Peter the Great shaving noblemen’s beards, Catherine the Great’s stable of lovers, saintly Nicholas and Alexandra shot, stabbed, and dissolved in acid: no dynasty since the Caesars has attracted so much prurient interest or accumulated such delicious mythologizing. Pushkin, Potemkin, Rasputin: how many stories about them are true? Did Anastasia really escape the Bolshevik assassins? What about Catherine the Great and that horse?

In narrating the history of the Romanovs, from the boy Michael’s reluctant crowning in 1613 to the boy Alexis’s bloody demise in 1918, Simon Sebag Montefiore has no shortage of material.1 Using imperial correspondence never available before, he gives us a portrait of royalty’s intimate life ranging from the pathological to the uplifting. Moment by moment, mortal danger, obsessive sex, and worries about children compete for a ruler’s attention. One tsar is blown to bits by a terrorist bomb, another tortures his son and heir to death, a third is overthrown by his son in a coup d’état, and a fourth is murdered by his wife. Pretenders—a false Simon, a false Peter, two false Dmitris—vie for the throne and meet gruesome deaths. Impalement through the rear end recurs. As one wit observed, it was either Rex or rectum. Of course, the only reason failed claimants were illegitimate is that those who succeeded were called tsars.

The only reason failed claimants were illegitimate is that those who succeeded were called tsars.

Consider Russia’s greatest tsar, Peter I. The common people regarded him as the antichrist and suspected he had hooves and a tail. Growing up, Peter hung out in the “German quarter,” the place assigned as a residence to foreign experts so they wouldn’t corrupt Russians with their Lutheran mores. There the royal youth drank, whored, learned Western ways of thinking, and started picking up low-born and foreign retainers. When he came to power, he organized them into his “All-Mad All-Jesting All-Drunken Synod,” which conducted elaborate parodies of church rituals. He made his old tutor “Patriarch Bacchus” and prescribed strict anti-ceremonies, invariably involving drunkenness, debauchery, and desecration. The mock-patriarch was attended by Archdeacons Thrust-the-Prick, Go-to-the-Prick, and Fuck-off. All this continued throughout his long reign (effectively 1689–1725). When the Synod wasn’t carousing, it ran the government.

When the young tsar decided he wanted to see the West, the Foreign Office announced that it would send “great ambassadors” to neighboring nations. It did not mention that Peter himself would go along incognito as the ordinary “Peter Mikhailov,” but it was impossible for anyone to miss a tsar who was six feet nine inches tall. And so Peter could get to know the ladies, whose whale-bone corsets he took for “devilish hard bones,” sample the dwarfs, and pick up manual trades. Fascinated by all things nautical, Peter loved the Netherlands—legend holds he once considered making Dutch the Russian national language—where he enrolled as “shipwright Mikhailov” in the Zaandam shipyard. As Montefiore remarks, “Holland formed his tastes, sartorial, architectural, and necrophilic.”

In England, he rented the house of the famous diarist John Evelyn, which the Drunken Synod utterly destroyed, using paintings for target practice, furniture for firewood, and curtains for toilet paper. Evelyn never could get compensation from the British government.

When Peter died, he left the throne to his queen, who became Catherine I. When he picked her up, she was Martha Scavronskaya, a nineteen-year-old daughter of a Lithuanian peasant and the widow of a Swedish soldier. Captured by the Russians, she was marched into camp naked but for a blanket and passed step by step up the ranks until she serviced Peter’s favorite, Prince Menshikov, who had once been a pie salesman and who now surrendered her to Peter. She was not the sort of monarch envisaged by Peter’s father, the pious Tsar Alexis.

As any student of Russia from Peter to Stalin knows, Russian modernization, for all its embrace of Western technology, somehow missed something essential about being civilized. When Peter’s ex-mistress Mary Hamilton, standing on the scaffold, spied the tsar, she expected to be pardoned at the last minute. Peter instead let the execution proceed, picked up the beautiful severed head, and took advantage of what we would call “a teachable moment.” Addressing the crowd, he delivered what Montefiore calls an anatomy lesson, “pointing out the sliced vertebrae, open windpipe and dripping arteries, before kissing the bloody lips and dropping the head.” Then he had the head embalmed and placed in his Cabinet of Curiosities. But Catherine, who understood Peter extremely well, kept her head, both literally and figuratively, and, true to his memory, resumed the royal debauchery even before official mourning for him was over.

