History as long-running soap - revelling in the lurid and dramatic; personality-focused, deliberately emotive. This was another popular history on a semi-familiar subject which I chose for audio because I wouldn't feel the need to take lots of notes, the way I would with something more academic or newer to me.
It's also yet another of these bottom-heavy survey histories with far more detailed coverage of later periods, frustrating for readers who would rather hear more about the earlier stuff. Initially it's simply a history of the royals and their court. Then, in the first half of the 19th century, cultural history becomes noticeable, as Pushkin is the first individual who's neither a Romanov, nor a lover or minister of one, to get substantial attention. By the mid-to-late 19th century, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and various political and revolutionary factions are mentioned frequently. Finally, the last 28% of the book is given over to 8% of the time period mentioned on the cover: to the reign and demise of Nicholas II and Alexandra - whose deaths had already been described once in the prologue, in some detail.
At time of writing the book seems to have done the main thing I expected from it, improved my sense of the personalities of various Russian monarchs. I never wanted to hear this much about Nicholas and Alexandra. (It confirmed just how unsuited to rule they were, at most they should have been some middling aristos on a country estate - suburbanites, even - and also unfortunately made their personalities, which I'd only had a hazy sense of previously, less likeable as far as I was concerned. Nevertheless the family's strength of character after being deposed may be admired.) But it was probably a good thing I heard more about the international politics leading up to the First World War (which I'd never been interested enough to look into otherwise). With much of the book being about personality and atmosphere rather than a bombardment of facts (though there was more regular, precise info in the early twentieth century material) it worked well as audio.
In a book about royalty or aristocracy by a British upper-middle-class* author who isn't an academic historian (never mind one who was also a Times journalist) there are some things that can reliably be expected. Simon Sebag Motefiore's The Romanovs fills this bingo card nicely:
- a gossipy, tabloid focus on the more lurid aspects of the characters' lives and on personalities, rather than, say, cultural and social history. (Hearing about all the torture, mutilation and brutal punishments here is wearing. But a happier side-effect of this tabloid approach is hearing about lots of lesbian and bi action at the 18th century Russian court, including what sounded like a fully functioning and happy FMF poly triad.)
- an obvious general fascination with, liking for, and acceptance of, royalty as a milieu and institution. (If that will annoy you too much, don't read these books.)
- acceptance of most historical sources at face value rather than querying the interests and biases of those who wrote them
- if a modern book, as this is, occasional passing acknowledgement of the lower classes and how historical royalty depended on and exploited them (but strictly occasional and passing except where they are relevant to a royal's day to day life - such as, here, 19th century tsars and the politicking around the abolition of serfdom)
- various inaccuracies and basic errors that you'd hope a professional historian wouldn't make (But then Russian history in the UK also has Orlando Figes. Figes' errors are the sort that need to be pointed out by those who've studied his field, whereas Montefiore has a few that are even obvious to those with decent general knowledge.)
- occasional embarrassing problematic phrasing (Did he really use that adjective about Pushkin? What was that he said about women and binge drinking? And how does the latter fit with the author being married to one of the Palmer-Tomkinson sisters - socialites famous for their partying in the 90s.)
- mention of author's titled ancestor (Though this one had a more progressive mission than the typical examples - the 1839 diplomatic trip to St Petersburg by Sir Moses Montefiore, friend of PM Robert Peel and activist against antisemitism [actually knighted a few years later], to try to persuade Tsar Nicholas I that the blood libel was a fiction and to alter increasingly aggressive policies against Jews.)
Some of the most interesting material here was stuff which suggested subjects for other books with a narrower focus. Undoubtedly there have been academic works about these, but I think there would be an appetite for popular history in English about them too, if only the books were available.
Saying that, there actually are books on Jewish life in Russia that aren't just hidden away with expensive university presses - the more or less antisemitic attitudes of a succession of Tsars are usually mentioned at some point during each reign, and how this affected policies towards Jews. Montefiore presents these indictments and fluctuations methodically without overt ranting, in a way one suspects his Victorian collateral ancestor would have been proud of
But of these topics that don't otherwise get much separate attention in English, one is LGBT life at the Imperial Russian court: not only the aforementioned 18th century romps, but before and after, there were fairly frequent mentions of gay ministers or courtiers, and maybe two or three people who'd probably be considered trans these days.
Then there are the foreigners at court, often colourful personalities. (Especially, but certainly not only, under Peter the Great.) I don't know whether it's because all the Russian history I've read/heard in book form has been by non-Russians, usually native English speakers, that there are often so many mentions of court personalities and staff who came from Western Europe, especially Britain, but there do seem to be more of these influential foreigners than there were in Britain and France during the same period, though there were also quite a few in Spain. It is a cliché of popular history to describe Russia as torn between East and West, but it seems that in terms of foreigners at court, the leaning was definitely Western. There are none mentioned from the East outside the future USSR, though locations such as the Caucasus, and the lands of Tatars and Kalmyks were more*other* then. There were a few black Africans, such Pushkin's grandfather, and the 'Nubian' Imperial Guards, about whom there are some intriguing stories, such as that, when black Americans heard about the regiment in the 19th century, some emigrated to Russia in the hope of getting this job with a higher status than they could have got in the USA. After the revolution, the Nubian Guards "almost vanish from history", with a tantalising anecdote that "during the 1920s, an American visitor to Moscow spotted a tall black man wandering through the streets still wearing shabby imperial court dress". This is crying out for a historical novel.
