Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Romanovs:

by simon sebag montefiore
vintage, 784 pages, $35

The Romanovs Under House Arrest:
From the 1917 Diary of a Palace Priest

by afanasy belyaev
translated by leonid michailitschenko
holy trinity, 136 pages, $29.95

The Romanov dynasty begins and ends with one name: Ipatiev. Hunted by death squads, the only surviving son of five, ­Michael Romanov was hiding out in the Ipatiev Monastery in 1613 when a delegation arrived from Moscow. It took court advisers six hours of persuasion, but Michael finally accepted the crown, an act that saved the country from ruin. In 1918, Tsarevich Alexei, who was born to rule but would never have the chance, was gunned down with his father ­Nicholas II, his family, several retainers, and the family dogs in Ekaterinburg in the basement of a house requisitioned from a local engineer, one Nikolai Ipatiev.

So opens Simon Sebag Montefiore’s epic history of the Romanovs. He is a brisk and focused guide, bringing to life a huge cast of characters, most of whom were constantly engaged in bad behavior. Lifespans were short at the Russian court, unexplained deaths commonplace. Poor health weakened many of the tsars—epilepsy, paralysis, organ failure, injuries—as did excessive drinking. Once a tsar or ­tsarevna—Sophia took power in 1682 as Russia’s first female ruler—made it to the throne, the first concern was producing an heir. While awaiting the royal birth, the courtiers pursued a full budget of opportunism and enemy suppression, including vengeance, denunciations, and treachery with frequent breaks for coups, assassination, and war. In many cases, the tsars spent as much time in the torture chamber as in the throne room, meting out diabolically inventive forms of cruelty often without regard for whether the victim was living or dead.

When they weren’t terrorizing their enemies, the tsars were drinking and holding feasts to celebrate name days, victories, or weddings. No tsar was a more enthusiastic hedonist—or legendary reformer—than Peter the Great. Exceptional from an early age, Peter was unusually tall, six foot eight, intelligent, energetic, a born leader. As a boy, he loved to play at being an officer, raising a play regiment from among his friends and servants and holding field exercises; he had, as Montefiore puts it, a “lifelong affair with explosives.” Peter despised the dour court rituals and headed to Europe as soon as he could, falling in love with “Dutch technology, Scotch whiskey, and German girls.” As tsar and later emperor, Peter dragged Russia kicking and screaming into the modern era, ordering the boyars to shave their beards and the women to appear in court in European dress. On the swampy shores of the Neva River, he built a glittering new capital, Petersburg, from which he waged war and set about building the Russian state. Peter apparently also had an iron constitution, carousing for days on end among his All-Mad All-Jesting All-Drunken Synod, “an inebriated dining society that was, in part, the government of Russia in brutally raucous disguise.”

The next significant Russian ruler was neither Russian nor a man, but the famous Catherine II, born a Prussian princess. (This is to slight neither the loquacious huntress Empress Anna nor the fashion addict Empress Elizaveta who, at her death, left behind 15,000 dresses and thousands of pairs of shoes.) ­Montefiore indulges himself a bit in the scene of Catherine’s nighttime coup, but who could blame him? Roused from her bed by a trusted ally named Scarface, Catherine was spirited away under a blanket—fortuitously enjoying the services of a passing French ­hairdresser—and taken to the Winter Palace where she received the abdication of her feckless husband, Peter III. The beautiful Catherine led the revolution wearing the dashing red and green uniform of the tsar’s own regiment, the Preobrazhensky Guards. As she rode on her thoroughbred ­Brilliant through the cheering and tipsy troops, a handsome officer stepped forward to offer her a sword knot—his very own—to adorn her drawn saber. Potemkin was bold in his first encounter with the new empress, and he would go on to become a distinguished officer, court chamberlain, and longtime lover (one of many).

