Simon Sebag Montefiore
20/12/2022
Simon Sebag Montefiore, Bestselling Author of 'The World: A Family History', Discusses the Power of Family Dynasties

In this episode, bestselling author and historian, Simon Sebag Montefiore, discusses his new book, which covers the key families who have shaped global history.

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transcript

Simon Brewer

Henry Kissinger recently wrote the following about our guest's new book: 'In this work of astonishing scope and erudition, Montefiore interweaves the stories of the servants, courtiers and kings, pioneers, preachers and philosophers who have made history. A brilliant synthesis that will impart fresh insight to even the most learned readers.' Well, in the spring of 2020, as lockdown enveloped us and we waited for our hour of daily exercise in escape, our guest began his quest to create a majestic history of the world. The book is called 'The World: A Family History'. And for those watching this episode on YouTube, you can see this glorious cover. And for those listening, it's a fantastic gift to yourself for life, let alone the rest of your family. So Simon Sebag Montefiore, welcome to the Money Maze Podcast.

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Great to be on. Thank you for having me.

Simon Brewer

It's a pleasure. We're here in your home in London with all these beautiful books in the background and it's great to sit down with you. We've known each other for a decade now and I've been looking forward to this interview enormously. You've become one of the world's celebrated historians. But let's begin with a glimpse of your own history. Were you a family of books and stories?

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Yeah. I mean, I was brought up with a very literary family. Books were our religion almost. I grew up in a house full of books. We talked about books all the time. And I remember when my father took me aside when I was about eight and said to me, 'Here's a history of the world, maybe you'll write one of these one day.' But also, my mother was an actress. She studied at RADA and then she wrote novels. Her first novel was published when she was 14, so she was a bit of a character also.

Simon Brewer

And how would you describe a young Sebag?

Simon Sebag Montefiore

A terrible nerd, of course. A strange child who knew every Soviet defence minister and general secretary and Israeli prime minister off by heart when everyone else was studying football scores.

Simon Brewer

Well, that sounds like a mastermind specialist category for you to do in another quiet moment of your life. But you go to Cambridge to study history, and then you flirt with finance. Tell me about that.

Simon Sebag Montefiore

I come from a banking family. So I was very interested in finance and entrepreneurialism, and I felt I should experiment with that. I also felt that for a writer, it's very important to know how actual offices and people work rather than just being someone who spent their whole life in the media. And I think a lot of people in the media really have no idea how normal lives work at all. And you see that when you speak to them. So I was very keen to do a sort of proper job, if finance can be called a proper job. I was at CSFB in London and then I was at Ansbacher Media, which was a tiny but very successful media M&A boutique in America. And I flew all around America. It was an amazing job. I would fly into some small town in Pennsylvania or Indiana and just go and see the people that own the local newspaper or the television station or radio station and get them to sell. It was something of an adventure.

Simon Brewer

But wasn't there a point where you almost lost a lot of money for somebody?

Simon Sebag Montefiore

I was extremely incompetent. We were raising money for all sorts of Commonwealth, Bank of Australia, people like that. And I remember once losing an enormous amount of money that never arrived. I got back from some nightclub to my flat in the morning, and the phone was ringing off the hook. And I picked it up and the guy said, 'Where's the money? Where's the £350 million? It hasn't arrived.' But I hadn't run off with it. I just put the wrong number on the transfer sheet or whatever, which was of course typical. It was really a relief when I left finance and I didn't inherit any of the financial talent of my ancestors.

Simon Brewer

Let's jump to this new book of yours. I heard you speak the other night at a Rothschild dinner. And you said that Putin had taken Potemkin's body from Kherson in Ukraine, but that was only one part of his fascination with Potemkin and Ukraine, and this wasn't new. So just put this jigsaw together.

