Magazine | July 11, 2016, Issue

A Slavic Westeros

The Romanovs: 1613–1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Knopf, 784 pp., $35)

‘It was,” writes Simon Sebag Montefiore, “hard to be a tsar.” But there were compensations. For Alexander II (reigned 1855–81), there was Katya Dolgorukaya, three decades younger and, fretted the tsar’s doctors, such energetic entertainment that, over a century before Nelson Rockefeller’s unHappy demise, they feared for the monarch’s health. Undaunted, Alexander wrote to his “minx” suggesting “bingerle” (a much-used code word) “four times,” “on every piece of furniture . . . in every room.” His minx replied that they could take it easy for a few days if “we overtire ourselves.” Promises, promises: Within twelve hours, Katya was writing to say how she craved her emperor. By the next day: “Everything inside me trembles, I can’t wait till 4.45.”

Montefiore, the author of The Romanovs, is a gifted, meticulous researcher (an “archive rat,” as Stalin put it), but he’s also a historian in the old, grand manner, a storyteller with a madcap vocabulary (cenobite! Sardanapalian!) and a vivid, often witty, style mercifully free of professorial jargon and ideological hectoring. Young Stalin and Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, his two biographical studies of the Soviet tyrant, combined erudition and insight with the deployment of details that illuminated the Kremlin mountaineer to a degree that few have managed to achieve. If those details included the lurid, the grotesque, and the racy, well, Montefiore is not the first biographer to have appreciated the historical (and — unworthy thought — commercial) value of the tabloid touch. In his introduction to The Romanovs, he contrasts the glories of imperial Russia with the excesses of the family that ruled it, a contrast, he notes just a tad smugly, too much for “ascetic academic historians . . . bashfully toning down the truth.”

There’s nothing bashful about Montefiore. The Romanovs is a bodice-ripper, a body-ripper, a Slavic Westeros. And in that introduction he offers a preview: “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 [naughty Alexander II] who wrote the most erotic correspondence ever written by a head of state.”

If you need to know more before hurrying to buy this book, there’s not a lot I can do for you.

But I will try.

Montefiore’s two volumes on Stalin cover some seven decades. They are a descent into the soul of a monster and the gargoyle empire he made his own. The Romanovs has neither the same depth nor breadth nor context. There isn’t the space. In the course of some 650 pages (excluding footnotes), Montefiore romps through more than three centuries, beginning some time before the coronation of the first Romanov, Michael, in 1613 (he was never going to miss out on the picturesque opportunity presented by Ivan the Terrible’s “spasms of killing, praying, and fornication”), and ending in 1918 with the execution of the deposed Nicholas II by the Bolsheviks.

The Romanovs is a story of family, not empire. The tsars and tsarinas parade by, each deftly depicted in his or her turn. These are sketches more than portraits, although some of those featured — notably the two Greats, Peter, of course, and the unexpectedly enlightened, “regicidal, uxoricidal” Catherine — exude the epic even in outline.

In an autocracy, the personal — in the form of the autocrat — is political. And the personal is often complicated. Interpreting Peter the Great and, by extension, his Russia, maintains Montefiore, involves understanding that brilliant barbarian’s fondness for the bizarre — naked dwarfs, sacrilegious bacchanalia, and much too much more — as well as Reform and War 101. This approach involves peering behind the malachite door too, not least when an empress was running the show. Grigory Potemkin (the subject of another fine Montefiore biography), “imaginative and visionary . . . voracious and animalistic,” was not the only imperial counselor to end up in the imperial bed. Watching disapprovingly from Prussia, Frederick the Great, a “fastidiously homoerotic warlord,” summed up the entanglement of pillow and political in a phrase that made me laugh and my editor tremble.

Those searching for a comprehensive account of the Romanovs’ vast, rapidly expanding (it advanced by an average of 55 square miles a day) realm will have to look elsewhere: “This book is not meant to be a full history of Russia.” There is plenty about palace camarillas, but rather less about how the empire grew or, for that matter, how this corrupt, chaotic patrimonial state functioned.

