The House of Romanov was the last great empire of Russia. The aristocratic rule of the Romanovs consolidated power to the ruling family for nearly three hundred years. The majority of the Russian people sat back and watched as the ruling family pressed for more power as each monarch took the throne.
Animosity towards the ruling class built up for three centuries until its boiling point at the height of World War I. Declining conditions within Russia caused the Romanovs to concede power, making way for the Bolsheviks to assume communist rule over the country.
This is the story of the rise and fall of the House of Romanov. There are some unbelievable tales along the way: a “devil monk” who could see the future, a young family’s brutal massacre, and a mysterious woman claiming to be an heiress.
Ancestry of the House of Romanov
The ancestry of the House of Romanov is shared among two dozen Russian families. Andrei Kobyla ascended to one of the highest ranks under Semyon I of Moscow called a boyar, or “nobleman,” in the feudal aristocracies in Bulgaria, Romania, and Russia.
Some historians claim Kobyla was the son of Glanda Kambila, a Prussian prince who arrived in Russia during the 13th century during a rebellion against the German Teutonic Order. The family name was changed to Koshkin and then to Zakharin. The Zakharin family split into Zakharin-Yakovlev and Zakharin-Yuriev before the grandchildren if Roman Yurievich Zakharyin-Yuriev became known as Romanov just after the rule of Ivan the Terrible.
Birth Of The House Of Romanov
After Roman’s daughter, Anastasia Zakharyina was married to Ivan IV in 1547, a month after he became tsar, she became the first tsaritsa of Russia. After her enigmatic passing, Ivan was suspicious of the boyars and their possible involvement and began a brutal reign of terror against them.
It was a tumultuous time for Tsar Ivan. After an argument, Tsar Ivan murdered his heir, giving his younger son Feodor access to the throne. Feodor’s passing marked the end of his family’s 700-year reign. The struggle for power with Boris Godunov let to the exile of the Romanov family to the outer regions of the empire, where many of them starved to death.
Dynasty Established With Mikhail Romanov
Godunov’s rule was short-lived and the Romanov’s were able to return during the Time of Troubles. Sixteen-year-old Mikhail Romanov reluctantly accepted the throne out of fear during those turbulent times. Using his family’s connection to the Rurikid tsars, the family of Ivan the Terrible, he successfully won acceptance with the populace.
The House of Romanov was now established as the new dynasty of Russia. Internal struggle existed within the family after Mikhail’s son passed away. His grandson, Peter the Great, prevailed and took the throne in 1682 and increased the Tsardom dramatically into a major power and a new force to be reckoned with in Europe.
Peter the Great
Peter was responsible for leading a major cultural revolution, bringing an end to the traditional social and political structure, which existed within Russia for centuries. He brought about a more contemporary scientific and rational approach.
One major change was to the traditional succession to the Russian throne. The eldest heir was no longer the next male in line to rule, and Peter had given himself the power to select a new tsar himself. His second wife, Empress Catherine, was to be the next ruler upon his death in 1725. Her reign quickly ended when she died two years later, giving power to their son Peter II.
The First Major Internal Conflict To Save The Romanovs
Internal family struggles caused a rift in the leadership of Russia for the next twenty years. Peter II died in 1730 giving Anna I, daughter of Peter the Great’s half-brother, Ivan V, the throne. She made a concerted effort to keep her father Ivan V’s bloodline in power by declaring Ivan VI, her grandnephew who was only one year old at the time, the next in line to rule Russia.
Not wishing to be ruled by an infant, Elizabeth Petrovna, daughter of Peter I, successfully implemented a coup d’état after winning the hearts and minds of the population and supporting European powers in France and Sweden. Ivan VI and his parents were imprisoned and passed away many years later.
Catherine The Great’s Illegitimate Heir?
Empress Elizabeth declared her nephew, Peter of Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov, heir to the throne and arranged a marriage between him and a German princess, Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, who became known as Catherine, who overthrew Peter with the aid of Grigory Orlov, her lover. When Catherine the Great passed in 1796, the line of succession went to her son Paul I, a proud ancestor of Peter the Great.
Catherine the Great’s memoirs question the legitimacy of Paul I’s rule when she stated his father was another lover, Sergei Saltykov. Seeing how this could pose a problem in the future, Paul declared house laws for the Romanovs.
Romanov Succession Secured With Alexander I
House laws were common among ruling families in Europe. Specifically, the semi-Salic primogeniture that allowed power to pass to women if no other males remain in the bloodline. The rules also allow the female who is closest in the proximity of the bloodline. The house laws also established a requirement of having Orthodox faith for Russia’s rulers and the nearest heirs. Paul I believed he had superseded the rules of succession.
Paul I’s rule didn’t last long because he was killed in 1801 while residing in his own St. Petersburg Palace. Alexander I took his place and in 1820 decreed males in succession to ruling Russia had to be from the royal family and of equal birth.