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Well, my first history book was 'Catherine the Great & Potemkin'. And one of the strange things about the Soviet Union was that they curated history to what suited them. So Stalin decreed that they would study Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great and Nicholas the First, tsars who reformed and led Russia from the top. But they eschewed and didn't study at all Catherine the Great and Potemkin because they were decadent, aristocratic, cosmopolitan and rather debauched. They ignored them. And so no one had really studied this subject for 70 years. When I looked in the sheets that they have in their archives that show who's taken out documents, very few people had really looked at these documents at all for 70 years, because these files were created in the 1920s. When I wrote the book, I actually got quite a lot of interest in Russia. It was published, I think, in 2000. And of course, there was then a new Russian president, a new leader, who was hailed for his liberalism and reforming instincts, his decency, by George W. Bush and Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin. I was approached by his office, the presidential administration, and they said, could they meet me? I met them. And they said, 'Can you talk to us about how Potemkin took South Ukraine and took Crimea?' Because Potemkin was just a fascinating character, a visionary who annexed South Ukraine, annexed Crimea and founded cities like Sevastopol, Odesa, Kherson. They asked me if I could write a one-pager for a certain personage, and which I did, about this subject. And then of course, it was translated into Russian. And when George W. Bush visited Petersburg, him and Putin discussed Potemkin, instead of discussing Peter the Great. So that was 20 years ago, and as a reward for that, I never met Putin, but I was approached by his office again, and they said, 'Would you like a reward for writing this book about Catherine the Great and Potemkin?' And I said, 'Yeah.' And they said, 'Would you like to be the first person to work on the archives of Joseph Stalin?' So that became my book with, ‘Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar'. And when I published the book, Putin hated it. So then I lost all my privileges in the archives and they wouldn't help me at all. And so I've experienced both the radiant glow of the favour of the Kremlin for a very short period, and then experienced the cold wind of the tundra of being out of favour.

Simon Brewer

But you've also found your way into one of those Central Asian republics, haven't you? At a turbulent time.

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Yeah, at a very exciting time. When the Soviet Union started to break up, I applied to stay via a bed and breakfast system with families all over the Soviet Union. I stayed in Petersburg, I stayed in Moscow. But in Central Asia and the Caucasus, I stayed in Samarkand, I stayed in Bukhara, I stayed in Tbilisi and Baku, and those were very exciting places. The Empire was just disintegrating. And wherever I arrived, civil war broke out. And I got to know the warlords and the presidents. And so that was an amazing experience. And I think for a historian, to see empires falling is an essential experience because it means you can write about it. And of course, in the world of family history, I often put that moment, that experience, to good use, as well as telling the stories about what happened to me in Tbilisi in the Karabakh war in Chechnya. I was in Grozny in 1994 so I saw some pretty awful things and I also saw things that fascinated me. And I met an extraordinary character, and I became friendly with Shevardnadze at that time and also the first president of Georgia, Gamsakhurdia, who was later killed. So politics was a pretty dangerous pursuit there.

Simon Brewer

But there was one incident which you need to share with our listeners, I think, where you managed to talk to your mother who was extremely concerned about your welfare.

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Well, in late '91, the new president of Georgia was Zviad Gamsakhurdia. And for an English audience, he was rather interesting because he was a Shakespearean scholar. He thought of himself as a sort of heroic Henry V character, but he turned out to be more King Lear or even Julius Caesar, because a civil war very quickly broke out against him, a rebellion. And when I went to see him, he liked to sit there and talk to me for hours about Shakespeare while there was a revolution going on in the streets and the palace was being surrounded. But I realised that my parents would be very worried about me, and there was no way to get a message out. This was before mobile phones. But when I spoke to him, I noticed the single satellite phone in the whole of Tbilisi was on his desk. So when he went to the balcony to address his followers outside who were all yelping and shouting and firing guns, I said to Mr. President, 'Any chance I could use your phone and phone my mum?' He said, 'Please, sit in my throne.' He called it a throne, I remember. So I sat in his throne and I rang my mother. She said, 'Where the hell are you?' I said, 'I'm in Tbilisi.' She said, 'But there's a civil war going on there.' I said, 'Yes, I'm right in the middle of it. I'm in the President's desk.' She said, 'Well, get out of there fast!' Then she listened and she said, 'What's that noise in the background? It sounds like Hitler talking from the balcony.' I said, 'Well, some would say it was a bit like that.' Anyway, so that was my first experience as a war correspondent. And I was very lucky that I experienced some amazing things. The Karabakh War was pretty fascinating, between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which has now flared up again. All of this seems very recent. I guess, deeper thought is that we presume that the fall of the Soviet Union was rather a surprisingly peaceful process, everything went smoothly. There were these very vicious ethnic wars in the Caucasus. But apart from that, Ukraine and Kazakhstan surrendered their nuclear weapons. And it looked like this was a very bloodless process. But of course, it turned out it wasn't because it's still going on today.

Simon Brewer

So let's talk about ‘The World’. Somebody once said, 'The scariest moment about a book is always just before you start.' I wondered how long you'd cradle this idea for.

