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Book Review: ‘Secret Lives of the Tsars’ by Michael Farquhar

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With the exception of celebrity news, Americans don’t really care much about royalty. Even what we do know tends not to reflect well on monarchs. There’s Louis XVI and Marie (“let them eat cake”) Antoinette meeting the guillotine. There’s George III, the royal tyrant of the American Revolution who later lapsed into insanity. Everyone knows, of course, that Henry the VIII had six wives. And King John angered his barons so much they forced him into signing the Magna Carta and led the fictive Robin Hood to steal from the rich and give to the poor.

Given the first tsar of Russia was known as Ivan the Terrible, that country’s history seems fertile ground for tales of the seamier side of royal life. And for an author who’s previously written on history’s royal peccadilloes, it’s almost irresistible territory. So, as the title conveys, Michael Farquhar finds more than a few instances of misbehavior and villainy in Secret Lives of the Tsars: Three Centuries of Autocracy, Debauchery, Betrayal, Murder, and Madness from Romanov Russia. But there’s more here than just the sordid.

russia rulers historyFarquhar’s book looks at the Romanov tsars so its focus actually begins some 30 years after Ivan IV’s death. But Ivan certainly set a benchmark for the Romanovs. As Farquhar observes in his introduction, when Ivan’s eldest son objected to his father kicking his pregnant wife in the stomach, Ivan struck him with an iron-tipped staff and killed him. Romanov history also reveals few qualms about killing family members, although they tended do so with some forethought.

Michael Romanov became tsar in 1613, starting a three-century dynasty. Attempting to hold true to the promises of its title, the core of Secret Lives of the Tsars begins in 1862 with the joint rule of Ivan V and his half-brother Peter, crowned when they were 15 and 10, respectively. Ivan was mentally and physically disabled so his older sister actually ran the country. Peter forced her out seven years later and became sole ruler upon his half-brother’s death at age 29.

For Westerners, Peter is probably the first recognizable tsar after Ivan the Terrible. Peter became “the Great” because his sweeping reforms and military adventures turned Russia into a true empire. But Farquhar points out, those accomplishments also came with bizarre and at times vicious behavior. For example, when his companions at an anatomical dissection became squeamish, he made each go up and take a bite out of the body. Following an abortive revolt in 1698, Peter spent weeks personally interrogating and torturing rebels outside his country estate. Even those examples are indicative he did not see it necessary for the tsar to voluntarily constrain his powers.

There are times the book’s effort to spotlight some of the tawdry behavior of the Romanovs seems to go a bit far. In introducing his chapter on Catherine the Great, Farquhar observes that “her legendary love life remains her most enduring legacy.” Granted, Catherine had a variety of lovers throughout her reign and Farquhar freely informs the reader about them. But to suggest this is the imprint of her rule gives short shrift to what this Prussian-born woman accomplished. After wedding the future tsar at age 16, she used political savvy to unseat her husband six years later, barely six months after he assumed the throne (with debate still existing over whether she was complicit in his death.) Her 34 years as Empress would be considered a Russian golden age and a Russian Enlightenment. Like Peter the Great, she wanted to modernize Russia and acted to expand its territory. She was conversant with and opened the country to more Western ideas. While Secret Lives of the Tsars discusses these aspects of her rule, it seems undercut by the introductory reference to her sexuality and casting much of the discussion by way of the role her lovers played in her life.

But even though Catherine introduced Western ideas, the serfs still struggled. The underlying fractures in Russian society were aggravated by the eccentric, if not bizarre, actions of her son Paul when he became emperor. Not only did he alienate the military, Farquhar reports that Paul believed the way to resolve the European conflicts was by publicly challenging his fellow monarchs to face each other in a series of duels. He lasted less than five years before members of the military assassinated him. Once Paul’s successor, Alexander I, defeated Napoleon (with the help of the Russian winter), many of the nefarious activities of the tsars came in their efforts to protect autocratic rule.

Thus, the 30-year reign of Nicholas I, Alexander’s younger brother and successor, was built upon repression. On the day of his coronation, he ended the so-called Decembrist revolt but ordering the military to fire cannons on some 3,000 protesters in a public square. One of his closest advisers was the minister of education, who Farquhar says was “charged with a simple task: to keep the people stupid.” Censorship was such that words deleted by censors could not be replaced with ellipses for fear the reader “fall into the temptation of thinking about the possible contents of the banned part.” While successive rulers would make some moves to liberalize the country in response to growing social discontent, all still adhered to the idea that ultimate rule rested in their hands, a belief that would continue until the forced abdication of Nicholas II in 1917.

Farquhar’s subtitle has a subtle significance. Its first word is autocracy. Many of the activities encompassed by the rest of the subtitle flow from the concept. Absolute rulers generally need not fear their own ongoing intrigues, repressions and personal lapses. More important, one of the keys to understanding Russia during the Romanov era is to recognize how the autocratic power of the tsars affected their actions and society. Although often employing some of the baser acts, Secret Lives of the Tsars explores that without suffocating the work. As such, it is a highly readable history of the Russian tsars and a fine survey for those who may be interested but don’t want or need a studious approach toward the subject.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.