Peter the Great was transfixed by decapitation as biological experiment. And he wasn’t the worst of them. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s journey through 300 years of the Romanov dynasty is a study of brutality, sex and power. So very Russian, you might think, and that is certainly the conclusion the author wishes the reader to reach. The propensity to state-sponsored violence remains as true today as it ever was, if a tad less colourful.
Montefiore doesn’t do minimalist history. This is the grand sweep, beginning with the first, accidental, Romanov, Mikhail. Tsarinas were picked at bride shows, spectacles adorned with pageant and poisoning. Many a death in court came about through suspicious circumstances. The reluctant Mikhail “cried so much of the death of his two baby sons that the doctors diagnosed a deluge of tears in his stomach, liver and spleen, which deprived his organs of natural warmth and chilled his blood”.
Alexei tried to ban drinking, smoking, the playing of mandolins and dwarf dancing
He was followed by 30 years of Alexei, a young monk, who would wake at 4am to pray. At Easter he would pray standing for six hours, prostrating himself more than a thousand times. Alexei sought to cleanse Muscovites of their many vices. He tried to ban drinking, smoking, the playing of mandolins and dwarf dancing. A German visitor noted voluptuous dances, bare-bottomed mooning, drunken naked women splayed outside taverns, adding that the locals were “addicted to sodomy not only with boys but with horses”. Of greater concern was the corruption at court. The local city chief was cudgelled to “such a pulp that his brains splattered over his face… finally a monk came and chopped the remnants of the head off the trunk”.
One influential figure was Bogdan Khmelnitsky, who unleashed an orgy of violence against Catholics and Jews. Up to 100,000 Jews were massacred “in gleefully ingenious atrocities” while children were “eaten in front of their raped mothers”. Several streets are, to this day, named after this Cossack officer, a hero for handing over the territory that is now roughly Ukraine to the tsar: back to the future.
So, via assorted monsters, to Peter I, a man who had his son tortured to death and had 200 rebels hanged, their bodies left to rot all winter. Peter drove the creation of his new city by sheer will. “No detail, from public buildings to road grids, was too small,” the author notes. “He was particularly keen to limit public defecation to appointed places. He produced a number of rule books, including [a] guide to civilised behaviour. Anyone who spat, talked with their mouth full or vomited was likely to receive a whack from the tsarist cane.”
This chapter cried out for context. I wanted to read more about the creation of St Petersburg. I wanted to understand better the psychology of a tyrant who saw Russia’s salvation through European rationalism. In his admirable desire to fit in as much detail about each individual ruler, Montefiore’s is excessively reliant on chronology. He could have indulged himself with the leeway to explore specific themes, as additions to this otherwise riveting tale.
Still, the research is meticulous and the style is captivating. Peter’s second wife, Catherine, “embraced Petrine debauchery even before the end of official mourning” for her king. She finished off several men with her sexual appetite, and during one drinking binge ordered that the alarms be set off across the city.
Great dynasties of the world: The Romanovs
As for the Battle of Borodino, the bloodiest single day of warfare before the first world war, the author offers this exquisitely awful picture: “The fighting, often hand to hand, bayonet to bayonet, was primal in its savagery, and the firing power of the cannonades of a thousand guns on a tiny battlefield, packed with men and animals, in the flamboyant uniforms of its time, turned it into the most gorgeously dressed abattoir in history.”
The story ends, as it should, with the hapless Nicholas II, a man with a childlike view of the world, who would see his children lined up for execution alongside him. Montefiore describes how this turn-of-the-century era of indulgence was accompanied by a wild foreboding. Up to one in 50 inhabitants of Petersburg was a prostitute. “The poets, playboys, dilettantes and aesthetes sensed the coming apocalypse and reacted in a doom-laden carnival of reckless if morbid hedonism, seeking the essence of salvation, art and freedom in opium, Satanism and the transformative orgasm.”
The butchery was transferred to the masters of a new system. Under Boris Yeltsin, in one of those brief interludes of liberalism in Russian society, the bodies of the last tsar and his family were excavated and the true story was told. Is it any wonder that Russians continue to struggle with the present, given the past?
The Romanovs 1613-1918 is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson (£25)