Book review: The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Catherine the Great by Vigilius Erifsen. As a reformer and patron of the arts, she was dubbed an enlightened despot. Photograph: PACatherine the Great by Vigilius Erifsen. As a reformer and patron of the arts, she was dubbed an enlightened despot. Photograph: PA
Catherine the Great by Vigilius Erifsen. As a reformer and patron of the arts, she was dubbed an enlightened despot. Photograph: PA
The strange stability of the Romanovs proves as compelling as their tendency to self-destruct, writes Stuart Kelly

The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore | Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25

LIKE the House of Stuart, the Romanovs are a paradox. It is easy to caricature both as failures. They share a certain gothic intensity; by turns libidinous and morbidly religious, parricides or son-killers next to devoted family figures, female rulers both romantically transfigured and misogynistically loathed, martinets and hedonists – though the Romanovs do have the edge in terms of dwarf-throwing, extravagant torture, transvestite balls and aesthetic collections.

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Like the Stuarts, many came to a gruesome end. Of the last 12 ruling Romanovs, two were strangled, two shot, one stabbed and one blown up; one is almost tempted to pun on dynasty and die nasty. But this belies a strange stability. The Stuarts ruled Scotland, and then Britain, for 317 years. The Romanovs ruled Russia from the age of James VI and I to the age of George V. Moreover, while the Stuarts concentrated their efforts on keeping their poor, northern kingdom merely intact, the Romanovs saw their poor, northern empire expand, as Simon Sebag Montefiore shows in this very engaging, very readable history, at the rate of 55 square miles a day.

Montefiore has also written well on Stalin – and the subtitle of that book, “The Court Of The Red Tsar” informs the ideological bent of this work. Instead of seeing the 1917 Revolution as a rupture, it is read as a continuation of autocratic rule, right up to Putin, where, yet again, prestige abroad and security at home defines the leader.

Apart from prodigious drinking and frequent infidelities, a recurrent motif is the prominence of outsiders in the close-knit dynasty. Rasputin was just the last of a number of people adopted into the inner circle. Peter the Great had Menshikov, the “Prince from the Dirt”, as well as Martha, the laundry-lass who became Catherine I. Catherine the Great had her Cyclops, her Alcibiades, her Serenissimus, Potemkin, who was not of the first rank of families. Alexei Razumovsky started as a shepherd and ended up as the “Night Emperor”, Empress Elizaveta’s lover. Paul had Kutaisov, a barber who became Master of the Robes and the procurer of women to his master, nicknamed “Figaro”. Marx famously observed that the “secret of aristocracy is zoology”, and this tight family required regular infusions.

The other strange recurrence is the number of fantasy claimants to the throne. There were three “False Dmitrys”, and the idea that Alexander I had faked his own death, or that Ivan VI was alive and possible as leader, made the idea of the Romanov Revival in the 20th century all the more alluring. The fake Anastasia was just the latest of a series of projected hopes.

In presenting a history of the Romanovs, Montefiore is also presenting a history of autocracy. His version seems similar to that given by David Runciman in his 2013 book The Confidence Trap. While democracies have to adapt to crises, autocracies are able to absorb them: but while democracies weather the storms, autocracies eventually face an irreversible calamity. When the end comes for such regimes, it comes conclusively.

There is a depressingly cyclical quality to the story, from the jihads launched from Chechnya, to the habit of new Tsars immediately disbanding then recreating the secret police, to the persistent knee-jerk anti-Semitism. Across the centuries, Montefiore distinguishes between those who wanted to be leader – figures such as Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Alexander III – and those who desperately wanted to avoid that poisoned chalice – Constantine, Nicholas II and the founder of the dynasty, Michael. In a set-piece introduction, Montefiore presents parallel narratives of two young boys; the founder, Michael, in the Ipatiev Monastery, whose mother, the Nun Martha, strenuously resisted the pleas for him to take the crown, and the ailing Alexei with his family in Ipatiev House in Ekaterinaburg, who would never be offered it.

This is a compelling study, balancing analysis and anecdote beautifully. Given its scope it is understandable that the reader might wish for elaboration on certain points – when Montefiore writes that Rasputin’s ability to heal Alexei’s haemophilia “belongs in the realm beyond scientific explanation”, I put a large exclamation mark in the margin.

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Montefiore wisely eschews counterfactual speculation, but the reader time and again will wonder “What if?” – much as Trotsky did, pondering whether the Revolution would have come about had Alexander III not been so partial to a drink.