- - Wednesday, May 11, 2016


THE ROMANOVS 1613-1918

By Simon Sebag Montefiore

Alfred A. Knopf, $35, 784 pages

Everyone knows of the ruling Romanovs of Russia, if only through the last of them — Nicholas II and Alexandra. In 1918 they and their four daughters and hemophiliac son were executed in the basement of a modest house in Yekaterinburg. Eighty years later, when the remains of Nicholas, Alexandra and their family were interred in the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted, “For many years, we kept quiet about this monstrous crime, but the truth has to be spoken.” Speaking loudest of all, in 2000 the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Nicholas, Alexandra and their children citing their “humbleness, patience and meekness.”

Nicholas and Alexandra were extremely devout, and in a religious sense may have been humble, patient and meek. But few adjectives are less accurate in any other sense, as readers of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “The Romanovs 1613-1918” will quickly realize. Alexandra rarely smiled, disliked most people, hated many, and cut herself off from the court, citing illnesses that were largely hysterical. Having grown up in the courts of her father, the grand duke of Hesse, and her grandmother, Queen Victoria of Britain, she prided herself on her obstinacy. Her advice to Nicholas invariably favored severity and insistence on his autocratic rights.

Nicholas needed little encouragement. He believed in his divine right to rule, often agreeing to his ministers’ policies, then reneging behind their backs. After the 1905 revolutionary upsurge he was persuaded to permit an elected Duma, but privately did everything to limit it. Few of his decisions responded sensibly to the situation in his country. Like most of his predecessors, he was a “paradomaniac” who inspected troops every day and lusted to expand Russia’s territory. This led to ill-conceived wars, including the one with Japan in which his navy was destroyed. More disasters followed when he took command over Russia’s forces in the middle of World War I. Notably, Grigory Rasputin, a favorite with both Alexandra and Nicholas, though much denounced for his bad influence, opposed war and according to Simon Sebag Montefiore, often gave sensible political advice.

Nicholas‘ distrust of advice, faith in autocracy, failure to learn about conditions in his country, anti-Semitism, severity to real or supposed enemies, and imperial ambitions were typical of many of his forebears. Indeed, one explanation of his folly is that his father Alexander III was equally benighted. He declined to educate Nicholas for his future role, so though he was an excellent linguist, in other respects Nicholas was quite simply ignorant.

There had been Romanovs who did not share these faults. Peter the Great, who in many ways was a brutal boor, was also full of energy, curiosity and an autocratic intelligence that yanked Russia out of the Middle Ages. Later in the 18th century, Catherine the Great, born the daughter of a minor German aristocrat, educated herself to become one of the shining lights of the Enlightenment and arguably Russia’s best ever monarch. Alexander I, whose efforts helped defeat Napoleon and re-establish Europe, and Alexander II, who freed the serfs and had more rational political goals than most of his family, also stand out among the 20 Romanov czars who ruled Russia.

In general, though, reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s history of the family affirms the belief that absolute power corrupts. It also shows that romantic notions about the innocence of the willfully blinkered Nicholas and Alexandra are misplaced. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting the author’s caution: “In the twenty-first century the new autocracies in Russia and China have much in common with that of the tsars, run by tiny opaque cliques, amassing great wealth while linked together through hierarchical client-patron relationships, all at the mercy of the whims of the leader.”

Indeed, it is hard to study Romanov rule without drawing analogies to modern structures of power, and the seemingly insuperable difficulties of wielding it. Chief of these is that whether rulers emerge from the bagatelle of biology as hereditary monarchs, or claw their way to the top via elections, they either know nothing about or lose touch with the lives of ordinary people with jobs, mortgages and anxieties about the future.

The millions of ordinary people the Romanovs ruled rarely appear in this history, and at times readers might wish to read more about them, if only to better understand the sources of the czars’ colossal wealth and the enormous armies they so often fielded. But it’s hard to see that it could have been provided without considerably expanding this 784-page book. It is a considerable achievement of expository prose that the detailed research that underpins this account of the Romanovs and their courts makes this long book never less than readable.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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