Catherine’s thirty-four-year reign is considered Russia’s golden age, a period of conquest, cultural achievement, and introduction of modern democratic ideas. Inspired by her friendship with the philosophes, Catherine attempted to introduce liberalism into her sclerotic court, penning the Instruction of Catherine the Great. This document called for equality before the law (with the exception of women and serfs), laws to protect rather than oppress, and the freedom to act in any way except in those expressly forbidden. The Instruction also voiced disapproval of capital punishment, torture, and serfdom. Since the empress herself owned millions of serfs on crown lands, the Instruction should probably be seen more as evidence of Catherine’s own empathetic instincts than as a program for far-reaching change.

Russia was more open to liberal reforms under the reign of Alexander II, but it was an uneasy truce. In 1861, Alexander liberated the serfs, although the result was far from instantaneous or pervasive. Transforming generations of uneducated and submissive peasants into civic-minded, active citizens proved challenging, especially without the government infrastructure to support such a seismic shift in policy. Alexander also introduced the zemstvo, a provincial assembly allowing nobles, merchants, and peasants to govern together. For all his liberalism, Alexander’s intentions served only to fortify the autocracy. As Montefiore perceptively observes, “The abolition of serfdom broke asunder the pact between ruler and nobility that had made Russia, leaving the tsar to base his power on the rifles of his army and the carapace of his unloved bureaucracy. Unmoored by this anchor, the Romanovs and society started to drift apart.”

Discontent was also growing around the world, especially in Poland and Lithuania where the people had seethed for decades under Russian domination. The surge of newspaper publishing gave radicals a public platform for anti-establishment sentiment and facilitated the spread of ideas from city to city. In Russia, the anarchists eventually succeeded in driving the royal family out of Petersburg to Gatchina Palace, where they lived in fear that “the footman serving coffee could be working for the nihilists”—a term popularized by Turgenev in his 1862 novel Fathers and Sons; “every chimneysweep could be the bearer of an infernal machine.” Indeed, Alexander II did perish in 1881 from a bomb thrown at him after he left his armored carriage to survey the damage from a separate bomb that had exploded only moments before. It was the seventh attempt on the monarch’s life. As the family, legitimate and illegitimate, jockeyed for places at the dying tsar’s bedside, the heir, Alexander III, resolved on the spot to “restore sanctity to Russia.” His moves to end his father’s era of reform and consolidate autocratic power made the Romanovs more unpopular than ever.

At numerous points throughout the book, Montefiore notes which tsars were prepared to take on the job of Autocrat of All the Russias and which were not. ­Alexander III’s son Nicholas was woefully unprepared. Naturally intelligent and eager to please, Nicholas was educated as his father saw fit, learning simplistic lessons in autocracy, nationalism, and Orthodoxy dispensed by a reactionary general. He learned English, German, and French so he could converse with his relatives among the ruling families of Europe. His military training pleased him the most, the taking and following of orders being an ideal setting for his passive nature. Handsome, well mannered, and charming, Nicholas looked splendid in his Hussars uniform and handled himself well at court although he found his duties there a bore. His father, however, considered him weak and never took the Heir Apparent into his confidence or gave him any instruction on running the empire. On the death of his father (from nephritis), Nicholas was paralyzed with fear; with tears in his eyes, he said to his brother “What am I going to do . . . ? I am not prepared to be a tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling. I have no idea of even how to talk to ministers.”

Nicholas II set out to follow in his father’s footsteps, to “retain the principles of autocracy as unbendingly as my unforgettable late father,” a move as obvious and expected as it was misguided. Not only was Nicholas inexperienced with court life and the affairs of state, but he was also temperamentally incapable of the decisiveness and conviction necessary to rule. What’s more, he seemed unaware, perhaps willfully so, of the unrest among his own people as well as the ever more intrusive intimations of world war. The one bright spot was Nicholas’s love for his wife, Alexandra, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and his devotion to his family, four daughters and the tsarevich Alexei. Had he been a provincial family man, he would have been an exemplary figure, but as tsar his ­isolation, indecision, and pettiness proved disastrous.

