Review: “Secret Lives of the Tsars” by Michael Farouhar

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Image from Goodreads.
Image from Goodreads.

TitleSecret Lives of the Tars: Three Centuries of Autocracy, Debauchery, Betrayal, Murder and Madness From Romanov Russia

Author: Michael Farouhar

Publish Date: July 8th 2014

Copy Origin: ARC from Netgalley

Summary (from Goodreads): Scandal! Intrigue! Cossacks! Here the world’s most engaging royal historian chronicles the world’s most fascinating imperial dynasty: the Romanovs, whose three-hundred-year reign was remarkable for its shocking violence, spectacular excess, and unimaginable venality. In this incredibly entertaining history, Michael Farquhar collects the best, most captivating true tales of Romanov iniquity. We meet Catherine the Great, with her endless parade of virile young lovers (none of them of the equine variety); her unhinged son, Paul I, who ordered the bones of one of his mother’s paramours dug out of its grave and tossed into a gorge; and Grigori Rasputin, the “Mad Monk,” whose mesmeric domination of the last of the Romanov tsars helped lead to the monarchy’s undoing. From Peter the Great’s penchant for personally beheading his recalcitrant subjects (he kept the severed head of one of his mistresses pickled in alcohol) to Nicholas and Alexandra’s brutal demise at the hands of the Bolsheviks, Secret Lives of the Tsars captures all the splendor and infamy that was Imperial Russia.

The (not always) Secret Lives of The Tsars: Some of them were really creepy and should have never been left in charge to make their own dinner let alone run a country but some were also more or less reasonable and just made some very bad decisions would have been a more accurate title but also a far less catchy one.

However, apart from the somewhat misleading title, there is not much to complain about. The book offers an interesting overview of more than 300 years of the Romanov dynasty. The overall tone changes somewhat through the book. Every chapter offers a short biography of the ruler in question but the first few mainly offer not much more than some loosely connected anecdotes embedded in a rather superfluous biography while the latter go much more in-depth and also offer far more details about the overall political situation of the time.

Hand in hand with that also comes the fact that the subjects appear less detached and more like real human beings. This becomes very extreme when it comes to Nicholas II, the last Tsar, who has three chapters dedicated to him (everybody else only gets one). It portrays him in a very sympathetic light. Now, I’m not saying that anybody should be shown as somebody who actually deserves to be shot somewhere in a dark cellar together with his whole family, but the book tries a bit too hard to shift any blame for things going badly in Russia away from him. He had some bad advisors, his wife bullied him into doing many things the people didn’t approve of (she isn’t exactly vilified and to an extend also described as a victim of circumstances but overall she is blamed more than her husband), so in the end nothing is actually his fault. That seems somewhat unlikely and it’s also unnecessary to portray him that way because I don’t think many people would wish Nicholas’ grizzly end (that is described in rather vivid detail) on anybody even if he wasn’t quite the innocent victim this book tries to make him.

4 Stars

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