Lead book review

The ruthless Romanovs’ horrible history

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s gripping account of life under the tsars shows how Russia has always been dedicated to autocracy

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

The Romanovs, 1613—1918 Simon Sebag Montefiore

Weidenfeld, pp.768, £25, ISBN: 9780297852667

‘It was hard to be a tsar,’ Simon Sebag Montefiore writes in his opening sentence, and what follows fully bears this out. In his thought-provoking introduction, he stresses the unique nature of Russian autocracy and its perverse contradictions; the tsar was absolute ruler, yet he was bound by a tangle of restrictions. His subjects were prepared to accept his tyranny and any cruelty its exercise required, but claimed the right to punish him if he failed to provide strong leadership. The system was never meant to give one person tyrannical powers over everyone else. Nor was it intended to work for the greatest good of the greatest number. It was a very different animal from anything we, with our traditions emanating from ancient Greece and Rome, Judaism and Christianity, have ever known. It was, in the words of the French woman of letters Madame de Staël, ‘autocracy tempered by strangulation’.

The Romanov dynasty reigned for just over 300 years, from 1613 to 1917, and while they expanded their empire at a spectacular rate (an average of 20,000 square miles a year), not one of their 20 monarchs slept easy — with good reason. Few died of natural causes.

The founder of the dynasty was the 16-year-old weakling Michael Romanov, a great-nephew of Ivan the Terrible. He was bullied into accepting the crown as Muscovy emerged from the decade and a half of civil war and foreign invasion known as the Time of Troubles, in which a succession of his predecessors, and most of his family, had suffered more or less grisly ends. Surprisingly, Michael succeeded in stabilising his realm politically and imposing a degree of deference to the person of the tsar. He used religion to create a numinous aura around the throne, and involved the nobility in the process of strengthening it. Much of the ritual he introduced, such as the selection of his wives through glamour contests and their segregation in something resembling a harem, was distinctly oriental in flavour.

His son Alexei was tall, strong, clever and ruthless, and well-suited to empire-building. In 1649 he published the first collection of laws. As it came after a long period of instability, the accent was on reinforcing the state, which meant the position of the tsar. It identified a litany of crimes against his person and introduced a new concept: the duty to denounce. His subjects were obliged to report not merely real conspiracies, but also their wildest suspicions regarding possible ill-intent. It prescribed draconian punishments — mild disrespect for the tsar entailed having one’s tongue torn out — and established the protection of the state as the ultimate purpose of Russian law.

Magnificent monster, Peter the Great and tragic victim Nicholas II.
Magnificent monster, Peter the Great and tragic victim Nicholas II.

Alexei also strengthened the connection between noble status and service to the crown, rewarding the nobility with the right to own serfs, thus institutionalising a pattern which became a mainstay of the Russian system: servility to those above, tyranny over those below. Taken together, his reforms ensured that Muscovy would develop in a different direction from all other European states.

Alexei’s son Peter the Great was determined to modernise his kingdom along the lines of what he had seen on his travels through western Europe. The magnificent showpiece city of St Petersburg testifies to his success in one respect. But while he strove to civilise his subjects, prescribing the clothes they should wear and how they should drink tea, he himself indulged in epic bouts of drunkenness, bestial depravity and juvenile profanity, involving giants, dwarves and grotesquely disfigured cripples cavorting in ribald farce. He was also capable of breathtaking cruelty. He even tortured his own son to death. And his introduction of the table of ranks, which effectively turned every individual into a cog in the machine of state, brought Russia closer to the structure of the horde of Genghis Khan than to any other European society.

Peter’s reign was followed by a murderous merry-go-round, as rival factions backed various members of the Romanov family and the succession leapt from one branch to another until there were none left. The last actual Romanov ruler was Elizabeth, who was succeeded at her death in 1761 by her nephew Peter III, a Holstein-Gottorp. He in turn was succeeded by his wife, Catherine II, originally Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, and from then on the dynasty was effectively German, and almost certainly without a drop of Romanov blood.

