My review of “The Romanovs,” by Simon Sebag Montefiore

The Romanov dynasty ruled Russia 304 years, making it one of the most successful dynasties of the millennium. The family history is the subject of the 744-page “The Romanovs,” by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

If the Romanovs did anything good for Russia and its people, Montefiore finds very little of it. They were brutal mass-murderers and imperialists who believed peasants were their rightful property and Jews and Poles were vermin. Czar Nicholas II, the last of the Romanovs, ordered thousands of his subjects massacred, and then complained that just ruined the day for himself and his family.

Montefiore writes:

… this is a world where obscure strangers suddenly claim to be dead monarchs reborn, brides are poisoned, fathers torture their sons to death, sons kill fathers, wives murder husbands, a holy man, poisoned and shot, arises, apparently, from the dead, barbers and peasants ascend to supremacy, giants and freaks are collected, dwarfs are tossed, beheaded heads kissed, tongues torn out, flesh knouted off bodies, rectums impaled, children slaughtered; here are fashion-mad nymphomaniacal empresses, lesbian ménages à trois, and an emperor who wrote the most erotic correspondence ever written by a head of state. Yet this is also the empire built by flinty conquistadors and brilliant statesmen that conquered Siberia and Ukraine, took Berlin and Paris, and produced Pushkin, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky; a civilization of towering culture and exquisite beauty.

Montefiore finds two great emperors — Peter the Great and Catherine the Great — but even they spent their time building empires and monuments to themselves, rather than making the people better. Peter the Great was a scientist, engineer, soldier and general; he enjoyed traveling to Europe and enlisting as a craftsman to learn to make things by hand and he applied those skills to his military adventures. He ordered an ex-lover executed for infanticide – murdering her own babies.

On 14 March 1719, Mary appeared gorgeous on the scaffold in a white silk dress with black ribbons, but she expected a pardon, particularly when Peter mounted the gibbet. He kissed her but then said quietly: “I can’t violate the law to save your life. Endure your punishment courageously and address your prayers to God with a heart full of faith.” She fainted, and he nodded at the executioner, who brought down his sword. Peter lifted up the beautiful head and began to lecture the crowd on anatomy, pointing out the sliced vertebrae, open windpipe and dripping arteries, before kissing the bloody lips and dropping the head.

He kept the head on display afterward.

I found myself despising the Romanovs so much that I eagerly looked forward to the ending, where the entire family would be slaughtered in a basement by the Communists. The last Czar, Nicholas the II, wasn’t the worst of the bunch, but he was the most incompetent, and he was a narcissist too, convinced that the people would never rise up against him because he was their czar, chosen by God, and they loved him – even while the people were, in fact, rising up against him. But when the finale came, it was unsatisfying, because several of the victims were children, because the murder was particularly savage, and conducted without trial, and well after Nicholas had already abdicated the throne and shown no interest in taking it back. The czars were terrible rulers, but the Communists were worse.

Montefiore notes that the spirit of the czars lives on today, “… the new autocracies in Russia and China have much in common with that of the tsars, run by tiny, opaque cliques, amassing vast wealth, while linked together through hierarchical client–patron relationships, all at the mercy of the whims of the ruler.” The same could be said of the US now, for the last three years. Before reading “The Romanovs,” I wondered how people as manifestly incompetent as Trump and his supporters could seize and hold power. What we see in the Romanovs is that some people are great at seizing power, but incompetent at everything else. And once they’ve seized power, other people will find it to their advantage to keep things as they are. Trump, like the Romanovs, will go down quickly when he goes — it’ll be days, not months or years. But I don’t know whether Trump will go down in 2020, or whether he and his cronies have put in place an autocracy that will last a generation or more.

As for the book itself: The author is clearly passionate and expert about his subject matter, but it’s a confusing book, filled with lots of Russian names (duh) that are hard to keep track of. As The New York Times notes, Montefiore gets lost in detail, particularly in telling about wars and battles and internal Kremlin conflicts. It’s an excellent book, but I wish maybe there were less of it.

As I finished reading, I fell down a pleasant Internet rathole of finding out what happened to the surviving Romanov family after the Russian Revolution. Here’s what I learned.