THE ROMANOVS. By Simon Sebag Montefiore. Knopf. 784 pages. $35.
Inside the elegant, azure cover of this fascinating book about the Romanov dynasty lies an abundance of new facts about Russian personalities, power, intrigue and, yes, romance.
Simon Sebag Montefiore is a brilliant storyteller who knows how to keep your attention. He structures his narrative in three-acts with multiple scenes. Each scene begins with its cast list, which helps you follow the story and keep track of all the Russian names. He also includes a family tree, lots of portraits and photographs, and a helpful map of the expansion of Russia.
His story unfolds chronologically as he deftly switches the focus from one person to another in different cities and countries. Through the use of memoirs and letters, the characters come alive as though conversing with each other.
Montefiore’s retelling and interpretation of history is never boring. There are plenty of details, but they never overwhelm you, and you certainly don’t want to miss a single one of his informative, sometimes juicy, footnotes.
In a television interview, Montefiore told how during the 1990s he became a war correspondent in Chechnya, then a historian and novelist: “I had money from banking and I could afford to do and go where I wanted to.”
This explains how he was able to visit “the great majority of Romanov palaces, many key sites, and state archives” across Russia, Europe, the Middle East and Asia where he met not only with directors of museums and archives but even with some Romanov family descendants.
Among all the welcomed new information in this historical narrative are tidbits and gossip about the Russian court: people’s physical traits, foibles, idiosyncrasies, sexual liaisons, gender-bender relationships, torrid love letters and more.
It is known, for example, that Peter the Great (1682-1725) was 6-foot-8 and had tireless energy, which he needed to build his “window into Europe”: St. Petersburg. Less known is that Peter had a constant tic in his face and was subject to epileptic fits that only his wife, the orphan of a Lithuanian peasant, could soothe.
One of Peter’s 12 children, tsarina Elizabeth (1741-1762), was recognized for her beauty and grace. No wonder, then, that she became a “fashion despot” who issued firm decrees about court attire. By the time of her death, 15,000 outfits hung in her vast closets.
Elizabeth chose Catherine (1762-1796), the Prussian-born Princess Sophie, to marry her nephew Peter III, who was later murdered by those loyal to the young Catherine, later known as Catherine the Great. She never remarried, but went on to rule Russia for 34 years, significantly expanded its borders, and ushering in the Golden Age of Russian nobility. She was a disciplined, dedicated and respected matriarch who started each morning at 6 a.m. making her own coffee, and who ended most evenings in the arms of a lover. As Catherine wrote in one letter, “The trouble is that my heart can’t be without love for even an hour.”
Nicholas II (1894-1917), the last of the Romanov tsars, had impeccable English manners and was unerringly calm in all circumstances, even while abdicating his throne during the February 1917 Revolution. When he learned, however, that the Romanov dynasty was coming to an end, he cried with his mother like a naive little boy who didn’t understand what was really happening.
Whereas parts of his book are based on material already known to educated readers, many new facts are pulled from recent research and analysis.
For example, Montefiore draws from Russian archives that include letters and diaries previously considered “too shocking to publish.” Some were the letters of Alexander II (1855-1881) to his lover, Katya, “perhaps the most explicit correspondence ever written by the head of the State, using their pet names to describe their love-making.”
During the 304-year reign of the Romanovs, Russia was transformed from a medieval Muscovite fiefdom into an Empire, the largest and one of the most powerful countries in the world.
“No other dynasty except the Caesars has such a place in the popular imagination and culture, and both deliver universal lessons about how personal power works, then and now,” Montefiore writes. “It is no coincidence that the title ‘tsar’ derives from Caesar.” Interesting, too, that this family, who believed their divine mission was to make Russia the third “Rome,” had the name “Romanov.”
Each tsar’s personal characteristics colored the way they ruled, what they accomplished and the kind of relations they had with their subjects, enemies and allies. One of many touching stories that Montefiore tells is when Alexander II (1855-1881) learned about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Although Alexander did not share the same philosophy of government, he admired Lincoln, ordering mourning prayers in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. He also wrote to Mary Lincoln that the president “was the noblest and greatest Christian of our generation — a beacon to the whole world — nothing but courage, steadfastness, and desire to do good.”
Montefiore also describes how Peter the Great so wished to be the first servant of his dream Empire that he traveled through Europe for 18 months incognito, “determined to learn the trade of shipbuilding and return with the technologies of the West.”
Overall, Montefiore’s book leaves you with the strong impression that the extended Romanov dynasty formed the spine of the Russian Empire which was broken in 1918 when the Bolsheviks recklessly executed Nicholas II and his family. Unbeknownst to his assassins, the communists and the post-1991 government established at the end of the Soviet Union reconstructed Russia’s autocratic spine. But they were never able to restore its noble marrow.
Reviewer Oksana Ingle is adjunct professor of Russian language and literature at the College of Charleston.