What took place ninety-eight years ago in the Ipatiev House has cast its shadow over the Romanov dynasty. The brutal, bloody end to the lives of Nicholas II, Alexandra, their five children and several retainers in the early hours of 17 July 1918 has left the impression that the family was somehow cursed from the start. Yet, as Simon Sebag Montefiore shows in his captivating new book, the story of the house of the Romanovs, when viewed from the perspectives of power, prestige and longevity, is one of startling success. Few regimes could boast of adding nearly 150 square kilometres a day to their empire for over 300 years, eventually ruling over one sixth of the earth. ‘Empire-building’, Montefiore notes, ‘was in a Romanov’s blood.’
The story of the Romanovs has been told countless times, but never with such a compelling combination of literary flair, narrative drive, solid research and psychological insight. The Romanovs covers it all, from war and diplomacy to institution building and court intrigue, but it is chiefly an intimate portrait that brings to life the twenty sovereigns of Russia in vivid fashion.
‘Heavy is the cap of Monomakh,’ Pushkin wrote in Boris Godunov, referring to the royal Mongol helmet used to crown Michael I, the first Romanov tsar, in 1613. Heavy indeed. The teenage Michael had been tapped by the boyars to take the throne following the destruction of the ruling Rurikid family and the subsequent national nightmare known as the Time of Troubles. He cried and insisted he wanted nothing to do with the crown, and for good reason: several of his uncles had been killed in the struggle for control of Russia. But the grandees refused to be put off and they begged on bended knees for hours until the weeping Michael finally gave in. Michael survived the throne, but quite a few later Romanovs would not be so lucky: six of the last twelve rulers, Montefiore notes, were murdered, and even those who survived slept with one eye open.
Michael had been chosen in large part because he was weak and would be putty in the hands of the mighty clans of the realm. ‘Let us have Misha Romanov,’ boyar Fyodor Sheremetev said, ‘for he is still young and not yet wise; he will suit our purpose.’ Sheremetev was right, but Michael’s strong-willed father, Filaret, acted as the true power behind the throne and kept in check the various factions competing for influence. As Montefiore correctly notes, the clans themselves endorsed the idea of a strong tsar as the best defence against another collapse into anarchy and foreign domination. No one wanted a return to the Time of Troubles. This did not prevent the fractious grandees from overplaying their hands at times; yet when they did, Filaret was quick to have them imprisoned or exiled. As he did in Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Montefiore writes with subtlety and sophistication about the nature of court life, the dynamics of power and the shifting configurations of the various players. Norbert Elias would have approved.
It is no surprise that the pages of this book are splattered with blood. Murders, assassinations, tortures and beheadings abound. Peter the Great turned Russia to face the West, but did so in the most violent of ways, as we are often reminded here. He had a former mistress’s head chopped off and kept it in a jar in his cabinet of curiosities – Peter, we are told, was a ‘connoisseur of decapitation’. (Montefiore is the master of the punchy descriptor: Empress Elizaveta is ‘Venus in a cuirassier’, Alexander I is ‘a study of inscrutability’ and his minister Count Arakcheev ‘a strangely thin-skinned melodramatist’.)
Proximity to the ruler brought influence and wealth, but, as Peter’s headless mistress might attest, danger too. The threat of violence, however, travelled in two directions; the 18th century, the so-called ‘era of palace coups’, left its share of deposed and dead Romanovs, most notably Peter III, swept from the throne by his wife, Catherine the Great, and later her son Paul I, garrotted by a mob of courtiers in his own bedroom in 1801. For good reason Elizaveta, Peter the Great’s daughter, rarely slept in the same place for more than two nights in a row.
Much of The Romanovs is set in the boudoir; the list of mistresses and paramours could fill an entire book. After reading about the sexual escapades of the male Romanovs, Catherine the Great comes over as a prude. If Nicholas I was ‘highly sexed’, to quote Montefiore, his son Alexander II was in a league of his own. The billets-doux he exchanged with Princess Ekaterina Dolgorukaya (nicknamed ‘the Tigress’) reveal a man who could never get enough, to the point that his own doctors had to intervene out of fear for the tsar’s health.
Given the strain he was under, it is no surprise that Alexander wished to spend every minute in his mistress’s embrace. As if freeing the serfs and enacting some of the most sweeping reforms the country had seen in roughly a century were not enough, he also had to contend with multiple attacks on his life by home-grown terrorists. The ill-fated tsar, who was eventually killed by a bomb on the streets of the capital, moaned that he felt ‘like a wolf tracked by hunters’.
No wonder, then, that neither his son Alexander III nor grandson Nicholas II was pleased upon learning it was their turn to ascend the throne. Alexander III, the ‘primordial throwback’, put a stop to even talk of reform and tried to freeze time, just as an ever-more modern, industrialised West was turning the Romanovs’ sacred monarchy into a creaking anachronism. He was cruel but at least consistent, which could not be said of his heir. The pathetic story of the reign of the last tsar has been recounted many times, but Montefiore manages to approach it with a perspective devoid of either mocking derision or damp romanticism, which is refreshing.
Could the monarchy have been saved, or was it already too late by 1896, when Nicholas the last was crowned, two years after his ascension to the throne? To Montefiore, it is inconceivable that even a figure as visionary as Peter the Great could have solved the challenges facing the final Romanovs. ‘Western historians scold the last two tsars’, he remarks, ‘for failing to institute immediate democracy. This could be a delusion: such radical surgery might simply have killed the patient much earlier.’ If this assessment of Western historians does not do justice to the excellent scholarship produced on late imperial Russia in recent decades, it is nevertheless hard to argue with Simon Sebag Montefiore’s ultimate conclusion.