Have to say, fiction and TV have nothing, nothing, on the Romanov dynasty. Struggling to hold on to their God-given Russian throne this family is as mad as cut snakes – but you know, in a dynastic, glorious, utterly cruel, unusually large way that warrants 784 pages of startling and absorbing history. A little more mad than the usual moments of madness every family has, when a Romanov sibling is jealous or mildly annoyed with another, heads get cut off (after some seriously horrible torture) as opposed to just thumping them and telling on them to Mum. In this family, sometimes Mum holds the axe.
Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs is a masterly history of the family and Russia. The autocratic family and its storied scions, like Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, ruled Russia and its empire in a stew of murderous ambition, nationalistic over-identification, Gormenghastian-like rituals, clever but sometimes very stupid, political machinations, sycophantic, fanatic and terrified courtiers, and personal charisma – or lack of it – all underpinned by an absolute, unquestioned belief in their God-appointed right and duty to rule and an aristocracy that depended on the crown for land and serfs. Those that gained the throne through political savvy and luck often ended up exibiting seriously questionable mental health by the end of their tenure. Monetefiore identifies the stress of the pretty much impossible role of the tsar with all its absolute power (and we all know what that does to a person) and the fact that the thing that topples tsars is instability and being perceived at capricious. You can be as sadistic and scary as you like but you need to be so consistently. Unfortunately the world changes which requires new thinking and approaches – just what the last of the line, the ill-fated last tsar, Nicholas II, had been bred to avoid.
Montefiore is such a good writer and has amassed a staggering body of research. He revels in all the madness and glory, and shows how the family is Russia. This is just a great read, fascinating, repellent, thoughtful and revealing. It explains a lot about the Russia that has developed since the Romanovs fell. Montefiore invites you to wonder and shudder at the excesses and appreciate just how magnificent the successful (in the sense of waging wars they won, destroying all internal threats, improving Russia’s standing in the world) tsars were. I particularly enjoyed all the Russian names, rolling over you like a tidal wave like they do when reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, sometimes you lose track of who is who and when it is all happening as the names, and many of the nasty deeds, repeat through the centuries and generations.