This book was provided to me by the publisher at no cost.
This book is a physical example of how hard it is to do complete histories of stuff from much before the 18th, even really 19th, century. Of the 650-odd pages, the last half covers less than the last century of the Romanov dynasty (which started in 1613 and went to 1918). Not because Michael or Peter the Great or Catherine the Great did less stuff, but because there’s less stuff firmly attested. Or attested at all. Whereas there are heaps of diaries and letters and non-Russian people talking about the goings-on certainly around Napoleon, and then even more so afterwards with the various power struggles, the Crimea, and then into the 20th century.
Anyway: this book is, as the name suggests, a biography of a dynasty. As with any biography there’s a certain frisson in knowing how everything ends – in this case, in a damp cellar with gunshots. I’ve done a fair bit of reading around the end of the dynasty (this bio of Alexander Kerensky was great, and I also read a bio of Nicholas and Alexandra recently), and I know names like Catherine the Great (it’s always weird to make connections like she’s active during the French Revolution), but I didn’t really know how it all connected. The answer is with blood, and sweat, and more blood, and a lot of trial and tribulation. Then more blood.
I was intrigued by, and quite liked, the format of the book. It’s divided into Acts: The Rise, The Apogee, The Decline. Each Act is divided into scenes, like The All-Drunken Synod and The Golden Age and Colossus, where the names are intended to reflect the individual Tsar (or, occasionally, Tsarina) who is the focus. It’s not quite a chapter per Tsar, in the earlier half, but it comes close. Additionally there’s a map early on showing the extent of the Romanov empire at different times, and each Act opens with a family tree, while each scene opens with a cast list – family, courtiers, other hangers-on. Which is a good thing because if I learnt nothing else I learnt:
- By golly there’s a lot of people with the same name in Russia over this period. I’m not just talking about the number of men called Alexander or Nicholas – Montefiore’s use of nicknames was a lifesaver – but the surnames! There’s like three important families! For three hundred years! … which also tells you something about the dynasty and who was important of course.
- If I thought the English royal family had a complicated family tree, I was kidding myself. The Romanovs are incredibly hard to follow – partly from marrying across generations, occasionally, but also with cousins coming and going and multiples wives and WHOA. I just gave up eventually.
There’s also quite a few pictures, in four different sets across the book, showing portraits and architecture and such things. I love that part of a good history book.
Other things I learnt:
- There were a surprising number of important women. Catherine I had acted as empress even before Catherine II reigned so superbly, and Anna was between both of them and Elizaveta, while Sophia was ‘Sovereign Lady’ for a while in the late 1600s and another Anna was briefly regent.
- Did I mention the blood? There was a lot of blood spilt by and for this dynasty. Like, a lot. Even if you don’t count the Napoleonic Wars (which were EPIC) and then World War I, of course, there was a LOT of fighting. Some of the blood was even Romanov blood… looking at you, Peter III, and all you would-be usurpers.
- There was a lot of infidelity. Two of my favourite picture captions are one depicting “A rare happy marriage” between Nicholas I and his Prussian wife Mouffy (this is another thing: the nicknames), while immediately below is a picture of Varenka Nelidova, “the beauty of Nicholas I’s court,” whom “he visited twice daily” because she was his favourite mistress. Not just mistress; favourite mistress. These Romanovs, they could not keep their pants on.
- How German the Romanovs were. So many princesses came from the German principalities – Hesse-Darmstadt, Wurttemberg, Holstein-Gottorp and so on – I’m frankly amazed that some more-Russian types didn’t do some maths and throw them over on account of not being very Russian. I guess that’s partly what Catherine II did, to her husband Peter III – where SHE is the formerly German princess and HE is acting all “I wish I were Prussian.”
- Napoleon was a cad. So were many of the Tsars.
The one thing that really bugged me was the use of footnotes. I want a history book to have copious endnotes where sources are detailed – this reassures me that the author really has done their research. When these are presented as footnotes, it clutters up the page too much. When the author uses endnotes for sources and footnotes for extra stuff that didn’t quite fit into their narrative, well, I’m largely ok with that – if it’s done well. Here it felt like there were footnotes on almost every other pages, and the thing that MOST annoyed me was that the symbol was almost never at the end of the sentence. Which for someone like me meant I was breaking in the middle of a sentence to go read a footnote that WASN’T ALWAYS ACTUALLY RELEVANT. I mean, what even is that about? By the second half I was basically training myself away from this compulsion and at least waiting to the end of the sentence, so that I wasn’t wasting time going back and re-reading the whole sentence. I’m still very bemused by a bunch of those footnotes because I don’t know why they were included, except to imagine Montefiore was just so excited by the fact that he wanted to include it.
While there were a few other stylistic tics that occasionally annoyed me, there was nothing bad enough to prevent me from reading this pretty steadily and basically enjoying the whole book. It’s a big book, but it doesn’t require much in the way of prior knowledge, so if you want an overview of Russian political history from 1613 to 1918 this is a pretty good place to get it. It’s also got violence and sex. Quite a lot of both. And some comparisons with modern Russian politics that gave me pause, too.