Greg King’s books include “The Fate of the Romanovs,” “The Court of the Last Tsar,” and the forthcoming “Mayerling.”
In the months before the Russian revolution, the notorious Grigori Rasputin haunted Petrograd’s exclusive Hotel Astoria, clapping along with gypsy bands and dancing wildly. “Like a beast,” he demolished the cook Spiridon’s carefully prepared dishes, grabbing food with “talon-like fingers” as all watched in horror. Rasputin exemplified the imperial regime at its worst: the “mad monk,” a favorite of Czar Nicholas II and his unbalanced wife, Alexandra, corrupted by power and acting his malevolent role in a fatal ménage à trois.
“It was hard to be a tsar,” writes British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore in his erudite and entertaining “The Romanovs: 1613-1918.” Drawing on a wide array of Russian sources, Sebag Montefiore paints an unforgettable portrait of characters fascinating and charismatic, odd and odious. Magnificent palaces, elaborate balls, and a culture that produced Pushkin, Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy existed alongside pogroms, torture and murder (of the last dozen Romanov sovereigns, half were assassinated). Romanovs both capable and insane struggled with what the author calls “the distorting effect of absolute power.” Monarchs over one-sixth of the globe, they played at Western niceties while clinging to Byzantine notions of absolute rule.
An undercurrent of violence and sexual depravity runs through the vibrant narrative, but the poignant stories of two teenage boys open this chronicle. One, Michael, reluctantly takes the chaotic Russian throne in 1613 and founds the dynasty amid dangerous power struggles; the other, Alexei, frail with hemophilia, enters a Siberian cellar in 1918, where Bolshevik bullets will bring the dynasty to its bloody end. Tackling the 20 reigns between these bookends, Sebag Montefiore arranges chapters as connected scenes in a larger drama. Beyond the three sovereigns who have become household names — Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Nicholas II — are vivid portraits of other Romanovs. The cruel Empress Anna, who dressed courtiers as chickens, clapped as dwarves fought the maimed and presided over hair-pulling contests between her ladies-in-waiting, stands in contrast to Abraham Lincoln’s contemporary Alexander II, who not only ended serfdom and instituted judicial reforms but also carried on a blush-worthy correspondence with mistress Ekaterina Dolgorukaya. He wanted her “four times” a day, “on every piece of furniture” and in “every room.” He married her a month after his wife’s death, only to perish himself nine months later, victim of a nihilist’s bomb.
The dynasty, Sebag Montefiore concedes, produced only two “political geniuses,” Peter the Great and the famous Catherine. Rebelling against the intrigues and backward ideas characterizing Muscovite rule, Peter turned Russia to the West, visiting Europe and building his new capital, St. Petersburg. Western clothing and manners were forced on a reluctant court as Peter dragged Russia into the 18th century. Modernization marked his tumultuous reign, yet Peter couldn’t escape the grotesque: Dwarves and giants paraded through his court; he drunkenly — and lewdly — mocked the Orthodox Church; and he had his own son tortured to death for opposing his reforms. Anatomy fascinated him: He once had a former mistress decapitated, then held up her severed head, kissing the lips before lecturing stunned onlookers about the function of her windpipe.
Catherine the Great had little taste for violence. The former German princess came to Russia and wed Empress Elizabeth’s demented nephew Peter. Her husband played with tin soldiers; Catherine cultivated the real thing, taking lovers from elite regiments. Peter despised Russia; Catherine became conspicuously Russian in all things. Ascending the throne as Peter III, he had so alienated the court and military that most readily supported the coup d’état that left him strangled and crowned his wife. “My glory is spoilt!” Catherine lamented. “Posterity will never forgive me.” But it did, and she went on to enlarge her empire while wrapping it in a veneer of enlightened autocracy. Catherine read Diderot, corresponded with Voltaire and engaged in myriad romances, including a long, volatile relationship with Prince Grigori Potemkin. Through it all, she understood the essential dichotomy of her rule: “One must do things,” Catherine explained, “in such a way that people think they themselves want it to be done.”
The Romanovs who followed successfully repelled Napoleon and exulted in the splendor of their court — until 1894, when Nicholas II came to the throne with his wife, Alexandra. It’s hard to imagine two people more unsuited to their roles. Sentimental nostalgia surrounds them with an uncritical legend focused entirely on their love affair and domestic lives. Yet Sebag Montefiore treats them “as both intimate and political figures . . . without the burden of pungent romance, Soviet disgust or liberal contempt.”
Nicholas II emerges as “the least capable and most narrow-minded” of Romanov sovereigns. Having inherited his father’s virulent anti-Semitism, he witnessed horrific pogroms during his reign, and violence was common: With “careless arrogance,” the czar foolishly propelled Russia into wars and revolutions. Not that Alexandra escapes unscathed. “Obsessive piety [and] sanctimonious prudery,” combined with a belief in her own superiority, drove her to isolate her husband and tie him to a world of petty domestic concerns. Her only son’s hemophilia, inherited through her grandmother Queen Victoria, left the empress ripe for the ministrations of a stunning succession of holy fools, ending with Rasputin.
“It is unlikely,” Sebag Montefiore concludes, “that even Peter or Catherine could have solved the predicaments of revolution and world war faced by Nicholas II.” Perhaps — but they possessed will and vision, two qualities Nicholas II lacked. The storm that swept Russia in 1917 carried away millions in its wake: Only the cagey managed to survive, among them Spiridon, the poor cook who had watched Rasputin dip into his exquisite dishes with dirty fingers. Abandoning the old regime, Spiridon went on to work for Lenin and then Stalin. It’s tempting to ponder the warnings against weakness and the lessons of ruthless power he passed to his grandson Vladimir Putin, who seems intent on restoring Russia’s prestige, resurrecting the lost empire and enshrining himself as a modern czar, every bit as autocratic and ruthless as the fallen Romanovs.