgement and political bias.  The overall impression was that the even the worst of the Romanovs were just very limited people hopelessly out of their depth, and ultimately creators of their own undoing.

In this thread, Montefiore deliberately focusses attention on the demise of each ruler, as ‘the passing over of power is the ultimate test of any regime’.   This very cleverly builds momentum as the book progresses to the last of the Romanovs and the end of the dynasty.   With Nicholas II, there is a real sense that modernity is weighing in – that the Russia of 1917 was too vast and complex for any one person to govern.  Yet this never gives way to fatalism or a dubious sense of destiny.

Instead, there is a growing divide between the reality of the situation and the Romanovs grasp of what is happening around them.   One of the most memorable passages shows this with an almost cruel clarity.  In 1916, revolution spreads through Russia, and president Rodzianko telegrams the Tsar:

“Popular uprisings are taking on uncontrollable and threatening dimensions… Your Majesty, save Russia… Any procrastination is tantamount to death.”

The Tsars response:

“Fatso Rodzianko has again written me a load of nonsense to which I won’t even give a reply,”

By itself, this may seem the reaction of a lunatic, but the book beautifully shows how historical events have hugely complex origins, which are often brought to a head by personalities.   Nicholas II was socially reserved, and hugely invested in his family – his haven from the strain of rule.  So as WWI increased the demands placed upon him, he responded by removing himself ever more from his court and public, relying on increasingly unsuitable people to govern for him, which ultimately  sealed his fate.

A big part of the story’s success is Montefiore’s grasp of the historical material.  I can’t begin to imagine how much research has gone into this book.  The appendices were so long that they weren’t even printed in the paperback version (which itself was over 650 pages long).  Montefiore makes excellent use of primary sources, building the story with first-hand accounts, guided and structured by a historians understanding of wider events.  It feels both immediate and comprehensive.   It also shuts down knee jerk responses, or blithe judgements.  Frankly, being an autocrat sounds an exhausting business…

And one that poisons all relationships.   Romanov parents kill their children, children their parents, spouses are despatched, and lovers bought off.  Catherine the Great’s relationship with her sullen son Paul was almost fantastically awful – after her death, he pulled down the palace she built for him and had her disinterred.  His failure, or perhaps refusal, to learn from her and so live up to her brilliant reign was one of the things that lead to his assassination.   But as Nicholas II shows, happy family life was no guarantee of good rule either.  Even productive, contented relationships have a tension to them as there is the constant awareness that proximity to the monarch means power.  And even slight aspects of personality or good fortune – that would mean very little for an ordinary person – have profound, world-changing impact in a tsar.  While it does make for a cracking story, it’s all very fraught.   Montefiore notes that most of the later Romanovs took the throne reluctantly.

I suppose it’s a role that is ultimately dehumanising.   The Tsar can’t be ridiculous, or tired, or old, or have favourites, or blind spots, or weaknesses.   There are several enduring images in the story: Ivan the Terrible impaling his son through the head with the imperial spear; Paul I reviewing his troops in an outfit that made him resemble a teapot with boots;  the dying Nicholas I raising a fist to his son and heir, telling him ‘Hold everything like this!’.  Yet there is one image that recurs: the decaying corpse of the monarch, dressed in finery and mourned in the splendour of an Orthodox mass.  Monarchy is an attempt to find the divine and eternal in human form.  Yet even the greatest rulers must die.  There will always be distance between what is desired and what is possible.  As this brilliant story of the Romanovs shows, autocracy is equal parts sublime and absurd, bringing both marvels and horrors into the world.  As much as I enjoyed reading about the Romanovs, I’m not sure I’d want to meet many of them…

What did you think?  Have you read any other biographies of the Romanovs? How did they compare?  Did you enjoy Montefiore’s approach?  Were there any bits of history you feel were missed out? Let me know!

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