THE ROMANOVS 1613-1918
Simon Sebag Montefiore
Weidenfeld & Nicolson,745pp, hbk
ISBN 978 0297852667 £17

Next year’s centenary of the downfall of the Romanov dynasty will no doubt result in a large number of volumes concerned with that flawed and tragic house; but it is unlikely that it will prompt one better than this magnificent study. Not only does Simon Sebag Montefiore superbly control the wide ranging sweep of his narrative; but the publishers have also done him proud by the magnificent production of the volume – there are plenty of glossy colour and black-and-white photographs, including one of a sensual drawing by Alexander II of his mistress Katya Dolgorukaya. His love letters to her (with more than Lawrentian undertones) are here used extensively for the first time. A wide and fascinating variety of characters adorn this history: dwarves; drunkards; maids-of-honour on the make; Turkish slaves; one-eyed boyfriends (Potemkin); religious enthusiasts (Alexander I and Rasputin – despite their respective insatiable love-lives); a peasant raised to the imperial crown by her unstable husband (Catherine I); or a minor German princess who snatched it from hers (Catherine II). However, because of the intensely autocratic nature of the regime, and the divinely inspired sense of national purpose which the person of the tsar embodied, Sebag Montefiore’s dynastic history is also to some extent the history of Russia itself under the Romanovs, although he modestly disclaims such an ambition in his opening remarks. The identification of ruler with national purpose and identity is a unifying and continuing concept to the peoples and diversity of the Russias, which the dynasty’s Communist and post-Communist successors (as Sebag Montefiore, as the author of equally compelling books on Stalin and his Court, points out) have not failed to imitate.

As its title indicates, the book is primarily a personal history of a family; and accordingly it is divided into sections preceded (like any good edition of a Tolstoy novel) by a family tree, and a list of dramatis personæ, with their nicknames and historical epithets. It was the nature of autocratic Romanov rule that the influence of the personal history of the tsar on the history of the nation he or she ruled inevitably affected the success of the regime – thus the strong character and international policies of Catherine the Great paved the way ultimately to the success of Russian arms under Alexander I against Napoleon, and perhaps the greatest extent of Romanov power and influence. By contrast, the assumption by the vacillating Nicholas II of military command in 1915 – against the advice of most of his family and ministers, but fortified by his wife’s advice to use Rasputin’s comb to arrange his hair before difficult meetings with the general staff – meant that the dynasty, already isolated from contact with the people by its fear of assassination attempts, was personally identified with the failures on the German front – and therefore ultimately doomed.

This is not by any means just a book about the effect of personalities on history. Sebag Montefiore shows how the rule of the Romanovs was repeatedly strengthened by the bond between the aristocracy and the regime, how that bond was weakened by the liberation of the serfs, and how the skills-base of Russia – despite the success of its late industrial revolution and its military and territorial expansion in the late nineteenth century – was likewise undermined by the years of serfdom and agricultural backwardness. Like all good historians Sebag Montefiore has a superb sense of the ironies of history, which keep the course of his long narrative flowing. His scene-setting opening chapter, in which the first Romanov, the boy tsar Michael – effectively kept in a convent prison as a victim of regime change – is offered the crown, in contrast to the ominous narration of the final hours of the last tsarevitch, Alexei – also in prison and for the same reason – is immediately gripping. That sense of irony is also subtly shown by a wide variety of intriguing Gibbonian footnotes: who would have guessed that the last of Alexander II’s children by his morganatic marriage would die on Hayling Island in 1959 – a retired night-club singer supported by a small pension from Queen Mary? Or that one of Rasputin’s chefs at the luxurious Astoria Hotel in Petrograd was one Spiridon Putin, the grandfather of the Romanovs’ present successor? ND

Nigel Palmer