Western academic historians of Russia have been talking about Russia as a colonial power (in parallel with Britain and other West European countries) at least since the 90s. In recent years, more popular British history has started to discuss British colonialism seriously and critically. But the idea of Russian colonialism still seems to be neglected in popular histories of that country. There is a bit about it here, but as various campaigns rather than a general idea, rather than pointing out that Russia was very much a colonising power, but because most of its colonies were contiguous, and still part of the state today, it's not necessarily obvious. There is hardly anything in this book about indigenous peoples of the conquered territories, a fascinating subject that is still mostly sidelined to specialist literature. The most detailed material here about imperialist conflict is under Nicholas II, with a focus on borders with China. It always surprises me that all that stuff was still going on so late; I keep thinking, "have you not stopped that by now?" - even though I know the British Empire's largest extent was in 1918, it just collapsed precipitously afterwards.
Probably because the author is British, there is quite a lot of attention to relations with the UK; under the later Tsars, once Romanovs were marrying into European royalty, these are family connections as much as anything. Due to those and to British cultural dominance at the time, there's some emphasis on the Englishness of Nicholas and to a lesser extent Alexandra; upbringing, temperament, taste. More intriguing to hear was how reluctant and regretful the upper echelons seemed to be about going into the First World War; some diplomats were friends, monarchs were related to each other and seemed to have a camaraderie different from those of a couple of hundred years earlier. More sensational are the revelations from British diplomats' letters about involvement in, or at least strong encouragement of, the assassination of Rasputin - and the plan to bring the deposed Tsar to Balmoral via Scapa Flow, about which George V changed his mind after receiving letters from "working men", and evidently fearing a revolutionary uprising in solidarity with Russia. (This made no difference, as the Romanovs didn't manage to leave with the right timing anyway.)
Another recurring feature, which a lot of readers could probably do without, was the extensive and, worse, repetitive, quotes from sexual passages in Imperial love-letters. Some of my reaction is probably down to getting old, but no matter how much I used to put it about, I have always found tales of other people's silly sex words ridiculous, and, yes, unsexy. (No, Montefiore, not "every passionate couple" has a set of pet names for each others' genitals - a disdain I learned through British comedy as much as anything.)
Peter the Great seems to have cast a shadow over all subsequent Tsars and heirs, befitting his name and height: all were expected, and felt obliged, to practise the same militarism which had been his passionate interest, even if their personalities were hardly suited to it. Whilst his westernising shifted in and out of fashion, in other respects he provided the template for what and how a Tsar should be, and this seems to have been one of the many reasons (under-explored in this book) that Russia resisted reforms such as a constitutional monarchy. The belief in the Divine Right of Kings (as per the English term) or 'holy autocracy' right down to Nicholas II in the early twentieth century is almost surreal from a Western perspective. Attitudes have shifted globally. I'd assume that these days, a dictator provides actual arguments about why democracy is bad (if not pretending it exists in his country when it actually doesn't), and can't simply make this kind of aside, like a character out of Wodehouse or Wilde: "The ex-tsar was appalled that Misha’s manifesto had contained ‘something about elections. God knows who advised him to sign something so vile.’"
Some of the terminology is interesting. Ever since we did the Russian Revolution at school (very soon after the fall of Soviet communism, using textbooks that pre-dated it), and in historical novels, radio and TV programmes - a string of popular sources I can't necessarily name - I've been used to the word "revolutionaries" describing those who attempted to assassinate Tsars from the mid-19th century onwards. Montefiore calls them "terrorists", which seems like a very political choice (pro-monarchist), and highlights how "revolutionaries" was one too - but it also, in the post-9/11 world, highlights how they were seen by the Russian establishment of the time, rather than by that of the future, a future where, for most of the 20th century, they turned out to be on the right side. Only as 1917 approaches do such people consistently become "revolutionaries" in the narrative. Another, perhaps odder choice is repeatedly describing Alexandra as "hysterical" when not quoting from sources - given its context (never discussed in the book) as a Victorian and early twentieth century medical term which is now discredited. Lack of discussion of word choices like these is just one of the many ways in which this book really doesn't read like history by someone with a PhD in the subject. Maybe some people are scholarly to the bone, whilst for others it's a style to dip in and out of - and if you know how to do that well enough, you can go a long way with it.
Whilst there isn't much serious analysis of the Romanov monarchy - the writing is nearer intelligent fandom than academic history - the author, in conclusion, makes the best summary of contemporary Russia (at least as it's presented in the West) that I've seen:
Putinism blended Romanov authoritarianism, Orthodox sanctity, Russian nationalism, crony capitalism, Soviet bureaucracy and the fixtures of democracy, elections and parliaments. If there was an ideology, it was bitterness towards and contempt for America; nostalgia for the Soviet Union and the Romanov empire, but its spirit was a cult of authority and the entitlement to get rich in state service. The Slavophile mission of the Orthodox nation, superior to the West, and exceptional in its character, has replaced that of Marxist internationalism. While the Orthodox Patriarch Kyril has called Putin a ‘miracle of God’ for Russia, the president himself sees ‘the Russian people as the core of a unique civilization’. Peter the Great and Stalin are both treated as triumphant Russian rulers. Today’s Russia is the heir of both, a fusion of imperial Stalinism and twenty-first-century digital authoritarianism. Putin rules by the Romanov compact: autocracy and the rule of a tiny clique in return for the delivery of prosperity at home and glory abroad.
Simon Russell Beale is an excellent and involving narrator (notwithstanding a handful of mispronunciations, largely non-Russian words such as Circassian and Białowieża, which probably indicate that the 'pronunciation consultant' credited at the end was solely a Russian specialist). I would gladly listen to more read by him, but it seems that this is the only audiobook he's done, and Wikipedia would suggest that he usually has more than enough work as a highly regarded stage actor.
* I mean upper-middle-class in the narrower British sense of someone related to titled aristocracy and gentry, who moves in those circles, and who was probably educated at boarding school, rather than 'anyone with a highly-paid professional job', in the American sense.
(Dec 2020-Jan 2021.
7 Jan, Russian Christmas)