The Romanovs - A long reign of blood, sex and tears
History: The Romanovs, Simon Sebag, Montefiore, W&N, hdbk, 784 pages, €37.50
Simon Sebag Montefiore serves up a scintillating history of the Romanovs, who ruled Russia for 300 years, writes Peter Frankopan.
'It was hard to be a tsar," writes Simon Sebag Montefiore at the start of this glorious romp through the history of the Romanov family from 1613 until the fall of the dynasty just over 300 years later. By the end of the book, it is hard to disagree with him. In a story bursting with blood, sex and tears, we learn that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
"No other dynasty except the Caesars has such a place in the popular imagination," argues the author. There are certainly times when the excesses and follies, the rivalries and the glories of the men and women who ruled Russia match those of Rome at its most epic. For Russia's emperors and empresses, nothing was done by halves. We learn of one empress, Catherine I, who "played so hard" that her lover "collapsed, either from sexual exhaustion or alcohol poisoning"; we learn of one of her descendants, Alexander II, whose lovemaking "four times… on every piece of furniture… and in every room" caused his doctors to despair that he too would expire; then there is the Empress Elizaveta, who ordered the wives of those suspected of plotting against her to have their tongues ripped out, or Anna who, as regent in 1726, sounded alarms across St Petersburg to scare its citizens in an April Fool's joke, and would "impose bumpers of the dreaded vodka goblet" when courtiers wore the wrong clothes to her balls.
The Romanovs rose to power by chance. With the Rurikid line of Moscow falling extinct, in 1613 the teenaged Michael Romanov was nominated to the throne as an "everyman" candidate, one who was more acceptable than characters such as the polarising Dmitri Trubetskoi or the King of Sweden who also had their eye on the throne.
Michael was chosen in the hope that he would "shine for the Russian Tsardom like the sun" - code for the expectation that he would be malleable and do the bidding of the powerful aristocrats eager to further their own interests. That he was not a domineering figure can be seen from his doctors' diagnosis that he suffered from "a deluge of tears in his stomach", so often was he found weeping.
His accession, nevertheless, was the prelude to a golden age in Russia, dominated by larger-than-life characters such as Peter the Great, "freakishly tall" and whose face was "a constant flicker of strange tics". Obsessed with explosives and science as a boy, Peter was a restless innovator, whether that meant shipbuilding and improving the army or devising crude ceremonies involving his favourite dwarves. His word was law.
"If anyone defecates in other than the appointed places" in his new Admiralty, "he is to be beaten with a cat-o'-nine tails and ordered to clean it up." He treated his son (and heir) with astonishing brutality, comparing him to gangrene and to a "useless member" that deserves to be cut off. Eventually Peter had him tortured to death.
Not unexpectedly, Sebag Montefiore is strong on Potemkin and Catherine the Great, both subjects of his earlier books. But he is good elsewhere, too, especially on the Russian responses to the Napoleonic wars and the invasion of 1812. He has an eye for telling detail, such as Misha Romanov's nickname "Floppy", which arose because "he tended to fall asleep while driving", and for wonderful quotations from the sources - such as the description of the Empress Anna whose cheeks were "as big as a Westphalian ham" or Nicholas II's comment that Kaiser Wilhelm II's honorific appointment as a Russian admiral made him want to vomit.
The history of Russia is told from the corridors of power, with anecdotes and gossip about the struggles of those on, and closest to, the throne framing Sebag Montefiore's account. This intense focus on the centre naturally has its advantages and disadvantages, as the author rightly acknowledges at the outset. But, as we are acutely aware today, how Russia is governed is of intense interest. The state is estimated to have grown at 55 square miles per day after the Romanovs came to power. Ruling a country so large was (and is) not easy.
Some felt the burden acutely. The ill-fated Nicholas II lamented on his accession that "the Lord has given me a heavy cross to bear". Not all his ancestors were prone to such reflection. "This is how you rule," his great-grandfather Nicholas I once said: "Remember this: die on the steps of the throne, but don't give up power!" The fear of being challenged was a constant source of concern for Romanov tsars, one that often grew into deep paranoia. As in ancient Rome, sometimes those most to be feared were members of the imperial family itself. The palace could be a dangerous place, prompting jittery rulers like the Emperor Paul to build fortifications that would provide safety; his obsession with the assassin Brutus proved prophetic when he was strangled to death in 1801 by men he knew well.
Despite everything, the Romanovs were great survivors - perhaps because of a shared ability to detach themselves from reality. "Pistol shot missed. Killer caught," wrote Alexander II after one unsuccessful assassination attempt. Nicholas II noted the murder of Stolypin, with whose death passed the last chance for political reform, before going on to talk about the glorious warm weather and the "great pleasure" of yachting.
Nicholas, like so many of his predecessors, greatly mistrusted his ministers and those appointed to advise him. In his case, it was a motley collection of waifs, strays and mystics, most notorious of whom was Rasputin.
Others turned to lovers or trusted friends. Much of Russia's fortunes hung on whether these advisers were incompetent or gifted, as Catherine the Great's favourite Potemkin had been, and the enlightened Ivan Shuvalov before him.
In the end, it was all too much. By 1917, it was not just revolutionaries who were plotting against the tsar - so too were "Romanovs, generals and parliamentarians". Nicholas II's luck was poor, but so was his judgment - World War One was only made worse by his disastrous decisions.
His greatest mistake, according to some, was to give up and accept a terrible fate at Ekaterinburg in 1918. "I would never abdicate," Vladimir Putin has been quoted as saying, unlike "the greatest criminals in [Russia's] history", those "weaklings who threw power on the floor". Putin would have been right at home among the Romanovs.
Peter Frankopan's The Silk Roads: a New History of the World is published by Bloomsbury
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