Simon Sebag Montefiore (2016)

When complimented on his armies capturing Berlin at the end of the Second World War, Stalin famously replied that “Tsar Alexander made it to Paris.” This book describes how, and why, that happened – and why it meant to much to Stalin, on whom Sebag Montefirore is of course a recognised expert.

The sweep of Romanov history is epic in all senses. It’s impossible not to realise how deeply personal their rule was, identifying their own reigns absolutely with Russia and its greatness. The main characters are all flawed in tragic ways, sometimes grotesque but equally often brilliant and self-aware within the limitations of their eras – which none ever really managed to trascend, with the possible exception of Peter and later Catherine, each known as “the Great” for that reason.

The story is made powerful by recent research in the Russian archives and access to previously-unkown letters between Alexander II and his mistress, and later between Nicholas II and Alexandra. They highlight the impact of extra-marital affairs on high policy right across the Romonov era: it’s often hard to keep track of who is related to (or sleeping with) whom, or to understand the true importance of some of the less well-known characters in the story who may have have had an advisory impact far beyond what their “official” position might suggest.

It’s a book that’s hard on autocracy – but also quite hard on the alternatives that came after. Sebag Montefiore sees a continuity between the tsars, Lenin, Stalin, and Putin, and almost seems to regard it as inevitable that Russia will need strongman leadership. One can perhaps hope not.

5/5. Finished Saturday 23 March, 2024.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)