Reviews — From the December 2016 issue

Destruction Myth

The rise and fall of the Romanovs

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In the end, Nicholas faced the same problem as all the other Romanovs: in the absence not just of democracy but of a constitutional system and rule of law, how could the tsar maintain power? As we learn from Montefiore’s colorful accounts of the succession battles, they often didn’t: tsars who were unable to keep control of their country — to say nothing of their courtiers, wives, and relatives — were often murdered. The more successful Romanovs often used patronage to secure support. As they expanded the borders of Russia to incorporate Siberia in the east and Poland in the west, they acquired land and estates, which could be bestowed on loyal retainers. Of course, this practice also made the succession battles even more bitter, since the friends of any potential tsar had a huge material stake in seeing that he or she actually took power.

Force and subterfuge were always part of the story, too. Peter the Great participated in the investigations and tortures carried out by Prince Romodanovsky, his chief of secret police. Catherine the Great used the Preobrazhensky Regiment, which Peter had created as her personal bodyguard, to carry out her coup against him. She showed her critics no mercy: when one young nobleman published a critique of her extravagance and despotism in 1790, she had him arrested and sentenced to death, though the punishment was later commuted to exile.

As revolutionary movements gained strength over the course of the nineteenth century, so did state-sponsored violence and the apparatus of invigilation. In 1881, Alexander II, the liberator of the serfs, founded the Okhrana, which he relied on to monitor protesters. The secret police were empowered further by his autocratic son, Alexander III, expanding from twelve people in 1866 to several thousand and creating exile colonies for criminals and political enemies alike. The first official use of exile as a punishment was in 1649, under the reign of Tsar Alexei. In 1825, Nicholas I sent the Decembrists, a group of high-ranking aristocrats, to Siberia for their feeble attempt at rebellion. (That punishment — the men were forced to walk the entire route, draped in chains — shocked Europe.) But by the end of the century there were thousands of people in exile, including many Bolshevik leaders, several of whom showed real talent for staging escapes.

From the beginning, the Romanovs also understood how to use pomp, circumstance, faith, and ideology to retain their dominance. To police his noblemen, Peter the Great imposed what Montefiore calls a “tyranny by feasting,” forcing his court to participate in elaborate dinners and games: “Between 80 and 300 guests, including a circus of dwarfs, giants, foreign jesters, Siberian Kalymks, black Nubians, obese freaks and louche girls, started carousing at noon and went on to the following dawn.” Montefiore explains their political function:

Here he was able to balance his henchmen, whether they were parvenus or Rurikid princes; he could play them off against each other to ensure they never plotted against him. Here he policed their corruption in his own rough way while he assigned duties, prizes and punishment. The horseplay was often more like hazing, humiliating his grandees, keeping them close under his paranoid eye, promoting his own power as they competed for favour and for proximity to the tsar. His games of inversion simply underlined his own supremacy. . . . At any moment Peter might switch from jollity to menace.

Peter also created spectacles for the general public. On his return from a military victory against the Turks in 1696, he staged a Roman triumph in Moscow, which included statues of Mars and Hercules, and himself dressed in a black German coat and breeches, a costume that would have mystified his subjects. Catherine the Great toured her empire on a trip organized by Grigory Potemkin, her lover and chief adviser. (The journey would provide the origins of the phrase “Potemkin village.”) Her entourage included fourteen carriages and 124 sleighs; when the ice melted on the Dnieper, the royal party moved on to “seven luxurious barges, each with its own orchestra, library and drawing room, painted in gold and scarlet, decorated in gold and silk, manned by 3,000 oarsmen, crew and guards and serviced by 80 boats.” It was designed to impress, and it did. One observer compared it to Cleopatra’s fleet.

These lavish displays expressed the power of the tsar, and by association the strength of the nation. As their grip on Russia began to loosen, the Romanovs kept up appearances — at a spectacular ball at the Winter Palace in 1903, guests came dressed in seventeenth-century costumes encrusted with jewels — and began deliberately fomenting national pride, xenophobia, and chauvinism. After the empire acquired Jewish citizens with the annexation of eastern Poland at the end of the eighteenth century, anti-Semitism became a tool of state policy. At first, Russia confined the Jews to the old Polish territories, the Pale of Settlement. Though they were allowed to move from the middle of the nineteenth century, they were never safe. Alexander III expelled the Jews from Moscow in 1891, and shuttered the main synagogue. Jewish women were allowed to remain in the city only if they were registered as prostitutes.

Nicholas II was a particularly enthusiastic anti-Semite, welcoming extreme ethnic nationalists to his palace at Tsarskoye Selo, outside St. Petersburg, with the words “With your help, I and the Russian people will succeed in defeating the enemies of Russia.” Jews symbolized everything he hated about the modern world. A newspaper, he once said, was a place where “some Jew or another sits . . . making it his business to stir up passions of people against each other.” Prime Minister Witte was a member of a “Jewish clique.” Alexandra felt the same way, speaking of “rotten vicious Jews” and disparaging people with Jewish-sounding names. During Nicholas’s reign, the Okhrana produced The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious forgery that depicted a Jewish plot to govern the world, and had a hand in inspiring a particularly vicious wave of pogroms in 1905. Thousands of Jews died in these massacres, which were a precursor to the even worse pogroms during the civil war in 1918, as well as to the Holocaust several decades later.

In other words, Nicholas himself had helped to cultivate the fear of “shadowy actors, hidden from view.” He paid the price for it too, as well as for the fanaticism and suspicion instilled by the Romanovs over the centuries. In 1917, Rasputin was finally murdered by two noblemen who hoped their plan would save the monarchy. Though one of them, Prince Yusupov, later wrote a gruesome account of the killing, the holy man was in fact shot squarely between the eyes — possibly, intriguingly, with the help of a British spy. Nicholas and his family were killed less than two years later on the direct orders of Lenin. The assassins stripped their corpses, in preparation for cremation — they didn’t want their graves to become a place of pilgrimage — and discovered the jewels that had been sewn into the lining of their clothes. They also found four amulets, one around the neck of each of the imperial daughters, with a portrait of Rasputin and the words from one of his prayers.

Like the first Romanovs, the Bolsheviks took power amid chaos, famine, and destruction. And like the Romanovs, they continued to promote the hatred, fear, and envy that plague Russia to this day.

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is a columnist for the Washington Post and Slate, and runs the Transitions Forum at the Legatum Institute. Her most recent book is Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956.

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