When the Synod wasn’t carousing, it ran the government.

Several women ruled Russia during the eighteenth century. Prussia’s Frederick the Great, a gay misogynist, referred to “the rule of cunt.” “In feminine government,” he cracked, “the cunt has more influence than a firm policy guided by reason.” (Actually, Russia’s male rulers displayed no more rationality.)

There was Empress Anna, who arranged hair-pulling fights among crippled crones (they had to draw blood) and regarded dwarf tossing as a lot of fun. Empress Elizabeth took advantage of absolute power to become a fashion despot, prescribing in detail what everyone would wear. When she died there were fifteen thousand dresses in her wardrobe, not to mention several thousand pairs of shoes. Both empresses had endless lovers.

Montefiore does not mention the absurd folklore that Catherine the Great died while having a stallion lowered onto her, but her actual erotic history was salacious enough. She made her former lovers rich and often kept them around, Frederick noting that Prince Orlov now seemed to perform all duties “except fucking.” She had a friend, Countess Bruce, who gave prospective royal lovers a test run. “Every monarch,” Montefiore oddly observes, “needs a confidant for such matters who combines the loyalty of a friend, the tact of a diplomat, and the earthiness of a pimp.” Every monarch? Maybe this is the moral standard Montefiore is using when he claims that “far from being the nymphomaniac of legend, she [Catherine] was an obsessional serial monogamist,” only to tell us a few pages later that in addition to her long-term lover Potemkin she always had a succession of younger ones, which doesn’t sound like monogamy to me. One young lover “was resentful that her real relationship was with Potemkin.” “Real” is a relative term.

Montefiore has assembled a wonderful collection of anecdotes in chronological order, but his book lacks anything resembling a thesis. And yet one can find a few patterns with interesting implications.

I was reading Montefiore’s book alongside a highly influential essay written in the last days of the Soviet Union by the celebrated mathematician and social thinker Igor Shafarevich. Shafarevich, who was a member of both the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, apparently coined the term “Russophobia,” which has become the standard explanation for any criticism of Russia, from Ivan the Terrible to Lenin, Stalin, and Putin. Since there is no merit to such criticism, Shafarevich argues, it must derive from an irrational hatred of everything Russian. For example, western scholars and traitorous Westernized Russian dissidents claim that Russia tends to embrace absolute, totally unchecked authority, but, Shafarevich explains, “the term ‘samoderzhavets’ (autocrat) did not signify the ruler’s right to arbitrary actions and unaccountability, but merely expressed the idea that he was the Sovereign and owed tribute” to no other ruler.

Now consider Montefiore’s account of how Empress Anna humiliated Prince Mikhail Golitsyn. (The Golitsyns were among the three or four most prominent families in Russian history.) First she made him abandon his wife and serve as her cupbearer for kvass (a lightly fermented drink), renaming him Prince Kvassky. Next she gave him the role of dressing up as a hen and sitting on a straw-basket nest for hours clucking in front of the court. “After mass on Sundays, Golitsyn and the other [designated] fools sat in rows cackling and clucking in chicken outfits.” It gets worse.

Anna had Golitsyn marry an ugly Kalmyck woman whom she named “Pork ’n’ Onions” in a ceremony she choreographed. The empress and her cavalcade rode to the Winter Palace in carriages drawn by dogs, reindeer, swine, and camels, followed by Golitsyn and his bride in a cage atop an elephant. They were led to the frozen Neva river, where they found a thirty-foot-high ice palace complete with a cannon firing real shells. Inside was their bridal chamber, a bed with mattress and pillows all carved of ice where, guarded by soldiers, they spent their wedding night.

If that is not arbitrary power, what would be? By definition, law does not allow for inventive punishments, but Shafarevich, like so many figures in the history of Russian thought, does not seem to grasp the difference between law and power. Stories like this recur in Montefiore’s chronicle. There was no limit whatsoever on tsarist authority, although frequent coups and pretenders left rulers on their guard. Madame de Staël famously described the Russian form of government as absolutism limited by strangulation.

There was no limit whatsoever on tsarist authority.

