The Romanovs

By Sunil Kumar

9th month of 2017. On my visit to the U.K last month; picked up 3 books in Heffer’s Cambridge including this massive tome from Simon Sebag Montefiore; a history of Russia’s last imperial clan; the Romanovs.

A no-holds barred account; the sheer amount of blood-letting would be nauseating if I had not watched gorier Western TV series. Still; the Orthodox Christian foundations of the Tsarist Russian Empire; fornication, adultery and wars form the basis of a long detailed look at the ruling clan.

Beginning in 1613 with the first Tsar Mikhail(Michael) to the last one Nicholas II; court intrigues, anti-Semitism and the sheer number of sexual escapades can sustain the reader’s interest if you are not interested in trudging through a historical book.

As India’s friend; a fact attested to by our current PM Modi; the Soviet Union or Russia still has a positive perception in the minds of  many Indians; but recent geopolitics and the lure of money has altered this somewhat.

So; what were these people upto? Apart from the Boney M song on Rasputin; there is no credible pop reference to the tumult of the country’s history. I watched the BBC’s version of “War and Peace”; and all of this reinforced the sheer distance of the cold pavilions.

The foundation of St. Petersburg; the life of Ekaterina(Catherine); the Germanic sycophancy of more than a few tsars; wars in the Crimea seem to have been a national obsession. Although it sheds some light on the Great Game; and the imperialists also coveting British India; most of the story is on the obnoxious Russian class system; the serfs and palace politics.

Of the record-breaking number of lovers the Russian queen Catherine had; Potemkin and Orlov and their role in the country’s history are quite clear now; as well as the difference between the old boyars; traditional East-West mix of erstwhile Russian dressing; and the feudal cum Westernizing outlook of Peter come out quite vividly in this deep dive into the Russian ruling dynasty.

Jewish pogroms as well as the socialist revolution was described; as well as an entrenched exploitation system that seems to be as brutal as American slavery. Tsarinas were selected in bride shows; and quite frenetic politicking.

Ending with a commentary on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the inevitable insights into the present leader; Putin; Russia comes across as a simple yet complex nation; a world apart yet quite similar to the Indian predicament; never matching up however in the sheer diversity and philosophical breadth of the ancient Hindu/Buddhist world view.

All in all; although a long winding read; Montefiore’s book gave me some insight into Russia; its culture and literary figures including Pushkin; Dostoevsky; Tchaikovosky and Tolstoy. For that alone; interesting.

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