In 1766, a diminutive adventurer appeared in Cetinje, the capital of the mountainous principality of Monte- negro, and managed to supplant the rightful claimant to the position of Vladika, the ruling Prince-Bishop. The adventurer was remarkable in many respects. Firstly, he was known as ‘Scepan Mali’, ‘Stephen the Small’, in a country where physical stature and strength were highly prized. Even more bizarrely, he claimed to be Tsar Peter III of Russia, who had been deposed by his wife Catherine the Great in 1762 in St Petersburg and strangled shortly afterwards by the brothers of her lover, Grigory Orlov. In fact he was neither a warrior nor a Russian but a snake-oil salesman, quack and purveyor of medicinal herbs. Neither his contemporaries nor subsequent historians have known who he really was, but he must have been native to the shores of the Adriatic or he would not have been understood.
Montenegro was then in the grip of a savage war against its Islamic overlord, the Ottoman Padishah, and racked by civil disturbance and famine. But then as now, like its bigger brother Serbia, it looked to orthodox Russia for support and salvation. Stephen the Small’s shameless pretension to be Tsar impressed these hard-fighting mountain men. He was also a good speaker who invoked religion to explain his peacemaking mission.
There was nothing remarkable at this time about royal pretenders: a girl was already travelling around Europe claiming to be Princess Elisabeth, the daughter of the late Empress Elisabeth of Russia and her lover Count Razumovsky. (Catherine the Great ordered her to be kidnapped and imprisoned for the rest of her life.) More seriously, Emelian Pugachev, a dis- affected Volga Cossack, was also to claim to be Peter III in his great rebellion across southern Russia in 1773-4. But what distinguished Stephen the Small was that he was actually endorsed by the Montenegrin assembly and ruled successfully for over six years, despite Russia’s denial of his identity. All the other pretenders vanished; Stephen alone showed the statesmanship to reform Montenegrin government and rein in the tribesmen.
Stephen was murdered in 1773 by his Greek servant, bribed by the Ottomans. Ironically, at the same time that other ‘Tsar Peter III’, Pugachev was igniting the serfs and Cossacks of southern Russia to such an extent that they were to threaten Moscow.
This is just one of the colourful stories in this fascinating book. It is the history of Montenegro from its origins as Zeta to its emergence in early modern times as a defiant, violent and romantic principality ruled by elected Prince-Bishops until, in the 18th century, the throne became hereditary. The centuries of warfare against the Ottomans are described in gripping detail, but the ascent of the ill-fated and often talented Petrovich dynasty is made all the more interesting by their propensity to be fine poets as well as mountain commanders: two extraordinary monarchs, Petar I and II in the first half of the 19th century created a thoroughly Ruritanian but clearly independent principality. Petar II’s epic poem, The Mountain Wreath, according to Roberts, ‘crystallised for Serbs and Montenegrins everywhere the nationalistic spirit of the age’. It was the Ottoman massacres in Bulgaria and the brave Montenegrin resistance that caught the attention of Gladstone in the House of Commons and Tennyson in his sonnet ‘Montenegro’ in 1877. This led to the Great Powers confirming their statehood and independence in 1878.
The prince since 1860 had been Nikola, a flamboyant ruler yet something of a buffoon who tried constantly to increase his territory by conquest yet was more successful in marrying off his many daughters — one to Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy, another to the future King Alexander Karageorgevich of Yugoslavia. A further two were the notorious ‘Black Princesses’, married to Russian Grand Dukes, who introduced Rasputin to Nicholas and Alexandra. In 1910, Nikola declared himself king, but the Balkan wars of 1912-13, followed by the first world war, destroyed his kingdom and dynasty.
Montenegro then became part of the kingdom of Yugoslavia under the Serbian dynasty that itself was destroyed by Hitler in 1941 and replaced by Tito. Montenegrins played a large part in the struggle to liberate Yugoslavia, particularly the Politburo member and fine writer, Milovan Djilas who became a dissident in 1954 but went on to write his superb memoirs of the Kremlin, Conversations with Stalin. Now Monte- negro is again independent. This is an extraordinary book, plainly written, scholarly yet gripping, that presents, through the lens of a tiny, almost forgotten country, a new way of seeing and understanding the great events of modern history.
Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin is published on 17 May.