Were the later Romanovs even Russian? For that matter, were they really Romanovs? In the seventeenth century, when marriage to a Muscovite ruler was not an attractive prospect for a European ruling family, tsars selected their wives in local bride shows. But after Peter, Germany became whatever is the female equivalent to a stud farm. The most famous such bride was Sophia Fredericke Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, who, upon marrying the future Peter III, changed her name to Catherine and, after doing in her husband, occupied the throne. Although Paul I was supposedly the son of Catherine the Great and Peter III, Peter memorably observed, “God knows where my wife gets her pregnancies.” It is more than likely that subsequent “Romanovs” were not descendants of the earlier ones. And even if Peter III was Paul’s father, he was himself the son of Peter the Great’s daughter and a German prince, so his surname was really not Romanov but Holstein-Gottorp.

By his second wife Paul had nine children, eight of whom, including Alexander I and Nicholas I, married Germans and one a Dutchman. Nicholas’s six children in turn also married Germans, and to the end of the reign it was, like the mythological turtles holding up the world, Germans (or Danes) all the way down. Nor was this heritage without its effect on policy. Both Peter III and Paul idolized Frederick the Great. Paul had his retinue don Prussian uniforms and follow Prussian discipline, and when he assumed the throne let his idol escape from certain military defeat.

Today historians favor explanations that stress social or economic factors while disparaging narratives focusing on the personality of a ruler. After all, if something so chancy can matter, then how can we ever hope to achieve a social science? But the fact is that personalities do play an irreducible role, and Montefiore’s chronicle provides endless examples.

Both the domestic and foreign policy of Alexander I reflected his increasing tendency to mysticism. He was taken in by the charlatan Baroness de Krudener, who claimed in Biblical gobbledygook to have heard directly from God that Napoleon’s fall would be followed by the rule of an angelic monarch heralding the Second Coming. At the Congress of Vienna, the British Foreign Secretary Castlereagh, reacting to Alexander’s insistence on applying Christian principles to international relations, observed that “the emperor’s mind is not quite sound” and that, upon one occasion, “it was not without difficulty we went through the interview with becoming gravity.” The resulting treaty, he said, was “a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense.” (This is the same Castlereagh for whom Byron wrote a famous epitaph: “Posterity will ne’er survey/ A Nobler grave than this./ Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:/ Stop, traveler, and piss.”)

Montefiore’s picture of the Congress of Vienna differs from the one in my European history textbook: “In perhaps the most self-indulgent international junket of all history, a congress of two emperors, five kings, 209 reigning princes, about 20,000 officials from marshals and ministers to clerks and spies, and just about every gold-digger, mountebank, and prostitute in Europe, maybe 100,000 in all, bargained, blackmailed, and fornicated their way through banquets and balls, to reshape a continent after twenty years of war.” Alexander’s piety did not prevent him from saying to one Countess at a ball: “Your husband seems to have left you. It would be a great pleasure to occupy his place for a while”—to which she replied, “Does Your Majesty take me for a province?” And yet it was this conference, not the high-minded Versailles a century later, that produced a lasting peace. At least when compared to idealism, debauchery has its advantages.

Nicholas played hide-and-seek into his twenties.

Would the dynasty have fallen if Nicholas II had not been such a narrow-minded twit? In response to a suggestion that young Nicholas chair the trans-Siberian railway committee, his father Alexander III responded: surely you see “he is an absolute child. His opinions are absolutely childish. How could he preside over such a committee?” Nicholas played hide-and-seek into his twenties. Alexandra had, if anything, still less sense. The infamous Rasputin was only the last mystical swindler to dominate them, influence the appointment of ministers, and advise on policy. Before him was one Monsieur Philippe, a hierophant who had not even finished high school but whom Nicholas made a licensed doctor and court physician. He specialized in the power of psychic fluids and astral forces to heal sickness and cure female sterility. When Nicholas was preparing to meet the Kaiser, Alexandra advised him not to worry because “our Dear Friend [Monsieur Philippe] will be near you and help you answering . . . questions.”

Philippe advised an aggressive policy in the Far East, which coincided with the influence of another adventurer, Bezobrazov (the name means Ugly), who persuaded the tsar to help finance a paramilitary brigade. And so, the tsar’s chief minister Sergei Witte rued, “Russia had two contradictory foreign policies, the imperial and the Bezobrazovian.” The result of such governance was disastrous defeat in the Russo-Japanese war, which sparked a revolution that in 1905 almost toppled the throne.