The German influence attenuated the savagery and put an end to the spasms of violence which had characterised life under the Romanovs. But though Catherine the Great corresponded with Voltaire and basked in the admiration of Enlightened European opinion, her successor was nevertheless bludgeoned to death in his own palace by his courtiers. His son, Alexander I, also won the admiration of Europe for his part in the defeat of Napoleon and his liberal leanings. But he failed to steer his empire in the direction these suggested. At a moment when Russian society was drawing closer to Europe, he backed away. He abandoned his plans to abolish serfdom, the principal obstacle to reform, and, turning to mysticism, clamped down on all expressions of liberalism.

His successors embraced the concept of Russian exceptionalism; that Russia was by its very nature destined to be an autocracy whose only legitimate ruler was one prepared to rule as an autocrat. The 19th-century ‘Romanovs’ thus present a pathetic spectacle of decent, hard-working German royals struggling to personify the soul of Russia. While the parricidal struggles and rackety Rabelaisian revels of the previous centuries gave way to automatic succession and familial gemütlichkeit, these essentially kind and sensitive men nevertheless felt obliged to preside over a repressive and cruel system.

Convinced that a tsar must show military prowess, they embarked on wars that only served to demonstrate the weakness and incompetence of their military machine. Catastrophic defeat in Crimea forced on Alexander II some reforms and the emancipation of the serfs. But that did not prevent him from being blown to pieces by a terrorist bomb. Denied any legal means of expressing opposition, dissenters increasingly turned to terrorism. The intrusive and brutal secret police, the Okhrana, were unable to provide security, and government officials as well as members of the imperial family were assassinated wholesale.

Dodging the bullets and bombs of assassins, the genial, bear-like Alexander III reasserted the prestige of the monarchy by ruling like a real autocrat, controlling every aspect of life throughout his realm. But this only served to set a trap for his pathetic successor Nicholas II, who was simply not up to the job but felt a strong sense of duty to fulfil what he saw as his divinely ordained mission. He also reached for war as a means of enhancing the prestige of the throne, but humiliation by the Japanese, ‘yellow monkeys’ who were expected to crumble before Russian might, fatally weakened it. The development of the navy — which steamed into catastrophe at Tsushima in 1905 — had been entrusted to the flashy dresser Grand Duke Alexei, whose predilection for fast women was accompanied by the delivery of slow ships.

Once again, reforms had to be conceded and representative bodies sanctioned. But Nicholas resolutely clung to the role of autocrat. Reading about his well-intentioned, bungling progress towards his tragic and squalid death is almost unbearable.

With its sordid power struggles, violence and brutality, its cast of magnificent monsters, tragic victims and grotesque ‘holy men’, this is an extraordinary and gripping tale. Simon Sebag Montefiore has plumbed a remarkable range of hitherto unused archives which shed valuable new light on the private lives and behaviour of his subjects, and help explain their vulnerabilities and the source of much of the otherwise inexplicable violence and cruelty.

By turns horrific, hilarious and moving, but ultimately tragic, this is essential reading for anyone interested in Russia or simply puzzled by the workings of the Russian state. It provides ample evidence that whoever is in power, and however incompetently or cruelly they may be governed, the Russians are dedicated to autocracy.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20.99. Tel: 08430 600033. Adam Zamoyski’s many books include Phantom Terror, Moscow 1812 and Holy Madness.

