The Romanovs: 1613-1918

21094391Title: The Romanovs:  1613-1918
Author: Simon Sebag Montefiore

The Romanovs were the most successful dynasty of modern times, ruling a sixth of the world’s surface for three centuries. How did one family turn a war-ruined principality into the world’s greatest empire? And how did they lose it all?

This is the intimate story of twenty tsars and tsarinas, some touched by genius, some by madness, but all inspired by holy autocracy and imperial ambition. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s gripping chronicle reveals their secret world of unlimited power and ruthless empire-building, overshadowed by palace conspiracy, family rivalries, sexual decadence and wild extravagance, with a global cast of adventurers, courtesans, revolutionaries and poets, from Ivan the Terrible to Tolstoy and Pushkin, to Bismarck, Lincoln, Queen Victoria and Lenin.


Did you ever want to know which nicknames the Romanovs gave their significant other’s genitalia? Then this is the book for you! There’s a lot of information on the family’s sex-life gained from letters and other documents. Now it would be unfair just to talk about the fact that in this book you’ll learn that Alexander II had so much sex that his doctors suggested he should slow down a bit for the sake of his health because you’ll learn a lot more about the Romanov-history than just the naughty parts. And a lot of it will be new, even to people like me who have read about the Romanovs before.
(Though I can’t deny that the naughty bits will probably stay with me most).
The book is very in-depth and doesn’t only talk about the Tsars and their immediate family but also some courtiers and more distant relatives. As a result, the book can be rather confusing (especially if you listen to the audiobook…seriously…I recommend this book but the printed/e-book version where you can leaf back to check who was who is probably the more sensible choice) and while some of the stories about what happened to person X or Z who was a confidant/lover/whatever of one of the rulers are interesting it’s questionable if they are all relevant. There’s a touch of ‘I researched him/her and I didn’t want it to be for nothing so I’ll include that bit’ in some bits.
However, overall that doesn’t matter (and in a non-audio copy you could just skip them after all…), this book is great for those who already have a basic knowledge of the Romanovs but want to know even more. (I do not recommend it for newbies since it’ll probably be too much info at once).

Ruthless Rulers: The real lives of Europe’s most infamous tyrants

32568981 Throughout history, all monarchs have lived with the same dichotomy of simultaneously being human and more than human.

In our time, when monarchs seem little more than tourist curiosities and democracy is taken for granted, it is easy to forget just how much power pre-democratic rulers once wielded. The rulers and holders of political power in this book were all possessed of vast – in many cases, absolute, – power: power which was often exercised arbitrarily and unjustly.

What unites the figures in this book is that they all, in one way or another, failed to live up to the extravagantly high hopes invested in them and, as a consequence, have been judged harshly by history.

A few, such as George III, might have been remembered more kindly were it not for mental illness changing their status from that of hero to villain. Some, like Louis XVI, were unfairly transformed into monsters by hostile propaganda, while others, such as Pete the Great, have been both celebrated as heroes and denounced as tyrants, often in the same breath. Finally, there are hose rulers who, like Caligula or Ivan the Terrible, may well fully deserve their evil reputations.

Ruthless Rulers is a study in how often rulers were carried away or overwhelmed by their exalted status, while a few were even driven over the edge into madness.

Rating: C

What unites the figures in this book is that they had badly disappointed the high, semi-divine hopes placed on them and, because of that, they have been judged by history as a bizarre curiosity, a living catastrophe, or both.

Well, sort of. But this is at least a better summary than Ruthless Rulers. Because not everybody in this book can be considered ruthless (or an infamous tyrant). There are also those who might have been remembered as unremarkable, semi-competent rulers if their reign had been during a quieter time but they had the misfortune of reigning during unrest, war, rebellion or other catastrophes and they were incapable of dealing with that. Others were mentally ill or suffering from a trauma that left them unable to cope with ruling (and sometimes even daily life). A couple were actually not that bad but had the misfortune of being hated by the historians who wrote about them. (And in a few cases we just don’t know how much of the stories about them are true and how much is just the result of propaganda).
As a result, I often felt that the common thread was missing. Especially the chapters, dealing with rulers who tried (and failed) to rule in tumultuous times often focus more on those times than the rulers themselves. I now know a lot more about the War of the Roses than I do about Henry VI…and the chapter on Nicholas II could have talked a bit more about the bad decisions he made but it’s just a bit biography, a bit about Rasputin (that is also partly wrong*) and a short overview of World War I, all with almost no attempt to connect it.
I can’t help but think that less would have been more. Some chapters are very short and it felt like they were only included to pad things out (and in general it seemed that the author cared less about those in Central- and Eastern Europe than those in the West). A proper focus on fewer rulers would have been better.

The book is a good starting point, though. Especially because every chapter gives you a list of the sources so you can easily read on. There is even some info on books and movies that deal with the subjects. (However usually a very short one; and while I get that one can never have an exhaustive list of ‘fictionalized accounts of royalty’, it is noticeable that there’s almost nothing from post-1990 on those lists which is not that great for a recently published book).

*I don’t really blame him for that since you’ll have a 9/10 chance of getting wrong information about Rasputin if you read/watch anything about him.

ARC received from NetGalley