Without a son to succeed Paul I, his brother Nicholas I took the throne. Many troops declared an oath to Nicholas’ brother Constantine Pavlovich, who renounced his claim, and turmoil set in which led to the Decembrist Revolt in 1825.
The uprising involved thousands of troops, known as the Decembrists, filling St. Petersburg Square in protest. Nicholas I quickly quelled the uprising and he would later father four sons who would be molded to become future military and dynastic rulers. Alexander II became the next emperor of Russia in 1855 during the brutal Crimean War, which saw the end of Russia’s allegiance with France, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire.
Alexander II – Russia’s Greatest Tsar
Alexander II wanted to keep his country’s alliance with Europe but decided to spend his time and resources rebuilding the Russian military and freeing the serfs in 1861, giving him much support of the population.
In 1864, Alexander’s life began a downward spiral. His son and heir, Tsarevich Nicholas, had tragically passed away with no warning and his wife spent much of her time outside of the country. This led to Alexander’s mistress, Princess Catherine Dolgoruki, being proclaimed empress after his wife’s death. As he began to rebuild his new family, the dynasty grew restless and strains within the empire grew.
Assassination of Alexander II
Before his plans to make Catherine empress were initiated, Ignacy Hryniewiecki hurled a handmade bomb at the ruler assassinated Alexander II giving ultimate authority to his son Alexander III.
In the early 20th century, the atmosphere of arranged marriages evolved into a more Slavic focus, rather than the current trend of marrying Romanovs to German royals.
Alexander III became the new tsar and second to last Romanov ruler of Russia. He worked to reform the country. His physical appearance of being tall and burly with a pronounced beard reminded the people of the emperors from Russia’s more conservative years.
Rise Of Alexander III
Alexander III was brutal and authoritative as he looked and sought to increase the autocracy of the empire. He aimed to reverse many of the left-leaning policies put into place by his father and take a more conservative approach much like his grandfather Nicholas I.
He pushed for one universal nationality, culture, and religion for Russia, aimed at suppressing Russia’s Jewish population. Passage of the May Laws in 1882 helped this goal. Alexander III also pushed to drain power from local governments in order to increase his authoritative policies and centralize his power at the top, which led to plans for his own assassination.
Alexander III Escaped Death… Twice!
Alexander III also pushed to drain power from local governments in order to increase his authoritative policies and centralize his power at the top, which led to plans for his own assassination. A plot was uncovered regarding the assassination involving five conspirators, including the older brother of Vladamir Lenin, Alexander Ulyanov, who was caught and hanged in 1887.
In 1888, the Imperial train derailed, causing the roof of the royal family’s dining cabin to collapse while they were eating. Alexander III apparently held the roof on his shoulders while the children safely escaped danger, causing blunt force trauma to the emperor.
The Last Of The House Of Romanov
Alexander had adopted his brother’s Danish fiancé, Princess Dagmar, a powerful figure of Denmark’s royal family. The two had six children and Alexander III was the first Russian ruler not believed to have a mistress, a trait not commonly shared among heads of state.
Alexander III passed away at 49 years old. from kidney disease. The disease was attributed to the train derailment in 1894 and the empire was left to his son, Nicholas II, who had continuously claimed he was not ready for that type of power or responsibility. Although he was known to be a fair and even-tempered tsar, he left many of his father’s harsh laws in place.
Romanov Connection With Rasputin
Nicholas II married Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, grandchild of Queen Victoria, who was known for being quite introverted and the two had five children. She took the name Alexandra but did not adopt many of the public traditions a tsarina typically takes on which led to a negative public outlook.
During World War I, Nicholas took command of his troops and Alexandra tried to push her husband into a more authoritative approach to government affairs. The love for his wife and her relationship with Grigori Rasputin, a well-known healer, peasant, and advisor, led to a downturn in public support for the dynasty. Nationalist and aristocrats blamed Rasputin for his influence over the royal family although it is unknown how much sway he actually had.
An Heir No More
Alexandra had counted down the days until their son Alexei assumed the throne of the Russian empire. However, genetics became the ultimate downfall of the family’s survival after she passed along the gene for hemophilia she received from her grandmother Queen Victoria.
The painful disease severely inhibits the blood from clotting normally causing severe bleeding from typically small and non-life-threatening wounds. Rasputin had been brought in to help alleviate some of Alexei’s pain, but would not be enough to help the Romanov dynasty survive before the end of the First World War. Conditions in Russia had reached a boiling point.
The Road To Revolution
In the spring of 1917, the February Revolution took place in the capital of Petrograd, known today as St. Petersburg and lasted less than one week. Armed demonstrations and brutal clashes with police took place on International Woman’s Day as riots broke out across the city.
The events were portrayed in the infamous 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin, a required viewing for most modern film students. The demonstrations against food rationing and brutality toward the populace led to an under-sourced and famished military, choking down maggot-filled meat and bread, to step in against Nicholas II on behalf of the people.
