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The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon…
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The Romanovs: 1613-1918 (2016)

by Simon Sebag-Montefiore

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Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
This was well written and researched. It was really awesome that the author had a "cast of characters" before every section to help you keep up with all the people. I really enjoyed learning about this royal family. ( )
  dawnlopez29 | Feb 21, 2018 |
My blog post about this book is at this link. ( )
  SuziQoregon | Oct 13, 2017 |
Russian history has increasingly interested me of late. Hitler and Stalin by Alan Bullock gave greater insights into the struggles and cruelty of Stalin’s regime, and the revolution has fascinated me even more since reading Fall of Giants by Ken Follett (a book that generates polarised opinions, I enjoyed it!). The Romanovs seemed like a good choice to get the backstory. In some respects it fulfilled this purpose, in other aspects I was left wanting more.
Firstly let me say that the book delivers exactly what it says on the tin. The label promises The Romanovs 1613 - 1918 with the family crest of the double headed golden eagle resplendent on the cover. The book provides the whole narrative sweep of the royal family, beautifully written with a range of sources, both primary and secondary. The book is clearly the story of the cream on the cheesecake of Russian history during the period, focusing specifically on the royal family and to some extend on the surrounding court and ministers. Simon Sebag-Montefiore promises that his book is the first to combine the whole history of the Romanovs with a “blend of the personal and the political”. This he does, but I often felt mystified that such debauched individuals could have retained their legitimacy, and sustained their autocracy. Many of the answers are there, but I was left a bit hungry for a bit more about society and the economic context, and how the Romanovs maintained their power.
They certainly were remarkable - few dynasties have lasted as long and to maintain an autocratic agriculture based land empire into the twentieth century was no mean feat. The relationship with the army seems to have been an important factor throughout the story. The assent of the nobility was the other inter playing factor, vital to the Romanovs coming to power. One of the remarkable facts is the continuing lack of assemblies of nobles - the creme-da-la-creme at court seem to have had almost exclusive influence. Montefiore describes how “the court was the entrepôt of power where the nobles offered their recognition and service to the monarch, who in response distributed jobs, land, power, titles and marriages and in turn expected them to help command his armies and organize the mobilization of his resources.”
The main preoccupations of the Tsars seem to have been with finding wives, having children and military prowess. The book recounts the changing priorities - establishing the rituals of the monarchy early on, and the continuing pendulum swing of modernity (usually equivalent to Europeanisation) such as that seen in the time of Peter the Great, and reaction, usually expressed as a retreat to mysticism and reaction (and in Peter III, a not untypical case, often accompanied by an excessive fascination with Prussian style militarism). These retreats from modernity did not always immediately compromise the success of their rule however. Nicholas I would probably be described as fairly conservative, but managed to rule for almost three decades. Montefiore writes that “Nicholas was convinced that ‘Our Russia was entrusted to us by God,’ once praying aloud at a parade: ‘O God, I thank Thee for having made me so powerful.’ The result of Nicholas’ successful autocracy, however, was a Russian increasingly left behind by a modernising Europe. Although Nicholas’ success concealed the growing distortions, they became apparent during the Crimean War in the 1850s where Russia’s deficiencies were obvious.
Thinking about these issues and Nicholas I’s legacy clarifies one of the difficulties with this book, but also perhaps with narrative history as a form. The role of the historian has long been debated. Christopher Hill wrote iin the early 1950s that one of the few things the contributors to the journal Past and Present would probably agree on was that “it is the duty of the historian to explain, not merely to record.” I think one of the frustrations of The Romanovs is that it records. We find few pithy judgements. To take the example of Nicholas I’ legacy, J M Roberts in [b:The Penguin History of Europe|55835|The Penguin History of Europe|J.M. Roberts|http://images.gr-assets.com/books/1388183525s/55835.jpg|49570751] writes that “because of the immobility which he imposed upon her, Nicholas' reign deeply and negatively influenced Russia's destiny … there were also great challenges to be met, and for the most part Nicholas' reign was a sterile but immediately effective response to them.” We don’t find many passages in this book that give such a useful feel for the importance of the events and personalities described so well. I don’t think that this is purely a problem with narrative history as a form. A story can be told with a beginning, middle and end (i.e. without the sometimes tedious academic mores of thematic theoretically grounded approaches) whilst still providing some understanding and interpretation. The Romanovs just needed a little more of Montefiore’s own voice, his judgement as a historian to really give the story he is telling greater meaning.
It is a fascinating tale, well told with a plethora of sources, and it has certainly left me reflecting on the legacy of decisions made by powerful men, and curious to learn more about the layers of Russian society beneath them. Montefiore does provide some reflection. His recount of the outbreak of World War 1 is good. He describes Nicholas’ decision to mobilise as “a decision of honour in an age of honour taken by a patriot steeped in the overlapping missions of Romanov autocracy, Russian nationalism and Slavophile solidarity. Then there was expediency – this might be Russia’s last chance to seize the Straits.” It would have been nice though to have a few more signposts to follow in understanding the tsar’s legacy, powerbase and the reasons for their rise and eventual fall. ( )
  bevok | Jul 31, 2017 |
This is an ambitious book, chronicling over 300 years of the Romanov dynasty in Russia. Mr. Montefiore is a great writer, with a novelist's ability to draw his characters and bring them to life. In spite of that, I found the book a bit hard to read because, while heavy on facts, there is little analysis and a lack of context to situate the life of the Tsars in broader Russian life, or in wider world events.

