‘Isle and Empires: Romanov Russia, Britain and the Isle of Wight’ Book Review

I studied Romanov Russia at A-Level, and although I’ve read a few books about it since, it’s not an area of history I’ve thought too much about since getting that E in the final exam that I thought would ruin all my chances of ever getting to do history. (Spoiler: it didn’t). So when I got the opportunity to review Stephan Roman’s book Isle and Empires: Romanov Russia, Britain and the Isle of Wight before its publication on July 5th I thought it seems like a good chance to dip my toe back into the Romanov waters.

Well, friends, I’m now ready to fully dive back into them. You know when you read a book that suddenly reignites all your curiosity for a topic? That’s what happened here. Isle of Empires… is fascinating, wide-ranging and engrossing, and I absolutely loved it.

Isle and Empires: Romanov Russia, Britain and the Isle of Wight

So, what’s it about?

The story of the Romanov family and Britain

Isle and Empires… is specifically about the relationship between the Romanov rulers and Britain, starting really with Tsar Peter the Great in the late 17th century, up until the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1918. He traces the relationship as it grows from positive beginnings, to the uneasy political tensions and outright war of the 19th century, to allyship during the Great War, but also how the Russian and the British royal families become entwined through marriage and friendship.

It’s unique viewpoint, though, is that it traces this relationship alongside the links to the Isle of Wight. I never would have thought that there were links between the tragic Romanov dynasty and the place where Bestival is, but that’s history for you. Always cropping up where you least expect it.

The structure is mostly chronological, which is very sensible, but we begin actually with a deeply personal family story from the author about his grandparents perilous escape from Soviet Russia. It throws us straight into the aftermath of the Romanov empire, and the knowledge of their downfall lingers with you throughout. There were points where the knowledge of the end gave me a very weird feeling when reading – a sort of pity, which I doubt was accidental.

It’s based very much on a Russian timeline, and there is plenty of context and information about Russia. Sometimes I felt that a little more context around the backdrop of what was happening in Britain would have been helpful. However, I found Roman’s writing to be very balanced between the two – not an easy task when some of the Romanov rulers were absolute crap left a lot to be desired in their leadership.

Romanov Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and George V of Britain
Tsar Nicholas II and King George V, in Berlin.
Ernst Sandau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The absolute star of the show, however, is the visit to the Isle of Wight by Tsar Nicholas II and family in 1909. It gets a whole section in a lot of detail – mostly incredibly interesting, although I will confess to skimming over some of the finer details of the boat races – and this is the event that the whole book builds up to. It is also what adds a lot of poignancy to the very end of the book, which covers the Russian Revolution and the downfall of the Romanov family.

The writing is lovely, fluid and very engaging. I particularly enjoyed the sections on the radical Russian community that sprang up on the Isle of Wight in the 19th century. I also really liked the detail of some of the personal relationships, especially between Queen Victoria and her daughter-in-law, the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna (who is down on my list to read more about).

Overall, Isle and Empires… is great read. I was super engrossed in it, and felt like I’d learned a lot – it felt like Stephen Roman has done a heck of a lot of research. If you’re a total newbie to Romanov history, there’s plenty of background information and context, and if you know a fair bit about them, then I think the Isle of Wight angle sheds some new and really interesting light to this relationship.

Now I’m off to book myself a trip to the Isle of Wight.

Isle and Empires: Romanov Russia, Britain and the Isle of Wight by Stephen Roman is available from July 5th 2021. Grab your copy here!

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