Digital

Exclusive online content

Our Russian Cousins

By: Martin Morse Wooster
April 19, 2017

hen asked by his staff who Russia’s “greatest traitors” were, Vladimir Putin responded: “the greatest weaklings in our history were those who threw power on the floor—Nicholas II and Mikhail Gorbachev—who allowed power to be picked up by hysterics and madmen. I will never abdicate.” Russia’s particular blend of post-Communist authoritarianism doesn’t fall neatly into an ideological framework, but by his own admission, Putin is closely studying—if not modeling—his rule on the life of Tsar Nicholas II.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s previous books include two biographies of Stalin and a history of the city of Jerusalem. In The Romanovs (2016), he argues that to the Kremlin:

Peter the Great and Stalin are both regarded as triumphant Russian rulers. Today’s Russia is the heir of both, a fusion of imperial Stalinism and twenty-first century digital authoritarianism—stunted and distorted by its own personal caprice, old-fashioned lawlessness, economic sclerosis and Brobdingnagian corruption…Putin rules by the Romanov compact: autocracy and the rule of a tiny clique in return for prosperity at home and glory abroad.

If Putin is trying to rule like a Romanov, we ought to know more about the tsars.

The Romanovs is not a history of Russia, but a chronicle of the Romanov family, from Michael I’s 1613 ascension to Nicholas II’s 1918 murder. By covering 300 years and 20 tsars—including two whose rule spanned only one day— Montefiore skips material a historian would have covered. If you’ve forgotten the history of the Crimean War, for example, Montefiore offers only limited details.

The Romanovs were strong rulers, fops, eccentrics, and short-lived. Nicholas II was murdered at age 49. His father Alexander III, a giant nicknamed “Colossus,” died from kidney disease at the same age. Nicholas’s grandfather, Alexander II, after surviving five assassination attempts, fell victim to a sixth at 64. After becoming emperor in 1740 as a six-week-old-baby, Ivan VI was the most impotent Romanov tsar. He was overthrown just after his first birthday and spent the next 23 years in prisons as a pretender until he was murdered in 1764.

Peter I and Catherine II, the only tsars to earn the sobriquet “the Great,” were the family’s most effective monarchs. Peter the Great built Russia’s first navy and used it in several wars against Sweden, expanding Russian territory westward into Estonia and Latvia and south into Kazakhstan. He also built St. Petersburg, using the slave labor of massive numbers of donated serfs. In 1721, Peter held a Roman-style triumph to celebrate his many military victories, officially changing his country’s name from Muscovy to Russia.

Catherine II ruled for 34 years (1762-1796), and under her reign Russia dramatically expanded southwest, conquering what is now Lithuania, Ukraine, and much of Georgia, and reaching the Black Sea for the first time. She also had a tumultuous private life, surviving numerous conspiracies and having several well-documented affairs, most notably with Prince Grigory Potemkin-Tavricheesky, a passionate lover and highly competent general.

Montefiore spends the last quarter of his book on the 23-year reign of the Romanov most familiar to Westerners, Nicholas II. The only tsar to be touched by modern technology, Nicholas II and his family enjoyed photography, and The Romanovs includes many surprisingly candid photographs. While we can see earlier tsars through their portraits, the several existent newsreels and recordings of Nicholas and his family bring the last Russian monarch to life.

Moreover, Nicholas and his wife Alexandra seemed English. They wrote to each other in English and enjoyed reading light British fiction. Both were connected to the British royal family: King George V was first cousin to both Nicholas and Alexandra, and Alexandra was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria and sister to Prince Philip’s grandmother, making her his great-aunt.

Nicholas II, believing he ruled through divine right, yielded power only with reluctance. When once asked about public opinion in Russia, he answered, “There is no public opinion in Russia,” since his opinion was the only one that mattered. Montefiore credits both Nicholas and Alexandra’s strong Christian faith for enabling them to survive months of imprisonment by Communists before their murders. The Communists ultimately killed 18 members of the Romanov family, including two Orthodox nuns who had spent their lives in convents.

Anyone who wants to learn more about how the tsars made history, and were unmade by it, will be moved and enlightened by Montefiore’s clear, accessible The Romanovs.