In the three centuries separating the two skinny teenagers, the Romanovs produced 20 tsars. Photo - Disclosure
In the three centuries separating the two skinny teenagers, the Romanovs produced 20 tsars. Photo - Disclosure

The saga of the Romanov dynasty is closely associated with turmoil and excess. It began in 1613, with a skinny 17-year-old boy begrudgingly elevated to sovereign of ancient Muscovy, and ended 305 years later with the brutal death of another teenage heir. At the age of 13, weakened by hemophilia, Alexei Romanov was shot together with his parents and four sisters in the basement of the Ipatiev mansion in Yekaterinburg, in the Urals. The shots took a while to reach the bodies of the girls, known by the acronym OTMA, from Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. That early morning, July 17, 1918, bullets ricocheted off the jewelry the grand duchesses had sewn into the inside of their clothes. Prisoners of the Bolsheviks, they still hoped to escape with their family from a Russia torn apart by civil war.

In the course of the three centuries that separate the two skinny teenagers, the Romanovs produced 20 tsars, among them two renowned for being political geniuses: Peter I and Catherine II, the Great. They also built an empire, which grew an average of 140 square kilometers per day and corresponded to one sixth of the planet's surface in 1917, when Tsar Nicholas II, Alexei's father, fell, following the revolution that brought the Bolshevik Party to power. , by Vladimir Lenin. It is for these three centuries that the British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore undertakes an exceptional study of power, brutality and sex in The Romanovs 1613-1918. Bestselling author such as Jerusalem, Montefiore is an expert in Russian history and has written two books on Soviet leader Josef Stalin, as well as a biography of Prime Minister Grigory Potemkin, lover of Catherine the Great.

In fluid and captivating language, Montefiore presents the world of the Romanovs, alternating details of the intimate lives of its members with government affairs. The author himself explains why: “It is impossible to understand Peter the Great without analyzing his naked dwarfs and fake popes flaunting sex toys as much as his government reforms and his foreign policy. Although eccentric, the system worked, and the most talented rose to high positions.” In this way, imperial lovers turned out to be prime ministers, as was the case with the mighty Potemkin during the rule of Catherine the Great. It was also a world permeated by betrayal. Six tsars were murdered, “two by asphyxiation, one with a dagger, one with dynamite, two by bullet”.

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The Romanovs 1613-1918, Simon Sebag Montefiore. Translation by Claudio Carina, Denise Bottmann, Donaldson M. Garschagen, Renata Guerra and Rogério W. Galindo. Companhia das Letras, 906 pages

Faced with the profusion of characters in the 900-page work, Montefiore tried to make the reader's life easier by adopting different spellings for similar names and using nicknames. In front of each chapter, he also presents a list of the characters that will follow. The thread of the narrative is autocracy and its effects – both on the fate of a people and on the distortion of personalities. Published on the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the Romanovs presents a succession of bizarre things, such as a parade of brides for choosing consorts, dwarfs jumping naked from cakes, giants dressed as babies, fathers torturing children to death, children roasted and eaten while their mothers are raped. All this in a context of conspiracies and coups, of internecine fights for power.

In this universe, Peter the Great is remembered for his geopolitical ingenuity, but also for his “iron resistance” to parties that exhausted his subjects and for starring in grotesque episodes. One of them took place in March 1719. At the end of an investigation that brought to light the promiscuity of the court, Pedro I sentenced to death an old lover, Mary Hamilton, a descendant of Scottish royalty and maid of honor to his wife. Mary climbed the scaffold believing she would receive a last-minute pardon, but the Tsar signaled for the executioner to lower his sword. In the sequel, “Peter lifted that beautiful head and started talking anatomy to the crowd, showing the severed vertebra, the open windpipe and the leaky arteries, before kissing Mary’s bloodied lips and letting go of his head. Then he crossed himself and left.” After being embalmed, Mary's head was taken to the Cabinet of Curiosities, the space in which the Tsar kept his collection of exotic objects.

The research that allowed Montefiore to go into so much detail was facilitated, in large part, by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent opening of archives, which even gave him access to intimate diaries of the Romanovs. With this, even your footnotes can reveal precious details. One of them: after the carnage that culminated in the death of the last Romanovs, Ortino, Tatiana's bulldog, ran down the stairs and was killed by the bayonet of one of the soldiers. A similar fate befell Jemmy, another family dog. In contrast, Alexei's King Charles Spaniel dog, Joy, managed to escape during the fusillade. When she returned, he was adopted by a guard and later by a member of the Allied intervention forces. Brought to England, Joy lived the rest of his life in Berkshire, near Windsor Castle.

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