Book review: The Romanovs 1613 – 1918

In this ‘Titanic enterprise’, Simon Sebag Montefiore is not afraid to suggest that something of what made the Romanovs powerful remains in the Russian psyche and Russian leadership today, writes Mary Leland.

Book review: The Romanovs 1613 – 1918

Simon Sebag

Montefiore

Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £25

IN A retort to Gorky’s futile appeal in 1919 for the life of Romanov Prince Nikolai Mikhailovich, a good amateur historian, Lenin replied that “Revolution has no need of historians.”

There Lenin was wrong, as he was when sanctioning the operation code-named “Chimney-Sweep”, the assassination of Nicholas II and his family.

It is some indication of the detailed research by historian Simon Sebag Montefiore that when he describes the 1918 massacre of Russia’s last tsar, his wife, five children, their personal servants and their dogs, he is able to add that 13-year-old Alexei’s spaniel Joy ran away during the slaughter.

The lapdog Jemmy and the bulldog Ortino were bayoneted, but Joy returned in search of his young master, was found by a guard and then adopted by an Allied officer and lived the rest of his life near Windsor Castle.

The dog Joy was closer to the tsarevich’s English cousins than Alexei could ever be; a nervous George V delayed plans to bring the Russian royal family to safety in England and although a British battleship was expected to receive them at Murmansk, the opportunity had to be refused because the Romanov children all came down with the measles and could not be moved.

They recovered too late for rescue.

In a book crammed to the last of its 745 pages with deeds of savagery, few episodes match the brutality with which the Romanovs met their end. Both parents died instantly in the fusillade of gunfire unleashed in Ekaterinburg’s cellar of horrors.

Alexei and his four sisters were less fortunate; the priceless jewels sewn into their underwear when preparing for exile stopped even the bayonets used by the killers when the bullets failed.

It took so long to kill them that the Soviet commander ordered a rest for his murder squad before returning to what had become an abbatoire, dense with gunsmoke and loud with screams of agony and terror.

As the bodies were carried out it was found that two of the girls were still alive; they were then stabbed to death.

Other Romanovs were to die that week; the royal nun Ella and her six companions were thrown into a flooded mineshaft; when they didn’t drown grenades were thrown in after them.

Again voices singing a hymn could be heard from the mine; the killers threw in flaming timber and although for a short while voices were still raised through the smoke, eventually there was silence.

Simon Sebag Montefiore has not written here a history of Russia, although the country’s evolution into something like a nation is explained.

Instead he reveals in marvellous detail and meticulous documentation the 300 years of Romanov dynastic survival.

In a narrative which is not an argument, it becomes obvious that the brutal incompetence of the cellar at Ekaterinburg was not exclusive to the Bolsheviks: it took five attempts before Alexander II was assassinated, for example, and time after time through Russia’s vastly complex history coups, conspiracies, wars and alliances failed through ineptitude, delay, stupidity, avarice or even lust. (Lust is a major element in this enormous book).

The author is not making a case, indeed he has no case to make.

Yet he writes so well, sometimes with a thrilling impulsion, that readers will find themselves taking sides, despite the dismaying truth that through the centuries Russia’s rulers, including those from the Romanov dynasty, supported their reign by rituals of often innovative but always hideous methods of torture and execution.

Hanging and beheading were the most frequent and kindest of these, impalement was merely one of the less kind.

Ivan the Terrible fully deserved his title; Peter the Great was no pussy-cat, while the genuinely enlightened Catherine, the great empress who wasn’t even Russian, could preside over utilitarian torture, not to mention her complicity in the deposition and probably in the death of her husband.

Enlightenment, it seems, is all very well, but as Sebag Montefiore makes abundantly clear, ferocity was a feature of Russia’s tradition of expansion and succession.

There was also a habit of war on all fronts, from the Baltic to the Balkans, from Poland to the Ottoman Empire, with Crimea always somewhere in the mix.

Alliances with France, England, Prussia and other countries were often too fragile to persevere and were replaced with antagonisms as frequent as they were fatal, except for those made through marriage which, in the last century or so of Romanov power were almost exclusively among the lesser German or Prussian nobility.

Which is also where Catherine the Great came from, so perhaps that was seen as a precedent worth following.

The essential genealogies provided here abound in hyphenated principalities and although these marriages might suggest an influx of European ideals and practices, nothing, it seems, could loosen the Romanov adherence to kingship as an act of God.

Coronation was a sacrament during which it was believed the monarch became blessed with all the practical data required to rule.

There is the Romanov tragedy; however well-educated the last tsars may have been — and Nicholas II was very well educated — divinity never makes room for democracy.

This was especially true of a culture which embraced uncritically religious tradition and almost manic spirituality — actually manic when it came to the fatal relationship between the monk Rasputin and Alexandra, the last Tsarina.

The characters and abilities of courtiers, statesmen, fixers, favourites and lovers remained constant arbiters of the success or failure of a reign. An intelligent tsar could nonetheless select counsellors who were stupid, venal or vicious, and sometimes all three. In a sacred but porous autocracy, democracy never stood a chance.

Up to the time of Alexander II, for example, huge aristocratic rewards were expressed in gifts of ‘souls’, or serfs, rather than roubles.

At the time of emancipation 22 million serfs were freed; this was an enormous and necessary reform but not widely welcomed — except of course by the serfs.

What remained toxic in Russian society was anti-semitism, and again the later tsars tried to restrict its manifestation even though remaining privately, almost inherently, anti-semitic themselves.

For centuries the dynasty’s greatest enemies were its own internal advisers rather than social unrest, but by the time of Nicholas II the creation of an increasingly powerful secret police was required to deal with public dissent.

Ironically enough, he was the only tsar to be overthrown by popular revolt.

In what he himself calls “this Titanic enterprise”, Sebag Montefiore has worked through many primary sources, especially the letters, reports, diaries, memoirs and other correspondence made accessible with the ending of the Soviet Union; some materials are well known, but others, perhaps because of their very size — the letters of Alexander II and his wife comes to nearly 3,000 in number — most remained unpublished.

Add to all this the archives of several countries and some idea of the scope of the research and of its structured and analytical presentation can be imagined.

The collection, interpretation and processing of this material is one great achievement. The other is Sebag Montefiore’s own political rather than emotional, or romantic, judgement.

In describing a dynasty which began and ended with two frail teenage boys he is not afraid to suggest that something of what made the Romanovs powerful remains in the Russian psyche and Russian leadership today.

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