To save their determinist theory of history, Marxists have argued that the singular incompetence of the last tsar was what a doomed regime would have to produce, but the rest of the royal family was appalled by Philippe’s successor Rasputin. One after another, they told Nicholas and Alexandra to change their ways or see the dynasty fall. In response, Alexandra called them Jews and traitors. Yet it was not some Jew or liberal, but Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, along with Prince Felix Yusupov, who arranged to kill Rasputin.

Yusopov, an extremely wealthy bisexual transvestite who had studied at Oxford, was not exactly used to this sort of thing. Pretending to entertain the holy man, Yusupov fed him cakes and wine doused with cyanide, which, to his amazement, seemed to have no effect at all. At last he shot Rasputin in the chest. Shaking the body to make sure it was dead, he saw it stir, open one “greenish and snake-like” eye, foam at the mouth, spring up and seize him, ripping off an epaulette. Yusupov has described the sheer terror he experienced: “This devil, who was dying of poison, who had a bullet in his heart, must have been raised from the dead by the powers of evil. There was something appalling in his diabolical refusal to die.” Another conspirator, a founder of the thuggish Black Hundreds, Vladimir Purishkevich, shot Rasputin again, but again he didn’t die! At last someone with more professionalism, possibly the British agent Oswald Raynor, shot him in the head from such close range that the hair was singed. Trotsky referred to the whole operation as “carried out in the manner of a scenario designed for people of bad taste.”

But losing their favorite didn’t improve Nicholas’s and Alexandra’s judgment. Told that the army was unreliable and that he needed to regain the confidence of the people, the tsar replied: “Isn’t it rather for the people to regain my confidence?” Days, even hours, before Nicholas was forced to abdicate, he and Alexandra were insisting that the supposed danger was all an exaggeration. If Nicholas had listened to his two most talented ministers, Witte and Stolypin, or if he had more closely resembled his equally conservative but much more competent father Alexander III, the result might have been different.

However arbitrary its punishments, Russia had far fewer police than other European powers. Nikita Khrushchev recalled that he saw his first gendarme when he was twenty-four years old. Montefiore correctly observes that tsarist repression was mild compared to its Soviet successor. Between 1905 and 1910 terrorists killed as many as sixteen thousand officials. In Anna Geifman’s amazing book on Russian revolutionary terrorism, Thou Shalt Kill, we read of a small-town reporter who asks his editor if they should run the biography of the newly appointed police chief, only to be told, no, just save it for the obituary.2 And yet only three thousand terrorists were hanged. Many more were sent to Siberia, mostly in conditions so lenient that Stalin managed to escape a total of eight times, on foot, by train, and by reindeer.

One can only be amazed by the utter incompetence of tsarist police. The terrorists who stalked and killed Alexander II had come close several times, but security remained so lax that although the main entrance to the Palace was guarded, the tradesman’s door in the back was not. Over a period of months, a terrorist carpenter managed to smuggle in a little bit of nitroglycerine every day, until he had accumulated three hundred pounds. When people detected an odor, the tsar’s security police dismissed it as a gas leak. Even though a revolutionary had already been found carrying a map of the Winter Palace with the dining room plainly marked, the terrorists managed to blow up the dining room, killing twelve people and wounding sixty-nine others. One head of the secret police was so absent-minded he had to consult his business card to remember his name.

One can only be amazed by the utter incompetence of tsarist police.

Incompetent tsars, especially the last, were an object lesson to their successors. No one had to teach Lenin that half-hearted tyranny doesn’t work, and Stalin made sure no one escaped from his Gulag. In a weird kind of succession, Nicholas II’s chef, one Spiridon Putin, became the grandfather of Russia’s “new tsar,” as his entourage often calls today’s ruler. Vladimir Putin knows his history. He faults predecessors not for tyranny, repression, or even misjudgment, but for unpardonable weakness. As Montefiore recounts the story, Putin once asked his courtiers “who were Russia’s greatest traitors?” and then answered the question himself: “The greatest criminals in our history were those weaklings who threw power on the floor—Nicholas II and Mikhail Gorbachev—who allowed power to be picked up by hysterics and madmen. I would never abdicate.” It doesn’t look like he will.

1The Romanovs, 1613–1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore; Knopf, 816 pages, $35.

2Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894–1917, by Anna Geifman; Princeton University Press, 388 pages, $45.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 2, on page 22
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now