, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: The Romanovs, 1613-1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Knopf, 2016. 744 pp. $35

In college, I studied two semesters of Russian and Balkan history with a professor who spiced his lectures with tidbits about outsize personalities, such as the aptly named Vlad the Impaler. Indeed, so well known was Professor Marcopoulos for his dry wit and remarkable breadth of knowledge that people not enrolled in the class would ask me, “Has he gotten to Rasputin yet?” because they wanted to sit in when he did.

Fedor Rokotov's portrait of Empress Catherine the Great, 1763, now in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Fedor Rokotov’s portrait of Empress Catherine the Great, 1763, now in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Consequently, I can’t read a book like The Romanovs without hearing my late teacher’s voice, seeing his long, looping script as he wrote the names of key figures on the blackboard, and starting in recognition when those names, which I haven’t heard uttered in more than forty years, pop up in Montefiore’s text. There’s plenty in The Romanovs that Dr. Marcopoulos would have enjoyed, including the focus on autocrats as determinants of history, and the depth of garish splendor and corruption that marked the dynasty.

I particularly like the section on Catherine the Great, which successfully merges the story of her private life with her politics, including precious insight into the way she viewed power. “‘One must do things in such a way that people think they themselves want it to be done this way,’” she said. When challenged, Montefiore argues, she could be ruthless but was never cruel, and preferred subtle diplomacy to banging her desk with a fist. As a woman, she might not have survived otherwise; Frederick the Great, for one, a noted misogynist, thought she was incapable.

Once, when her secretary remarked on her boundless power, she laughed and replied that it wasn’t so easy. “‘I take advice, I consult and when I am convinced of general approval, I issue my orders and have the pleasure of observing what you call blind obedience. And that is the foundation of unlimited power.’” Regarding legends of her sexual appetites, Montefiore recounts her many love affairs, yet insists that all she really wanted was a warm home life, “sharing card games in her cosy apartments and discussing her literary and artistic interests with her beloved.”

Unfortunately, Catherine’s is the only full, satisfying portrait in the book. Peter the Great comes in second, and I like aspects of Montefiore’s characterizations of Alexander II and his spineless, narrow-minded grandson, Nicholas II. Overall, however, I question the historical and narrative choices Montefiore makes, his writing style, and the numbing amount of often extraneous detail.

The author explains (repeatedly) that he’s the first to research troves of private letters that have only recently been made available to historians. I understand his pride and applaud his diligence. But just because he’s found astonishingly frank letters about sexual practices, pet names, and innumerable affairs with ladies-in-waiting and ballerinas doesn’t mean these must all be included. Such tales do convey the unbelievable corruption that plagued Russia (and still does), and some are entertaining. But I can’t help think that Montefiore simply couldn’t let any of them go, an emphasis that seriously mars his work.

The Romanovs often reads, and looks like, a suitcase that’s stuffed so full that it’s ready to spring open at the slightest touch. The text repeats itself in wordy prose that can be confusing or vague or, in some cases, unintentionally funny because of poor grammar. (Montefiore also uses the word girl when the context clearly suggests woman, an annoying, provocative lapse that, incidentally, belies his portrayal of Catherine the Great as a victim of sexism.) Voluminous footnotes occupy the bottom of almost every page; if they don’t contribute to the main narrative, why are they there, and why so many? Sexual escapades take up so much room that significant historical events and movements sometimes seem almost an afterthought. And at historical turning points, the author never looks back, refusing to ask “what if,” having summarily decided–as he says once–that “counterfactual speculation is pointless.”

Really? What if it leads to deeper analysis of what actually happened? For instance, I never knew that as a prince, Alexander II visited England and charmed Queen Victoria, newly on the throne and still unmarried. Alexander’s father, Nicholas I, said, “Forget her,” and the son duly complied. But such a marriage would have changed Europe and altered the dynastic succession in Russia. Surely that’s worth a paragraph, and something illuminating might have come from it.

I can’t recommend plowing through all of The Romanovs. But, as I said, several sections are worth your time, as are the stunning photographs. I also like the last three pages very much, about the ways that subsequent Russian regimes, including Putin’s, have adopted Romanov style and policies. I could have read more about that happily.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.