There is no doubt that critically acclaimed historian and author Simon Sebag Montefiore is something of a master of his craft, having written numerous highly regarded historical accounts over the course of his career, including 2013’s world-wide best-seller Jerusalem. In his latest book, The Romanovs 1613 – 1918, he takes on a three-hundred-year dynasty with elegance and style.
Whether you know a lot about world history or just the basics, almost everyone has heard of The Romanov dynasty – particularly Czar Nicolas II and his family, who were executed in 1918 by the Bolsheviks. Over the years there have been many adaptations of the last czar of Russia’s untimely death and even theories of his descendants’ survival.
From the 1997 Fox animation Anastasia to Australian author Colin Falconer’s 2012 novel of the same name, it would seem that there is an air of mystery and intrigue surrounding this family – and the historical events they set in motion – that will never quite fade.
Montefiore’s The Romanovs is something else entirely. Though Russian history is not something new to this particular historian – having previously published a few accounts of various events in the nation’s history and the formidable figures behind them – this book covers the entire history of this intriguing bloodline: the good, the bad and the soap opera-esque drama in which they became embroiled.
Starting just before the ascension of Michael Romanov to the imperial throne as the nation’s first emperor, to just after the death of Czar Nicolas II and his family (including the emperor and empress’ ultimately fatal friendship with the evil Rasputin), as well as the impact the imperial family’s extensive reign had on leaders such as Lenin and later, Josef Stalin, The Romanovs is an ambitious undertaking.
With such a long and interweaving history to unravel as he separates fact from fiction and myth from legend, Montefiore could be forgiven if, at times, his tale became dry and even over-researched. The book itself is a tome: running at slightly over 650 pages, excluding the extensive notes and references that follow the story itself. Fortunately, however, this is not the case.
Montefiore writes with a unique flair and fluidity that can only come from being well-versed in one’s topic. Structurally, the book is divided into sections, with each new czar having his own ‘part’ upon succession. At times, it was broken down even further with the useful addition of family trees for easy reference and an index should the reader want to use the book as an encyclopedia of sorts, or go back to a certain page where an aforementioned character was first introduced.
The Romanov family (and their court) was filled with formidable characters about which many a novelist could only dream – this perhaps being one of the reasons for them having been covered in so many adaptations over the years.
Take Catherine the Great for instance, who was potentially the most influential woman of the Russian empire save Czarina Alexandra herself. She ruled in stead of her hapless husband, Peter III (Peter the Great’s son). After his death, their son, for whom she had high hopes, was too young to reign so she acted in regency until he came of age, surrounding herself with awesome political players (many of whom, like the famed Potemkin, found themselves in the Empress’ bed).
With this in mind it is no wonder that they spring from the page, allowing Montefiore to tell the extensive history of the empire in a way that is engaging and lively. Add to this the skillful use of court members’ long forgotten notebooks and correspondence and you’ve got an account that reads just as well (if not better) than any fictionalisation of the family’s history.
In my opinion, The Romanovs is an epic book that, much like the previous work of its author, will add something special to the history in which it deals. While this may have only been my first encounter with Montefiore’s writing, I will definitely be reading more.
[Editor/Author Note: This review was originally published by The Australia Times Books Magazine. View it in its original capacity here.]