The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore | May 2016 | Knopf | Hardcover $35
In this fascinating chronicle, Simon Sebag Montefiore focuses his gifts as historian and storyteller on the greatest and most complex of the emperors and empresses of the Romanov dynasty (1613-1917), on how their courts worked, and on the meeting of personality and power in each reign. Scouring archives that opened up only after the fall of the USSR, the author reveals the real world of the most storied and myth-shrouded rulers — Catherine the Great, Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra — and introduces readers to the lesser-known but even more scandalous Elizaveta (daughter of Peter the Great) and Alexander II (whose wild sexual passions were bestowed upon a teenage mistress). The author illuminates the eighteenth-century Age of the Imperial Petticoat; makes clear the full extent of the remarkable political-amorous partnership between Catherine the Great and Prince Potemkin; and uncovers a deep vein of decadence and stupidity underneath the accepted, romantic portrait usually presented of Nicholas II, the last of the Tsars. As with all of his previous and widely acclaimed works of history, Simon Sebag Montefiore gives an absolute scholarly and archival foundation to a book that is both exceptionally informative and dazzlingly entertaining from first to last.
The Romanovs is due to be published in the US in May 2016 (it's already out in the UK). This review is based on a digital ARC from the publisher, Knopf, via Edelweiss.
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Despite its impressive length — nearly 800 pages! — this is still a rather whirlwind tour of Russian history. After all, the Romanovs ruled the country for over 3 centuries, and any one of the tsar or tsarina's lives would make for an interesting book alone.
The book is divided into "Acts" (sections/parts/whatever) and "Scenes" (chapters). Each chapter begins with a cast of characters and concludes with a handful of notes regarding various events and people that might help clarify some points for the reader. This was particularly helpful for me, because I was reading this book in little half-hour chunks during my lunch breaks over the past month or so.
Being only passingly familiar with a few events in Russian history (most of them fairly recent, in the grand scheme of things), I admit that I got a bit lost at some points. It doesn't help that royalty likes to recycle names, or that Russian names can begin to look like little more than a bunch of letters randomly strung together if you aren't comfortable with the language. Montefiore did try to alleviate the confusion a bit by referring to each major player with a consistent name or nickname, though.
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I did enjoy the occasional little references to what all was going on in the rest of the world while Tsar So-n-So was forcing religious reform or Tsarina Such-n-Such was beheading all her enemies. I'm much more familiar with the history of a couple of other European countries, so this was particularly helpful for my own comprehension.
One thing I was surprised by (though I shouldn't have been, really) was the impressive amount of violence perpetrated both by the Romanovs and against them. Public torture, dismemberment, and death by impalement were common occurrences during the reign of Alexis I (and later reigns as well), while his contemporary Louis XIV in France resorted somewhat less enthusiastically to execution by the slightly more civilized guillotine. The murder of the last of the Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandra and their children, was frenzied and bloody.
On a similarly disconcerting topic, serfdom was the fate of the vast majority of people in feudal Russia up until the mid-19th century, while feudalism in Western Europe had been mostly done away with after the dark ages, or by the end of the 1700's at the very latest. Blood and oppression made up the foundation of the Romanovs' autocratic dynasty — as well as the foundation of Russia's current autocratic state.
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The book is obviously well-researched and — be still, my heart! — includes plenty of notes and citations. Montefiore writes in such a way that it is obvious that he's trying to make his subject accessible to non-scholars, too, but I still had to look up a lot of terms and events on Wikipedia just to catch up and figure out what the heck was going on.
Overall, I'd say that this is a good summary of the long rule of the Romanov family over Russia, though it might not be the very first title a person should pick up if they're just getting started on Russian history. Anyway, I'm quite glad I got a chance to read it.
Publication information: Montefiore, Simon Sebag. The Romanovs: 1613-1918. New York: Knopf, 2016. EPUB.
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.