A young Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), whom Turgenev called a troglodyte for his directness and coarseness

Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883), Russia’s most Westernized writer

Alexander II (1818–1881) who was educated by the poet Zhukovsky

Fedor Dostoevsky (1821–1881), the last great Russian pro-monarchist writer, in a wood engraving (1929) by Vladimir Favorsky

Grand Duke Konstantin (1858–1915), the future poet K.R. and Dostoevsky’s ardent admirer

Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881) in a drawing (1881) by Ilya Repin. Alexander III personally banned a production of his opera Boris Godunov.

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), the Romanovs’ most admired composer

Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1829–1889), a radical writer who influenced Lenin

Alexander III (1845–1894), who clamped down on revolutionaries

Painting (1885) by Ilya Repin depicting a revolutionary refusing final confession and communion

Nicholas II (1868–1918), the last Romanov to rule

Ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska (1872–1971), notorious for her affair with Nicholas when he was heir to the throne

Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), who displaced Nicholas II as Russia’s autocratic ruler. He disliked opera and ballet. A sketch (1920) from life by Natan Altman

A young Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), a favorite writer of both Nicholas II and Lenin

The Bronze Horseman by Etienne Falconet—a dynamic Peter the Great on a rearing steed, erected by Catherine II in 1782

The official unveiling of the statue of Alexander III by Paolo Trubetskoy in 1909

The “private” portrait of Nicholas II (1900) by Valentin Serov. It depicts the last tsar sympathetically, but underscores his lack of leadership.


The Romanov dynasty holds the central place in Russian history. It ruled the country for more than three hundred years, from 1613 to 1917. In that time, Russia became an enormous Eurasian empire, covering a sixth of the world’s surface and instilling fear and sometimes awe in its neighbors, who were beckoned by its vast expanses and the exotic mores and costumes of the ethnic groups inhabiting it, and later surprised and delighted by their amazing cultural achievements—Russian novels, music, ballet, and drama.

The majestic and often tragic history of the Romanovs has long attracted historians, and the flood of books and studies keeps increasing. Much has been written as well on the various cultural aspects of the Romanov era, but this book is the first to present an integrated narrative history of the complex and dramatic relations between the Romanov dynasty and Russian culture in all its multiplicity: not only with literature (the most researched theme until now) but also with art, music, ballet, and theater.

In that sense, this book is a “prequel” to my previous work, The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, which began where the present book ends; thus, together they form a history of Russian culture from Archpriest Avvakum to the present day.

Many still believe that the Romanovs allegedly “demonstrated an amazing indifference to all the arts except ballet, where their mistresses danced, and Guards military exercises, where their lovers marched.”1

That is a caricature, of course. Yes, the Romanov men were first and foremost military by profession, which is understandable, but as most of them were people of excellent education, they took a lively interest in literature, architecture, music, painting, and theater, and some of them (especially Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas I) took a hands-on approach to culture building.

For the Romanovs, culture was the political instrument par excellence, and they may not have given much

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