“…a chronicle of fathers and sons, megalomaniacs, monsters and saints.” – The Romanovs 1613 – 1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

April 3, 2016 at 3:05 pm (Book review, books, Russophilia)

IMG_1818-X2  Some weeks ago I became aware of a sweeping new history of the Romanov dynasty by British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore. When I made this discovery, the book had not yet been published here; neither was it available on Kindle. I therefore ordered it from Amazon.co.uk. You understand: e-book or hard copy, I had to have it  immediately. (This title comes out here on May 3.)

The text consists of 654 pages, prefaced by a nine page introduction, which should definitely not be skipped. The text is followed by 71 pages of bibliographic citations and footnotes. Then finally, the index.

Every few years I make it a point to delve into the perpetual mystery of Russian history. Russia being a place where, as Scottish writer Neal Ascherson reminds us, “the past is said to be unpredictable,” I figure it’s worth checking from time to time on how things stand. The Family Romanov (2014) was my most recent foray: romanovfleming2

Montefiore’s book covers vastly more territory, beginning with the election of Tsar Michael I in 1613. Michael-I-Romanov-Wedekind_-_width_630

The story of the Romanov dynasty is nothing short of astonishing: filled with ruthless jockeying for power, merciless destruction of human obstacles – murder was the least of it. Methods of torture were freely employed that I’d never heard of and hope never to hear of again. I had to skim certain parts.

Upon the death of Michael in 1645, Alexei ascended the throne.  Alexis_I_of_Russia_(1670s,_Ptuj_Ormož_Regional_Museum) He was a religious fanatic, spending many hours in prayer, but compared to some of his successors, he wasn’t half bad as a ruler. When he died in 1676, the almost inevitable struggle for power ensued.

Sophia_Alekseyevna_of_Russia  For a time, Alexei’s daughter Sophia ruled as regent until she was hustled off to a convent in 1689. In the 1879 portrait below, Ilya Repin depicts her looking distinctly disgruntled  at being shoved aside. Actually she’s lucky nothing worse was done to her. Ditto for the man hanged outside her window, on the right: Sofiarepin

The man doing the shoving was Peter the Great. Peter is an amazing character in every way, even for Russia, a country whose history is filled with amazing (and often appalling) actors. (And “actor” is often the right word: people were constantly appearing out of nowhere to declare themselves the rightful heir to the throne of Russia. One of the more remarkable among them, appearing in the following century, was Princess Tarakanova. Her name is shrouded in legend, one of which claims that she died in a flood. In this 1864 painting, Konstantin Flavitsky depicts her as she awaits her fate. Has she attained a sort of ecstatic state? I’m not sure, but it’s a remarkable and strangely haunting work:

0 T .)

There is also a silent film about Princess Tarakanova:

Back to Peter the Great: at six foot eight, a larger than life personage in every way:

 

Peter_I_by_Kneller2

Portrait by Godfrey Kneller

The Wikipedia entry on Peter is quite comprehensive. I note, however, that it makes no mention of a sort of profane dining and drinking society first convened by Peter in 1691, when he would have been barely twenty years old.  I am reading about it right now. Its full name was the All-Mad, All-Jesting All-Drunken Synod (or Assembly):

Between 80 and 300 guests, including a circus of dwarfs, giants, foreign jesters, Siberian Kalmyks, black Nubians, obese freaks and louche girls started carousing at noon and went on to the following dawn….

A steely capacity for alcohol (which he usually called Ivashka, the Russian version of John Barleycorn) was essential to rise at Peter’s court. Peter was blessed with an iron metabolism for alcohol, rising at dawn to work even after these marathon wassails.

Participation in these coarse and repulsive revels, in other words, was mandatory.

I’m currently on page 84 of this magisterial volume; I have every intention of pressing on.

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Simon Sebag Montefiore himself comes from a distinguished lineage, described in Wikipedia as “descended from a line of wealthy Sephardi Jews who were diplomats and bankers all over Europe and who originated from Morocco and Italy.”

Montefiore's great great great Uncle Sir Moses, who who died aged 100, leaving no legitimate sons

Montefiore’s great great great Uncle Sir Moses Montefiore, who who died aged 100, leaving no legitimate sons

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This book has lovely endpapers. This may seem of little significance to some, but to me, it is part of what makes hard copy books precious.

IMG_1812-X2

 

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