Simon Sebag Montefiore

That's a really good question. I really struggled to write this book. It was the most daunting, most stressful, but also most joyful and satisfactory book I've ever done. And I really struggled about how to write a history of the world. When you're a writer, you write a very short proposal for the publishers, and they sell it all over the world. And then the terrible moment comes when you have to actually write the damn thing. So I agonised about how to do it. I wanted to get the span of world history, which is about great movements, migrations, technology, finance, pandemics, and then on the other hand, the intimacy of biography. So I came up with this idea of following families through world history. And I think that this way, you do get a feeling of the world through these families, but also the grit, the juice of intimate human life. And that's the idea of the book.

Simon Brewer

Well, that's 1260 pages. I have got to almost 1000. I have to say it sort of builds momentum and becomes increasingly gripping as I've gone along. And we have the Medicis, the Incas, the Rothschilds, the Krupps, Kennedys, Nehrus, Pahlavis, Kims and Assads. What surprised you as you researched and wrote the book?

Simon Sebag Montefiore

I didn't know a lot of what's in the book, of course. I knew the same stuff that most people know about the great dynasties from the Habsburgs onwards, the Romanovs of course, the Saxe-Coburgs, the Stewarts. But what I wanted to do was to do something different. I mean, first of all, the great thing about family is in the new world we're living in now, for diversity, this is a brilliant way for looking at the world. And I wanted to treat the royal families of the Zulus, the Incas, the Dahomeans, the Benin Kingdom, exactly as I would the Habsburgs or the Rothschilds or the Medici, and that's what I've done. So in that sense, it's a new approach. And then, of course, women have been neglected in traditional history. Obviously, with families, it works extremely well. And then I didn't want it to be a victor's history either. So it's not just about the great empires, the Portuguese Empire handing over to the Spanish Empire to the British Empire to the Dutch empire to the French Empire. No. It's also about places that you should know about but you probably don't like Albania, which is very relevant today in Britain because of migration. There's a lot of Albanian history, Cambodian history, Haitian history, Hawaiian history, Congolese history. I wanted to have a completely fresh feel and everything about this surprised me. I think one of the most interesting things is that we presume, sitting here in West London, that dynastic history is a thing of the past. And it is really in places like Britain and France. But in much of the world, it's not only thriving, it's reverting, it's resurging, and you only have to look at Asia to see that actually family power is returning because states have failed somehow to provide the security and justice and comfort perhaps that people need and they've reverted to clans and to family power. And you can see that both in democracies from the United States to India to Singapore, but also in dictatorships and regimes that are really monarchies for all intents and purposes. And of course, you mentioned the Assads and the Aliyevs of Azerbaijan, the Kims of North Korea. But then look across Asia and you see that Marcos has just been elected, Kenyatta has just left power in Kenya. These are all big dynasties, but they're elected. We're in a very interesting place in the world at the moment in terms of family power. But I don't make too much claims for this family approach. It's a very useful way to tell the world history so that you follow these families, you know them. When you meet Genghis Khan, for example, you kind of know his family history already, and that's the fun thing. When you meet Adolf Hitler, you've actually met his father, Alois Hitler, as an official in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, typical Habsburg official. When you meet Donald Trump when he was elected president very recently, you actually have met his grandfather, Drumpf, who leaves Bavaria in the 1890s. This is the way I've approached history, and I hope it works. It's certainly been great fun to write.

Simon Brewer

I think it absolutely does. And this opus shows war, destruction, recreation of the norms jostling for a position as a constant and mischievous behavior to Machiavellian and murderers. But one of them, of course, is the financial intrigue that repeats itself. And let's just talk about the Suez Canal, because in conventional terms, this wasn't a normal takeover battle, was it? What happened?

