Secret Lives of the Tsars

Why suffer through dry political policies and unbearably long winters when you can delve right into the scandals with Michael Farquhar’s Secret Lives of the Tsars, a crash course in Russian history that reads like a sophisticated and educated gossip magazine? Farquhar outlines his goal with his subtitle: “three centuries of autocracy, debauchery, betrayal, murder and madness from Romanov Russia,” and he delivers admirably.

The history begins with Ivan the Terrible’s murder of his own son in 1581, which led to the unlikely yet unanimous selection of a shy, reluctant teenager named Michael Romanov to be supreme leader, and ends with the collapse of the Romanov Empire at the hands of mystic Grigori Rasputin. Farquhar dedicates a chapter to each of the most controversial tsars or tsarinas (allocating three chapters for the fatal, messy reign of the passive, out-of-touch Tsar Nicholas II and his delusional wife, Alexandra), peppering each summary with sardonic observations. Readers will be appalled at the level of selfishness or brutality exhibited by many of these Russian leaders, who often made national decisions based on whims and insecurities rather than the interests of the people. Most were so wrapped up in their personal lives they hardly had time to lead their subjects. From the warped humor and sociopathic proclivities of Peter the Great to the severe paranoia of Nicholas I, history has not been kind to the Russians, and Farquhar has carefully selected the worst of it for our own morbid enjoyment.

This is not a comprehensive history but rather a series of snapshots of “all the splendor, infamy, and madness that was Imperial Russia.” Yet, if our teachers taught the way Farquhar writes, history would have been everyone’s favorite class.