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Si­mon Se­bag Mon­te­fiore’s tabloid romp through Rus­sian his­tory

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Si­mon Se­bag Mon­te­fiore does his­tory in the man­ner of a tabloid writer. Blood, guts, mur­der, sex and gen­eral hu­man de­prav­ity: this is the raw ma­te­rial of Mon­te­fiore’s lurid new his­tory of the House of Ro­manov, whose mem­bers ruled – and ter­rorised – the Rus­sian em­pire for 304 years.

Their reign was born in vi­o­lent times in the early 17th cen­tury, and ended in a hail of bul­lets in 1918, when Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies gunned down Ni­cholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their five chil­dren, dump­ing their bod­ies in a shal­low mine.

If Mon­te­fiore lays it on thick with the ad­jec­ti­val fire­power, and nearly re­duces the Ro­manov story to a pile of corpses, the bru­tal­ity of the facts speak for them­selves. Tsars did not rule with a gen­tle touch; un­der the reign of Peter the Great, for ex­am­ple, en­e­mies of the regime were killed in grue­some spec­ta­cles which Mon­te­fiore de­scribes with a ghastly level of de­tail.

His teem­ing vol­ume re­counts not only the suc­ces­sion of tsars, but also the end­less pa­rade of courtiers, mis­tresses – with few ex­cep­tions, the Ro­manovs were not known for uxo­rial bliss – gen­er­als, func­tionar­ies and con­spir­a­tors. Two Ro­manov tsars were mur­dered by mem­bers of their own court; an­other, Alexan­der I, died in mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances. His nephew, the re­form­ing Alexan­der II, who freed the serfs, sur­vived three as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempts, only be killed on the fourth. The grisly fate of Ni­cholas II en­dures as one of the most no­to­ri­ous episodes of the 20th cen­tury.

“Blood-spat­tered, gold-plated, di­a­mond-stud­ded, swash-buck­led, bodice- rip­ping and star­crossed, the rise and fall of the Ro­manovs re­mains as fas­ci­nat­ing as it is rel­e­vant, as hu­man as it is strate­gic, a chron­i­cle of fa­thers and sons, mega­lo­ma­ni­acs, mon­sters and saints,” writes Mon­te­fiore. (Many of the fig­ures here were all of th­ese things at once.)

They ruled with ab­so­lute power that proved to be their un­do­ing. Tsar­dom was a par­tic­u­lar kind of au­toc­racy, swathed in a mys­ti­cal grandeur and religious sanc­tion that de­manded sub­mis­sion. Yet the Ro­manovs could not rule with­out a care­ful del­e­ga­tion of power across realms – religious, mil­i­tary, aris­to­cratic.

Regi­cide was al­ways a crude but force­ful tool to reg­u­late a sys­tem that had few checks. As Mon­te­fiore writes, courtiers were far dead­lier to tsars than a peo­ple’s re­volt, even if that was what ul­ti­mately ended Ro­manov rule.

“Tsars who turned their backs on the court’s bro­ker­ing ar­range­ment or who per­formed dra­matic re­ver­sals of for­eign pol­icy against their po­ten­tates, par­tic­u­larly the gen­er­als, were li­able to be mur­dered – as­sas­si­na­tion be­ing one of the few ways for the elite to protest in an au­toc­racy with­out op­po­si­tion.” For all the quirks and caprices of tsarist rule, the Rus­sian em­pire ex­panded un­der the Ro­manovs at a breath­tak­ing rate, some 20,000 square miles a year. War – against Swe­den, the Ot­toman Em­pire ( con­stantly), Poland, Prus­sia and France un­der Napoleon – was the in­stru­ment of this ex­pan­sion. Re­bel­lious border­lands – Ge­or­gia, Crimea, Chech­nya, Cen­tral Asian lands – were brought into Rus­sian or­bit; the le­ga­cies of Ro­manov im­pe­ri­al­ism re­dound, of­ten vi­o­lently, in our own time.

Mon­te­fiore has syn­the­sized an enor­mous amount of ma­te­rial, pri­mary and sec­ondary sources ga­lore, min­utes, let­ters – in­clud­ing the sala­cious mis­sives of Alexan­der II to his mis­tress, “per­haps the most ex­plicit cor­re­spon­dence ever writ­ten by a head of state” – into a com­pen­dious sprawl­ing nar­ra­tive that nearly bursts at the seams.

Emerg­ing in the Time of Trou­bles, the Ro­manovs ma­neu­vered them­selves into power as the coun­try was rent by civil war and so­cial strife. As they con­sol­i­dated power in the 17th cen­tury, they pre­sented a fear­some Asi­atic im­age to Western ob­servers – the early Ro­manovs donned Mon­go­lian headdresses as their crown.

Power was es­tab­lished fit­fully. Alexei, Tsar Michael’s son, forged an al­liance with nobles in 1648 that, among other things, al­lowed them to own peas­ants, 90 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion, out­right. “No­bil­ity would be de­fined by the priv­i­lege of own­ing other hu­man be­ings, set­ting a Rus­sian pat­tern of be­hav­iour: ser­vil­ity to those above, tyranny to those below.”

