Simon Sebag Montefiore’s new history, “The Romanovs — 1613-1918,” tells the compulsively fascinating true story of the family that dominated Russia for more than three centuries.
‘The Romanovs — 1613-1918’
by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Knopf, 744, $35
You can’t make this stuff up: For 304 years a Russian family ruled, at times, more than one-sixth the Earth’s surface and entertained themselves with dwarf tossing, carriages drawn by pigs, goats and bears, and lots of sex with ballerinas, prostitutes and other people’s spouses.
They were a tough bunch, especially early on, when enemies were beheaded, impaled through the rectum and disemboweled — not necessarily in that order, as lopping off someone’s head first was considered a form of mercy.
No need for Simon Sebag Montefiore to make any of this up. For “The Romanovs — 1613-1918,” Montefiore, an award-winning British author and historian, drew mostly from original documents and letters, many unpublished. They revealed how the czars dealt with foreign enemies and allies, controlled their ministries and gave pet names to the genitalia of their lovers.
While that may seem like more than we need to know to understand these autocrats, Montefiore points out that there were four sure ways to gain the confidence of a czar: a military victory, a guarantee of security, mystical assurance of the divine right to rule or lots of sex.
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Thus this tell-all history of the Romanov family, with special emphasis on how smoothly succession went from one czar to the next. Many times not so well, as one son had his father killed, a father had his son killed, and one died by bombing. In the end Nicholas II abdicated in 1917 and was murdered with all of his family in 1918, bringing the Romanov reign to an end and the start of the Bolsheviks’ own cruel rule.
At 700-plus pages, and each chapter a parade of unfamiliar Russian names, it’s a book English-language readers might see as a project. It marches through wars, pogroms, displays of dazzling wealth and efforts to free the millions of serfs who were the source of those riches and who died by the thousands in the czars’ military adventures.
Montefiore helps out with diagramed family trees and a cast of characters before each section of the book.
While the names of ministers, generals and courtiers might not be familiar, the place names are. They are the same places in the news about Russia today. The czars sought the same spheres of influence, buffers from potential enemies and access to ice-free ports that motivate Vladimir Putin today, and Josef Stalin and other Soviet leaders previously: Crimea, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Baltic and Black Seas, Afghanistan, Georgia, Chechnya and so on.
Montefiore ends with a question about Putin, who once told his courtiers the “greatest criminals in our history were those weaklings who threw power on the floor — Nicholas II and Mikhail Gorbachev.”
Don’t expect Putin to do that. He’ll continue to rule as the Romanovs did, Montefiore says, through autocracy and with the aid of a small clique, in return for “prosperity at home and glory abroad.”
Understanding the autocracy in Russia today makes this book a project worth undertaking.