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Show comments
  • Malcolm Stevas

    “..his introduction of the table of ranks, which effectively turned every
    individual into a cog in the machine of state, brought Russia closer to
    the structure of the horde of Genghis Khan than to any other European

    In this useful summary of what sounds a valuable work, these words remind me of an illuminating piece I read in “Encounter” years ago. It was by former US senior figure, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who occupied several posts including that of President Carter’s National Security Advisor from 1977–81. An erudite man, it was not perhaps solely his Polish background that caused him to suggest it was always a mistake for Westerners to regard Russia as a European country: he pointed out that Russia straddled the boundaries between Europe and Asia; and that its rulers, whether Peter the Great, the Romanovs, or the Politburo, owed a great deal to the Oriental tradition of despotism. Once one accepts this, many aspects of the Russian psyche become easier to understand.
    SS Montefiore is an excellent writer and I might well read this latest work. I read most of his mammoth history of Jerusalem, though I became weary of the endless sequence of ghastly atrocities and wholesale slaughter so had to abandon it…

    • Anna T

      The Genghis Khan analogy does not look that persuasive. The medieval Russia was in political dependence from the mongols for four hundred years: in that time the similarity would be the greatest. Peter the Great, in contrast, was a destroyer of the pre-Petrine state and a moderniser. The ‘table of rank’ system might well be a sign of Prussian influence.

      • Anna T

        another point on the Table of Ranks, there is a view that some provisions of it were ‘revolutionary’ (and might be influenced by Pufendorf’/Wolff’s doctrine of ‘regular’ state), for example, s 8 (that may have some precedent in the Prussian Statute of 1705) declared the principle of promotion irrespective of the birth, solely the basis of service; s 11 allowed to automatically ‘ascend’ to the gentry, when reached the certain rank.

    • ClausewitzTheMunificent

      As Anna T pointed out, this does not follow. It appears the book is more interested in slandering the collective body of Russians and misinterpreting their history than providing any balanced afterthought.

  • smilingvulture

    sounds like full scale terrorism

  • Elisabeth Waldburg

    It is a bad book, which ignored the reforms of Tsar Alexander II, not only the emancipation of the serfs, before even in the USA was abolished slavery, and his plans for a constitutional monarchy, which were supported by his mistress and second wife Princess Ekaterina Dolgoruky, and his ministers Prince Gortschakov and Count Loris-Melikov, the daft was ready and the original as well the very same day that the terrorists of Narodnaya Volia murdered him on the streets of Saint Petersburg on March 10th 1881. His son and successor Alexander III was extremely autocratic and pan Slavic, in few years he destroyed the foreign policy of his father, and even started a totally absolute regime, with the worst elements of the Russian monarchy, like his counsellor Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev, whose terrible influence, went beyond the death of the Tsar, in 1894, and lasted the first decade of the reign of Nicholas II. Alexander III, in spite of his German mother, Empress Maria Alexandrovna and his Prussian grandmother Charlotte von Hohenzollern, broke the Alliance of the Three Emperors signed by his father with Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany and Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, Apostolic King of Hungary. He turned to the Jacobin France of the Third Republic, which was an open enemy of all the monarchies, and betrayed the pro German legacy of his father and grandfather Nicholas I. The influence of the Pan Slavic movement was a disaster for Russia, according with its ideologists Holy Russia should confront Germany and Austria, and support the former provinces of the Ottoman Empire, like Serbia, Romania (which wasn’t a Slavic country) and Bulgaria. We know now, the consequences of this disastrous policy, World War One. Nicholas II had two liberal and open minded ministers the first one was Count Sergei Witte and the second one was Pyotr Akardievich Stolypin. The first was responsible for the industrialization of the Empire; he ordered the construction of the Trans Siberian railroad and introduced some liberal changes in the internal policies. But Nicholas II influenced by the Pan Slavic’s, dismissed him, and forced his resignation. Stolypin was a strong minded character; he started a land reform in Russia in 1906, which lasted five years, giving land to millions of peasants, those who later on, were called the Kulaks. Even he planned a deep reform in Russia, giving more power to the Duma of the Empire, and organized a sort of checks and balances system adapted to the Russian idiosyncrasy. But for the disgrace of Russia, he was murdered in 1911 at the Opera of Kiev, in front of the Tsar, Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna and their daughters by a terrorist. I am half Russian; my mother’s family was a Rurikid dynasty, so I have first hand information of what happened in those years. The book is full of mistakes and misinterpretations of Russian history, and lacks seriousness.