A rush of events and per­son­al­i­ties, sub­plots and in­trigues cas­cade across Mon­te­fiore’s pages. Tsarism, as prac­ticed by the Ro­manovs, was a breath­tak­ing spec­ta­cle. Peter the Great, nat­u­rally, be­strides the story like the gi­ant he was, at 6 feet, 8 inches.

De­ter­mined to avail him­self of tech­no­log­i­cal and cul­tural riches, Peter de­parted Rus­sia as a young man in 1697 – no tsar had ever left the coun­try – to travel in Europe and “force-feed him­self with a crash course in western tech­nol­ogy, an act of au­to­di­dac­tic will un­par­al­leled in world his­tory, let alone Rus­sia’s”.

Peter tried to cre­ate a ra­tio­nal state, yet he raged at his min­is­ters for fail­ing to carry out his ideas prop­erly. He built a new city, Peters­burg, us­ing slave labour­ers, who suf­fered im­mensely as the grand pro­ject rose on the Neva River banks. He threw bizarre par­ties, re­plete with a cast of dwarves, gi­ants, jesters and sundry other freaks, that lasted long into the night.

Peter’s reign in­au­gu­rated a Golden Age of Ro­manov rule that cul­mi­nated in the reign of an­other Great – Cather­ine, who was em­press from 1762-96. A Ro­manov by mar­riage, not birth – she was Ger­man – her rule be­gan with a coup against her own hus­band, Peter III, who was stran­gled in cap­tiv­ity.

“My glory is spoilt, Pos­ter­ity will never for­give me,” Cather­ine mused af­ter the act. But she proved a for­mi­da­ble and en­dur­ing monarch, push­ing through the mod­ernising work started by Peter. Mon­te­fiore de­tails her famed love af­fair with Grig­ory Potemkin with zeal. With a nice turn of phrase, the au­thor writes of this charged pair, “both she and Potemkin were hu­man fur­naces who de­manded an end­less sup­ply of praise, love and at­ten- tion in pri­vate, and glory and power in pub­lic”.

Af­ter her death, only five more Ro­manovs would serve. Her son Paul was mur­dered af­ter a brief reign, paving the way for the first Alexan­der. This Ro­manov would find Rus­sia em­broiled in the Napoleonic wars, al­ter­nately mak­ing war with France and do­ing peace deals with Napoleon.

Alexan­der’s armies saw off Napoleon’s ill-fated in­va­sion of 1812, which was the be­gin­ning of the end for the French em­peror. But mil­i­tary glory alone could not hold to­gether the vast multi­na­tional em­pire that stretched thou­sands of miles. The tsars of the 19th cen­tury con­fronted prob­lem af­ter prob­lem. Rus­sia was fall­ing be­hind the West and the Ro­manov re­sponse was to clamp down harder on re­form move­ments.

The first Ni­cholas se­verely lim­ited the free­doms of Jews, and cracked down on ex­pres­sion to an ab­surd de­gree. The word “re­pub­lic” for ex­am­ple, was struck from Greek and Ro­man his­tory books. Even if Alexan­der II’s his­toric 1861 Eman­ci­pa­tion Man­i­festo lib­er­ated the serfs, the tide was al­ready turn­ing against the out­dated in­sti­tu­tions of Ro­manov rule. The eman­ci­pa­tion only ac­cel­er­ated the shattering of Ro­manov power.

“The abo­li­tion of serf­dom broke asun­der the pact be­tween ruler and no­bil­ity that had made Rus­sia, leav­ing the tsar to base his power on the ri­fles of his army and the cara­pace of his unloved bu­reau­cracy. Un­moored by this an­chor, the Ro­manovs and so­ci­ety started to drift apart,” Mon­te­fiore writes of this mo­ment.

Rus­sia tot­tered into the 20th cen­tury, bat­tered by mil­i­tary de­feat against Ja­pan. The last tsar and his wife har­bored a ter­ri­ble se­cret: the tsare­vich , Alexis, suf­fered from he­mophilia. The hopes of the House of Ro­manov rested on such fragility. Mon­te­fiore’s evo­ca­tion of the last decade of the Ro­manov is som­bre and strange. As the mys­tic – and po­lar­is­ing – healer Rasputin ex­erted his hold over Alexandra, Rus­sian troops died by thou­sands in the trenches of the East­ern Front dur­ing the First World War. The em­press lamented, “We all knew that such a war would be the blood­i­est and most aw­ful ever known and so it has turned out.”

Ni­cholas II was well mean­ing but hope­lessly out of touch. His wife be­seeched him to stay firm: “Never for­get what you are and must re­main, au­to­cratic Em­peror! We’re not ready for a con­sti­tu­tional govern­ment.” It all ended badly. What sem­blance of con­sti­tu­tional govern­ment that had been fit­fully es­tab­lished, the Bol­she­viks swept away. The Ro­manovs would not sur­vive the revo­lu­tion­ary tidal wave ei­ther.

Matthew Price is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Re­view.

Laski Dif­fu­sion / Getty Im­ages

Tsar Ni­cholas II with daugh­ters, left to 2nd right, Maria, Anas­ta­sia, Olga and Ta­tiana Ro­manov. They were ex­e­cuted by Bol­she­viks on July 17, 1918.

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