Review published on March 31, 2017.
The year 1613 in Russia saw the first of twenty sovereigns who, by either foul means or fair, were relative to the name Romanov. For some 304 years, right up to the entire family assassinations during the Revolution of 1917, they ruled with a style that beggars belief.
This book, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, published in 2017, offers a shockingly in-depth look at an extraordinary period of Russian history. To say that the Romanov clan was made up of civilised, aristocratic people would be a lie of such magnitude that I am surprised the 1917 revolution did not come much earlier than it did, although many attempts were made.
I would not be that surprised to read that many other nations were ruled in much the same way back in the day, but the revelations herein contained, pertaining solely to Russia, are outrageously monstrous to be honest. The author has obviously trawled through archive after archive, palace after palace, in order to compile this book. He has gone that extra mile to inform us of how they lived, died, married, murdered, executed, tortured, and had affairs whilst married. Illegitimacy unbounded, as did madness, mental instability, jealousy, inherited illnesses, ignorance and so on. The dreadful list is endless as to how these people lived their lives.
To say this book is a hard read is wrong, it is actually quite easy to follow, each Romanov, or period, has a chapter of it’s own. The beginning of each chapter has a list of noteworthy characters and usually ends with the demise of one of the star attractions. Many footnotes help along the way as well. In fact, because the information contained in this book is immense, one can become a little immune to each characters foibles as the facts become clarified. The actual read is both long and deep, yet it is almost unbelievable in its factual evidence.
These were the days of rampant serfdom, where serfs, or peasants, were bought and sold as chattels, or given as tokens by the wealthy landowners for deeds done, or as special favours. Life was a miserable existence for most of these serfs, toiling for hours to support their various owners in the lifestyle they enjoyed. These self same people became cannon fodder for the military usually, a sort of disposable populace.
There seems to be a strange compulsion with many of the Tsars to re-invent the military. Entire armies, cavalries, naval fleets and the like are first constructed, then the uniforms are designed, made and distributed by the Tsarist people themselves. There was a lot of foppish behaviour by the upper classes striving to outdo each other with their own uniforms, the brighter and more garish the better.
The cruelty meted out to, quite often, innocent people, is very hard to be believed. Torture or just simple sentencing was barbaric in the extreme. Knouting, which means flogging really, was carried out with such vigour that many died quickly. Bones broken on the wheel, tongues extracted, hanging, nails torn out etc., the list goes on, and on. Various intrigues within the aristocracy were invariably found out and the perpetrators were either banished or exiled, or worse still, suffer the myriad tortures listed above.
It becomes apparent that many of the things portrayed within the Russian autocracy were seemingly acceptable in those days. National borderlines changed with startling regularity, Germany was not a country back then, simply regions under Prussian rule. Poland was more a pawn than a sovereign nation, while Austria, Finland, France and the Ottoman Empire all get into the story somewhere. Interbreeding was rife between all nations. An example from the mid 1800s is that the Danish ruling family supplied two sisters, Alexandra and Dagmar. Alexandra eventually became Queen of England after marrying Edward VII, while Dagmar became Tsarina of Russia when she married Tsar Alexander 111, which would explain the incredible similarity between our George V and Tsar Nicholas. I imagine this interchanging still goes on to this day, however, the power play that existed back then must have promoted insecurities galore within the nobility. These insecurities regularly appear throughout this book. We also get the often pleasurable meeting between heads of state i.e. Tsar Alexander and Napoleon Bonaparte midway during the French Wars, which seemed at the time to be almost ‘in love’ meetings, but this eventually resulted in the ignominious 1812 Moscow retreat.
It is stimulating to read this information. The way it is presented within these pages is concise, yet factually correct. There is just so much of it though, fully loaded page after page, which in itself makes it ideally a more slow burning read, so that one can maybe absorb the information at a more leisurely pace.
Reg Seward 5/2
The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore
W&N 9781474600873 pbk Feb 2017