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!

100 Seconds to Beat the World: The David Rudisha Story (BBC4)

Some moments are just so perfect they linger in the memory for ever.

The 2012 London Olympics was filled with memorable moments, but the stand out for me was David Rudisha’s astonishing win in the 800m Men’s final.

I enjoy athletics, but I’m not a middle-distance fan. This particular race, however, was unusual. The pace was so staggering, that the athlete that finished last in this race would have won the last three Olympic golds. And the man who won, took four seconds off his own world record.

Just in time for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the BBC presents the inspirational story of Kenyan athlete David Rudisha and the Irish missionary who trains him.

We see a lanky 16-year-old David arrive at St Patricks High School as the only pupil from the Maasai community. Head Master and Irish missionary, Brother Colm O’Connell, welcomes the new class: ‘You are special to us. We take care of you… and you mean something to us.’ Faith, family and community run through the programme as a source of strength and inspiration. The programme refers to both men as ‘David’ and ‘Brother Colm’, suggesting the strong bond between them, as well as Brother Colm’s warm and informal style. The school aims to develop young people as individuals, not just athletes, and school work and prayer are as important as training. After a period of unrest in Kenya, which claimed the life of a close friend of David’s, Brother Colm reiterates the cohesive effect athletics can have as people from different communities work together to represent their country. Its worth noting that the programme makes great use of music to create a sense of place, reflecting the dynamism and confidence of Kenya.

Both David’s talent and his commitment are shown from the start as the show follows key points in his progress. Each point in the story is allowed to unfold naturally, with the story structured with screen inserts rather than voice-over, which feels less invasive. David’s father won silver in the 400m relay at the 1968 Olympics, and David initially runs the same distance. Brother Colm suggests he change to 800m, where he excels. He later wins the World Junior Championships and then enters the difficult transition from junior the senior level. However, injury and a poor showing at the 2009 World Championships threaten to hold him back. This prompts the second biggest change in his sporting career- a shift in tactics to front-running.

Growth, both physical and psychological, is seen in David. The distinction between the relaxed, smiling, softly spoken man we see talking to camera and the focussed, disciplined athlete on the track becomes ever more distinct as time goes on. While he may have been expected to take on a new coach as he moves up to senior level, David sticks with Brother Colm. Living so far from his family, David values Brother Colm’s almost paternal support, as the latter explains the need for psychological as well as physical strength in athletics.
All leading up to that race. Sometimes sport can be done so well, can just look so good, that all attempts to describe it are useless. You just have to see it. The show wisely lets the running do the talking for the crucial race. Everyone in that field acquitted themselves admirably, with many achieving personal or even national bests. In the last 200m, they were all pushing hard, most looking a little ragged, right on the edge of their limits. But David looks so calm and determined, head up, eyes forward, knees high. Racing from the front, the only battle is for second place as he continues to pull forward until he crosses the finish line. The the board flashes up: ‘1.40.91 New WR’ and his hands go up in celebration. It’s the greatest 800m race in history.

The programme could easily have finished there, but it takes the time to close with a real sense of pride and optimism for the future. David proudly shows off his father’s silver medal alongside his own gold from London, before his little girl takes his medal and puts it around her neck with a grin. The training programme at St Patricks continues to thrive, with Brother Colm at the helm. I really enjoyed the sense of continuity that was created, and how the final word was that there is no easy trick to creating an Olympic athlete, and that there is still ‘life after Olympic gold’. The training is all part of Brother Colm’s mission-work to help young people, and part of Kenya’s wider commitment to maintaining its proud record of athletic success.

This was a beautiful story brilliantly told and there is plenty to love here, even if you’re not a fan of athletics.

Did you see the programme? Did you enjoy it? Is there anything you feel I’ve missed out? Do let me know.