tribunal and hanged in her bedroom. After she miscarried, she later became pregnant again and gave birth in 1754 to a son named Paul. But, according to Montefiore, Paul was probably not the son of Peter but of Catherine’s lover, Saltykov, her handsome twenty-six-year-old chamberlain. “Catherine, radiating unforgiveable malice towards Paul, insisted in her private writings that he was her lover’s son - - which would make the entire dynasty down to 1917 Saltykov, not Romanov.” Although Catherine’s son Paul “did not look anything like…Saltykov,…he did look and behave like Peter,” and was “hideous” in Catherine’s opinion.
When Peter the Great learned of his son Alexei’s possible rebellion, he interrogated him and obtained his admission that “if they called me, even in your lifetime, I would have joined the rebels.” Anyone who has seen Nikolai Gay’s famous 1872 painting of Peter interrogating Alexei, now hanging in St. Petersburg’s Russian Museum, would have no idea of Alexei’s later fate. Not only did Peter throw his son into prison, but he also had him tried for treason. Although the Russian bishops recommended mercy, “the senators, their minds concentrated by the knowledge that many had been implicated by Alexei, agreed to any ‘necessary examination’: torture.” After enduring days of ghastly torture,1 Alexei admitted that he had “wished for my father’s death.” Peter’s companions, then “sitting as a tribunal, sentenced Alexei to death for ‘horrid double parricide’….” The next day Peter’s pals visited Alexei “for a session in the torture chamber,” but he had died by the end of the day, apparently dying of “shock, blood loss or infection after knouting, which would have flayed and shredded his back to the bone….” Peter may have “wept at the funeral,” but later arranged to have his son’s “confessor and servants…beheaded while others had their tongues cut out and nostrils clipped.”
Montefiore shows us in this survey of monarchs a long parade of conniving courtiers who are constantly being favored, executed or pardoned. He draws his characters vividly.
Alexander II (1818-81), known for his reforms and his emancipation of the serfs in 1861, was obsessed with his mistresses. Even Bismarck, says Montefiore, noticed that Alexander was “constantly in love” with pretty women despite remaining “good friends” with his wife who had given birth to seven children. Alexander met daily with his favorite mistress, Katya, his “naughty minx,” in a rented townhouse they called “our nest.” Alexander’s diaries and letters to Katya were “judged too shocking to publish” during the later reign of Nicholas II. They were only “recently…placed in the Russian archives.”
“The Romanovs inhabit[ed] a world of family rivalry, imperial ambition, lurid glamour, sexual excess and depraved sadism,” Montefiore shows. But the sense of impending doom hanging over the last of the Romanovs, Nicholas II (1868-1918), is gripping. The book’s photographs of Nicholas, Alexandra, their children, and of Rasputin, their murdered spiritual charlatan with a bullet hole “point blank in the middle of the forehead,” are powerful.
Is this vast, wonderful book relevant to 21st century readers? The answer is yes, for Russia is now ruled by Vladimir Putin, an “ex-KGB colonel turned politician.” He has “blended Romanov authoritarianism, Orthodox sanctity, Russian nationalism, crony capitalism, Soviet bureaucracy and the fixtures of democracy, elections and parliaments.” His system is “stunted and distorted by its own personal caprice, old-fashioned lawlessness, economic sclerosis and Brobdingnagian corruption….” Putin’s minions call him “the tsar,”…. and the “Romanovs [may be] gone but the predicament of Russian autocracy lives on.”
1Montefiore says Alexei received 74 “blows of the knout” over a five-day period, noting that “forty lashes could kill a strong man” and that “an expert executioner could kill a man with a few lashes by breaking the backbone.”