Book Review: Secret Lives of the Tsars by Michael Farquhar

As the recent July 4 holiday reminded, America isn’t fond of royalty — unless they’re showing up in the celebrity gossip. In fact, the Declaration of Independence lays out a laundry list of what King George III did to establish an “absolute tyranny” in the colonies. But he never went so far as to kick his eldest son’s pregnant wife in the stomach and, when the son objects, striking him with an iron-tipped staff and killing him. What royal would do that? A man appropriately called Ivan the Terrible, Russia’s first tsar.

Such an incident would seem to make Russia’s history fertile ground for tales of the seamier side of royal life, especially for an author who’s previously written on history’s royal peccadilloes. But this bit of history is in the introduction to Michael Farquhar’s Secret Lives of the Tsars: Three Centuries of Autocracy, Debauchery, Betrayal, Murder, and Madness from Romanov Russia. As the title conveys, he finds more than a instances of royal misbehavior and villainy. But there’s also a subtle but significant hint in the title indicating there’s more here than just the sordid.

tsarsFarquhar’s book looks at the Romanov tsars so its focus actually begins some 30 years after Ivan the Terrible died. But the Romanovs also seemed to have few qualms about killing or imprisoning family members, although those occasions tended to actually involve 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 stretches a bit. 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.

Significantly, the first word in the title describing the tsars’ lives is autocracy. Many of the activities coming after it flow from the concept. Absolute rulers generally need not fear their own ongoing intrigues, repressions and personal lapses. One of the keys to understanding Russia during the Romanov era is recognizing how the autocratic power of the tsars affected their actions and society. Although often employing some of their baser acts, Secret Lives of the Tsars explores that without allowing it to suffocate 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.

[Alexander III’s] entire education consisted of what one courtier described as an “unshakable belief in the omnipotence of the tsars of Russia.”

Michael Farquhar, Secret Lives of the Tsars

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