Book Review – The Romanovs by Simon Sebag-Montefiore

Simon Sebag-Montefiore took an unorthodox approach to historiography in his chronicle of the last Imperial Russian Royal Family: The Romanovs. At times I found the descriptions of the 20 Romanov rulers’ lives reminiscent of Suetonius’ style in The Twelve Caesars. At other times the book’s lurid salaciousness seemed like something one would read in the pages of Penthouse Letters ®. This tome would appeal to those interested in the tumultuous caprices of Russian history as well as those craving a sordid summer beach read. It certainly didn’t lack for broad appeal.

Several years ago I read Stephen Bates’ Asquith: a biography of British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith. I marveled at the fact a womanizing alcoholic could serve as head of government of the British Empire. It impressed me even more that he did so during a time of profound social change at home and with a major foreign policy crisis abroad. The Romanov rulers managed to do so for over 300 years; and they served as both heads of state and government. Whether one agrees with their unorthodox behavior or not, that achievement deserves some degree of respect.

This book contained much more erotica than I’m used to reading in works of history. I found some of the lines rather amusing. The author described love notes between two aristocrats as, “Apart from a few eighteenth-century touches, their chatter was as saucy as that of texting teenagers today.” (Loc 3366) Mr. Sebag-Montefiore had the following thoughts on Catherine the Great’s amorous conduct. “’By educating young men,’ she told Potemkin, ‘I do a lot of good for the state.’ It was certainly an unusual form of civil service training.” (Location 5039)

Alexander II and his mistress Katya wrote each other “several times a day even after they had just seen each other.” (Loc 8861) The author described these letters as, “perhaps the most explicit correspondence ever written by a head of state.” (Loc 8861) I’ll allow those interested to read the book and draw his/her own conclusions.

Peter the Great implemented possibly the original version of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s “bunga-bunga parties” at the Imperial Court.

In the autumn of 1691, Peter…convened his new All-Mad All-Jesting All-Drunken Synod (or Assembly), and inebriated dining society that was, in part, the government of Russia in brutally raucous disguise. (Location 1905)

Peter added, “Bacchus be worshipped with strong and honorable drinking.” (Location 1920) The author observed, “There was no division between business and bacchanalia.” (Location 1947)

But I’d give the award for most bizarre actions to Empress Anna. She instituted the following “sport” at court. “Like an omnipotent schoolgirl bully, Anna arranged female hair-pulling fights between crippled crones that had to draw blood, and dwarf tossing.” (Location 3302)

Aside from detailed descriptions of the libidinous conduct of the Romanovs, the book was also rife with examples of anti-Semitism. In a text covering 305 years, the word pogrom appeared 17 times. I found it interesting that this vile tradition began in the seventeenth century under Emperor Alexi. The author wrote:

Khmelinitsky (the Orthodox leader in the Ukraine) unleashed his apocalyptic horsemen in a savage purge of Catholics and Jews. Somewhere between 20,000 and 100,000 Jews were massacred in such gleefully ingenious atrocities—disembowelled, dismembered, decapitated; children were cutleted, roasted and eaten in front of raped mothers—that nothing like this would be seen in the bloodlands of eastern Europe until the Holocaust of the twentieth century. (Loc 1356)

The book also contained examples of the family’s governance skills. The Romanov dynasty proved De Toqueville’s assertion that, “The most dangerous time for a bad government is when it attempts to reform.”

Nobility would be defined by the privilege of owning other human beings, setting a Russian pattern of behaviour: servility to those above, tyranny to those below. (Loc 1321)

Its heart was the alliance between the Romanovs and the nobility who needed royal support to control their estates. Serfdom was the foundation of this partnership. They ideal of autocracy was in practice a deal whereby the Romanovs enjoyed absolute power and delivered imperial glory while the nobility ruled their estates unchallenged. (Location 326)

Alexander II’s decision to end serfdom in 1867 rent this thin thread holding Russian society together. It unwittingly led to the eventual abdication of Nicholas II and end of the dynasty in 1917.

In addition to the tales of cruelty, prurience and peculiar conduct, The Romanovs contained some amusing stories. The overthrow of Tsar Ivan VI had to be the most unique rebellion in history. Here’s an abridged version of the story.

