Interview with Simone Sebag Montefiore, author of Pushkin Prize 2017 shortlisted book 'The Romanovs'
Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)
Why did you become interested in Russia?
It began when I was very young. I think it was a family thing. An ancestor of mine Sir Moses Montefiore went to see Nicholas I to intercede for the Jews of Russia in the 1840s. My mother’s family were Jews from the empire who left after pogroms in 1904. They escaped, moved to Ireland, and fled after another pogrom in Limerick, the last in the British isles. I started studying Russian when doing my Catherine the Great and Potemkin book. I have never learnt it perfectly but it was essential for the work. It was all after graduating from university. I went off to Georgia, Chechnya, Ossetia and Karabakh writing about the wars there in the 1990s. When I came back, I started to write Catherine the Great and Potemkin. I travelled around Ukraine and the Crimea, where no-one spoke a word of English, to visit Potemkin's cities, from Sebastopol to Kherson, around the Black Sea.
Why have you written so much about Russia?
I love writing about Russia, I’m fascinated and love everything about it. I find the literature, the characters and the themes fascinating, gripping and ever more relevant. I love the great books, poetry, the scale of the land, the flamboyance, the exuberance and tragedy of the Russian experience.
Were you tempted by an academic approach?
I was never tempted by becoming an academic: I prefer to be a privateer of history. But I approach my books in a partly academic way. They are three party: a third is academic research and archival work; a third is finding new stuff, which is exciting and essential; and a third is the writing, the narrative. With 'The Romanovs', as with my other books, I have tried to write quite a literary book, which is well written and also accessible to anybody even if they have never heard of Russia.
Why focus on the Romanovs?
I was looking for a way to study the rulers of Russia, the Russian style of government, the Russian relationship with power and personality over 400 years, that didn’t just tell you about the 'brand names' like Catherine the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra. There were only two excellent books on the whole Romanov dynasty – Bruce Lincoln and Lindsay Hughes. But they are very thematic, they don’t try to do everything, they have sections on foreign and home policy which are very bitty to read. I wanted to try to do everything in one narrative. Russian history, Russia today doesn’t make any sense unless you study the entire thread, you need continuity. It says so much about the nature of Russia, the rise of Putin, why Crimea, Ukraine and Syria happened. I wanted to explain all these phenomena.
How difficult was the research?
Russian archives are often very challenging. Everything in Russia is secret and difficult. Whether in French, English or Russian, most are handwritten and difficult to read. This research included sources I found for Catherine the Great. The best material is often the most far away, like what I think is the only surviving copy of an invitation to Potemkin’s last party, which I found in the Odessa archives. (I love Odessa, one of my favourite places in the world.)
What was the overarching theme?
The most important is the Russian relationship with autocracy - some would say, it is an addiction - that is the theme of the book. It’s a study of Russian autocratic rulers and those they ruled, how the system worked, how their courts functioned. I found many amazing correspondences, much of it new, Peter the Great and his wife, Catherine and Potemkin, Nicholas and Alexandra, Alexander I and his sister... Perhaps the most fresh was that ofAlexander II with his mistress (later wife) Princess Katya Dolgorukaya: it is political, romantic, outrageously erotic. Some critics pushed back when I wrote about the tortures of Peter the Great which is ironic since he imported many of them from the West in order to be westernised.
What are the lessons for today from studying the Romanovs?
There are geographic ideas, the Russian relationship with the Near and Middle East. Catherine the Great bombarded Syria in 1770s and tried to make it a Russian protectorate. The Russian struggle between Slavism and liberalism is still very much going on. This is also a universal study of how power works, from the Caesars to the Kim dynasty of North Korea. And not just autorcrats. The court of every leader - whether Peter the Great or Theresa May - works in a similar way. History does not repeat itself as Marx joked, but all history is a fusion of present and the past.
Is there resonance for Vladimir Putin?
Putin is very much a hybrid of Romanov emperor, Stalinist secretary general and something very modern and unique of his own. This is a man who is quite a master of television and internet espionage, which is all new and very much 21st Century and yet he is constantly channelling Romanov imperialism and the Romanov idea of the tsar. Putin is someone who turned out to be much more than an accidental ruler chosen at random by Yeltsin's entourage. Anyone who can survive in power for 16-18 years and who can outplay the West so often has got something - he is a gifted player. He has quite deliberately and self-consciously shaped himself on the Romanov past in a lot of the public discourse and narrative. His text is from the Romanov playbook with Stalin added in. He regards them as a continuum. He’s not very interested in ideology. It’s about the management of Russia. He judges all Russian rulers as tsars who either successfully ruled Russia or failed. Peter the Great, Catherine II, Nicholas I, Stalin succeeded to a certain extent; Nicholas II, Alexander II, Gorbachev failed.
What is your next book?
I’ve written a Moscow Trilogy of novels about a Russian Jewish family set in 20th Century Russia from WW1 to the Oligarchs but centred around Stalinist Moscow. The first two were Sashenka and One Night in Winter. The third and last - Red Sky at Noon - is coming out in June. It’s nice to write about private life and love. It’s set in 1942 on the sweltering hot plains of southern Russia as Hitler's panzers, followed by his SS killer squads, raced towards Stalingrad. A historical novel set in a penal battalion on horseback; this moment was the last moment of cavalry warfare in modern history and it is all on horseback: it’s a Western on the Eastern front. Hitler and Stalin are both in this book but it’s really about one man's struggle for survival on a desperate ride across the steppes and his love affair with an Italian nurse - passionate, fleeting, doomed. In fiction, you can write about these great people more intimately. It’s all about private life, love, adultery, marriage – very different from the power and political themes of The Romanovs. But Stalin is very accurately portrayed. One of the themes in all my books is this: there is no difference between public and private life in Russia.