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The Romanovs: Tyrants and Martyrs of Imperial Russia

Some Impressions of the Special Interest Day
led by Douglas Skeggs
on November 14th 2015

Our presenter for the day, Douglas Skeggs read Fine Art at Magdalene College, Cambridge, has been a lecturer on paintings since 1980 and is well known for his witty, erudite talks, delivered at a wide variety of venues here and overseas.  He has written and presented various TV documentaries and published five novels and a book on Monet.  Note free and word perfect, he took us on a journey through the life and work of members of the brutal dynasty that ruled Russia for over three hundred years.

Lecture 1:  The Blaspheming Bear - The Life of Peter the Great

Peter I the Great
Godfrey Kneller (1698)

Peter the Great’s personality was a confusing collection of contradictions.  On one hand he was the enlightened sovereign who dragged the sprawling, medieval country he ruled into the modern age.  Born with immense energy and drive, he taught himself the rudiments of ship design and founded the Russian navy, defeated the Swedes and seized the land on which to build the city of St Petersburg.  On the other he was a violent and brutal tyrant, fascinated by freaks and cruel practical jokes, a coarse, foul speaking drunkard who personally tortured hundreds of his subjects and ordered the murder of his own son.  A giant in height and in temper, he set up the secret service, forerunner of the KGB, and was renowned for paying for repairs, following his tendency to trash accommodation provided for him on his travels, with uncut diamonds.  The lecture followed the course of his turbulent life from his childhood in Moscow, where he saw his family butchered before his eyes, through his wild teenage years in which he formed his own private regiments, presided over dissolute drinking clubs and taught himself to sail on an ancient boat once given to Ivan the Terrible, to the triumphs and conquests of his old age when he established Russia not only as a modern nation but also as a major political and military force in the western world.  A natural bully, socially and politically, his dissolute life style contributed to his death in 1725.  He left no obvious heir and chaos followed.

Lecture 2:  The New Byzantium - Russia at the time of Catherine The Great

Catherine II
Richard Brompton (1782)

After a welcome coffee break, Douglas navigated a way through the turbulent years between the reigns of Peter and Catherine The Great.  He sustained our interest with tales of army interventions, the building of grand palaces, cross dressing empresses and the machinations Catherine used to secure the throne though she had no right to rule Russia.  A minor princess from a small German state, she had been singled out as bride to the dull witted heir to the Russian throne for no other reason than she’d known him as a child.  The marriage was a disaster and it was only a matter of time before she had her husband deposed and thrown into jail.  Crowning herself as Empress of Russia in 1762 she went on to dominate European politics, partitioning Poland, taking on the Ottoman Turks and attempting to rebuild the ancient Empire of Byzantium.

Powerful, determined and passionate, her private life was as colourful as her court.  She worked her way through a bewildering list of lovers the most famous of whom, Potemkin, went on to mastermind her politics, her private life, her grandiose building projects and love of art.  It was only when Catherine died and her disturbed and paranoid son took over the reins of power did the Russians look back and see that this had been their golden age.

Lecture 3:  The Last Romanovs - The Life and Death of Nicholas and Alexandra

After a hearty lunch our day continued with the final lecture from Douglas who told us about the troubled lives of the last Tsars, their lack of direct lineage and their marriages to European princesses.  He provided insights into how the seeds of late 19th/ early 20th century conflicts and even current troubles in Kiev, and Crimea can be tracked back to Russia’s expansion at this time and its determination to secure a warm water port on the Black Sea.  We learned of the life and death of Alexander II, assassinated in 1881, and of the impact of ending serfdom.  Douglas took us through events leading up to the exile and death of the last Tsar, Nicholas and his family, touching on the role of the Bolsheviks and Lenin in the emergence of the communist state.

Susie Floud contributed this view of Lecture 3:

Douglas Skeggs is one of the top NADFAS lecturers, and I can see why.

Nicholas II  c.1909

He started with Nicholas I, whose claim to fame was the Crimean War and the Charge of the Light Brigade.  Alexander II came after him, and he transformed Russia.  However, his successor, Alexander III repealed all of his reforms.

Next came Nicholas II, who was the main subject of the afternoon lecture.  He was brought up by governesses, and was very shy.  He married the German Princess Alexandra, whose elder sister was Prince Philip’s mother.  They had 5 children: 4 girls and 1 son.  He was a good husband and father, and genuinely loved his wife.

In 1905, there was a revolution and many people were killed.  Nicholas had to introduce a Parliament.  When the First World War started, he led the army and left the running of the country to the Tsarina and her spiritual guide, Rasputin.  The result was the Bolshevik revolution – the Royal family were arrested, and all were shot and killed on July 17th 1918.

Throughout the day Douglas skilfully used fine art illustrations to bring the dramatic events to life.  This combined with his great sense of humour made the lectures flow.  He ended our Special Interest Day by answering the many questions from the audience, an indication of just how much this enjoyable day aroused our interest in a remarkable dynasty.

Vivien King and Hazel Vine

Related Links for further reading (open in new windows):

The House of Romanov (Wikipedia)
Royal Russia
Romanovs in the UK

Animated discussions abounded as all enjoyed a delicious lunch