At midnight on 25 November 1741, Elizaveta donned a breastplate and…emerged from her palace and drove in a sleigh through a blizzard across Petersburg to the Preobrazhensky Guards barracks where she rallied her supporters, 300 in total. “My friends,” she said, holding a pike, “just as you served my father now loyally serve me!” (Location 3707)

Entering the palace, Elizaveta addressed the sentries in their guardroom: “Wake up, children, you know who I am. Will you follow me?” They immediately joined her, allowing Vorontsoc and Lestoq to lead a detachment up to the apartments of the regent, while others fanned out around the city to arrest Munnich and Osterman. (Location 3714)

The guards waited for the deposed baby Ivan VI to awaken in his crib, and he was then arrested (in so far as a Guardsmen can “arrest” a baby) and brought to Elizaveta who held the ex-tsar in her arms. ”You’re not guilty of anything,” she said. As dawn broke, soldiers celebrated; courtiers rushed to worship the rising sun. (Location 3720)

At the time Emperor Ivan VI was just 15 months old.

The Romanovs opened with a line from Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov. It read “Heavy is the cap of Monomakh.” Mr. Sebag-Montefiore then spent the next 651 pages proving it. The austere Nicholas II showed no reaction when the Japanese eliminated the entire Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima.  I doubt readers will display the same paucity of emotion while reading The Romanovs.

Book Review – The Invitation by Claude Simon

French Nobel Laureate Claude Simon earned the reputation as one of the more challenging authors of the “New Novel” movement. In 1987’s The Invitation he addressed the new direction of Russian government following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As I enjoy both challenging reads and political stories, I found this story inviting and couldn’t resist the bidding to read it.

Mr. Simon approached the novel in such an original way that to call it unique wouldn’t describe it adequately. I would label his prose as a hybrid of stream of consciousness with bizarre syntax and punctuation. For those reasons, his work doesn’t appeal to all readers. Here’s an example. I should add that I threw open the book and located this passage at random.

And finally (the plane had already been flying three hours—the plane specially chartered for the fifteen guests, their interpreters, and the five or six attendants whose true purpose, be it to take care of them, to watch them, or to watch each other while among them, no one knew for sure—the airplane, whose departure they had awaited for almost two hours (after having already waited about an hour (which makes three altogether: as though the waiting (because of mysterious orders, annulled by counter orders no less mysterious, themselves annulled in their turn) (Page 18)

I’m not sure how many more pages until a period appeared, so I’ll stop there.

While Simon delivered his prose in a befuddling way, his unorthodox means of expression made this novel worth reading. He presented some marvelous lyrical flourishes. He delivered an outstanding view from an airplane. “…Enigmatic pool of gold that continued to drift on the sea of darkness.” (Page 21) The line about nightfall from the Rush song “Presto” has stuck with me since I first heard the track in 1989:

The evening plane rises up from the runway
Over constellations of light

With the greatest of respect to Neil Peart, I think Simon’s portrayal much better.

Simon’s writing reminded me of the acerbic cynicism of former Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham. Here’s a description of the secretary-general addressing the group of dignitaries sent to meet him. Simon’s unusual syntax worked very well in this section.

…and now he (the secretary-general—or rather the interpreters seated in the little cubicles along the wall parallel to the long table: it was now no longer women that they heard, their unhappy voices tired, stumbling: but men now, whom each of the guests, headphones over his ears, could hear in his own language, the sure tones following the assured speech of the secretary-general speaking without looking at any one of them in particular (none of the fifteen seated guests, seven on one side, eight on the other, here and there at the table where the only element of luxury was the bottles of mineral water: the fifteen guests whom his counselors had said (or whom his counselors had been told) were, each in his own country, important men (or brought out already—or complacent—or sensitive to flattery) and whom he (the secretary-general) took for nothing more than that, though he judged it wise (which his counselors had judged wise) to spend (to have him spend) two hours of his time…with people whose only capacity was to write books, to act in movies, to paint portraits in the English style, or to draft economic treaties (and probably his own experience of economic problems made him see these as less important than the others—except to take into account their influence not on the laws of the markets but proportionally to their renown) (Pages 46 -47)

At times while exploring this passage, I thought I was reading one of Lewis Lapham’s Notebook pieces about a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations.

My main criticism of The Invitation centered on the plot, or rather, the lack of one. The dignitaries attended numerous events in Russia, but still, nothing related to an actual story or moving the narrative forward occurred. I understand the secretary-general sent “the invitation” for a good will tour. Simon described it at his sardonic best, but he made his point very well in the section I cited above. While the novel came in at a brief 65 pages, it did still drag in parts.

Mr. Simon was to literature what Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz was to that genre. The Invitation isn’t for everybody; no doubt it will frustrate casual readers. The passages I cited above give a good sampling of the author’s prose. For those willing to challenge themselves, I’d invite readers to check out this novel.