Simon Sebag Montefiore on Russian empire's decline and fall

Historian's latest book about Russia, The Romanovs, covers 300 years of the imperial family

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 January, 2016, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 January, 2016, 6:44pm

British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore enjoys a formidable reputation as an expert on Russia thanks to string of bestselling, award winning Russia related historical works, including Catherine the Great & Potemkin – which is to be made into a film by Angelina Jolie – Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, and Young Stalin. His most recent historical work, Jerusalem: the Biography – which topped bestseller lists in more than 40 countries – also revealed much about Russia and its long-held desire to control that ancient city. But his new history, The Romanovs 1613-1914, is his most ambitious undertaking yet. He talks to Bron Sibree

You have drawn on a wealth of unused primary sources to write The Romanovs , which by any calculation is a monumental work that spans three centuries, 20 rulers and fills 868 pages. What compelled you to write it?

First of all there’s never been a book like this about the Romanovs. There are two books in print called The Romanovs, but neither of them is quite like this, and I thought there was call for a proper history of the whole Romanov dynasty, covering love and politics, war, culture and diplomacy. And the second reason is that Russia is so important now, so resurgent and so mysterious to most people that I wanted a book that would really explain the Russian empire from Ivan the Terrible right up until Putin. So my mission here is twofold, one is to explain Russia and the Russian empire to people today, and the other is to tell a great story.

But it also serves as an analysis of political power through the prism of autocracy. Tell us more about the nature of Romanov autocracy, which you say remains inscribed on the national consciousness.

Yes, it is. But it is a special sort of autocracy, it’s not just about the divine right of tsars but it’s the divine nature of Russia that they really believe in. And the Putin regime has really pushed this idea and when he took Crimea he said “this was our Jerusalem”. He regards the loss of the Soviet empire as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century and, of course, the Soviet empire was basically the Romanov empire as well, and he is very aware of that. We think of the Romanovs as a sort of disaster, as a cursed family, but in fact they were the most successful empire builders of modern times, and Putin speaks about the Tsars as much as he does the Soviet period. But the interesting thing about Putin’s regime is that no one really knows who is advising him. The Kremlin now is as opaque and mysterious as it was under Brezhnev.

You say in your book that even Putin’s entourage call him the Tsar, tell us more.

Putin is really a kind of Stalin crossed with Tsar Nicholas I. And that’s one of the arguments of my book, that he is a hybrid of both and he is very aware of that idea of a sort of imperial Stalinist hybrid, his ideologists are very aware of that, and so is the Orthodox Church. And because he has created a sort of autocratic regime in a country with an imperial tradition, he is able to take decisions that no other Western leaders are able to take. Often you read ‘oh isn’t Putin a genius, he’s intervened in Syria while the rest of us sit around doing nothing’ when in fact that’s the great benefit of our system, that we have proper checks and balances and that it’s hard for presidents and prime ministers to do what they like. It doesn’t mean he’s doing anything right just because in the first few weeks it’s managed to work out. His basic policy is not a policy at all; it is just to undermine America wherever possible.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is the new light it sheds on the last of Romanovs, who were assassinated, together with their children, by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

I started this with an open mind, but I had no idea of the real character of Nicholas and Alexandra. They are bathed in such a sort of romantic mythology, a martyrology, as parents and as husband and wife – and it’s true that they were great family people – but I just wanted to cut through the legend, and go back to primary sources. And I decided from the very beginning I was going treat them completely as political characters, as emperor and empress, and the result isn’t pretty. Then when I looked into why the Jewish thing became an obsession with the Romanovs, I discovered this was a man who, like his father, Nicholas 1, celebrated when there were pogroms. The sheer depth and vicious nature of his anti-Semitism will I think shock readers, and I don’t think I have either exaggerated it or diminished it. I’ve literally just given it as it was and I think that will surprise people.

People might be surprised too, to know that world leaders invite you to speak to them about power.

Yes, I do talk to a lot of leaders. They’re all fascinated by how power works. Many of them have read my books, many of them have read Jerusalem for different reasons, but especially they’ve read my Stalin book and are fascinated by how Stalin managed things, and how his system worked – these are elected, democratic rulers by the way – because Stalin was a mixture of things. On the one hand he was a complete brute but on the other he was an incredibly sophisticated manager of people, using all the weapons in his hands, not just terror, but also charm, cars and benefits. He was a great disher out of goodies, and that’s very much like a lot of Western democratic political machines. So, I’ve had a lot of conversations with Western leaders about leadership. I think they crave power, and power destroys them, just as it destroyed each of the Romanovs.

You read history at Cambridge, but what drew you to Russian history in particular?

I went to all the wars of the Soviet break up as a freelance war correspondent. And that was an amazing master class in live history and also a great adventure then I started to go back into the history, and write these books. My first, Catherine the Great & Potemkin is my most beloved book. I love them; they’re more tolerant, humane and enlightened than anyone before or after, and also their love affair was so romantic. I love people, and I love telling stories, but I don’t think I could write about a peaceful backwater. I enjoy writing about great crimes, great wars, great enterprises, larger than life characters and a kind of blood-splattered glory. And Russia suits me like that, it suits the way I think.