Friday Royal Read: The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore

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. Reed

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My 3rd Book: Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting is now available for pre-order

I am excited to announce that my 3rd book, Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting will be published by Dundurn Press on April 8, 2017.

The book examines How twenty-five sets of royal parents raised their children over the past thousand years, from keeping the Vikings at bay to fending off paparazzi.

William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, are setting trends for millions of parents around the world. The upbringing of their two children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, is the focus of intense popular scrutiny. Royalty have always raised their children in the public eye and attracted praise or criticism according to parenting standards of their day.

Royal parents have always faced unique privileges and challenges. In medieval times, raising an heir often meant raising a rival, and monarchs sometimes faced their grown children on the battlefield. Kings and queens who lost their thrones through wars or popular revolutions found solace in time spent with their children. In modern times, royal duties and overseas tours have often separated young princes and princesses from their parents, a circumstance that is slowly changing with the current generation of royalty.

The book is currently available for pre-order from Indigo, Amazon and other booksellers.

Click here to pre-order Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting from

My other books also available from Amazon:

Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights

Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette

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Friday Royal Read: Tatiana Romanov: Daughter of the Last Tsar: Diaries and Letters 1913-1918

 For a generation of young women, the outbreak of the First World War brought new experiences and leadership opportunities. When Russia entered the conflict with Britain and France against Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1914, Tsar Nicholas II’s four daughters joined the war effort. Olga and Tatiana, aged eighteen and seventeen, became nurses and headed philanthropic committees. Maria and Anastasia, aged fifteen and thirteen, volunteered in a hospital named in their honour.

Of the four Grand Duchesses, Tatiana achieved the most success in her war work and became a well known public figure in her own right. In Tatiana Romanov, Daughter of the Last Tsar: Diaries and Letters, 1913-–1918, Helen Azar, editor and translator of The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution and Maria and Anastasia: The Youngest Romanov Grand Duchesses in Their Own Words: Letters, Diaries, Postcards. allows Tatiana to speak for herself through her own writings as a witness to war and revolution in Russia.

The publication of Tatiana’s writings challenges numerous longstanding myths about Nicholas II’s children that have developed since the murder of the Imperial family in 1918. A number of popular biographers, including Robert Massie in Nicholas and Alexandra  and Peter Kurth in Tsar: The Lost World of Nicholas and Alexandra have described the Grand Duchesses as leading cloistered or socially isolated lives. Tatiana’s diaries and letters discuss a broad range of friends, relatives, officers and fellow nurses with whom she socialized on a regular basis and continued to correspond with after the Russian Revolution. Tatiana’s detailed accounts of her participation in committee meetings and operations in military hospitals refute any idea that her war work was primarily ceremonial in nature.

Azar’s translations of the letters and diaries are richly annotated by Nicholas B. Nicholson, an expert in Russian decorative arts and author of Object of Virtue: A Novel. Tatiana and her sisters often referred to their relatives and friends by nicknames and initials in their writings and Nicholson’s notes provide detailed mini biographies of many of these figures. Nicholson also describes the fate of the places where Tatiana visited during the tricentennial of the Romanov dynasty in 1913 and First World War. Stalin’s rule saw the demolition of historic palaces and churches in Moscow’s Kremlin. The Siege of Leningrad during the Second World War caused the destruction and damage of imperial sites surrounding St. Petersburg.

The letters and diaries in the book are complemented with excerpts from the memoirs of those who knew Tatiana during the First World War and Russian Revolution, providing valuable context and background to the events and personalities in the Grand Duchess’s writings. Some of these accounts, such as Thirteen Years at the Russian Court, by the Imperial children’s French tutor, Pierre Gilliard, will be familiar to readers of biographies of Russia’s last Imperial family. Tatiana Romanov, Daughter of the Last Tsar: Diaries and Letters, 1913-–1918 is unique because it includes memories of Tatiana’s fellow nurses and wounded soldiers, published in English for the first time.

Tatiana’s letters from 1917 and 1918 reveal how the twenty year old Grand Duchess responded to the Russian Revolutions and her family’s imprisonment. Although, Tatiana wrote to one of her tutors in October 1917, “As you know, we don’t dejected easily,” her correspondence makes clear that she felt betrayed by members of her extended family who had not remained loyal to her father and was concerned about a variety of circumstances from her family’s isolation from the outside world to Bolshevik treatment of military veterans. The book ends on a haunting note, with Tatiana’s final letter to fellow nurse Valentina Cherbotaryeva in May 1918, “Send regards to all who remember me.”

Tatiana was murdered alongside her family just two months later, at the age of twenty-one. The remains of the Imperial family were excavated in the 1990s and are now buried in the Peter and Paul fortress in St. Petersburg. Tatiana Romanov, Daughter of the Last Tsar: Diaries and Letters, 1913-–1918 captures the experiences and achievements of the young Grand Duchess during one of the most tumultuous periods of Russia’s history.

