Three centuries of Romanov rule brought Russia, in fits and starts, toward modernity.

In popular lore, the impression that most likely comes to mind regarding the Romanovs is one of failure: a dynasty that came crashing down in the maelstrom of war and revolution in the early 20th century. In the longer view of historical perspective, however, the Romanovs were arguably one of the most successful of ruling dynasties, not only in European history but in world history, in terms of both the length and breadth of their hegemony. This dynasty not only ruled for over 300 years, but in their ongoing expansion from the original Russian hinterland, the tsars exercised sovereignty over approximately one-sixth of the world’s surface in an enormous contiguous empire. (By way of contrast, the British Empire, although it covered almost one-fourth of the earth by about 1920, it was in some ways a scattershot collection of territories.)

Simon Sebag Montefiore has written several well-received books on specific eras and individuals in Russian and Soviet history, including two books on Stalin. Here he tackles the collective reigns of the 20 or so tsars and tsarinas who ruled over this vast collection of lands and peoples from the early 17th to the early 20th centuries. In many ways this is a traditional history of elites: emperors and empresses, royal courts and families, palace intrigues and political/diplomatic maneuvering. Yet, especially in comparison with most other European powers, the Russian tsars not only reigned but truly ruled over a largely peasant population, with significant economic and political changes coming to the fore only in the last decades of the tsarist era. While the author does incorporate some of the major cultural, economic and social developments that occurred under the tsars, more connections to the great mass of the people would have been helpful. Still, this is an intriguing and insightful tour of Romanov Russia.

As the country emerged from its Time of Troubles in the aftermath of the reign of Ivan the Terrible, Michael Romanov was named tsar in 1613, no doubt in part because he was something of a nonentity. While the same could be said of a number of those who followed him on the throne over the next three centuries, several individuals of unusual if not extraordinary character made their mark on Russia and beyond in unmistakable ways. Paramount was Peter I (1682-1725), almost certainly the most influential individual in all of Russian history. Though opposed and even hated by a number of contemporaries both in and outside of Russia, Peter surely deserves the title of “the Great” for the fundamental ways in which he transformed his country, virtually dragging it out of a largely medieval and semi-Asiatic outlook toward a decidedly more modern and European stance through his controversial but decisive policy of Westernization. In order to confront Russia’s enemies, especially Sweden (the dominant 17th-century Baltic power), Peter vastly improved the army, virtually created a Russian navy and introduced a series of related changes throughout Russian society. He famously built his “window on the West,” St. Petersburg, which for the first time gave Russia a seaport on the Baltic and connected it to European commerce and culture. Peter was one of those forces of nature who so transformed Russia and its place in the world that there was really no turning back—though some, including his own ill-fated son, Alexei, desired to do so.

It is intriguing for such a male-dominated society, that after Peter’s death in 1725 Russia was ruled for most of the remainder of the 18th century by four women, including Peter’s strong-willed but somewhat frivolous daughter Elizabeth (1741-61). Most consequential, however, was the other “Great” of Russian history, Catherine II (1762-96). Though a German princess, Catherine rose to the height of power in imperial Russia and made her own decisive imprint. In particular, she helped to expand Russia to the south and west and gave it a permanent foothold on the Black Sea, a significant development in its perennial search for warm-water ports. While it could be argued that Catherine’s dalliance with the Enlightenment was to a certain extent self-serving and even hypocritical in light of some of her policies, that could be said of the other so-called Enlightened Despots as well, like Frederick the Great of Prussia.

The 19th century witnessed an intriguing range of tsars, from reformist to reactionary or a combination of both. Alexander I (1801-25) in particular was a web of contradictions, being an enigmatic mix of liberal and autocrat, the erotic and the mystical. Sebag Montefiore argues credibly that Alexander has been somewhat underrated by history, especially regarding his pivotal role in the demise of Napoleon. Nicholas I (1825-55), on the other hand, was irrevocably committed to autocracy, Orthodoxy and Russification as the guiding principles of his reign. The pendulum swung again with the accession of Alexander II (1855-81), whom the author lauds as “the most endearing and attractive of the Romanovs.” Most famously, the “Tsar Liberator” ended centuries of serfdom. When he faced opposition to this landmark legislation from some of the nobility, this reforming autocrat warned (prophetically) that if change did not come peacefully from above, it might be forced through violently from below. Alexander planned for further changes, which he believed were necessary to modernize Russia, but anarchists finally succeeded in assassinating him, hoping to bring about the radical revolution that they believed would truly liberate the Russian people.

In harsh reaction, Alexander III (1881-94) expanded the network of repression, convinced that autocracy and an iron hand were essential for law and order. Quite unaware that he was fated to be the last true tsar, Nicholas II (1894-1917) largely pursued the policies of his father, in particular relying on Russification and Eastern adventures to solidify Russia’s position at home and abroad. Defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, however, proved to be a prelude to the far greater disaster of World War I. By 1917, Russia’s increasingly untenable military stance led to revolution, which finally brought the Bolsheviks to power. Centuries of Romanov rule came to a dramatic and ultimately bloody end when Nicholas, his family and many Romanov relatives were killed in the midst of civil war in 1918. Sebag Montefiore ends with an intriguing if chilling comparison of past and present, arguing that “Putin rules by the Romanov compact: autocracy and the rule of a tiny clique in return for the delivery of prosperity at home and glory abroad.” That, at least, is the facade of power!

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