Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Romanovs, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

This week I'm taking another look at the field of Russian history with a biography on the Romanov dynasty, the family that ruled as tsars in Russia for about three hundred years until the Russian Revolution of 1917. Needless to say this is a very long book because it has to deal not only with the tsars and tsarinas but the various ministers and the various situations in Europe which Russia had to respond to, with varying degrees of success. Although the Romanovs ultimately fell to violent revolution, Montefiore says they were successful in expanding Russia's territory consistently during their reign and maintaining an increasingly multi-ethnic empire which by the end had Russians as a plurality. As successful as they were, the biggest issue seems to be that the Romanovs did not change enough with the times and were relying on antiquated theories and systems of government which simply could not maintain the Russian Empire during World War I.

I will say this book wasn't perfect and there were some issues that I had. First of all the book is incredibly Euro-centric in its focus, which I think is a weakness when talking about Russia which straddles two continents. Ultimately Russia's policy in Asia was influenced by events in Europe, and events in Asia influenced their policy in Europe. To leave out Asia almost entirely is to tell just one half of the story. Furthermore the expansion into Siberia and Manchuria were major parts of Russian expansion during the Romanov years and to leave it out feels like talking about American history but leaving out half the United States.

Montefiore also seems to be strangely fixated on the sexual habits of the Romanovs, whether a devoted couple such as Nicholas II and Alexandra, or the numerous affairs of individuals such as Alexander I and Catherine the Great. It does humanize the Romanovs and make the reading less dry than it could have been, but I feel like he's trying to expose the Romanovs as an entire dynasty of extreme sexual deviants. Frankly, I'd have been more surprised if they hadn't had an insane number of affairs and illegitimate children. These things are practically an obligation for royalty during these time periods. So maybe some people enjoy having the Romanovs' dirty laundry aired, so to speak, but it felt like a weird obsession of Montefiore's to me more than anything else.

The strongest theme I noticed was the dependency on the authority of the tsar. When Tsar Michael Romanov acceded the throne in 1613, the tsar was an absolute monarch with complete authority over his subjects only limited by the assent of the boyars who were fairly supportive. Three hundred years later very little had changed in Russia. Despite numerous attempts at reform and to shift the increasing burden of managing a continent-spanning empire onto multiple, capable shoulders, numerous tsars, most specifically Alexander III and Nicholas II, resisted such attempts as attacks on their royal power. The tsars were still trying to rule from the principle of divine right of kings, something most of the rest of the world had discarded for a century.

By putting so much emphasis and power on the tsar, the fate of Russia also became highly dependent on the competency of the respective tsar or tsarina. Things work very well under intelligent rulers such as Peter the Great or Catherine the Great (hence their sobriquets), and Alexander II was, as Montefiore puts it, probably the best-prepared heir in Romanov history. But under weak rulers such as Paul or Peter III the situation quickly deteriorates and unrest spreads, which proved to be fatal in the course of Peter III. By the later years even though Nicholas II was a man of moderate intelligence who might have served competently in a more limited capacity, the sheer number and scope of crises facing him, as well as the stress of managing a massive empire, meant he simply wasn't able to pull the Romanov dynasty through World War I successfully. Even a Peter of Catherine would have been sorely challenged by the problems Nicholas II faced.

Ultimately I think this was a good look at an influential European ruling family which I didn't know terribly much about and I was glad to increase my knowledge in this area. Despite its size, this book has limits and we're not getting the whole story. But for three hundred years of history Montefiore does a pretty good job. Definitely worth checking out if you're interested in the subject.

- Kalpar

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