Interview with Simon Sebag Montefiore,
By Diego Moldes, April 2018
Why did you become a historian? What motivated you it in your youth?
To tell stories that inspire and teach and warn and entertain.
Being English: Why have you specialized in Russian history?
I love all history. But Russia’s tragic and flamboyant history caught my imagination and so did Jerusalem’s history. And that of Spain too.
Your work includes fiction and non-fiction (novels). How do you determine your books, do you choose first the genre and then the topic or the other way around?
No, I just write what inspires me. I try to concentrate on one project and then immerse myself.
You have written three books about Stalin, two historical and one novel. Why are you attracted to such a bloodthirsty character, along with Hitler who committed the biggest genocide in history?
Actually I have written a double biography of Stalin and three historical novels set in 20th Century Russia – the Moscow Trilogy. Stalin is a titanic figure and I find him fascinating.
Being of Jewish descent, have you thoroughly studied Stalinist and Soviet anti-Semitism? What conclusions have you reached?
Yes, of course. Anti-Semitism was very much part of the culture of the Romanovs too. It became part of the culture of Soviet Russia via Stalin’s personal prejudices but also through the merging of Russian and Soviet traditions. But Russia is not the only place scarred by anti-Semitism.
One of your most complete books is Jerusalem, a masterpiece of erudition and high historical disclosure. Its historical rigor is enormous and the story flows. How did you confront its preparation and writing?
Thank you. It was very hard to do and it almost killed me but I loved writing it.
The book gave rise to a BBC series: Jerusalem: The Making of a Holy City, 3 part series, (8 December 2011 – 23 December 2011). Has it been released in Spanish-speaking countries (the second-most-spoken language in the world after Mandarin Chinese)?
I want it to be out in Spanish since it was the start of a thread of series that included the history of Spain – Blood and Gold. I hope it will be in Spanish sometime.
Regarding your work for the BBC I have special interest in Blood and Gold: The Making of Spain, (3 part series, 8 December 2015 – 22 December 2015): can you summarize its content? have you have tried to release it in Spain or Mexico?
Simply the history of Spain. I love Spanish history and I love Spain. I want it to be seen in Spain and Mexico.
Because of your Sephardic origins, what can you tell us about the Sephardic community in London? Is it separated from the Ashkenazi or is it an outdated distinction? Do you think it maintains its Hispanic and Portuguese identity?
It used to be more separated from the Ashkenazis. I grew up in a Sephardi synagogue but increasingly the two communities are merged.
I have read your book The Romanov, thanks to you I discovered many things that I didn’t know about this mythical Russian imperial family. What was the relationship between the Romanov and the Jews?
The Romanovs hated the Jews and blamed them for many of the ills of the modern world.
I read that the Blank family, bankers of the czars and the family of Lenin’s mother were Jewish: How was Lenin’s relationship with the Jewish people?
Lenin was mainly Russian, with elements of Tartar and Jewish descent. He had no relation to the Jewish people.
You have written collective books with your wife Santa Montefiore. Why children’s books? How is sharing your life with a novelist, being a writer yourself? Do you speak about the plots of your novels when you write them?
The children’s books Royal Rabbits of London that I hope will be out in Spanish sometime are simply stories for children that we have loved writing together. And 20th Century Fox is making an animated movie of them.
Do you think that any of your novel could be converted into a movie? I thinking about Shashenka, I read it almost ten years ago. I really like the book’s narrative technique.
Yes, I think the novels are going to be made into a TV drama series and the deal is about to be made.
You are descendant of legendary philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885), who was next to Sir Anthony de Rothschild (1810-1876), the greatest British Zionist, long before Theodor Herzl. Sir Moses Montefiore lived a hundred years and was perhaps the most important Sephardic figure in the nineteenth century. What do you most admire about him?
I admire a lot about him. He worked for the freedom and rights of Jews and other oppressed peoples around the world.
What is your relationship with Judaism today?
I am a practising Jew but not very observant!!! We light the candles on Sabbaths; my children have had bar mitzvahs.
We are promoting the construction of the future Jewish Museum of Spain, in Madrid, the only European important city that does not have a Jewish museum. (Now there the Jewish Museum of Lisbon and the Museum Ebraico d’Italia in Ferrara have been built: Why do you believe that this has happened in the capital of Sefarad? What do you believe a Spanish Jewish museum should teach and contain?
I think the museum is a great idea and would be a great addition to Madrid, that wonderful city.