Michael Farquhar seems determined to do for the Russian czars what Suetonius did for the ancient Roman Caesars, which is to highlight their vices and foibles with scant attention to the nature of the times that fostered their excessive behavior. The subtitle pretty much gives away the story, though I think “from Romanov Russia” makes little sense. It should be “in Romanov Russia.”

In any case, Ivan the Terrible really was terrible, and Peter the Great was greatness personified in terms of his relentless exercise of power in wresting Russia out of its backwardness, waging war and trampling all who got in his way. As for Catherine the Great, she was Mae West with an army and probably achieved more for Russia than Peter the Great did.

Czars had virtually unlimited power, and such power is inevitably abused. As a group they were brutal, autocratic and sexually rapacious. Catherine the Great may have been the most promiscuous of all. In her 60s she was still having virile young studs sent to her boudoir to service her insatiable libido. They were all handsomely rewarded, and none of them filed a sexual harassment complaint.

Perhaps the most tragic czar was Alexander II, who was determined to do the right thing. On March 3, 1861, nearly two years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, “the emperor signed the order freeing twenty million of his subjects from centuries of bondage to masters who could beat, rape, and kill them with impunity.” But as the old Washington saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. Alexander’s action provoked radical reformers who feared that reform from the top might prolong the life of the old regime. They made seven attempts, usually with hidden bombs, to assassinate him, the last of which was successful.

The czars ended not with a bang but a whimper. The last of the 18 Romanovs, Nicholas II, served from 1894 until the Soviet revolution in 1917. He did not want the job and wasn’t up to it. His wife, Alexandra, made things worse, prodding her compliant husband to surround himself with incompetents and oddballs, including the infamous Rasputin. Nicholas and his entire family were executed by the Soviets, whose subsequent misgovernment and brutality rivaled those of the czars. Readers of this book may get a sense of why Russians are so tolerant of tyrants like Stalin and Putin. Given their history, it probably seems normal.

‘Secret Lives of the Tsars: Three Centuries of Autocracy, Debauchery, Betrayal, Murder, and Madness from Romanov Russia’ by Michael Farquhar (Random House)

Hank H. Cox

History

SECRET LIVES OF THE TSARS

Three Centuries of Autocracy, Debauchery, Betrayal, Murder, and Madness From Romanov Russia

By Michael Farquhar. Random House.
349 pp. $16 paperback