Simon Sebag Montefiore

No, no. In 1876, Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister who had been elected in a landslide in 1874, managed to clinch the Suez Canal for Britain, which was a key moment in the expansion of British power into the eastern Mediterranean. And also safeguarding, of course, India, then regarded as an essential part of British power. One of the fascinating families that's told in this, which is now kind of forgotten, is the family of the Albanian dynasty that ruled Egypt from 1806 to 1952 when they were overthrown by Nasser in Egypt. So it really takes Egypt into the modern era. It was founded by Muhammad Ali. He was really the sort of Napoleon of the Middle East, one of the greatest statesmen of world history, but probably the greatest Arab leader of modern times and the most successful by far, and he wasn't actually Arab at all. He was actually Turkish-Albanian, born in Greece. He set up this dynasty that modernised Egypt, that was the first non-European country to industrialise in its cotton production. So really an extraordinary character. His descendants modernised and borrowed a lot and really prospered, especially in the period of the 1860s, the American Civil War, because when cotton production was subverted by the war, Egypt stepped in and became vastly rich, but of course, they overborrowed. So Ismail the Magnificent was then the Khedive of Egypt. He vastly overborrowed. He also tried to expand an Egyptian empire into Sudan, all the way down into Uganda. And it was really him that started the Scramble for Africa, not the Europeans at all. Very important figure, but he went bankrupt and the banks had to step in. And this was Benjamin Disraeli's great opportunity. So he wanted to borrow the money and he needed to borrow £4 million immediately. When the cabinet agreed to it, he sent his private secretary Montagu Corry off in a carriage to St Swithin's Lane, where the Rothschild family bank was. And one's got to remember that Disraeli was great friends with Lionel de Rothschild, who was then head of the bank.  And he received Montagu Corry and he was eating grapes, famously. Montagu Corry wrote his own account of that meeting, and he was eating grapes and spitting out the pits as he listened. And of course, he'd been geed up already by Disraeli. But he went in there and he said, 'Mr. Rothschild, the government needs to borrow £4 million pounds.' And he spat out a couple of grapes and finally said, 'Fine, you've got it.' So Corry ran back to Downing Street, where Disraeli sent the telegrams and we bought the controlling share of the Suez Canal, which of course we then had until 1956 to the Suez Crisis, which was the end of the British Empire in that region.

Simon Brewer

You alluded to the female dynasties, and there are some fascinating stories of power women in your book. What perhaps did you discover that held your attention most?

Simon Sebag Montefiore

The interesting thing is, of course, dynasties make women very important. Women are very important in families. We're all part of families. I mean, partly this book is a chronicle of the family. We're all members of such families. Power families are a little different, and of course, because often the woman who was the mother of the heir to the throne had immense power. So that was how many women came to power, either as widows or as mothers. The dominating inspiring influence of the mother who loves her son is a theme of the book, of course. And when you look at many world leaders, they were given their confidence by brilliant mothers, not always to the benefit of humanity. Hitler and Stalin were classic examples of that. But in many of the dynasties, especially of the East, were places like the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire, the Mongol Empire. There are incredible women who were clearly great statesmen and clearly great politicians as well as devoted mothers and they came to rule whole empires. I mean, one gets a feeling of how the East is so much more powerful. At the time of the Battle of Agincourt, for example, in British history, we're just obsessed with the Battle of Agincourt. In school, all we do is study these little English victories but in fact, the armies at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 were about 6000 each, which is like a skirmish compared with just a few years earlier, Tamerlane defeated Bayezid, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. They each had an army of over 150,000 people. So you can see why in this book, I don't pay much attention to Agincourt at that time, but I'm much more interested in the Ottoman Empire. It's in the Ottoman Empire that really fascinating women become very powerful. One of the most interesting is Roxelana, who was known by the Turks as Hurrem Sultan. That was the name given to her by Suleiman the Magnificent, and she's really the most powerful Ukrainian woman, the most powerful Ukrainian, full stop, in world history. And she became the sole wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, but she was stolen, kidnapped, enslaved from a Ukrainian village, probably by Tatar horsemen. She was sold to the harem of the Sultan, and she became the great love of Suleiman, who was the greatest monarch of his time. You’ve got to remember, the Ottoman Empire then stretched from the borders of Iran to the borders of Morocco, from Budapest to Egypt. She's a fascinating character, and she protected her son who became Selim and made sure that he succeeded. But jump a century and you come to someone like Kösem Sultan, who was another amazing woman, also very beautiful, who was the widow of the Sultan and protected her sons and ruled the Ottoman Empire and dominated the Ottoman Empire over 50 years from when she was a very young girl to when she was an old woman. She coincided with James I, Charles I, Cromwell. We think of them as powerful. She was a million times more powerful and very interesting, witty, accomplished, and she had the acumen to run an empire. She also had to decide to have her own son strangled. But power is a messy business. In every absolute system, whether it's the Ottoman Empire or Russia today or China, the more absolute and personal power is, the more ruthless and unforgiving it is when you lose it.

