Author Topic: The Romanovs. 1613-1918  (Read 2336 times)

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Offline DNAgenie

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The Romanovs. 1613-1918
« on: December 01, 2017, 03:55:00 PM »
I have just been given a paperback copy of The Romanovs. 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag-Montefiore (2017). I am still only part way through but it is the most illuminating book I have read about the family, and must qualify for its own entry on the list of books about The Romanovs and Imperial Russia.

Some quotes from the Introduction:
 It was hard to be a tsar. Russia is not an easy country to rule. Twenty sovereigns of the Romanov dynasty reigned for 304 years, from 1613 until tsardom's destruction by the revolution in 1917. Romantic chroniclers of the tragedy of the last tsar like to suggest that the family was cursed, but the Romanovs were actually the most spectacularly successful empire-builders since the Mongols...
This is a history of the monarchs, their families and retinues, but it is also a portrait of absolutism in Russia. - and whatever else one believes about Russia, its culture, its soul, its essence have always been exceptional, a singular nature which one family aspired to personify. The Romanovs have become the very definition not only of dynasty and magnificence but also of despotism, a parable of the folly and arrogance of absolute power...
If the challenge of ruling Russia has always been daunting, the role of autocrat could only be truly exercised by a genius - and there are very few of those in most families. The price of failure was death. It was a dangerous job. Six of the last twelve tsars were murdered. In the final catastrophe in 1918, eighteen Romanovs were killed. Rarely was a chalice so rich and so poisoned. It is ironic that now, two centuries after the Romanovs finally agreed a law of succession, Russian presidents still effectively nominate their successors just as Peter the Great did...
The essence of stardom was the projection of majesty and strength, but this had to be combined with what Otto von Bismarck, rival and ally of the Romanovs, called 'the art of the possible, the attainable, the art of the next best'. For the Romanovs, the craft of survival was based on the balancing of clans, interests and personalities of both a miniscule court and a gigantic empire. Emperors needed to keep the support of their army, nobility and their administration. If they lost all three they were likely to be deposed - and in an autocracy that usually meant death...
The success of autocracy depends mainly on the quality of the individual. The Romanovs did produce two political geniuses - the Greats Peter and Catherine - and several of talent and magnetism. After Emperor Paul's brutal murder in 1801, all the monarchs were  dutiful and hard-working, and most were charismatic, intelligent and competent, yet the position was so daunting for the normal mortal, that no one sought the throne any more: it was a burden that had ceased to be enjoyable...
It is unlikely that even Peter or Catherine could have solved the predicaments of revolution and world war faced by Nicholas II in the early twentieth century, but it was unfortunate that the Romanov who faced the darkest crises was the least capable and most narrow-minded, as well as the unluckiest. Nicholas was both a poor judge of men and unwilling to delegate. While he could not fill the role of autocrat himself, he used his power to make sure that no one else did either....

Offline Louis_Charles

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Re: The Romanovs. 1613-1918
« Reply #1 on: August 16, 2018, 03:33:48 PM »
   If you're going to write one of these, there should be a compelling reason, or at least a treasure trove of new information. Aside from some really over-the-top details about the sex life of Alexander II and the woman who became his second, morganatic wife, there wasn't much new material to be gleaned. And if there was a compelling reason we needed another overview of a dynasty that may very well have ended with the accession of Catherine the Great, I failed to discern it. M0ntefiore cannot identify an autocrat who succeeded much at the job, aside from Catherine and Peter the Great, and even they failed to secure a decent succession thanks to the usual issues that occur in a system founded upon the vagaries of genetics. In addition, this is the most cluttered text I have read in a long while. There are substantial footnotes on almost every page, and not many of them turn out to be interesting. The basic "if it's Tuesday it must be Belgium" nature of the book forbids really digging in to any one character, and I get that, but Montefiore cannot resist spritely commentary in the footnotes about how this particular Dolgoruky was the illegitimate great-nephew of the Dolgoruky we met in another footnote one hundred pages ago. The narrative becomes almost as unwieldy as the autocracy.

There is, however, a one-paragraph description of the Congress of Vienna that is worth the entire book. In addition, Montefiore sprinkles weird little asides about marriage and children throughout. If you get bored with the Romanovs (and think about that for a minute), you can spend happy hours constructing an imaginary Montefiore Marriage.
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