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Thursday, July 28, 2016

“The Romanovs: 1613-1918”, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

784 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN-13: 978-0307266521

A century after the fall of the Romanovs Dynasty their fate still inspires a sense of horror-filled awe; that a family of rulers that had endured for three-hundred-plus years could lose everything within a few days’ time, be imprisoned within its own palaces, and eventually suffer horrendous death and mutilation is difficult to comprehend. As a novel or a movie it would stretch credulity beyond all limits…and yet, it happened. The story of the Romanovs rise and fall has been told before, but rarely with such color and verve. In keeping with the dramatic events he describes in 650 pages, plus another 100 pages of notes and an extensive bibliography, Simon Sebag Montefiore in his book The Romanovs: 1613-1918 has divided his work into three Acts subdivided into Scenes.

Act I covers the early history of the Romanov Dynasty, beginning with the selection of a 16 year old boy, Michael Fedorovich Romanov, as Tsar in 1613. Russia had endured years of civil war and conflict, and the young Romanov was chosen because he was seen as harmless and unlikely to cause trouble for the powerful boyars who held most of the power. Michael I and his son Alexei I were able to securely establish themselves in power and to get the upper hand on the boyars, setting the stage for Act II, in which Alexei’s son Peter I forcibly dragged Russia into the modern era, capturing land on the coasts of the Baltic and Black Seas and building a new capital, St. Petersburg, as his “window on the west”. Peter was succeeded by a series of short lived rulers until his daughter Elizabeth managed to seize power and continue her father’s work. Elizabeth’s foolish nephew Peter III threatened to undo much of his aunt and grandfather’s work, but he was overthrown and replaced by his wife, a German princess who became Empress Catherine the Great, the second great modernizing ruler of Russia. After Catherine’s unstable son Paul I was overthrown in 1801 her grandson became Tsar Alexander I, who oversaw Russia's defense against and eventual triumph over Napoleon. Act III begins with the Decembrist Revolt of 1825 and the accession of Tsar Nicholas I, then covers the reigns of the last Romanov rulers Alexander II, Alexander III, Nicholas II and Michael II (Nicholas’s brother who “reigned” for one day in March, 1917).

Throughout the three acts and many scenes Montefiore’s emphasis is on the personalities of the tsars, empresses, and their families and courtiers. It seems clear that a hereditary streak of madness or megalomania ran through the Romanovs in their first centuries in power, and occasionally manifested itself in later years (even after the original Romanov line may have come to an end with the murder of the miserable Peter III.) Certainly all the Romanovs were resolute in their determination to maintain and enhance their power and Russia’s status as a great nation. Their personal lives were extremely messy and often hazardous to everyone around them, and certainly played a major role in the dynasty’s ultimate collapse. Most people are familiar with the tragedy of Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their family, but the story of Tsar Alexander II’s long infatuation with the much younger Ekaterina Dolgorouky, while less well known, had almost as much of an impact on Russian history.

Some of the criticisms leveled at this book miss the point. Montefiore has written a sweeping, thrilling, occasionally funny, always thoughtful examination of the ENTIRE dynasty, 300-plus years of it. He describes what he feels is a Russian problem: the desire of a ruler with absolute power to exercise complete control, and the needs of a vast country for a government that can function efficiently, and a military that is disciplined, prepared and professional. There is a built in clash in these needs, one felt by the tsars and empresses and by Lenin and Stalin (about whom Montefiore has written an absorbing two-volume biography) – the insistence of the autocrat that all of his/her power be felt constantly, and the fact that government bureaucracy and military organization need a degree of autonomy and continuity. Montefiore does not scant the many remarkable and/or heinous personalities of the various tsarist courts but his continual theme is the challenge of governing by fiat, or whim, or crazy impulse and the resulting chaos, discontinuity, policy reversals, mass murders, ill-advised or badly fought wars, astoundingly complex intrigue and manipulation, resulting finally in the horrible murders of the last tsar, his entire immediate family, and most of his relatives.

But even Nicholas II did not want to cede absolute power, though he might have lived if he had. Of course, incredible figures such as Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Alexander II deserve full books (and have gotten them). But in The Romanovs Montefiore uses a huge range of research, especially into their private papers, available for the first time in many cases to him, to let the autocrats, great and deeply flawed, and their confidants and victims speak for themselves in their genius, seductiveness, craziness, and cruelty, Although the book is immensely researched and carefully documented Montefiore has an old fashioned sweeping narrative style. The energy and color in his writing make are irresistible. He has a sense of humor about the many myths that collected around the famous Romanovs, and he explodes them with wit and understanding. But when dealing with facts he is sharp-eyed and unsentimental.

The Romanovs is a well told and lively read, filled with anecdotes and details (many of them given in some fascinating footnotes) that held my interest throughout. I especially enjoyed the short prologue which compares two teenagers: 16 year old Michael who began the dynasty in 1613, and 14 year old Alexei whose hemophilia helped bring down the Romanovs and led to his and his family's brutal executions in 1918. The brief epilogue comparing the Romanovs to the Soviet and post-Soviet leaders who succeeded them was also enlightening. The illustrations are well chosen and make the book even more sumptuous. In many ways as horrifying as Suetonius and Tacitus’ histories of the Roman Caesars, this tale of the later Russian Caesars is just as compulsively readable.

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