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Book review: The Romanovs

Books & Poetry

The story of Russia is anything but simple. The story of its tsars is arguably even more complicated.

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It was hard to be a tsar; Russia is not an easy country to rule. Yet the Romanov dynasty ruled for more than 300 years, with its members the most successful empire builders since the Mongols.

London-based historian Simon Sebag Montefiore’s sensational saga The Romanovs – 1613-1918 tells the story of the family across three centuries. While not neglecting internal and international politics, the book is a hymn to the diversity and achievements of a family that was ambitious, glamorous, hedonistic and depraved.

This is a world where brides are murdered and sons are tortured by fathers; where patricide, filicide, mariticide, sexual excess and domestic violence is common. Yet the family also produced political geniuses in Peter and Catherine the Great.

Montefiore – also author of Britain’s History Book of the Year Prize winner Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar – has the knack of walking readers right into history and making us feel at home.

This book presents an intimate portrait of the Romanov family, as well as giving us a sound grasp of the kingship and everyday life in Russian society; full of life and colour, bold, exuberant, despotic and fascinating. You also get a wider geopolitical picture encompassing Western European wars, eastern expansion and the defeat of Napoleon.

Montefiore writes clearly and accessibly to bring his epic slice of history to life. He reminds us of the chaotic soil in which the first glimmerings of Russian autocracy took root. Using journals, letters, official records and other archival material – much of which has never before been published – he charts the rise of an astonishing tenacious, flawed and accomplished family who eventually ruled over one sixth of the world’s landmass.

Anyone who enjoyed Montiefiore’s blockbuster histories of Stalin, Catherine the Great and Jerusalem will recognise the same qualities in this big, fact-filled work, including a willingness to re-examine long held beliefs. His account of 20 tsars and tsarinas is gripping, sumptuous and compelling.

The Romanovs – 1613-1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, is published by Hachette Australia, $45.

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