The Romanovs

The Romanovs
Simon Sebag Montefiore

The Russian ruling dynasty of the Romanovs (1613 – 1918) has always provided dramatic material for popular history. This really helps here, because Simon Sebag Montefiore, whatever his other virtues as a historian, is a dry, undramatic writer. He reminds me a bit of Ian Kershaw, an even duller and more exacting writer who is a bestseller because he writes about Nazis.

The Romanovs tries very hard to make its subject uninteresting. There’s little in the way of synthesis and far too much in the way of involved footnotes cataloguing secondary and tertiary figures. One would like to skip all of these, but they are in some cases integral to the main text. In at least one case the main text even refers back to one!

Despite these hundreds of not-so-tiny anchors some of the excitement of the dynasty still comes through. It helps a lot that much of the story is filled with sex and cruelty. Then there is the drawn-out final act: the tragedy of Nicholas and Alexandra, which makes up a quarter of the book despite Nicholas’s reign running for less than 25 years out of the Romanov’s grand total of just over 300. Seeing as this will likely be the most familiar part of the story for most readers, I’m not sure this much attention was necessary or advisable, but by the time I’d made it to this point I was relieved at the slower pace, which came like the cool-down at the end of an exhausting workout.

Overall, however, I can’t say The Romanovs is a book that works particularly well either as a reference or as old-fashioned narrative history. It falls somewhere in-between, which is a long way to fall.

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