The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem: The Biography, Catherine the Great and Potemkin and Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar begins by comparing the circumstances of two teenage boys. The first Romanov Czar, sixteen-year-old Michael I, was at the Ipatiev Monastery in Kostroma when he was approached by a delegation of Russian nobles imploring him to end the Time of Troubles by founding a new dynasty in 1613. Czar Nicholas II’s only son, Alexei, was thirteen when he was murdered along with the rest of his family by Bolshevik Revolutionaries in Ekaterinburg’s Ipatiev House in 1918. Michael and Alexei were the first and last heirs to a troubled dynasty that shaped Russian history for more than three hundred years.
The most famous figures from the Romanov dynasty, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Nicholas II are well known and have been the subject of dozens of books. Montefiore provides a fresh perspective on these rulers but the book really shines in its reinterpretation of more obscure Russian rulers. Peter the Great’s father, Alexei I has long been stereotyped as a meek and mild figure because of his piety but Montefiore makes clear that he was “an intelligent, restless and sharp tongued reformer who did not suffer fools gladly.” Peter the Great’s niece, Empress Anna’s harsh treatment of her nobles is often dismissed a personal caprice but Montefiore places her actions in the context of Peter’s determination to keep the nobility from becoming too powerful and threatening the ruler’s prerogatives.
Montefiore demonstrates the enduring influence of particular noble families from the seventeenth until the twentieth centuries such as the Dolgorukys and the Golitsyns. The support, or at least the obedience, of the nobility was crucial to an Emperor or Empress’s success as a ruler and is one of the reasons why serfdom existed in Russia until 1861, long after it had been abolished elsewhere in Europe. (Readers interested in the fate of the Russian nobility after the Revolutions of 1917 should read Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith.)
Montefiore avoids the names and patronymics familiar to readers of Russian novels and instead makes extensive use of nicknames to differentiate between Romanovs with similar names or successive generations of the same noble families. (A cast of characters at the beginning of each section provides the full names, titles and positions of all the people discussed in the book). There are times when this device is effective: the inclusion of Catherine the Great’s nicknames for her favourites such as Alexander “Iced Soup” Vasilchikov and Alexander “Mr. Redcoat” Dmitriev-Mamonov provides insights about how she felt about them and why some were far more influential than others. For the reign of the last Czar, Montefiore makes use of the nicknames used within the Imperial family, bringing the reader closer to Nicholas II’s conflicts with his relatives in the last years of the Romanov dynasty.
In the early chapters of the book, however, the nicknames make the powerful figures of seventeenth century Russia seem like characters out of folklore, undermining their political significance. The Polish noblewoman and warlord Marina Mniszech, consort of False Dmitri I and II is called “Marinka the Witch” in the book and Alexei I’s sister, Irina, is described as a malevolent spinster. Since there are no other figures in this section named Marina or Irina, these nicknames are unnecessary and provide a needlessly one dimensional image of these two powerful women.
Throughout The Romanovs: Ruling Russia 1613-1917, Montefiore makes clear that in an absolute monarchy, the personal is political and that the favourites and interests of each sovereign shaped state policy for more than three hundred years. Montefiore brings the Romanov rulers to life and addresses their impact on Russian politics and society today.
Other Books about the Romanov Dynasty:
The Romanov dynasty from beginning to end has been the subject of at least four major English language books before The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore.
The magisterial The Romanovs: Autocrats of All the Russias by W. Bruce Lincoln separates the personal narratives of individual Czars from their domestic and foreign policies, providing a wider history of Imperial Russia as well as history of the dynasty. Like Montefiore, Lincoln devote an extended section to the last Czar and the collapse of the Romanov dynasty.
In The Romanovs: Ruling Russia 1613-1917, Lindsay Hughes provides an insightful analysis of the dynasty, highlighting the changing role of women in Imperial Russia. The impact of Peter of the Great’s reforms on the Russian elite receives particular attention. Readers interested in the wider impact of each Czar’s personality and policies both within Russia and abroad will want to turn to the books by Lincoln and Hughes after reading Montefiore’s The Romanovs: 1613-1918.
The Romanovs: The Rise and Fall of a Dynasty. by Ian Grey is written in a dry style with a much greater focus on the well known Romanov rulers than the lesser known sovereigns. He challenges the idea that the Romanovs were a tragic dynasty throughout their history and argues that Nicholas II’s predecessors often ruled successfully. Grey was writing in the 1960s and the role of the Soviet Union in the Cold War influences his interpretation of Romanov Russia.
The Tragic Dynasty: A History of the Romanovs by John Bergamini is written in an accessible style and covers the entire three hundred year scope of the Romanov dynasty. Like Grey, however, Bergamini was writing before the collapse of the Soviet Union and therefore did not have access to the full range of sources available to historians today. The book also contains numerous genealogical errors.
Next: Royal Tourists, Colonial Subjects and the Making of a British World, 1860-1911 by Charles V. Reedby