Next week: Agincourt: Great Battles Series by Anne Curry


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My review of The Romanov Sisters in the Royal Studies Journal

My review of The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport has been published in the current issue of The Royal Studies Journal, a peer reviewed, open access, interdisciplinary and international academic journal for the field of Royal Studies published by Winchester University Press.

Click here to read the review in The Royal Studies Journal, Volume 2, Number 2, 2015.


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Toronto Public Library Talk on September 24: Peter the Great and the Building of St. Petersburg

Peter the Great in 1698

Peter the Great in 1698

I will be giving a lecture at Deer Park Library in Toronto (40 St. Clair Avenue East) about Peter the Great of Russia and the Building of St Petersburg on September 24 at 2pm. 

Czar Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) wanted to open up Russia to the rest of Europe. In 1703, he ordered the building of a new capital on the Baltic Sea that was unlike any other Russian city. St. Petersburg would be Peter the Great’s window to the west and the setting for some of the most dramatic moments in Russian history. The lecture will include images of Imperial Russian art and architecture as well as photographs from my 2013 visit to St. Petersburg.

Tickets may be reserved by phone or in person on Sept 23. Click here for more information.


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Friday Royal Read: Becoming a Romanov: Grand Duchess Elena of Russia and Her World (1807-1873) by Marina Soroka and Charles A. Rudd

The four daughters of Russia’s last Emperor, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, are well known in the English speaking world. They have been the subject of popular biographies, most recently The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport and Road to Ekaterinburg:Nicholas and Alexandra’s daughters by ECS Banks, as well as historical novels. In contrast, the Grand Duchesses at the courts of nineteenth century Czars, the daughters and daughters-in-law of Paul I, Nicholas I and Alexander II are little known outside of Russia.

Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, the wife of Catherine the Great’s youngest grandson, Michael Pavlovich, assumed in her own lifetime that she would be the subject of a biography and carefully curated her own papers. Despite her extraordinary accomplishments, she has disappeared into near obscurity, the subject of a few academic conference papers and a chapter in Charlotte Zeepvat’s Romanov Autumn. In Becoming a Romanov: Grand Duchess Elena of Russia and Her World (1807-1873), Elena finally receives the full length biography she expected and deserves. University of Western Ontario professors Marina Soroko and Charles A. Rudd bring the Grand Duchess and 19th century St. Petersburg to life.

Elena displayed a strong personality and intellectual curiosity from her childhood as a Princess of Wurttemburg, Germany. When she was seventeen and had only been at the Russian court for a year, she informed the author of a multivolume history of Russia, “I know your work sir, and do not think I have only read it only in translation, I also read it in Russian.” In middle age, she tackled Russia’s social and political problems, advising her nephew the “Czar-Liberator” Alexander II in his plan to free the serfs. During the Crimean War, she acted as Russia’s Florence Nightingale, founding an order of nurses that developed into the Russian branch of the Red Cross. Her palace was a gathering place for Russian intellectuals and her artistic patronage included the founding of the St. Petersburg conservatory

While Elena was respected in her public role, her private life was filled with unhappiness from her childhood through her engagement and marriage. Her parents separated when she was a child and her father, Prince Paul of Wurttemburg cut corners on her education to pocket the money sent for this purpose by her grandfather. When Elena showed a fear of mice as a child, Paul had a servant release a sack of live mice in her bedroom (she fainted). Elena’s husband, Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich, was pressured into the marriage and made clear from their betrothal that would have preferred to marry another. He shared none of her intellectual interests, smoked cigars to avoid having to talk to her and said that he would celebrate 30 years of marriage as the anniversary of the 30 Years War. Two of their five daughters died in infancy and another two died as young women.

In addition to Elena’s eventful life, Soraka and Rudd also describe 19th century St. Petersburg in vivid detail. Elena’s and Michael’s residence, the Mikhailovsky Palace was one of the city’s landmarks with a main staircase described as the finest in Europe. Elena’s first child was born in the aftermath of the 1824 Neva river flood that killed more than 600 people and the disaster and recovery efforts are described extensively. Becoming a Romanov is richly illustrated with portraits of Elena and her family in addition to images of the landmarks of the St. Petersburg she knew.

The only false note in this otherwise brilliant biography comes in the first paragraph, where the authors describe Elena as “…the only female Romanov whose name merits mention in any narrative of Russian history after the Crimean War…” The contributions of the Romanov women – including the famous daughters of Russia’s last Czar – to Russia’s war effort during the First World War merits a book of its own. Grand Duchess Elena’s accomplishments over the course of the nineteenth century were so extensive that it was difficult for any future Grand Duchess to achieve a similar public profile. Becoming a Romanov restores Elena Pavlovna to her rightful place in Russian history.

