By Bryan Caplan
I recently watched Amazon’s 2018 series The Romanoffs. While reviews were mixed, I thought this limited ensemble series was amazingly good overall. Backstory: A century after the execution of the czar and his immediate family at the hands of the Bolsheviks, viewers experience eight distinct stories about descendants of Russian royalty. None of the characters remain more than mildly Russian; they’re all highly assimilated to American or French society. Given the Russian monarchy’s despotic reputation, you might think the modern-day Romanoffs would be depicted as nefarious or power-hungry, leaving readers to weigh nature versus nurture. Yet there’s little sign of this. While the starring Romanoffs are definitely more nefarious than the average human, they’re not especially nefarious for television characters.
Since each episode is self-contained, you need not watch them in order. My recommended viewing plan: Start with episode 2. Edge of your seat, though by the end you’ll falsely assume that the whole show is about the iniquity of the Romanoff bloodline. Next, watch episodes 1 and 7, bound together by the common theme of the continuation of the Romanoff dynasty. The sole weak episode is the surreal and senseless third installment. Well-done for what it is, but in the end it’s scarcely better than a dream sequence on The Sopranos.
From the point of view of historiography, what’s striking is that almost every episode unequivocally condemns the 1918 execution of the whole royal family. Most treatments I’ve read are more apologetic: “You have to understand that these Romanoffs tyrannized over Russia for centuries, and the revolutionaries wanted to ensure that they would never regain power.” At the same time, the series never bothers to argue that for all its faults, the late Russian monarchy was vastly superior to the totalitarian Soviet hell-state that succeeded it. The murder of five Romanoff children evokes far more horror than the murder of tens of millions of nameless Russians. An elegant illustration of the Stalin’s alleged aphorism, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
P.S. The Caplan family will be in Nashville on April 16-19. We’re staying next to Vanderbilt University. If you want to meet up, email me. 🙂