Just finished Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs 1613-1918. This book followed the Romanov dynasty who we served as emperors of Russia for three centuries. Russian political history during the early modern period is a story of repression, where the autocracy partnered with the nobles to repress the peasants. While a Marxist reading of history might claim that this is always happening, Russia provides some really blatant examples: throughout the 18th century the Romanovs constantly reward their favorite couriers with thousands and thousands of peasant lives, and often serfs were used as a farewell present to get a troublesome lover out of their hair.

The book covered all the well-known Russian tsars, including Peter the Great (who has his own son tortured and murdered for being insufficiently loyal to his reform programs) and Catherine the Great (German by birth but who murders her husband to take power). Until the 18th centry, everything plays as a sort of fun-house mirror to absolutist rule in the west - the Russian court is usually run by ministers imported from Germany, and Peter the Great’s “All-Drunken Synod” is a mockery of courts such as Verseilles. Ultimately the autocrat and the in-group of their advisors (who could change on the whim of the autocrat) was always in charge.

Once the book gets into the 19th century and past the Napoleonic Wars, the book changes from a typical narrative history. Usually into the 19th century a narrative history starts to include the stories of people who are outside the monarch’s inner circle, but the book keeps its focus on the ruling family. As a wave of liberal politics spreads across Europe in the revolutions of 1848, it’s clear that the Romanovs refuse to change Russia and try to hang on to power as best they can (On his deathbed, Nicholas I raises a clenched fist: “Hold everything like this!”). Alexander II ends up emancipating the serfs as a way to ensure that political change comes from the top down, rather than being forced on it by the peasants. Russia struggles into the 20th century as a half-rate power with an unorganized military that suffers a number of setbacks through the Crimean War and the Russo-Japanese War. The autocracy ensures that the entire system is set up to serve the ruler, rather than to project power. At some point the emperors end up under constant threat of assassination. Their subjects are explicitly trying to kill them.

Eventually we get to Nicholas II and the various intrigues around his wife and their relationship with Rasputin - a wholly ridiculous figure. Rasputin, a Siberian peasant with the affect of a holy man, provides the family with a mystical justification for their autocracy. It’s not clear he was any different of a sycophant than those that usually surrounded the Romanovs, but his presence is seen as a corrupting force across the rest of the Russian political elite and a constant source of tension. Eventually the Great War puts an immense amount of pressure on the Russian ruling class, and something breaks - Rasputin is brutally murdered and Nicholas II abdicates to the forces of February Revolution. His brother Michael II is emperor for a day until he too realizes the situation to be untenable and abdicates to the forces of the revolution.

After this, the tone shifts again - Nicholas II lives with his family under house arrest. The Bolsheviks come to power in October and plan the murder of Nicholas and the entire Romanov clan (Lenin claims “A revolution without firing squads is meaningless”). After wielding power for three centuries, the Romanovs are finally the objects and the repression of the state is brought against them. Nicholas and his entire family (his wife, four daughters, and hemophiliac son) are murdered in 1918 and the Russian Republic moves forward to become just as autocratic a state as it was under the Romanovs. Stalin claims “the people need a tsar” and Russia ends up with “red tsars” in Montefiore’s parlance - except now the leader is the Communist Party. The book closes on a grim note with a postscript on Vladamir Putin and his distate for the weak men (Nicholas II and Mikhail Gorbachev) who “threw power on the floor” only to “allowed power to be picked up by hysterics and madmen”. Russia continues as an autocracy, even after the death of their ruling clan.