Next Week: La Couronne et le Parlement – The Crown and Parliament, eds. Michel Bédard and Philippe Lagassé

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Toronto Star Interview: Shabby Toronto apartment was once home to Russia’s Grand Duchess Olga

Grand Duchess Olga painting in her Cooksville home

Grand Duchess Olga during her last years in Canada

Grand Duchess Olga, younger sister of Russia’s last Czar, Nicholas II, lived in Canada from 1948 until her death in 1960. Olga’s last home in Toronto has recently gone up for sale, demonstrating the changes she experienced over the course of her life, from her birth at the Peterhof Palace outside St. Petersburg, to her last months in a Toronto apartment.

I am quoted in an article about Grand Duchess Olga’s time in Canada in today’s Toronto Star. Click here to read “Shabby Toronto apartment was once home to Russia’s Grand Duchess Olga

For more on Grand Duchess Olga, see my article on this site, “From St. Petersburg to Toronto: The Life of Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna”

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Friday Royal Read: The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

The last Imperial family of Russia are one of the best documented families in history. Czar Nicholas II, his wife Empress Alexandra, their four daughters, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia and their son, Grand Duke Alexei lived at a time when photography and newsreels captured the royal image and they all kept diaries and wrote numerous letters. The Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the murder of the entire family in 1918 resulted in an exodus of courtiers from Russia who wrote books about their time with the Romanovs.

Despite all these sources, the distinct personalities and achievements of Nicholas and Alexandra’s daughters are little known. In official photographs, the Grand Duchesses dresses alike, appearing interchangeable in public. Their murder when the eldest was twenty-two and the youngest was seventeen resulted in the public viewing them collectively as “the children” or martyrs rather than as individuals. In The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra, Helen Rappaport, author of The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile and A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy, reconstructs the lives Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia led behind palace walls.

Books about the Grand Duchesses are often dominated by their last days, deaths and the numerous claimants who captured the popular imagination. Rappaport keeps the focus firmly on the young women’s lives. (Readers interested in their deaths should consult her previous book, The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg). There is plenty of material from newspapers, letters and diaries revealing how the four young women were viewed during their lives.

Alexandra may have hoped to shield her daughters from what she perceived as the corrupting influence of court society but society was intensely curious about them. The years leading up to the First World War saw intense speculation about the princes they would marry and the potential for change to Russia’s semi-Salic succession laws.  The Grand Duchesses’ writings reveal that they had their own, more modest goals. Olga confided to a friend during the war that she hoped, “To get married, live always in the countryside summer and winter, always mix with good people, and no officialdom whatsoever.”

The most fascinating chapters of Rappaport’s book cover the war years because these sections reveal the full scope of the Grand Duchesses’s war work and impact on Russia. Like other young women of their social station, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia found leadership opportunities during wartime that expanded their horizons. While other works on the Romanovs focus on how Olga and Tatiana trained as nurses alongside their mother, Rappaport also looks at their committee work and fundraising opportunities in detail. Tatiana, in particular, excelled at these activities. She chaired a committee for the aid of displaced refugees, wrote a newspaper article to increase awareness of this issue, collected donations from an international array of donors and did administrative work for her charities.

Rappaport devotes much of the first third of the book to Alexandra’s upbringing and the influence she had over her daughters. While this material is crucial to understanding the worldview of the Grand Duchesses, more material on Nicholas II’s childhood would have been useful here. The last Czar was an involved father who spent a great deal of time with his daughters and was undoubtedly also a strong influence over their lives.

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra restores the individuality of Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. They were among the most famous royal personages of their early twentieth century and continue to fascinate people around the world today. Rappaport has written the definitive biography of four young women who made a profound impact on their family and country during their short lives.

Next Week: Hereward: The English Outlaw who Rebelled Against William the Conqueror by Peter Rex

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My column in today’s Globe and Mail about Prince Charles’s remarks on Vladimir Putin

My column in today’s Globe and Mail discusses Prince Charles’s remarks on Vladimir Putin. There’s a long history of royalty making critical remarks about Russia but still fulfilling their duties as constitutional monarchs.

Click here to read “A Future King and that Hitler thing” in the Globe and Mail

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CBC Syndicated Radio Interviews about Prince Charles and Putin for May 21

Here’s today’s schedule of CBC radio interviews

WINNIPEG     — Up to Speed
HALIFAX   — Mainstreet
SASKATCHEWAN – Afternoon Edition
VICTORIA  — All Points West
THUNDER BAY  — Voyage North
KELOWNA — Radio West
EDMONTON   — Radio Active
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