The Romanovs: 1613-1918

The idea of some kind of representative democracy has taken root in these damp islands of ours many centuries ago. Arguably, the long struggle against absolute tryranny began with Magna Carta in 1215. Anyone with the faintest understanding of that history is enraged by the complacency of individuals who can’t be bothered to vote. It is worth reminding the complacent how fragile our freedoms are, and that there are plenty of other peoples who have always been, and still are, oppressed by tyranny.

One country in which the delicate plant of freedom has never taken root is Russia. Their present day ‘Tzar’ is Vladimir Putin. He is an emperor in all but name. Prior to him, of course, lies the roll call of dictators and mass murderers. Joseph Stalin takes second place only to Mao Zedong in the numbers of millions that he ‘liquidated’.

The dynasty of dictators which preceded the communist era in Russia lasted for 304 years (from 1613-1918). Their name was The Romanovs.

The focus of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s ( book of the same name is on character and the distorting effects of absolute power on both rulers and their advisors in each era. It all begins with the appalling Ivan the Terrible, the first Russian tsar, a man of tantrums who killed his eldest son by running him through with his staff. Among his other quirks was a habit of murdering his wives, at least three of his known eight met their ends that way. Though Ivan’s volatile blood did not flow down through the Romanovs, that of the family of his first wife, Anastasia Romanovna, did. And so, after a good deal of dynastic turmoil, an outbreak of royal pretenders, and sundry banishments, Asastasia’s grandnephew Michael became the first true Romanov.

It was a position he did not want, a feeling shared by a number of his successors and for good reasons, chief among them being a reluctance to be assassinated. Assassination, forced abdication, and imprisonment marked the 304-year reign of the Romanovs. So did the development of an authoritarian modern state and steady integration into Europe, by invasion, annexation, and, increasingly, the recruitment of royal spouses from the German principalities, “the stud farm of Europe.” The flip side of the coin was diplomatic, in the form of political and military alliances, and throughout the book Montefiore provides astute scrutiny of the intersection of character and event, and of the relations between the big players—ending with Russia’s disastrous engagement in the First World War.

Montefiore describes the changing culture of Russia at the high end, not least the curiously contradictory place of women. This included the putting on of “bride shows” from which the early tsars selected a mate—though more than once, the woman selected was poisoned by rival factions before she could make it to the altar. For much of the time families were governed by household rules (devised by a monk) which, as Montefiore explains, “specified that ‘disobedient wives should be severely whipped’ while virtuous wives should be thrashed ‘from time to time but nicely in secret, avoiding blows from the fist that cause bruises’.”

It is odd, in the light of this, that more women than in any other nation of the period achieved supremacy—starting with the powerful regent, “the Great Sovereign Lady,” Sophia, among whose accomplishments was the execution of countless Old Believers. A couple of tsars later, Catherine I came to the throne, taking over after the death of her husband Peter I. Three years after her death, Anna, “a swarthy, deep-voiced scowler” and a fan of dwarf-tossing, became tsarina. She was followed by Elizaveta—after the infant Ivan VI was deposed and hidden away as “Prisoner Number One.” Kept in solitary confinement, he was finally dispatched altogether during the reign of Catherine II – better known as Catherine the Great. She came to power with the forced abdication of her husband Peter III — “the Little Holstein Devil”— a devotee of all things German, most especially Frederick the Great. (Peter was, in due course, murdered.) Catherine brings women’s rule in Russia to an end. And, as it happens, the imperial Romanov bloodline very likely ended with Peter’s death, for he seems to have been unable or unwilling to father a child by Catherine. With Elizaveta’s connivance—for an heir was essential—Catherine turned to the courtier, Sergei Saltykov (“handsome as the dawn”), a man as likely as Peter to have fathered the future Paul I (also later to be assassinated).

The author shows that Catherine and Peter, Russia’s “enlightened despots,” were distinctly more despotic than enlightened. Indeed, the swing between reform and repression, which autocracy makes volatile and pronounced, is what finished off the Romanovs.

This book is supplied with four beautifully produced caches of illustrations capturing the spirit of the book’s subject. We find a portrait of the doomed Paul I, “both tyrant and laughing stock: he reviewed his troops wearing Prussian uniform, tricorn hat and a sacred dalmatique that made him resemble a teapot with boots.” There is “Decadent Uncle Alexis, the general-admiral notorious for his ‘fast women, slow ships’”, and a little later, we find Rasputin surrounded by his “adepts” and, later still, dead with well-deserved a bullet hole in his forehead. Lastly, and most excruciatingly sad, “One of the last photos ever taken of Nicky and Alix, together at Tobolsk … before they were moved to Ekaterinburg. ‘A revolution without firing squads,’ said Lenin, ‘is meaningless.’

This is a history of a ruthless, despotic, sexually voracious, bibulous, unstable, and also talented dynasty. The author’s ease of telling, his skill at historical intricacy and statecraft, and his connoisseur’s appreciation of personality, foible, and family unpleasantness make this a memorable read. I think you may enjoy it.



Enquire at your local library or consult  for full bibliographic detail.


784 pages in Weidenfeld & Nicolson

First published 2016

ISBN 978-0297852667


Courtesy of Orion Publishing Group

Dr. Simon Sebag Montefiore

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