Simon Brewer

So I was intrigued that Iran/Persia gets considerable coverage in the book and it was your friend Andrew Roberts, who was interviewing Henry Kissinger who said something slightly different from Mark Twain's quotation. He said, 'History repeats itself by comparable events.' Now, I know you're not a forecaster, but there are changes afoot, one might think, in Iran. My question, I guess is, what would you say is the true Iranian or Persian character?

Simon Sebag Montefiore

That's a very good question. One of the themes in the history is Persianate poetry and Persianate culture, which has been the very definition of refinement through much of the book that I cover. And again and again, whether it's the Mughal dynasty, whether it's the Ottomans, whether it's Tamerlane, everybody aspires to the refinement of Persian culture. So that's a very important theme of the book. But you're right, in cold power terms, Iran or Persia is a massive presence in the book, and I follow it all the way through, and I studied it very closely. It's very important. Even in the 20th century, it's very important with the last Shah, Mohammad Pahlavi, who was overthrown in '79. Since '79, Iran's become even more powerful. The Shah would have been impressed, in some ways, with the way that the dictators of the Islamic Republic have managed to promote Iranian power ruthlessly, but it's been very much at the cost of the Iranians in terms of economics. They've spent an enormous amount of money, and they've also only controlled Iran with incredible repression. There's a very strange phenomenon afoot where the Western media, Western sort of opinion, is very reluctant to criticise Iran in the same way that it's quite happy to criticize Putin, for example, or China. I think that's partly because in our secular societies, we're very nervous about how to deal with religious societies and Islam in particular. The BBC is incredibly reluctant at the moment to call it a dictatorship at all. But let's look at this regime. It's really a kind of medieval monarchy. Ayatollah Khomeini, the first Imam of the Islamic Republic, ruled as an absolute dictator for 10 years and then he just handed it over. He chose his successor, and he gave it to his student and henchman, Ali Khamenei, who has been in power since 1989, so for 30 years. And of course, the BBC and other Western media always calls it the Islamic Republic very respectfully and even when their agents have stabbed someone like Salman Rushdie. It’s Salman Rushdie who's described by the BBC as controversial, his works are controversial, but the Islamic Republic is completely uncriticised really. So it's a very weird thing. I think it's partly because the West so bought into the fall of the Shah and the Shah as a villain. The Shah was an autocrat. He was a dictator, and he did screw up royally and fall from power. He did waste many of the proceeds of oil that he could have used better. I'm not a supporter of the Shah, but it’s undeniable just in terms of the massive number of people tortured and killed since, that the Islamic Republic is one of the most vicious and evil dictatorships. And Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, is in effect, one of the most unpleasant dictators around today. And at the time we're talking, there's a revolution going on in Iran. And again, the Western media is very keen just to say this is all about women's rights, which started that way, but now it's a revolution against one of the most murderous regimes in the world today. And in terms of those killed, much worse than Putin's repression within Russia, for example. And of course, they're allied with each other too in a sort of axis. So we're living in exciting times. And it's very important that we know about Iranian history, and there's a lot of it in the book.

Simon Brewer

Yeah. Well, you've talked about the sources of danger, and you quote Han Fei Tzu, who said calamity will come to you from those you love. And you’ve talked about that. And I know last week, George Osborne interviewed you at the British Museum. And then I happened to run into him and I said, 'Any questions you didn't ask Sebag? And so he said, 'Doesn't all of this give you a sense of a dark reflection on humanity?'

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Good question. I mean, it was very nice talking to George. And of course, one of the fun things is talking to politicians who are also aware of history. And of course, one of the themes of the book is the number of historians who were also prime ministers and statesmen. Henry Kissinger is one. Maybe you'll interview him before- you know, he's now 99 so there's still time. He's as sharp as a tack still. But that's the theme that runs through history. Some of the great historians are also politicians. I was thinking of Ibn Khaldun, who's a very important one. But you're absolutely right. The book is a chronicle of humanity. All human drama is there right up to the day that Putin invades Ukraine when the book ends, and then we look ahead to what happens next. You could say that much of dark matter of history is in the book. And there are cities falling, empires rising and falling, there are massacres, there are pandemics. There's slavery, there's Empire, but of course, as we're seeing with Ukraine today, it's when these super propellants happened, war, pandemic, huge changes happened. And of course, in the history, it's the changes we're very interested in. So yes, it has a lot of the dark history. But it also, I think, is a celebration of humankind. It's full of poetry, it's full of art, it's full of love, it's full of sex, it's full of food, music. By the way, it was very fun writing about Frank Sinatra, and the Stones and David Bowie, who are all in the book. For those of you who like music, I say in the book that I think the Stones' 'Sympathy For The Devil' is the greatest history pop song of all time. And I've got a playlist on Spotify, which you might want to look up, which has the great history songs. But I think the book is both an indictment and a celebration of humankind. And it's really a celebration of human ingenuity, creativity, and this is family, you know, love. It's got all of those things in here. And it has to be both that, an indictment but also a celebration.

