The Romanovs’ only loyalty was to absolute power

Simon Sebag Montefiore's new book shows the history of a world as gorgeous as it was bloody.

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For Tsar Alexander II, Sunday 1 March 1881 began as Sundays often did. He visited his mistress, “toppled her on to a table and took her”, then set out in his bulletproof carriage, followed by six Cossacks and two sleighs of imperial bodyguards, to watch a military parade. A young man stepped out from the crowd and lobbed a bomb under his carriage. Two people were killed but, for the sixth time, the tsar survived an assassination attempt. Ignoring his entourage’s pleas that he leave at once, he crossed the road to remonstrate with the would-be killer. Another terrorist exploded a second bomb, killing himself and shattering the tsar’s legs.

No one thought of applying a tourniquet. Instead Alexander was rushed to the Winter Palace and hoisted up to his study, leaving a trail of black blood on the marble stairs. When the doctor declared him dead his mistress, Princess Yurievskaya, her pink and white peignoir drenched in blood, shrieked and passed out as the heir prostrated himself on the floor beside her, shedding floods of tears. Among the many witnesses in the room was the dead man’s 13-year-old grandson, Nicky, wearing a blue sailor suit.

In 1918 Nicky (Tsar Nicholas II) was murdered, too, along with his wife and five children, and the Romanovs’ rule came to an end in the last of the many violent episodes described in this splendidly colourful and energetic book. As Simon Sebag Montefiore notes, the history of the dynasty is so lurid that “ascetic academic historians find themselves bashfully toning down the truth”. That is not his way. Introducing his narrative, he declares:

 

. . . this is a world where obscure strangers suddenly claim to be dead monarchs reborn, brides are poisoned, fathers torture their sons to death, sons kill fathers, wives

murder husbands . . . giants and freaks are collected, dwarfs are tossed, beheaded heads kissed, tongues torn out, flesh knouted off bodies, rectums impaled, children slaughtered . . .

 

The book is structured simply, as a helter-skelter chronological narrative of 300 years. Sebag Montefiore expertly selects the best (most shocking, bizarre, sensationally theatrical) bits from that long history. Trotsky remarked that Rasputin’s career was a “scenario for people of bad taste”. The same could be said of the entire Romanov saga. Sebag Montefiore rises to the gaudy, gruesome subject matter, pulling all the stops out. His vocabulary veers from the modern colloquial – “Napoleon was spooked” – to the arcane – “lethiferous bands of looters haunted the streets”. He can do epigrammatic: Peter the Great’s rapacious minister Menshikov was “like the shark that can clean its teeth only by eating more”. He can do hardboiled: needing to rid himself of an intransigent tsar, one minister “sought men who knew how to drown kittens”.

This is a “family history”. Wars are dealt with cursorily and only from the court’s point of view. Constitutional changes, even those of great significance, are relegated to footnotes. Economics barely gets a mention. But the Romanovs were no ordinary family. Writing about them, Sebag Montefiore is also writing about absolutism, its terrifying power and its paradoxes. “In Russia,” Mme de Staël said, “the government is autocracy tempered by strangulation.” An autocrat’s life was constantly at risk; so was his or her legacy. Peter the Great tortured his son to death, knowing that the young man would reverse his policies should he ever inherit. Absolutism is fragile: it can also, paradoxically, enable progress. In 1861, with 24 cannon standing primed outside the Winter Palace for fear of a reactionary uprising, Alexander II abolished serfdom, liberating 22 million people. Sebag Montefiore argues that no one but a divinely appointed autocrat could have made such a bold move.

The Romanovs’ world was as gorgeous as it was bloody. The phrase “jewel-encrusted” recurs in this book almost as often as the word “drunk”. In 1613, when Michael, the first Romanov tsar, was called to power after a civil war that had left the Kremlin a charnel house, his mother demanded to know how he could be crowned when the crowns had been pillaged. It was not a frivolous question. Sebag Montefiore writes perceptively about “power, that mysterious, invisible alchemy of personality, fear and authority”, and about the importance of ceremony and spectacle in creating and sustaining it.

The book is full of visions of magnificence. Empresses are paraded through the streets, whether going live to their weddings or dead to their funerals, in robes of gold brocade and glittering with diamonds. When Tsar Alexei led his armies out against Poland in 1654, the horses drawing his gilded carriage lined with crimson satin wore pearls set in their hooves. We learn exactly what Rasputin was wearing on the night of his murder: a “light-blue silk shirt embroidered with cornflowers, a corded belt, dark-blue velvet trousers” and “a bracelet engraved with the double-headed Romanov eagle”.

The author of two books about Stalin, Sebag Montefiore is alive to the way his story resonates across time, from Genghis Khan to Gorbachev, but he doesn’t allow his erudition to hold up the narrative’s gallop. Instead, he writes masterly footnotes. Among them is a vivid mini-biography of Murad IV, the sultan with “the military gifts of Caesar and the demented sadism of Caligula”, and another on the Scottish medium Daniel Douglas Home, who arrived in Petersburg in 1858 and fooled the Romanovs, shuffling off his shoes in the darkness of the séance room and persuading the gullible that his bare foot was the hand of a dead child.

