THE 14 MEN AND FOUR WOMEN of the Romanov Dynasty who ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917 were a remarkably disparate group of individuals. They included ascetics, voluptuaries, xenophobes, westernizers, sadists, neurotics, parade-ground martinets, one semi-imbecile and one self-styled intellectual. As the inheritors of a patrimonial tradition which declared the Russian land and people to be the personal property of her princes, they enjoyed an autocratic power which set no limits to the exercise of individual choice; and yet the main impression conveyed by W. Bruce Lincoln's study, The Romanovs, is of a remarkable continuity in their policies. The task of maintaining their system in the face of increasing contact and competition with a differently governed West created internal tensions which left Russia's rulers with an increasingly narrow range of options. Their successors have not succeeded in resolving these tensions; hence the methods by which Russia's ancien r,egime maintained and ultimately lost its shaky equilibrium have more than historical interest.

In tracing the role of successive Romanovs in the creation of a modern state, Lincoln's broad historical study disposes of the once common belief that the process of westernization begun by the first Romanovs would eventually have led the dynasty to a constitutional monarchy, had revolution not intervened. After the last Romanov was forced to grant the semblance of a constitution he stubbornly held on to the essentials of autocratic power in the belief that such was his dynastic duty. As one of the grand dukes put it at the time: "Russia belongs to all of our family." The Romanovs believed that they were the guardians of the souls as well as the owners of the bodies of their subjects, thanks to an old tradition asserting that the ruler of the only orthodox land left in the world after the fall of Constantinople was the natural successor to status and privileges of the Byzantine emperor. The myth of the omnipotent and good "czar-father" was an excellent device for deflecting the anger of the serf masses onto targets other than the ruler; but the Romanovs made the mistake, ultimately fatal for their dynasty, of believing it themselves.

Westernization was forced on them by the necessity to protect themselves and their patrimony from rapacious neighbors, but not even Peter's far-reaching technological and administrative reforms encroached on the traditional view of the autocrat. The secularized Russian state continued to recognize no distinction between the person and the office of the ruler; its institutions were merely executive extensions of his will. When directed to the task of great social transformations, there seemed nothing this will could not do with the vast human material at its disposal: the immense achievements of Peter and his most brilliant successor, Catherine II, in turning Russia into one of the major military and political powers of Europe and laying the foundations of a vast empire seemed to their successors to demonstrate the huge advantages of autocratic rule over the political systems of their European rivals. Homegrown autocracy plus the technical and administrative know-how of the West seemed a recipe for the ever-greater glory of the czar and his empire: in fact it was a highly unstable compound over whose explosive properties the Romanovs were never in control.

Catherine's 19th-century successors applied themselves assiduously but unsuccessfully to the task of filtering out all that was potentially subversive from their borrowings from the West: each new administrative, economic or legal reform necessary to keep up Russia's momentum vis-Ma-vis the West brought with it attitudes and concepts regarding individual rights which spread increasing disaffection among Russia's educated elite. Subsequent truncation or suppression of the reforms weakened Russia economically and militarily, exacerbating grave problems of which the autocrat was only dimly aware: the ever-expanding bureaucracy had acquired a momentum and interests of its own, in the name of which it manipulated its master, acquainting him only with what it wished him to know.

As the czars' real power eroded, the myth of their omnipotence was sustained by their terrifying ability to make or break their subjects' lives according to their caprice. Nicholas I in particular had a mania for the exercise of personal rule; his journeys around his realm were the occasion for interference in every aspect of his subjects' lives: he ordered marriages, separations, dictated the size of dowries, punished without trial and established the notorious Third Section to keep him apprised of his subjects' most secret thoughts. As Lincoln suggests, the passion for the trappings of militarism and the minutiae of parade drill which Nicholas shared with most of the later Romanovs can be explained by their need to reinforce the sense of their rigid control over their subjects. Their obsession with trivia insulated them from alarming revolutionary developments, confirming them in the conviction that, as Paul I explained to the French ambassador, "Only the person to whom I am speaking is important, and then only so long as I am speaking to him."

Russia under the later Romanovs was, as a contemporary of Nicholas I put it, "the land of official and organized delusion." The end of the delusion on the part of the masses was marked by the 1905 revolution, set in motion by the shooting of a procession of workers who arrived at the Winter Palace to petition the "czar-father," while the calamities which overtook Russia in the First World War, precipitated by Nicholas II's grotesque dependence on the advice of a superstitious wife and a debauched monk, deprived the autocracy of its last support by discrediting it in the eyes of those on whom it most relied as executors of its will.

The Romanovs' lack of control over the process of modernization emerges so clearly from Lincoln's study that it is odd to find him occasionally lamenting their misuse of their "absolute power." There are other conceptual inconsistencies in this sprawling book which often fails, like its subjects, to distinguish between trivial and important issues: but it is a useful compendium of information on the strengths and weaknesses of a dynasty whose successors seem to have taken to heart the advice which the statesman Pobedonostsev gave to the last of the czars: "The continuation of our r,egime depends on our ability to keep Russia in a frozen state, the slightest warm breath of life would cause the whole thing to rot."