The Romanovs’ only loyalty was to absolute power

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.

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