There are no maps, but family trees and cast lists keep readers on track. The author sets out to be even-handed, giving space to all the Romanovs, not just the well-known Greats. So here is Tsar Alexei, the “Young Monk” (reigned 1645-76), who prostrated himself before an altar a thousand times a day and made a bonfire of mandolins in Red Square (music was sinful). It was Alexei who formalised the institution of serfdom, giving landowners authority to dispense “justice” – 141 varieties of savage punishment – to their serfs, and to hunt them down if they tried to escape.

Here is the Empress Anna (ruled 1730-40), bisexual and lazy, unkindly described as having cheeks as big as a Westphalian ham. Having spent her youth in exile, Anna revelled in her surprising accession. She moved her lover Ernst Biron, a former groom who so loved horses that he “talked to men as horses and horses as men”, into her palace and enjoyed herself after the ­bizarre Romanov fashion. She thought it amusing to tell the father of a newborn (and perfectly sound) baby that it was a deformed monster. She staged dwarf-tossings and hair-pulling fights between “crippled crones”, and forced the proud Prince Mikhail Golytsin to dress as a hen and sit clucking on a nest before the assembled court. And here is Nicholas I (1825-55), who picked up anti-Semitism from his Scottish nanny and banned Jews from all big cities – “the most ludicrous policy since the pharaohs”, in his minister Vorontsov’s opinion, as well as a baleful precedent for the horrors of the next century.

Yet it is hard to pay equal attention to everyone when Peter the Great is in the room. Peter was a military commander and ruler of prodigious energy, conjuring up cities and instigating the system whereby all noblemen had to serve the state as officers or administrators (an 18th-century precursor of totalitarianism). He was also a frightening man whose own city, Petersburg, was built with slave labour. Sebag Montefiore deals summarily with the navy-building and the military conquests. Instead, we gain a full and astonishing picture of Peter’s court, a milieu that might have been dreamt up by a writing team including Petronius, Lewis Carroll and Federico Fellini, with input from Hieronymus Bosch.

In 1691, aged 19 and standing six foot seven inches tall, Peter began to govern through his “All-Mad All-Jesting All-Drunken Synod”. His old tutor Nikita Zotov became the “prince-pope” of this assembly. Dressed in a high tin hat and a coat made of gambling cards, the prince-pope lorded it over “archdeacons” named Thrust-the-Prick, Go-to-the-Prick and Fuck-Off, over dwarfs, and over giants dressed as babies. In revels that mocked earthly and heavenly powers, the prince-pope, stark naked, was enthroned on a beer-barrel, or processed through the streets of Moscow in a carriage pulled by goats, pigs and bears, as trumpets blew and Peter played the drums and supervised the fireworks (he was fascinated by explosives).

In this topsy-turvy world, Peter played servile but was always the terrifying autocrat. He kept everyone on edge. Whenever he left Moscow, he would assign absolute power in his absence to two or more people, thereby ensuring no one had the confidence to rival him. When foreign dignitaries came to his court they were wrong-footed by finding they were received by the prince-pope while the tsar lurked in the crowd. A rule of the synod was that members were “never to go to bed sober”. Anyone demurring was forced to drink the enormous Eagle Goblet full of brandy. Several ministers died of alcohol poisoning. As Sebag Montefiore writes, Peter’s “games of inversion simply underlined his own ­absolute supremacy”.

All the other well-known stories are here: the rise of Catherine the Great and her lover Potemkin, “the personification of panache” (subjects of one of Sebag Montefiore’s previous books); Napoleon’s invasion and retreat; the final, tragicomic tale of Nicholas, Alexandra and their wretched slaughtered children. The most memorable passage, though, is the one describing the conspiracy against Paul I (reigned 1796-1801). His eldest son, the “angelic” Alexander, was in on the plot but fondly believed that his father could be persuaded to abdicate and would live happily ever after under house arrest in a palace with a theatre and riding school to console him for his loss of power.

On the evening appointed for the coup, Paul visited his younger children and rode up and down the palace hallways with them on sleighs. The four-year-old Nicholas (another future tsar) reported that he was “extremely fun”. Meanwhile Alexander, aquiver with anxiety for his father and himself (he had been reminded what became of Peter the Great’s insubordinate heir) “crept about like a frightened hare”.

In the event, the tsar was murdered, scared out of bed in his nightshirt, brained with a blow from a gold snuffbox and throttled with his own sash. Appalled to realise that the other conspirators had always been intent on murder, Alexander threw himself at his mother’s feet. His little brother Nicholas later wrote: “I can still hear him sobbing. I was glad when I was allowed to play with my wooden horses again.” Alexander, the tsar who had to confront Napoleon, was haunted all his life by his unwilling connivance in patricide.

This is not a book about the vast, impersonal motors of historical change: it is a compendium of stories about extraordinary individuals. Marx would have despised it, and so may some “ascetic academic historians”, but most readers will welcome its gusto. The Romanovs, Sebag Montefiore writes, equalled the Caesars (from whom they borrowed their title) in charisma and empire-building success. And if his subjects are Caesars, then he is their Suetonius – gossipy, prurient, sensationalist, with great gifts for encapsulating a character and for storytelling con brio

The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (745pp, £25)

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is a cultural historian, biographer and novelist. Her most recent book is Fabulous (Fourth Estate)

This article appears in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war

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