Peter the Great shaving noblemen’s beards, Catherine the Great’s stable of lovers, saintly Nicholas and Alexandra shot, stabbed, and dissolved in acid: no dynasty since the Caesars has attracted so much prurient interest or accumulated such delicious mythologizing. Pushkin, Potemkin, Rasputin: how many stories about them are true? Did Anastasia really escape the Bolshevik assassins? What about Catherine the Great and that horse?

In narrating the history of the Romanovs, from the boy Michael’s reluctant crowning in 1613 to the boy Alexis’s bloody demise in 1918, Simon Sebag Montefiore has no shortage of material.1 Using imperial correspondence never available before, he gives us a portrait of...

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