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This is a massive book. Since I am not a historian, I found it somewhat daunting – partly because of the size, but also because of the fact that I can’t retain dates, and the cast of characters in the Romanov dynasty is ridiculously large – but I persevered and got through to the end. While I did finish the book, I would like to say up-front that this is a reaction to the book, rather than a review, due to my lack of background knowledge of the topic.
Simon Sebag Montefiore has set the book out in segments which relate to each of the emperors of the Romanov family. Each section begins with a “cast list” of characters, their relationship to the tsar of the time, and their nicknames. This is a very helpful technique, and I found myself referring to it frequently.
I heard a quote recently about the Romanov empire – “an empire so vast that as the sun was rising on one side, it was setting on the other”. The Romanovs to me exemplify the saying that if power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. I found almost everything about them to be reprehensible – they were violent, power-hungry, devious, war-mongering, licentious, profligate, conniving, autocratic, despotic, religiously fanatical, and treacherous. If the book had been written as fiction, you’d find it hard to imagine how anyone could create all of this in one family.
The reader in me got a little bit caught up in the wild ride through four centuries; but at the same time I was sickened by the violence, the lies, the anti-semitism and the weird dependence on Rasputin by Nicky and Alexei and their family. If you want to know how not to run a country, let alone an empire, you may enjoy this book. I didn’t like it personally, but only because the characters I was reading about were so unpleasant!
It’s prodigiously well-researched, written in an entertaining way, and Montefiore had access to material not available to prevous chroniclers of this family.
Reviewed by Sue Esterman
The Romanovs: 1618 to 1918
by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Published by Weidenfield & Nicholson