It struck me how the Romanov family never seemed to learn from their history, with each generation making the same kind of mistakes. And, with Mr. Putin currently in power, I wonder if Russia has yet to shed its tendency towards autocracy?? ( )
  LynnB | Jun 6, 2017 |
I admit, my knowledge of pre-revolutionary Russia was a bit sketchy before reading this: Rasputin was bad, Catherine was a shagger, Anna Karenina... wasn't real...?

But Simon Sebag Montefiore's blockbuster history of the country's last dynasty has pushed the frontier of my knowledge back, well, at least a hundred years.

Because while it notionally covers the full three centuries of the Romanovs' reign (with a bonus bit either side for context) more than half the book is given over to the last hundred years or so.

And that's absolutely fine; failure is more interesting than success. Montefiore (Sebag Montefiore? Not sure where names end and begin there) impresses on you how the Russian monarchy wasn't overthrown in one great workers' uprising, but fell apart over a prolonged period of instability; like a car with a dodgy wheel that only throws you into the ditch after a 20 miles of rough riding.

In large part the end of the Romanovs was the result of their own refusal to properly loosen their grip on power. Eventually, through decades of often reticent reform and continued suffering on the part of their people, their entire claim to power was poisoned and it didn't matter what they offered; the Russian people no longer wanted a reformist Tsar, they just didn't want a Tsar.

Like so much in this book, it's a story that's been echoed in Russian history since and I fear may be so again. Even if you're more interested in Soviet pogroms than Tsarist ones, The Romanovs offers an insight into Russian history far beyond the dates on the cover. ( )
  m_k_m | Mar 27, 2017 |
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"The acclaimed author of Young Stalin and Jerusalem gives readers an accessible, lively account--based in part on new archival material--of the extraordinary men and women who ruled Russia for three centuries."--NoveList. The Romanovs were the most successful dynasty of modern times, ruling a sixth of the world's surface for three centuries. How did one family turn a war-ruined principality into the world's greatest empire? And how did they lose it all? This is the intimate story of twenty tsars and tsarinas, some touched by genius, some by madness, but all inspired by holy autocracy and imperial ambition. Simon Sebag Montefiore's chronicle reveals their secret world of unlimited power and ruthless empire-building, overshadowed by palace conspiracy, family rivalries, sexual decadence and wild extravagance, with a global cast of adventurers, courtesans, revolutionaries and poets. From Peter the Great, who made Russia an empire, to a fresh portrayal of Nicholas II and Alexandra and the harrowing massacre of the entire family, this book brings these monarchs--male and female, great and flawed, their families and courts--blazingly to life. Drawing on new archival research, Montefiore delivers both a universal study of power and a portrait of empire that helps define Russia today.--Adapted from dust jacket.… (more)

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