Nicholas and Alexandra are often described as fatalists whose passivity seemed to anticipate their unhappy end. Indeed, the forces arrayed against the last tsar seem to prove not only the alleged “curse of the Romanovs” but also the ineluctable destiny that led to the bleak basement of an engineer’s house in Ekaterinburg. Undoubtedly, Nicholas erred repeatedly through his inability to delegate, his deeply ingrained anti-Semitism, his crackdown on the press, and, worst of all, leaving the government in the hands of his incompetent wife and the mad ­Rasputin. To these sins, Montefiore adds the charge of callousness. But was this really so? If we are to accept that fatalism drove his character then perhaps it might be true, but another interpretation is also possible.

In his 1923 memoirs, the French ambassador Maurice Paléologue considers the seemingly casual manner in which Nicholas signed the document of abdication in March 1917. Paléologue observes that Nicholas appeared off-hand about the whole episode, and he wonders if this was simply a lack of interest. No, he reasons, Nicholas’s whole “moral attitude . . . appears perfectly logical if it is admitted . . . that for many months past the unhappy sovereign has felt himself lost and that he long ago made his sacrifice and accepted his fate.” This attitude, what many might call fatalism, was actually closer to that of realism, motivated in part by love of family, a submission to the will of God, and a character of humility and obedience.

These qualities become clear in The Romanovs Under House Arrest, a new English translation of the diary of Fr. Afanasy ­Belyaev, who served the family during their captivity at Tsarskoye Selo’s Alexander Palace from March to August 1917. Elegantly produced by Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York, Fr. Afanasy’s diary describes the imperial family during their last period of relative freedom and tranquility. They planted a ­garden, took photographs, and attended church and confession. They did not know that the brief window for their escape—either exile within Russia or an invitation for asylum from England’s George V—had closed forever.

Fr. Afanasy’s first view of the royal family, the children bedridden with measles, their heads shaved, is heartrending. Nicholas has not yet arrived, having just abdicated, and Alexandra has requested from the local church a chaplain and the miraculous icon of the Queen of Heaven. Fr. Afanasy speaks words of encouragement to the empress and each child, touched by the family’s predicament. As he leaves the palace, he is met by a ring of rowdy troops and understands that the imperial family is under arrest.

Fr. Afanasy writes plain prose, chronicling his duties, the family’s behavior, the attitude of the guards, and the meals of the day. The diary is full of telling details, such as the priest’s confusion when, during the liturgy, he stumbles over having to commemorate the “Russian Authorities and the Provisional Government” instead of the “Pious Autocrat and Emperor.” He follows his own code, however, consistently referring to the family with their imperial titles; during Easter communion, he loudly proclaims the righteousness of Nicholas Alexandrovich and his worthiness to partake.

As the situation in Moscow deteriorates, food becomes scarce, the guards grow more insolent, and the family’s mood darkens. Things grow unpredictable and strange: Flowers from the royal hothouse are sold, the potted palms disappear, and the clocks are reset to a new time. On July 29, Fr. Afanasy learns that the family is to be moved, but no one can say where or when. He is instructed to hold a prayer service, but what kind? The next day, Sunday, Fr. ­Afanasy presides over the last Divine Liturgy in the Alexander Palace, celebrating also the birthday of the former heir Alexei. The family waits all night but does not receive the order to depart until sunrise, when they head for Tobolsk, a provincial city in western Siberia. Fr. Afanasy records ­Nicholas’s final words: “I do not feel sorry for myself, but I feel sorry for those people who because of me have suffered and are suffering. I feel sorry for the homeland and the people.”

One hundred years after the death of the imperial family, the horrific end of the Romanov dynasty is still relevant. Perhaps Richard Pipes explained it best in The Russian Revolution (1990): “Like the protagonists in ­Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, the Bolsheviks had to spill blood to bind their wavering adherents with a band of collective guilt. The more innocent victims the Bolshevik Party had on its conscience, the more the Bolshevik rank and file had to realize that there was no retreating, no faltering, no compromising, that they were ­inextricably bound to their leaders, and could only march with them to ‘total victory’ regardless of the cost, or go down with them in ‘total doom.’”

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of the Hedgehog Review.