Book review: Simon Sebag Montefiore's bloody account of Imperial Russia

Simon Sebag Montefiore does history in the manner of a tabloid writer. Blood, guts, murder, sex and general human depravity: this is the raw material of Montefiore’s lurid new history of the House of Romanov, whose members ruled – and terrorised – the Russian empire for 304 years. Their reign was born in violent times […]

Simon Sebag Montefiore does history in the manner of a tabloid writer. Blood, guts, murder, sex and general human depravity: this is the raw material of Montefiore’s lurid new history of the House of Romanov, whose members ruled – and terrorised – the Russian empire for 304 years.

Their reign was born in violent times in the early 17th century, and ended in a hail of bullets in 1918, when Bolshevik revolutionaries gunned down Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their five children, dumping their bodies in a shallow mine.

If Montefiore lays it on thick with the adjectival firepower, and nearly reduces the Romanov story to a pile of corpses, the brutality of the facts speak for themselves. Tsars did not rule with a gentle touch; under the reign of Peter the Great, for example, enemies of the regime were killed in gruesome spectacles which Montefiore describes with a ghastly level of detail.

His teeming volume recounts not only the succession of tsars, but also the endless parade of courtiers, mistresses – with few exceptions, the Romanovs were not known for uxorial bliss – generals, functionaries and conspirators.

Two Romanov tsars were murdered by members of their own court; another, Alexander I, died in mysterious circumstances. His nephew, the reforming Alexander II, who freed the serfs, survived three assassination attempts, only be killed on the fourth. The grisly fate of Nicholas II endures as one of the most notorious episodes of the 20th century.

“Blood-spattered, gold-plated, diamond-studded, swash-buckled, bodice-ripping and star-crossed, the rise and fall of the Romanovs remains as fascinating as it is relevant, as human as it is strategic, a chronicle of fathers and sons, megalomaniacs, monsters and saints,” writes Montefiore. (Many of the figures here were all of these things at once.)

They ruled with absolute power that proved to be their undoing. Tsardom was a particular kind of autocracy, swathed in a mystical grandeur and religious sanction that demanded submission. Yet the Romanovs could not rule without a careful delegation of power across realms – religious, military, aristocratic.

Regicide was always a crude but forceful tool to regulate a system that had few checks. As Montefiore writes, courtiers were far deadlier to tsars than a people’s revolt, even if that was what ultimately ended Romanov rule.

“Tsars who turned their backs on the court’s brokering arrangement or who performed dramatic reversals of foreign policy against their potentates, particularly the generals, were liable to be murdered – assassination being one of the few ways for the elite to protest in an autocracy without opposition.” For all the quirks and caprices of tsarist rule, the Russian empire expanded under the Romanovs at a breathtaking rate, some 20,000 square miles a year.

War – against Sweden, the Ottoman Empire (constantly), Poland, Prussia and France under Napoleon – was the instrument of this expansion. Rebellious borderlands – Georgia, Crimea, Chechnya, Central Asian lands – were brought into Russian orbit; the legacies of Romanov imperialism redound, often violently, in our own time.

Montefiore has synthesized an enormous amount of material, primary and secondary sources galore, minutes, letters – including the salacious missives of Alexander II to his mistress, “perhaps the most explicit correspondence ever written by a head of state” – into a compendious sprawling narrative that nearly bursts at the seams.

Emerging in the Time of Troubles, the Romanovs maneuvered themselves into power as the country was rent by civil war and social strife. As they consolidated power in the 17th century, they presented a fearsome Asiatic image to Western observers – the early Romanovs donned Mongolian headdresses as their crown.

Power was established fitfully. Alexei, Tsar Michael’s son, forged an alliance with nobles in 1648 that, among other things, allowed them to own peasants, 90 per cent of the population, outright. “Nobility would be defined by the privilege of owning other human beings, setting a Russian pattern of behaviour: servility to those above, tyranny to those below.”

A rush of events and personalities, subplots and intrigues cascade across Montefiore’s pages. Tsarism, as practiced by the Romanovs, was a breathtaking spectacle. Peter the Great, naturally, bestrides the story like the giant he was, at 6 feet, 8 inches.

Determined to avail himself of technological and cultural riches, Peter departed Russia as a young man in 1697 – no tsar had ever left the country – to travel in Europe and “force-feed himself with a crash course in western technology, an act of autodidactic will unparalleled in world history, let alone Russia’s”.

Peter tried to create a rational state, yet he raged at his ministers for failing to carry out his ideas properly. He built a new city, Petersburg, using slave labourers, who suffered immensely as the grand project rose on the Neva River banks. He threw bizarre parties, replete with a cast of dwarves, giants, jesters and sundry other freaks, that lasted long into the night.

Peter’s reign inaugurated a Golden Age of Romanov rule that culminated in the reign of another Great – Catherine, who was empress from 1762-96. A Romanov by marriage, not birth – she was German – her rule began with a coup against her own husband, Peter III, who was strangled in captivity.

“My glory is spoilt, Posterity will never forgive me,” Catherine mused after the act. But she proved a formidable and enduring monarch, pushing through the modernising work started by Peter. Montefiore details her famed love affair with Grigory Potemkin with zeal. With a nice turn of phrase, the author writes of this charged pair, “both she and Potemkin were human furnaces who demanded an endless supply of praise, love and attention in private, and glory and power in public”.

After her death, only five more Romanovs would serve. Her son Paul was murdered after a brief reign, paving the way for the first Alexander. This Romanov would find Russia embroiled in the Napoleonic wars, alternately making war with France and doing peace deals with Napoleon.

Alexander’s armies saw off Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of 1812, which was the beginning of the end for the French emperor. But military glory alone could not hold together the vast multinational empire that stretched thousands of miles. The tsars of the 19th century confronted problem after problem. Russia was falling behind the West and the Romanov response was to clamp down harder on reform movements.

The first Nicholas severely limited the freedoms of Jews, and cracked down on expression to an absurd degree. The word “republic” for example, was struck from Greek and Roman history books. Even if Alexander II’s historic 1861 Emancipation Manifesto liberated the serfs, the tide was already turning against the outdated institutions of Romanov rule. The emancipation only accelerated the shattering of Romanov power.

“The abolition of serfdom broke asunder the pact between ruler and nobility that had made Russia, leaving the tsar to base his power on the rifles of his army and the carapace of his unloved bureaucracy. Unmoored by this anchor, the Romanovs and society started to drift apart,” Montefiore writes of this moment.

Russia tottered into the 20th century, battered by military defeat against Japan. The last tsar and his wife harbored a terrible secret: the tsarevich , Alexis, suffered from hemophilia. The hopes of the House of Romanov rested on such fragility. Montefiore’s evocation of the last decade of the Romanov is sombre and strange. As the mystic – and polarising – healer Rasputin exerted his hold over Alexandra, Russian troops died by thousands in the trenches of the Eastern Front during the First World War. The empress lamented, “We all knew that such a war would be the bloodiest and most awful ever known and so it has turned out.”

Nicholas II was well meaning but hopelessly out of touch. His wife beseeched him to stay firm: “Never forget what you are and must remain, autocratic Emperor! We’re not ready for a constitutional government.” It all ended badly. What semblance of constitutional government that had been fitfully established, the Bolsheviks swept away. The Romanovs would not survive the revolutionary tidal wave either.

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to The Review.

Source: art & life

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