The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Shot by firing squad, blown apart by hand grenade, or strangled by their own ceremonial sash, the deaths of the Romanov Czars are a mark of how loved they were by their subjects during their three-hundred-year reign of terror.

It was often only the ability and intelligence of outsiders that kept the family on their precarious throne through these years of misrule, especially Czarina Catherine the Great (1762-1796), who was born in Prussia as Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst.

The lives and intrigues of this appalling family are the subject of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s magisterial new history. The scope of this book and the enormous range of individuals mentioned is mind-boggling, especially considering that Montefiore is doing his research in a foreign language.

At first, I was put off reading this book by the thought that I knew so little about Russian history except for the 1917 Revolution and its aftermath. I needn’t have worried because Montefiore is fully aware of how complicated a subject this is, so he makes deft use of character sketches and nicknames to help navigate this study, which is as vast as the Russian steppes itself.

The Romanovs begins with a Medieval monarchy that is detached from the main flow of European life. Unable to convince foreign princes to set up home in their frosty kingdom, and unwilling to create in-fighting among the nobility by choosing wives from one aristocratic family over another, the early Czars propagated their dynasty through ‘bride shows’.

These were events where beautiful daughters of the minor gentry would be presented en masse to the Czar from whom he would choose his future spouse. For the family of the lucky girl, the rewards were a place at court and masses of powerful strings to pull for her relatives and descendants.

Pity the girl who came second: she, too dangerous to be left near the throne, would be swiftly dispatched to Siberia along with her mother.

Such are the fortunes of those who enter the lair of the Russian bear: devour or be devoured.

When … [Catherine the Great] heard of a nobleman who was repeatedly criticizing her, she advised him to cease or ‘get himself transferred to a place where even the ravens wouldn’t be able to find his bones’.

Much the best section of this book is the reign of Catherine and her many lovers, though Montefiore is careful to dismiss the various legends that have grown up around her.

Likewise, he rejects the common misconception that Napoleon’s defeat in Russia was down to the country’s ferocious winter. Here we see that his defeat was well-planned and ruthlessly executed. A scorched-earth policy led the nation’s defenders to torch Moscow itself rather than let it fall into enemy hands:

no one greeted Napoleon at the gates of Moscow. Only a few French tutors, actresses and lethiferous bands of looters haunted the streets as Moscow burned for six days. Napoleon was spooked by what he saw. He should have withdrawn at once … but he had not been able to resist the storied city of golden domes. He moved into the Kremlin and waited to negotiate from within a city of ashes.

The Romanovs is epic and grand in the baroque style. It’s also appalling in what it reveals about the depths of human cruelty. Nevertheless, this is a superb introduction to the world of Rasputin, Pushkin, Peter the Great and and many, many others. For anyone with even a passing interest in the goings-on beyond the Urals, this is an essential read.