That said, Montefiore begins his book by setting out some useful ground rules for making sense of Romanov rule. Yes, it was hard to be tsar, even if the nature of that challenge changed over the centuries. In the early years in particular, the sovereign had to exude “visceral, almost feral authority.” Getting it wrong — misplaying the court (an “entrepôt of power”) and the clans that prowled through it — could have the most unpleasant of consequences.

The later tsars had still less room for maneuver. They ruled over a country lurching toward the new, becoming too complex and too rich to be safe for autocracy. Romanov absolutism was reinforced by the apparatus of an emerging police state but still rested on archaic pillars — nobility, clergy, and the mystique of the crown — that stood in the way of the reforms that could have preserved the dynasty. To weaken those pillars while protecting the essence of the structure would have been a remarkable feat, and one that would have taken more imagination than Nicholas II or his father, Alexander III (reigned 1881–94), an autocrat’s autocrat, possessed, not to mention the willingness to play ball: “You tell me I must regain the confidence of the people,” grumbled Nicholas just months before he was forced into abdication. “Isn’t it rather for my people to regain my confidence?”

Yet (and Montefiore doesn’t really explain how) this “weirdly obsolete” regime endured until the second decade of the 20th century. Swatting aside notions of what more-liberal (or even not so liberal) Europeans viewed as progress and stifling the stirrings of parliamentary democracy that might have saved him, the hapless, hopelessly unimaginative Nicholas II presided, quite accidentally, over the economic boom that might have propelled Russia into modernity and over the explosion of creativity — badly undersold as a “Silver Age” — that would have continued to adorn the country as it advanced. And, who knows, if he’d been shrewd enough not to stumble into war in 1914, he might have died in his bed, not a cellar.

The ferocity (on both sides) of the 1905 revolution — the “dress rehearsal,” as Trotsky came to call it — and the unease that ran through that Silver Age were harbingers of darkness. Artists, like prophets, can be prone to anticipating an apocalypse, but there was something peculiarly morbid about the culture of early-20th-century St. Petersburg, a dazzling carnival of “wild foreboding” and desperate decadence, chimes at an ominous midnight. The poet Alexander Blok looked around him and saw “a quiet far-spreading fire” that would “consume all.” He was not to survive it.

This sense of an approaching reckoning seeps through the later stages of the book. The passing of centuries blurs the worst of the past, but as Montefiore’s narrative draws closer to modern times, the record fills out. There are more diaries and letters to bear witness: The emperors become human, their fate a matter, to the reader, of more than history’s cold accounting. Learning that yet another revolutionary gang had passed a death sentence upon him, Alexander II, the dynasty’s last best hope, wrote in 1879 that he felt “like a wolf tracked by hunters,” words that still move. The hunters caught up with him two years later.

If the tsars emerge into clearer sight, so do those who wanted to destroy them. In 1869, Sergei Nechayev wrote the Revolutionary Catechism, a paean to mass murder. It was “Leninism before Lenin” and, for that matter, ISIS before ISIS, a manifesto for the nightmares to come and a reprise of ancient millenarian dreams.

The Russian Orthodox Church may have canonized Nicholas II, but Montefiore’s description of that dull, dutiful, fatalistic, sometimes startlingly callous incompetent is measured and objective, free from the glow that his Calvary casts over the memory of the last tsar. To be sure, Citizen Romanov bore his imprisonment with a dignity that transcended its degradation, but he still found the time to study the anti-Semitic tracts that reassured him that his fall was the work of conspiracy rather than failure. In the end, he was shot, and his wife and children were butchered alongside him, “living banners,” argued Lenin, too dangerous to be allowed to survive.

Michael, the first Romanov, would have understood. In 1614, the heir to one of the last serious pretenders to his throne was hanged from the Kremlin walls. Montefiore mentions that this menace was four years old. In fact, he was three.

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