Simon Brewer

I don't think I've ever read footnotes in a book to the extent that I've read your footnotes because they just opened up great sources of information. You say over 20 million immigrants arrived in America between 1850 and 1920, the greatest migration in history, and it keeps on coming back, this migration that changes the character of a nation.

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Well, one of the great themes of the book, the wider themes, is migration, and all nations are created by migration of some sort. Invasions generally mean invasions of armed males. But migrations are the invasions of families. For those who think there are any pure nations, there really aren't. They're all the creation of migration, including Britain, of course, but especially America. And America was made possible by migration and by migration carried by steamships. So the steam revolution made possible the conquest of America. The conquest of America is much later than we think. The interior of America was still unconquered at the beginning of the 19th century. It was still controlled by people like the Comanches, who are big characters in the book and have their sort of empire which we call Comancheria. So we often forget. America is a conquest state, and you see that often in the nature of America. We think of America as the East and West Coast, which are very Anglo, in a way, very English in a way, and then you realise that the nature of America is different, and that reflects its origins. Migration is really important. And of course, migration is going to be the great challenge of the coming century in an even bigger way. But we cover all sorts of migrations. We have the Huns and the Goths, and the change that they made to the Roman Empire. One of the rules about empires is that the more open and more liberal the empire, the more tolerant an empire, the longer it lasts. So the least tolerant empire in history, Nazi empire in Europe, lasts four years. And the reason for that is that they did many terrible things, but one of the stupider things they did was alienate everybody, because in an ideology of racial supremacy, they excluded everybody. Then look at the Roman Empire where they gave everybody citizenship in the whole Roman Empire, which was brilliant, because of course, it meant that everybody then became Romans. You had people living in the North of England in Roman villas thinking they were Romans even though they had no Italian or Roman blood at all. So it's all about migration. It's all about hybridity.

Simon Brewer

So Joseph Conrad, the writer, years ago wrote, 'My task, by the power of the written word, is to make you hear, to make you feel. It is, before all, to make you see,' and I think you capture events and characters beautifully. I'm going to have one extract here. 'An attractive well-spoken public schoolboy and Oxford barrister polished the encompassing charisma to discipline his Labour Party and win three elections. He and Bush had little in common, but they shared a Christian faith and missionary vision drawn to America at its plentitude despite soaring opposition and suspicion about the dubious intelligence. Blair committed Britain to the war.' Now, apart from that very intriguing observation, and I don't think very controversial observation, you write beautifully. Is that a skill that has taken years?

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Thank you. Yeah, I mean, I've really worked hard in these books to write histories that are readable by everybody. You don't have to know anything about style or Jerusalem or world history, in this case, to read the books. And yet, I try and work very hard to encompass the latest scholarship in the book. And I've been very lucky in this book that I've had professors of Chinese history from Harvard check the Chinese sections, and so on, which is really important because one of the great things in all of life is to sit at the feet of masters and learn from them. The writing, I sweat blood to make these books both readable, and hopefully, well-written, but also accessible to everybody. And I've really worked hard on that throughout my life. I've had wonderful mentors who've taught me how to do this and I've learned from them, but I'm trying to get closest to the nature of people. And one of the conflicts in this book is another sort of skirmish in the old battle between whether history is made up of great fat trends changing great movements or whether it's decided by individuals. Of course it's both, and I want to reflect that. So I want the people in the book to feel like living people that we might know.

Simon Brewer

Before we move to some general questions, of course, you authored 'Jerusalem', which is a fantastic book. I think it was nominated as Book of the Year when it came out. But I first encountered you in 2003. And I was sitting in the audience at the Royal Geographical Society and you walked on stage and said simply, 'I'm going to tell you about one night and it was the Kremlin, 8th of November 1932, the 15th anniversary of the Russian Revolution,' and you described Stalin's wife, Nadya Alliluyeva, quietly leave the dinner, walk to the Kremlin apartments, go to her bedroom, lock the door, take out a pistol and kill herself, and you held everyone spellbound. And that book, 'Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar', is utterly compelling, as is 'Jerusalem'. These are great sweeps of history. Some could say that you're allowed to retire right now.

