Popular British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore’s fourth non-fiction work on Russian history, The Romanovs, is by far the largest in scope. It tells the tale of the House of Romanov – the 300-year dynasty of Russia. When presenting his work to the large audience at the Octagon theatre on Friday, he began with a frame of reference that would be recognisable to most – Game of Thrones. Yet the families of Westeros are quite benign and pale in comparison next to the Romanovs.
Montefiore stated that being a Romanov was a dangerous occupation, as their family squabbles often resulted in violence and bloodshed. Continuing on the Red Day theme, he segued into a recount of some gruesome escapades of members of the Romanov dynasty including Peter the Great, widely known as a great moderniser and reformer of Russia. Montefiore went into great detail on some of Peter’s darker habits – one such anecdote recounting the beheading of his mistress for infidelity in front of the entire Russian court and the subsequent anatomy lesson the court received courtesy of Peter utilising the severed head. If any of the audience members weren’t paying attention, they certainly were after that. It was with this full attention that Montefiore went further down the dark path and into greater detail of Peter the Great’s obsession with corpses and surgery.
This attention-grabbing snapshot into the lives of the Romanovs created a solid grounding for Montefiore to go on to discuss the intriguing questions that his book presents: mainly, does Russia need an autocrat, and is democracy incompatible with Russian society? This ties into contemporary issues as Montefiore discussed Russia’s recent resurgence in world politics and how its actions in Syria, Crimea and Ukraine can be traced to the Russian Empire and thus the Romanov family.
Montefiore described Putin as a mix between a Romanov and a Soviet leader, with the ability within Russian society to endow anyone with large amounts of power. Putin was then compared to certain members of the Romanov Dynasty, who were in the habit of taking people from humble origins and raising them up into positions far above their stations. Two examples of included a Turkish slave being raised to nobility and a Scandinavian camp follower becoming Empress. The most interesting point he mentioned was a hypothetical deal between would-be Russian rulers and the Russian population – simply put, the people of Russia expect prosperity and international prestige and in return the Russian rulers gain absolute power. This can be traced through the Romanovs to the Soviets and finally to Vladimir Putin. And in case that detour into Russian contemporary politics bored you, Montefiore followed it up with a brief discussion on the Romanov sex life. However he was rather scant on the details as the M.C. seemed keen to move along.
Montefiore closed the Writers’ Festival talk by giving us insight into how his interest in Russia came about. His family on his mother’s side immigrated from the Russian Empire at the turn of the century, escaping the violent anti-Jewish pogroms sweeping the country. His interest was further facilitated by his time spent there as a journalist and historian. Throughout the entire talk, Montefiore’s passion and interest for the subject resonated with the crowd – he captivated them with his anecdotes about the Romanovs and drew them in further with stories on his family and personal history. As a popular historian, Montefiore has succeeded in appealing to the historical layperson whilst simultaneously tying in the past with contemporary issues. Regardless of whether or not they had been primed with all the BBC documentaries, the audience was all left with potent questions concerning Russia’s past and future.
Review by Aaron Maher
Image by Bryce Newton