Monday 28 May 2018

300 Years Of Passion

Over the last little while, I have been living through three hundred years of Russian history, specifically in the company of the mighty Romanovs. It has been through the scholarship of Simon Sebag Montefiore and his books Catherine The Great And Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair and The Romanovs that I have been able to skate through the centuries so swiftly. Masterpieces both.

My new relationship with the Romanovs has admittedly been at times a harrowing affair; indeed, eyes have needed to be averted (like when watching "The Vikings" on the telly) when torture and blood and gore have spilled across the page, and I have had to occasionally set my acquaintance aside for a day or two in order to settle my unease over some revelations. While I can't say I now know all the family members and their associates well (the cast of characters is unsurprisingly enormous), I am familiar enough to realise I would not really have wanted to be friends with them ... Nor enemies ... Especially not enemies.

Dealing With A Miscreant Russian-Style

The Romanovs positively races through the dynasty. The scene is set with a brief background to the ascension of Michael I to the throne in the wake of the last of the Rurikid tsars, of whom Ivan The Terrible cast the longest shadow. Between Michael I and Michael II (tsar for one day after the murder of Nicholas II) lay one family of autocrats who variously ruled over Russia either wisely and with enlightenment or not for 304 years, of which 64 years were under the long reigns of three formidable women, including the sadistic and possibly mad Anna, in bed below, who left the detail in the hands of her German lover, and all branded with a Passion for Russia.

Hijinks in the Court of Empress Anna
Valery Jacobi, 1872

While my small amount of Russian reading has to date been focussed on Exile and the Plight of the Serfs, the lives of these elite also made for some hard reading. The family showcased wisdom and folly in equal measure; we follow them as Russia's borders slip and slide about, cities are raised and destroyed, and wars are fought. We follow, too, as vast armies and entourages marched thousands of miles to and fro their own country and across the continent of Europe with enviable stamina. Murder and mayhem, pretenders and exile mark the transitions between most of them, and aristocratic families are made and fall as courtiers scramble to keep a toe-hold on imperial favour. The Romanov strengths are at time weaknesses and even those who reluctantly took the throne, embraced their role with the firm belief that only they had the right to rule over their vast country and millions of peasants, come hell or high water.

Fire Of Moscow After Battle Of Borodino
A. Smirnov, 1813

Catherine The Great, too, assumed the role of Mother to all Russia, despite her German birth, and her separate story of imperial rule made for a fabulous read. She and her lover and effective co-regent Prince Grigory Potemkin made an incredible team and both books rely extensively on vast swathes of gossipy primary materials. Thousands of letters were written between them as Potemkin spent long periods away from her on campaign, conquest and tour of the empire. Their correspondences are a hybrid of business and love letter, as they set out their ambitions and create their dream together for Russia, and continue through their long partnership and (assumed) marriage and subsequent affairs.

Catherine The Great
V. Ericksen, 1779

While the landowners and aristocracy played key roles in Russia, fascinating is the new-to-me idea that as long as you weren't born into slavery, there was also essentially a meritocracy at work. All manner of energetic courtesans, adventurers and foreigners washed about, from Scottish soldiers and English landscape gardeners to French artists and African bodyguards. Merely by pledging allegiance to the sovereign, you could find a place in society and rise through the ranks of the military and court, all the while engaging in the national courtly sport of espionage; a comely face and figure and an enthusiasm for, ahem, naked romping helping enormously.

Almost to a man, one of the most startling personal traits to shine through for a phlegmatic Anglo-Saxon reader is the amount of weeping capable of all Romanovs. Hot tears were constantly being shed through jealousy, rage, vexation and grief. Passion for the homeland, for religion, ambition, conquest, love, sex, wealth, and power ran through their veins and bubbled over every page ... This has been for me quite the introduction to Russia’s history.


  1. OH MY!!!!!!!!!!!
    AS I read this I was thinking todays youth will not understand some of the words.......even your writing is SUPERB and I bet goes over many heads!!!!FASCINATING the HISTORY behind us!THE DRESS the BUILDINGS the EVERYTHING!!!!!!!!BRING BACK THE BEAUTY PLEASE!XX

    1. I dare say there is unlikely to be any yoof lurking about these pages, so fear not, dear Contessa...But I hear you on the rich history, in every sense!

      Oh, fun fact: the early tsars held Bride Shows when shopping for a bride. The tv show The Bachelor evidently pinched the idea from Ye Olde Russians, right down to the eliminations and gift giving. Playing for different stakes, of course! The “contestants” were picked from families with aspirations to take all the top jobs in the court while the tv contestants are picked from those who merely seek 15 minutes of fame...Says it all about how times have changed!


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