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Well, I don't think I'll ever retire. But I'll never write another book like this one. The 'Jerusalem' book, of course, led to this book, because in 'Jerusalem', the challenge was to talk about the city without just telling you about buildings and the old siege. What I'm always trying to do is to bring things to life. And I said this idea of tethering works well, so I often try and start the books with something that is incredibly striking, that introduces many of the themes and the worlds we're going to be in. With 'Catherine the Great & Potemkin', it's his death on those steps of Moldova and holding on to Catherine's love letters as he dies. And then with 'Stalin', it's the death of his wife in 1932 that you mentioned, which is politically in itself, irrelevant. But all the leadership are there, and they all live together in the Kremlin. So it's a brilliant way of introducing the idiosyncratic and terrifying world of the Bolshevik leadership. And of course, in 'Jerusalem', I start with the fall of the city in 70 CE by Titus, as he takes Jerusalem, destroys the temple. One of the great apocalyptic set pieces of world history, which is fascinating, but also in many ways, the moment that Christianity and Judaism and later Islam, spiritually separated from old-fashioned temple Judaism, as had existed until then. So I always try and select a sort of key moment or a key character that really defines the book and the subject. But God, I just don't want to write another book. I'm exhausted. I really struggled writing this book just because of the sheer extent, the sheer ambition of it, and it did almost kill me. I mean, if it wasn't lockdown, and I don't think I'd have managed it, but I often woke up in the middle of the night keen to write and I hadn't slept. I would go around to the cafe around the corner, 5:30 in the morning, and the guy was in there preparing and I'd knock on the door with my key, and he'd open the door and give me a coffee. And I sat in the dark street just sipping a coffee before starting. I think all successful books, all successful projects, maybe even podcasts, Simon, are the work of obsession. You have to be not just immersed but obsessed with getting these things right. And I think that's probably true of all great creative enterprises and business. This is a money podcast, and many of the people who create great businesses are obsessed with that business. We're living in the age of Elon Musk, for example, but in my book, you've got lots of these big business titans who were all obsessive quite strange characters, going back to Edison or Ford or Rockefeller, very strange people. And there are others, the Rothschilds. So I think this book, like all other enterprises that hopefully are successful, is a work of obsession.

Simon Brewer

So some closing questions. You mentioned your playlist. My wife put it on last week, and I wondered, who inspired you? Was it your amazing wife, your children?

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Children are very inspiring, but they've had to put up with me writing this hellish book. Santa is also a writer. She's a novelist, and I think they're all pretty sick of 'The World'. I think they never want to hear the word ‘The World’ again. But the music is really important. As we said, to get close to human life, you've got to have writing, you've got to have sex, you've got to have food, you've got to have clothes. These are the things that give the grit of life and so music is part of it. Take someone like Frank Sinatra, I listened to all his music while writing this, but he's a fascinating character. He's at the nexus of so many things. In the consumer age, he's one of the first consumer stars with the bobby-soxers in the late '40s. Then he becomes friends with the Mafia, he performs in Havana for Meyer Lansky. Then he's friends with Jack Kennedy and introduces Jack Kennedy to Sam Giancana's girlfriend, Judith Exner. He knows Marilyn Monroe, then he becomes friends with Reagan. He's a fascinating character. So listening to songs like 'New York, New York' were very timely. The playlist is worth listening to.

Simon Brewer

Having researched all these figures, which historical figure would you want to have dinner with and where in the world would you want to have it?

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Of course, I really would want to meet Jesus Christ, someone like that. But if I really wanted to live somewhere, it would have been around 800 CE, in the Abbasid empire in their capital Baghdad. Of course, I'd want to be at the very center of court life, even though that was an extremely dangerous place to be. But I think it was one of the apogees of human civilisation as well. And I hope your viewers and listeners are not of a shockable nature, but I suggest that they go and read those chapters about Baghdad under Harun al-Rashid. This is the period of The Thousand and One Nights, of course, but you'll see that Islamic society could be so different from what we're used to seeing today. It wasn't very difficult to find. Look at their poetry and their writers, it's just outrageously saucy stuff that I think is quite shocking, even for Westerners in our puritanical age today. So that's when I'd love to have lived, please.

Simon Brewer

How precarious was it becoming a writer given that the path is littered with corpses of wannabe writers?

