The Romanovs, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

What better book to accompany me on the twenty-hour round trip from my home to my brother’s house for my annual Christmas trip, than a gargantuan history of the Romanov dynasty? Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs, as billed, takes us through the family’s history as the rulers of the Russian empire from 1613 to 1918. Not to be too metaphorical about it, but the twists and turns of the family were a fantastic accompaniment to the twists and turns of the old highways I prefer to use on long road trips. I was hooked for the full thirty-odd hours of the audiobook. My only quibble is that the narrator sometimes pronounces things oddly (egotism was always pronounced as eggo-tism* for some reason), though I appreciated not having to figure out for myself how to pronounce all those Russian names.

Montefiore keeps the focus of his history tightly on the immediate Romanov family as much as possible. If he hadn’t, it would have been impossible to contain the story in one volume (or even five volumes). He begins with a prologue that bookends the rise and fall of the family by describing how Mikhail Romanov was asked (coerced) into becoming the Tsar after the end of the Rurik dynasty and how Alexei Romanov was murdered with his family in 1918. These historical bookends set the tone for much of this bloody, sensational history. Seriously, there are parts of this book that wouldn’t seem out of place in one of the Game of Thrones novels. Montefiore even plays up the theatricality of the Romanovs’ history by dividing the sections into acts and scenes.

Being an American, in the third century of the American experiment, I don’t have the mental framework for understanding autocracy (in spite of the efforts of some politicians lately). I was alternately fascinated and appalled by the way that, over and over, the tantrums and obsessions of various monarchs were tolerated. Peter I and Peter III, for example, were allowed to turn their courts into drinking clubs (Peter I) or Prussian companies (Peter III). Anna and Elizabeth did terrible things to courtiers who hurt their feelings. Where other nations were limiting the powers of their absolute monarchs—or even doing away with monarchies entirely—the Romanovs were only curbed in the twentieth century. The psychotic violence of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War make a lot more sense to me know, even if I still don’t understand how the Romanovs were allowed to be complete tyrants for 300 years. It was clear to me that the author loved diving into the psychology of the tsars and tsarinas and the effects of personality on Russian history. (If nothing else, this book could be a manual for how not to parent.)

Now that I’m done with The Romanovs, I kind of hope that Montefiore will take on the Rurik dynasty or the history of pre-Bolshevik revolutionary movements because this excellent history just fueled my fascination with Russia and Russian history. The Romanovs is an incredibly rich book, packed with details and wild personalities. I think other fans of histories who love books that take on big topics will enjoy The Romanovs as much as I did…although I will say to readers who are thinking about picking this one up, brace yourselves for an astonishing amount of sex and a lot of creative violence.

*I realize some Brits pronounce the word this way, but to my American ear, it sounds like an obsession with a particular brand of frozen waffles.

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