Books interview with Simon Sebag Montefiore: The Romanovs

Simon Sebag Montefiore's new book explores the dramatic, brutal world of the centuries-spanning Romanov dynasty - and shows why it matters today. Matt Elton met up with him to find out more

The Romanovs, 1913: Nicholas II with his wife and children. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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In context

The Romanov dynasty ruled Russia for more than 300 years from 1613 to 1917. From its first tsar, Michael I (1596-1645), the often violently contested line featured a diverse array of autocrats. Peter the Great (1672-1725) is known for his court’s extravagance; Catherine the Great (1729-96) was Russia’s longest-serving female leader; Alexander I (1777-1825) ruled during the the Napoleonic Wars and Alexander II (1818-81) is known for his liberal reforms. The dynasty ended in 1917 with the forced abdication of Nicholas II who was later executed with his family by revolutionary forces.

What’s your take on the earliest days of the Romanov dynasty?

The first Romanov to be made tsar was Michael I, and it was a job that nobody wanted to go near. He was a hopeless ruler, really, but in a Russia filled with swaggering warlords, the very fact that he was young and innocent, and his links to the old dynasty – his great-aunt Anastasia was the first wife of Ivan the Terrible – made him a perfect tsar.

It’s hard to get a clear sense of his personality, but there were lots of strong characters around him, including his father – the real power behind his reign. But when you’re studying the Romanovs, it’s important to remember that it’s not that different from what’s happening in England or other powers at the time. We’re often very smug about the supposed primitiveness of Russian autocracy, but even in western democracies prime ministers have entourages: look at Tony Blair’s ‘sofa government’, for instance.

The succession was notably fraught. What frailties do you think it reveals about the regime?

The tsar’s deathbeds were always fraught because there was no fixed succession until the 1790s. Until then, a tsar could choose any member of the family to succeed to the throne – but as we know from Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, and many other cases, nobody wants to name their successor.

So the problem was that anyone could say that the dying tsar had whispered something to them. Successions in autocracies, as in democracies, are great for historians analysing how regimes really work, because everything came down to the fundamentals of power.

How important was choosing a wife, and how did that happen?

The selection took the form of a ‘brideshow’, a very exotic ritual that was literally a beauty contest. All of the pretty girls were invited to Moscow and went through various rounds until the final viewing when the tsar started to choose his favourites. The point of the brideshow was that the girls weren’t related to, or connected to, anyone important, so they were ‘safe’. But, of course, behind the scenes people were backing different girls.

There are some huge characters in this story. Are there any that haven’t gained enough attention elsewhere?

Alexander I is the most underrated tsar. He was a massive figure of great effectiveness, but because Napoleon described him as a feckless weakling, everyone else followed that line. He was slightly unbalanced and given to crazy ideas, and of course he was involved in the killing of his father – which is always a problem with anybody – but actually, once he learned how to rule, he was very effective.

The key thing was not to over-interfere in military matters, because he wasn’t a great commander – but then very few of the Romanovs were very good generals, despite the fact that they all wanted to be. Only Peter the Great properly understood military matters, but he was brilliant in every way. Alexander I turned out to be a great diplomat, and put together the coalition that destroyed Napoleon. He led an army from Moscow to Paris, which is incredible.

'Equestrian Portrait of Emperor Alexander I', (1777-1825), 1837. Artist: Franz Kruguer
Equestrian portrait of Emperor Alexander I, found in the collection of the State Hermitage, St Petersburg. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Because they had absolute power, tsars had to manage a huge number of things at once. How did they do that?

The problem was that, to be tsar, you had to be a generalissimo, a pope and a politician. Nobody could do it – with the exception of Peter the Great, but he had his own problems: he was a demented sadist as well. You just couldn’t do everything.

That was a huge flaw in the whole regime: you couldn’t really have a brilliant first minister. You couldn’t have a Disraeli or a Bismarck, because that would undermine the autocracy – and yet nobody was capable of doing it themselves.

So you had to be tough to flourish in this position – almost brutal.

Yes, you did. You were expected to be severe, but you had to be consistent. You couldn’t just turn on people: Paul I (1754-1801), for instance, would be kind to someone one day and cruel the next. He sacked some people three or four times only for them to be promoted higher each time they came back, and in the end they decided that he had to be killed. His murder was a classic in how not to handle the court.

What characteristics did you need to get ahead at the Romanov court?

Incredible duplicity and an ability to conspire were essential. Ultimately, you had to attract the tsar, and one way of doing that was by delivering a victory – but that made you a threat to the tsar, too.

A better way, the old-fashioned way, was to have the tsar fall in love with you.

But that didn’t necessarily give you any power at all, depending on the tsar. The conventional argument is that this system risked promoting idiots, but two of the greatest ministers of the Romanov dynasty – Ivan Shuvalov, favourite of the 18th-century empress Elizaveta, and Grigoy Potemkin, favourite of Catherine the Great – started out as lovers of tsarinas, so that wasn’t necessarily the case.

How early in Peter the Great’s life can we tell that he was going to be extraordinary?

Really early. He was always exceptional. Of course, it wouldn’t have taken a great shift in personality for him to have just been an eccentric madman. But he was so talented: he knew how to do everything, he was so visionary. What’s interesting is that he didn’t come out of nothing: his father, Aleksey Mikhailovich, who no one has heard of now, had similar interests and qualities.

Much has been made of Peter’s court’s decadence. How essential was it to his rule and success?

I’m not sure that it was really necessary! It was totally bizarre. There were naked old men walking around with dildos, dancing dwarves, giants. His was a carnival court. But it was useful because it meant that his barons, counts and generals were all terrified of him. He would turn in a moment from being playful to accusing them of corruption or treachery. Often his dinners ended up as mass brawls: one of his top ministers stabbed someone to death with a fork and was never punished. What it was really about, I think, was showing that the tsar was a monarch of exceptional and extraordinary gifts, blessed by god, who could do anything he wanted in the world. But it was also a lot of fun for him!