Simon Sebag Montefiore

It's a very precarious life. It really is. It's a very unstable, precarious life. It's just very hard to make a success and make a living from it. I did other things before, as we've talked about, and I also was a journalist and was a war correspondent and did all of that before. I did interviews for The Sunday Times in the 1990s. But I really wanted to do stuff that would last. And I also love writing fiction. I've written a trilogy about Stalin's Russia, 'The Moscow Trilogy'. But the history books, I've been very lucky with them, really. You just can't ever predict that. And actually, when you have success, I had it with 'Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar'. It was the sort of breakthrough book for me, published on the 50th anniversary of Stalin's death, in 2003. I was very lucky with that. And I had been one of the first people to get into these Stalin archives. With someone like Stalin, it's just fascinating to see what makes him tick and to be amongst his own people. So that was amazing. But it's very hard to make a living from this so long may it continue. So far, so good, but it's a fragile and precarious life.

Simon Brewer

What advice would you give to a 20-year-old Sebag?

Simon Sebag Montefiore

I would just say anyone who wants to write must just begin to write. And the key thing about writing is just to start, A, which is the hardest thing. You'll never be ready, you've just got to begin. And the other thing is to have interesting experiences, to live an interesting life, to see things that other people don't see, as we've been talking about. I was very lucky that I saw these revolutions and coups and civil wars, the breakup of empires. Until then, my life had been very boring and very comfortable; English boarding school, Cambridge and a bank. So I would say seek interesting experiences. And thirdly, don't get it right, just get it written. That's the key thing, because all of success in writing is in the re-writing.

Simon Brewer

That's really interesting advice. 'Don't get it right, get it written.' Simon, this has been a conversation I've been looking forward to. As I said, I have found 'The World' just a gripping read, and it gets better and better perhaps because we associate ourselves with a nearer history. But thank you so much for your time today.

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Thanks. It has been really fun. Thank you, Simon.

All content on the Money Maze Podcast is for your general information and use only and is not intended to address your particular requirements. In particular, the content does not constitute any form of advice, recommendation, representation, endorsement or arrangement and is not intended to be relied upon by users in making any specific investment or other decisions. Guests and presenters may have positions in any of the investments discussed.

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In this episode, bestselling author and historian, Simon Sebag Montefiore, discusses his new book, which covers the key families who have shaped global history.

His latest work has proven to be a hit, with Henry Kissinger commenting that: ‘Sebag Montefiore interweaves the stories of the servants, courtiers and kings, pioneers, preachers and philosophers who have made history. A brilliant synthesis that will impart fresh insight to even the most learned readers.’

Simon starts the interview by describing Putin’s fascination with Ukraine and the Potemkin era, and continues with the access granted to him to explore the Russian archives to write about Stalin. He explains how the welcome went from warm to frosty after the publication of ‘Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar’.

He then describes the powerful impact of human migration, and influence of powerful families; from the Medicis and Mughals, to the Kennedys, Pahlavis, Kenyattas, Kims and Assads. His work tells the stories of the families that have shaped our world and he brings to light stories unknown to us, including why great families continue exert extraordinary and under-recognised influence.

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Simon Sebag Montefiore is the bestselling and prize-winning writer of history and fiction whose books are published in 48 languages. He is the author of the international bestsellers 'Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar', 'Jerusalem: The Biography', 'Young Stalin', Catherine the Great and Potemkin', 'The Romanovs' and 'Voices of History', as well as the Moscow Trilogy of novels and 'The Royal Rabbits of London' for children. He has won prizes for both history and fiction. All of his works are now being developed into films or TV drama series. His latest book is 'The World: A Family History'.

Themes & Collaborations

In the episode, he discusses his latest work, ‘The World: A Family History’. The book tells the story of humanity, from prehistory to the present day, through the lens of the one thing all humans have in common: family. With a focus on well-known names, from the Caesars to the Obamas, and lesser known ones, it captures the story of humankind in all its joy, sorrow, romance, ingenuity and cruelty. 

In the interview, he also reflects on his research for ‘Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar’ (Putin was not a fan of this one!). He also discusses the process of writing ‘Jerusalem: The Biography’. 

Writing in 2014, Sebag Montefiore analysed the context behind poor Ukraine-Russia relations, predicting that Russia could intervene in the country.

Simon joins a number of well-known and respected authors who have appeared on the show, including Peter Frankopan, Niall Ferguson and Micheal Lewis.

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