Book twenty: The Romanovs 1613-1918 #Montefiore

This a rare book review on this site as it’s not a fiction book.  I would like to say my interest in Russian history and in particular the Romanovs came from some intellectual observation about the growth of Russian power in the period 1613– 1918 and the similarities with the current government’s foreign policy.  But it didn’t.  In fact the first thing to catch my imagination were the rumours of the possible escape from members of the Cheka by Tsar Nicolas II’s youngest daughter Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna.  And yes, my knowledge of these rumours came first from the 20th Century Fox animated film of 1997.

Whilst it might not be the most highbrow introduction to Russian history it did peak my interest and helped make sense of the disco hit Rasputin by Boney M!

Great timing or sheer coincidence I found myself earlier in the year in a bookshop a few days after the end of the BBC adaption of War and Peace.  Having been enchanted by it and wanting to know more I was immediately drawn to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s latest book “The Romanovs”.  (The beautiful book cover is also a definitely draw – not that I judge books by their covers).  It’s taken me quite a few months to work my way through it but it has been a joy and incredibly informative.  Whilst I knew nothing of the growth of Mother Russia prior to reading this book I can now see similarities between President Putin and Russia’s historical leaders; a strong sense of state, a principle of absolute supremacy, a desire to have a strong role of the global stage but always mindful of the need for a strong military as everyone is or could be an enemy of the state.

The Romanovs remain the longest and most successful reigning family in modern times.  During their dynasty they ruled over q sixth of the world’s surface.  But how did they do it? And how did they lose it? In this book Montefiore introduces us to twenty tsars and tsarinas and a world of limitless power, empire-building, fierce rivalries, affairs of the heart and murder plots.

I have often struggled with non-fiction books in the past, finding them too academic focusing on the facts and missing a story-telling element.  Montefiore on the other hand has written a perfectly balanced book.  There is definitely not a shortage of facts, but I do feel his primary goal is to keep the flow of the story using footnotes to expand on the wider context and/or provide additional important facts. Whether this is a simple testament to the author’s ability or whether the Romanovs naturally lend themselves to stories it would be difficult to say without reading other books by Montefiore.

The books spans a long period and we are introduced to many characters both within and outside of the family.  I do not think it possible to remember every detail, name and position without reading more and committing significant time to study the period.  But, if you wish to have a general knowledge of the growth of the Romanov family and the role they played in the formation of Russia as we know it today then this is a very good starting point.


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