What’s your take on Peter’s relationship with his wife, Catherine?

It’s an amazing example of his supreme power: that he could just take this promiscuous peasant girl and literally make her an empress. There’s no other example in European history of someone going that far, from camp follower to legitimate crowned empress in their own right.

What was Peter’s greatest legacy?

The battle of Poltava against Sweden in 1709. It made Russia an empire, and meant that it got the Baltic. It changed the shape of Europe: it made everything possible for Russia, and made the nation a military power. It was one of the great decisive battles in European history.

Another famous figure is, of course, Catherine the Great. What were her greatest strengths?

She was possessed by all the great qualities of a ruler. Her only disadvantage was that she was a woman in a male-dominated era. She couldn’t beat people up or command armies, but she was a master of everything. She was supremely intelligent; totally charming; very manipulative, obviously; absolutely ruthless when she needed to be. But she was essentially decent, although that sounds contradictory. She really tried, whenever possible, to be humane in a way that nobody in Russia has really much bothered to do before or since.

And as for the rumours about her sexual appetite, the key thing about her is what she said herself: that she had to be in love every minute. She took beautiful young men of 20 years old because she could, and they all wanted to be in that position. But walking around behind an old lady all day while surrounded by beautiful ladies-in-waiting led to great unhappiness. In the end they all ran off, but she was always incredibly generous and never took revenge.

Portrait Of Empress Catherine II (1729-1796)
Portrait of Empress Catherine II – aka Catherine the Great. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Moving ahead to the 19th-century reign of Alexander II, how far can we see this as a beacon of liberalness?

He is by far the most appealing of the tsars, especially the later ones. He was thoughtful, kind to everyone, and actually very skilled.

But he didn’t have the consistency or the endurance to keep it up for his entire rule. That was a problem with the job: as we know from our own leaders, they’re barking mad after 10 years in power – and that’s not even supreme power. So after 15 or 20 years, these guys were exhausted. He had great potential, but because he swung back to reactionary policies, he lost a lot of support. He’s a great tragic figure, a very lovable man, and one of my favourites.

What were the main crisis points in the Romanov years?

A big crisis was the invasion of Russia by Charles XII of Sweden in 1708. If Peter the Great had lost Poltava the following year, Europe could now look very different. We could have a huge Sweden controlling the whole Baltic area. It now seems totally impossible – it seems obvious Russia was always going to be this giant bear -but, of course, everything’s possible.

The French invasion of Russia in 1812 was a big crisis. The Russians could have lost everything, but they survived the fall of Moscow, which was amazing. Alexander I had found the strength in his character and was not going to make peace with Napoleon.

Considering the dynasty’s decline, do you think it’s right to see it as a victim of its own earlier success?

The dynasty had been so successful that there was increasing resistance to fundamentally changing anything. That was a major factor in its failure.

It’s very easy to say that the later tsars got everything wrong, but their jobs were actually much more complicated and harder to do than anyone thought, and they were very likely to be overthrown – or worse – if they got something wrong. The dilemmas of the final tsar, Nicholas II, were extremely difficult to sort out, for instance, and I’m not sure that anyone would have got them right.

What is your view of Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra?

The thing about Nicholas and Alexandra -Nicky and Alix – is that they have become an industry in their own right. But if you look at the millions of books written about them, most are about what they wore, where they went on holiday, the children’s illnesses, and all that sort of stuff. And all of that’s very fascinating – a window into a shipwrecked world – but you have to look at the politics too. It’s impossible not to think about them without knowing how it all ended, but we have to try.

Nicholas was moderately successful for his first 10 years and it is easy to forget that he ruled in total for 22 years – which is a long time – despite war, revolution and folly. But they were monumental failures. The question, of course, is why. In order to answer it, I wanted to look at them as politicians, not just as lovers and a happy couple with children – even though we feel great sympathy for them because of their assassination by Bolshevik forces in 1918.

I’m not looking at them through rose-tinted spectacles, either. Alix became more and more political, grew far too powerful, a disastrous meddler. She was vindictive, extremely unwise, and so hysterical that she was close to madness.

If Alexandra had died after 10 years, Nicholas may have been regarded as quite a successful monarch, but the problem was that he gave more and more power to her. They didn”t see themselves as politicians: they said that they were sacred monarchs and were utterly rigid in their view of themselves, while wiser tsars such as Alexanders I or II – or even Alexander III – were more flexible. But Nicholas was utterly rigid and also duplicitous with everyone: part of that was shyness, which we can forgive, but part of it was a sort of slyness that he thought he could do what he wanted. So they both definitely made monumental errors all the way through.

How would you like to change our view of this dynasty, this period, and this country?

The more we can understand how Russia sees itself, its soul and aspirations, the more we will be able to handle the world today. And what happened from Michael I onward is a huge part of that history.
You see many of the same interests then that you see in Russia today. For example, the whole of Romanov history is the story of trying to gain control of Ukraine.

That’s how important the country is to them. Crimea, the place where the grand prince of Kiev converted to Orthodoxy, where Catherine the Great and Potemkin launched their fleet at Sebastopol, these are the things that made Russia a Middle-Eastern power. In 1772, Catherine’s fleet was bombarding Syrian ports and occupying Beirut, which brings us right up to the Russian presence in Syria today.

So all around there are these huge echoes in the past, and reading this book will hopefully help people understand Putin’s Russia today.

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The Romanovs, 16130-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore (W&N, 608 pages, £25).