Marx wrote that ‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.’ This was witty but far from true. History is never repeated, but it borrows, steals, echoes and commandeers the past to create a hybrid, something unique out of the ingredients of past and present.
But what’s the historical precedent for this? Why is a preference, even a romanticism, for autocracy so deeply ingrained in the national psyche, perhaps even enough to keep them from fully embracing democracy? (That’s Svetlana Alexievich’s theory, at least.)
Beginning with Michael, the first member of the House of Romanov to ascend Russia’s throne and end the darkness of the Time of Troubles, and drawing to a bloody close over 300 years later with the murders of Nicholas II and his family in a basement in Ekaterinburg, historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, known for works including his definitive two-part Stalin biography (Young Stalin is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read) has done the kinda-seemingly-impossible, condensing three centuries of intense history into a readable account of the dynasty that formed Russia as it is, for better or worse.
I’m not big on reading about royals, but I have a Romanov-shaped exception, and the stories told here should make clear why. Truth being stranger than fiction is cliched, sure, but I’ve always felt that applies nowhere more strongly than Russian history. I mean:
The Romanovs inhabit a world of family rivalry, imperial ambition, lurid glamour, sexual excess and depraved sadism; this is a world where obscure strangers suddenly claim to be dead monarchs reborn, brides are poisoned, fathers torture their sons to death, sons kill fathers, wives murder husbands, a holy man, poisoned and shot, arises, apparently, from the dead, barbers and peasants ascend to supremacy… tongues torn out, flesh knouted off bodies, rectums impaled, children slaughtered; here are fashion-mad nymphomaniacal empresses, lesbian ménage à trois, and an emperor who wrote the most erotic correspondence ever written by a head of state. Yet this is also the empire built by flinty conquistadors and brilliant statesmen that conquered Siberia and Ukraine, took Berlin and Paris, and produced Pushkin, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky; a civilization of towering culture and exquisite beauty.
There were two themes that I noticed cropping up again and again in terms of where Montefiore focused his attentions, and these will probably not shock you. In addition to everything being simultaneously glittery, decadent, and blood-soaked in general, the Romanovs were constantly engaged in a lot of sex and war. Those were just kind of their things from the beginning. I was more interested in one of these topics than the other, so your personal interest level may be adjusted throughout too, depending on your preference. He also has a penchant for capturing dramatic insults. Every time he started describing someone getting mad or irritated I uncapped my pen because the insult that was surely coming was something so raunchily, creatively nasty that you’ll want to have it in your arsenal. Just in case.
This is one of those books that you could open to just about any page and whatever story you fall on is in some way completely fascinating. Montefiore accomplished something masterful in making this flow so well that you almost don’t realize how much ground is being covered, how much information is really here and how difficult this must’ve been to create.
But if you’ve read biographies on any of the major figures, there will be some less captivating sections. For me, those were because of having read Robert Massie’s books (RIP to that marvelous genius!) on Peter, Catherine, and Nicholas and Alexandra, plus Helen Rappaport’s The Last Days of the Romanovs. Montefiore includes no shortage of interesting details around these better known lives and stories, but of necessity mainly hits the highlights, and those tend to be the same across biographies. So some of this felt overly familiar, which is just going to be the case in spots if you read a lot of Russian history. It’s still okay to hear your favorite stories retold sometimes.
Personally, the most novel and enlightening sections for me were around Alexander I, who ruled from 1801-1825. His is an area I’ve managed to mostly skip over. And as ubiquitous as he is Napoleon has remained mostly a blank spot for me, so I especially liked his intersections with Alexander (can anyone recommend a starting point in this area? I’ve only really read The Illustrious Dead, which I loved).
Did you know that before Napoleon invaded Russia (in winter, like a loon) and Alexander (probably) burned Moscow to the ground to get rid of him, they were best frenemies? The kind that tell their third wheel (the “lumpish” Frederick William III of Prussia) that they’re going to bed, then sneak away and stay up all night talking? Literally, they did do that. War was really weird back in the day.
Recognizing the obvious significance of Russia’s literary heritage, Montefiore liberally peppers his storytelling with quotes and observations from the authors and poets who lived under these rulers and had a lot to say about them and their times. Including one of my favorites who I’m always happy to see referenced, the brilliant Aleksandr Blok: “And over Russia I see a quiet Far-spreading fire consume all.” Is it just me, or could that line apply to just about any moment in Russian history, literally and/or figuratively?
Although it has no dearth of excitement, drama, glitz, gore, and more, I would note that it’s not one to read if you’re even the slightest bit distracted or uninvested, because as accessible and thrilling as it can be, it’s still dense. I’ll need to read it again, or at least the parts that were new to me, to better absorb it. To come back to Montefiore’s overarching message: all these ingredients of the past are still influencing the present, and the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma that is Russia is one that I always want to understand better, as far as that’s possible.
But when you’re in the mood for it, this rich, culturally contextual, and well crafted tour through the wild, strange history of one of the world’s most influential dynasties is certainly the definitive word on the Romanovs.
The Romanovs: 1613-1918
by Simon Sebag Montefiore