Most of us have only the dimmest idea of Russian history prior to the Soviet era. We’re vaguely aware that there were some Mongols, then Ivan the Terrible (not a Romanov), Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and then a mass slaughter by the Bolsheviks. Along the way there was lots of unpleasantness; Napoleon was somehow involved too. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “The Romanovs” fills in all the gaps, at least from 1613 onward. And then it fills the gaps some more, until the flood of information becomes nearly overwhelming—although, at the same time, the reader is aware that the book is only scratching the surface with regard to any particular decade in Russian history. But at the end, the reader’s knowledge is vastly improved, and really, can you ask for any more?
“The Romanovs” is an examination of the Romanovs personally. Foreign policy, economic policy, and social policy are all viewed through the lens of the monarch at the time, or of the monarch in waiting. This lens is neither good nor bad; doubtless a reader interested in, for example, the details of Peter the Great’s Swedish policy would be better served by a book that examined it from both the Swedish and Russian sides, as well as other applicable views. But that is not this book, which manages to pull the reader through 700 dense pages largely because it is a personal history. It’s also fantastically well-written, which certainly helps pull the reader as well.
From a modern perspective, probably the most interesting thing about the Romanovs was the wholly autocratic nature of their rule. Americans are mostly conditioned to view the British monarchy as the monarchical norm—in essence, longstanding constitutional monarchy constrained by a powerful nobility and later, by Parliament, as well as by traditions and customary law. If we do think of autocracy, we think of Louis XIV, mostly in the same breath as Louis XVI, implicitly thinking that the guillotine is where autocracy shortly leads. Maybe we think of Persia, Asiatic despotism in the wars between Greece and Persia, if we look for an older example of autocracy. But the Romanovs ran Russia, until 1905, as essentially their personal property, and even treated its nobility as servants who could be dismissed or stripped of wealth at will. And, of course, they directly administered their personal property, an exhausting task that became more exhausting as the centuries passed. This type of autocracy is unfamiliar to Americans and worth contemplating and understanding.
Russia under the Romanovs is an example of what Francis Fukayama has called an unaccountable government. In Fukuyama’s analysis, to be a modern, desirable, state, it must be (among other things) that “that the rulers believe that they are responsible to the people they govern and put the people’s interests above their own.” In Russia, as Montefiore’s book shows, there was (and is) no such accountability, which can derive either from a moral responsibility or from formal structures. The tsars felt morally responsible to the people, but in an absolutist fashion, where what mattered was their conscience, not what the people, or even the nobles, thought, so accounting to the people for their actions was the antithesis of their moral responsibility. And without accountability, there can never be rule of law. For Fukuyama, Russia is the sole major example of successful strong absolutism (differing from weak absolutism, such as in France and Spain, where the state was generally accountable, but only to the elites). Such a system of strong absolutism probably cannot long exist in the modern world, at least without extreme repression such as in North Korea, but studying its historical existence does shed light on the organization of states today.
“The Romanovs” shows, though it does not discuss, how the Soviet era was an aberration of, not of a piece with, the rest of Russian history. What we see today—the popular autocracy of Putin; the widespread corruption of high state servants; the impossibility of honest business; the power and intertwining of the Russian Orthodox State with the Church—is what characterized the Romanov period. The alien doctrines of Communism have disappeared as if they never were, and the Russians are back where they were in many ways, for good or bad. Ideology has disappeared in Russia.
Unfortunately, the same is not true in the West, where the same impulses that drove the popularity of Communism, from the search for transcendence and an earthly paradise to the simple lust to control others, have merely emerged in new movements, from radical environmentalism to the critical theory of the Frankfurt School to the baleful, never-ending ideological quest to confiscate guns from the common people. Maybe this is because the failure of Communism in Russia was so miserable and so spectacular that it extinguished the messianic ideological impulse in Russia, whereas in the West the failure of socialist ideology has never been allowed to be ascribed to the ideology itself (as we see in Venezuela today), but rather to some other irrelevant set of circumstances, and the ideology itself refreshes itself, returning to bewitch and degrade society again.
To me, the time of the Romanovs that is most interesting in its lessons for today is the transition from the Romanov era to the Soviet era. This time, roughly from 1880 to 1919, should be for us both a cause for optimism and for pessimism. As for optimism, whatever political divisions our country has, they are nothing compared to those that emerged in Russia as new messianic ideologies emerged to conflict with Romanov absolutism. In 1904, for example, nearly 17,000 government officials were assassinated (and only 3,000 malefactors executed—the tsars were pikers by modern standards of repression). Intense turmoil across all educated sectors of society was the order of the day. We are far from that, and we should be grateful for that. (The comparison is not exact, though. In Russia, leftist ideologues attacked the conservative power structure. In America, the leftist ideologues today ARE the power structure, and it is conservatives who attack, who are less inclined by nature and by American history to be extreme and violent. If the situation were reversed, we’d see a lot more violence, as indeed we did in the 1970s when the Left began its now-successful march to power through the institutions.)
As for pessimism, though, we can see in “The Romanovs” how the Bolsheviks, a tiny and unpopular minority among leftist groups, seized power and then so co-opted society that they were able to (starting immediately with Lenin) embark on a deliberate reign of terror, where tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, actively and gleefully participated in hunting down and slaughtering millions of enemies of the regime, real or perceived. We should not be deceived that our society is any different. Under the right circumstances, with the right set of ideologues, the same sort of thing would happen in America. Witness the infamous 2010 global warming propaganda short film “No Pressure,” where children insufficiently committed to fighting global warming were literally exploded on camera, showering the other children around them with blood and entrails. A murderous fascist impulse always lurks just beneath of surface of any leftist ideologue. We should not say “it can’t happen here,” because under the right circumstances, it can, and it will. Fortunately, though, the enormous amount of weapons in American private hands forms a powerful bulwark against this kind of behavior (one reason why one of the Bolsheviks’ first acts was to make private ownership of any firearm a capital offense, something Hillary Clinton doubtless admires as an appropriate act of statesmanship).
But you don’t have to meditate on America today to enjoy the history in this book, and the depth of your knowledge will increase if you read it.