    • Anna T

      The Great Reforms of 1860s not only abolished serfdom but also introduced local self-government and independent courts and the jury trials.

  • Leftism is a societal cancer

    Trusting someone with the name Montefiore to present a true history of Russia is just insane.

    • davidofkent

      We await your book with interest!

      • Leftism is a societal cancer

        “Jerusalem” is a good work of his. I bought that for my father however considering his background and connections it’s clear that anything approaching objectivity on Russian history won’t be written by his hands.

  • Karl_SkidMarx

    The Moscow Times, 15 June 2010

    It remains true that Leon Trotsky [born Lev Davidovich Bronstein], Yakov Sverdlov, Grigory Zinoviev [born Ovsei-Gershon Aronovich Radomyslsky Apfelbaum], Lev Kamenev [born Lev Borisovich Rosenfeld] and so many early Bolsheviks who helped [part-Jew] Lenin [born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov] take power in 1917 and ran his repressive regime were Jewish. And so were some of the bloodiest figures in the political police, such as Yakov Yurovsky, who carried out the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family…

    Daily Express, 16 July 2015

    Prince Philip gaffes: The Duke of Edinburgh’s best jokes and witticisms over the years

    2002: While touring a factory near Edinburgh he said a fuse box was so crude it “looked as though it had been put in by an Indian”.

    1967: When asked if he would like to visit the Soviet Union, he said: “I would like to go to Russia very much, although the [Jewish] b******s murdered half my family.”


  • Karl_SkidMarx

    Daily Telegraph, 12 March 2014

    David Cameron speaks of Jewish ancestors

    Cameron’s great-great-grandfather Emile was an émigré banker who became a British citizen in 1871 and enjoyed considerable financial success, becoming a director of the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, which had offices in Threadneedle Street in the City of London.

    Levita…is the Latin form of the name Levite, a Jew descended from the Tribe of Levi…

    Emile’s eldest son…Arthur *, a stockbroker…

    * The Rothschild Archive

    Takahashi Korekiyo , the Rothschilds and the Russo-Japanese War, 1904–1907

    Shortly after Japan’s war with Russia broke out in February 1904, the government appointed Takahashi its financial representative to sell Japanese treasury bonds ‘to capitalists’ in London.

    After arriving in London on 1 April, Takahashi met with many of the most important London bankers and financiers of the time: Sir Ewen CAMERON of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank [and] Arthur Francis LEVITA of Panmure Gordon…

  • ClausewitzTheMunificent

    Nur Kriegspropaganda! The supposed Orientalism, barbarity and retrograde nature of “the Russian” has been often emphasised by the British, the Germans, and the US in the Cold War, to dehumanise and deny the achievements of Russia, and in the ultimate sense to justify aggressive action against her people. The British at the very least have been peddling this rubbish since the Crimean War, and don’t forget that the German Russlandlied, a marching song created on purpose for Unternehmen Barbarossa included the lines “Freiheit das Ziel, Sieg das Panier!” or Freedom the Goal, Victory the Watchword! as if the aim was to “civilise” and “free” the undeserving Untermenschen. Moreover, I notice that the reviewer (A Pole, hence certainly very objective!!!) does not appear to mention any episode of “Western” barbarity or empire building to provide context, but perpeuates many puerile myths about Russians. Clearly royal dynasties are only bloody and murderous if they are Russian!

    • Elisabeth Waldburg

      The Pole is H.S.H. Prince Adam Zamoysky, close related to the following Russian families. Sviatopolk-Mirsky, Golytsin or Galtizine, Czartoryski, Vassyltchikov, Lobanov-Rostovsky, Dolgoruky or Dolgorukov, Obolensky, Baryatinsky, Odoevsky, Cantakuzene-Speransky. Shuvalov, Kuchelev-Besborodka, Mussin-Pushkin and some others as well.