The February Revolution
Protesters called for the end of the war and the aristocracy. History professor Alexander Rabinowitch describes some of the short-term the causes of the revolution in his book, The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd:
“The February 1917 revolution … grew out of prewar political and economic instability, technological backwardness, and fundamental social divisions, coupled with gross mismanagement of the war effort, continuing military defeats, domestic economic dislocation, and outrageous scandals surrounding the monarchy.”
The long-term causes of the revolution date back over a century to the outdated belief that capitalism and autocracy can share a place in a governmental system.
War At Home And Abroad
Nicholas II had returned to the front lines of the war but received regular telegrams of the state of his empire in the capital city. Mikhail Rodzianko, Chairman of the legislative body that existed in the late stages of the House of Romanov, wrote in his first telegram, dated March 11, 1917:
“The situation is serious. The capital is in a state of anarchy. The Government is paralyzed. Transport service and the supply of food and fuel have become completely disrupted. General discontent is growing … There must be no delay. Any procrastination is tantamount to death.”
Nicholas II brushed him off by saying, “Again, this fat Rodzianko has written me lots of nonsense, to which I shall not even deign to reply.”
The Provisional Government
Nicholas’ attitude towards the revolution led to his removal from power. His brother, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, declined power instead leaving authority to the Provisional Government until democratic elections could be held. Regardless, the move successfully ended the Romanov Empire for good.
Some believe Nicholas II did not officially name his son Alexei as heir for fear of reprisals against the young future tsar. The revolution paved way for the Bolsheviks, a major party made up of mostly workers under an idea of democratic centralism, to rise to power within Russia. The party considered themselves the leaders of the working-class people of the country.
Vladimir Lenin And The Bolsheviks
The term “Bolshevik” literally translates to “one of the majority” were founded by Vladimir Lenin and Alexander Bogdanov. They were part of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
One of Lenin’s first declarations was to take all land owned by the previous aristocracy and distribute it among the working class citizens by the local governments. He also declared that non-Russian ethnicities could abandon Russia to form their own various nation-states which led to the succession of Finland, Ukraine, and Poland to name a few. The last vestiges of the House of Romanov had been removed and the empire had officially fallen.
German Teutonic Order
Also known as the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, the Teutonic Order, based in Catholicism, was founded on military principles in the 12th century. The order was formed in order to help people with their pilgrimage to the Holy City with its members referred to as Teutonic Knights.
Boasting a firm economic base, the order were able to hire mercenaries to carry out many of their missions. After the group was disbanded by Napoleon, and then again by Hitler, the order continued to come back and exists mainly as a charitable organization today.
Peter II – The Young Ruler
Peter II’s mother passed away when he was only the ripe age of 10 days old. Because he reminded his father of the son who deceived him, Peter lived a sheltered life. After Catherine’s death, Peter’s actions were overlooked by Menshikov, the powerful minister who helped with Catherine’s ascension to the throne.
A major event in Peter II’s rule came on his coronation day when he moved the ceremony from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Peter the Great had worked hard to make St. Petersburg into the busy and bustling city it had become. The young monarch passed away on the day he was supposed to marry Ekaterina Dolgorukova and is the only post-Petrine monarch to be buried in the Kremlin.
Paul I’s Distance From The Family
The only son of Peter III and Catherine the Great, although rumors throughout history have disputed that fact. He did not have much of a relationship with his mother and remained distant from her much of his life. Even during Court, Paul would completely disregard his mother’s opinions.
His most notable criticisms came when he wrote Reflections, a bold stance against his mother’s military policies that seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of his mother’s love and support. By 1787, she began to focus on Paul’s son, Alexander I as the next in the line of succession.
Alexander I’s Policies
Alexander was the next in line after the murder of his father, Paul I. His rule coincided with the Napoleonic Wars and used the chaotic period to institute some liberal-leaning education policies including the construction of more universities. The State Council replaced the Collegia to reform the legislative bodies of Russia and plans were made to develop a constitution and set up a Parliament.
Alexander formed an alliance with Napoleon with the Treaty of Tilsit in 1812, although it dissolved following a dispute on what actions should be taken regarding Poland, which Alexander served as the first Russian King of Poland.
In 1908, the royal couple called upon Grigori Efimovich Rasputin to assist with Aleksei’s hemophilia. The peasant was most likely born in the town of Pokrovskoye in the year 1869. He spent three months in the Verkhoturye Monastery at the age of 18 and returned to his hometown to start a family and eventually began his life as a wanderer, proclaiming himself as a holy man with healing powers who could see the future.
The Tsarina Aleksandra had called upon Rasputin who had proven his healing powers by healing Aleksei. There is much dispute about his means of healing with some people believing he had used hypnotism.
Rasputin – The Devil Monk
Rasputin had earned his favor with the royal family and many people began to warn them of Rasputin’s addiction to sex and alcohol ruining the royal family and the country, referring to him as the “Devil Monk” responsible for Russia’s downfall.
He made ominous predictions regarding Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the assassination of Tsar Nicholas and his family, the rise of Hitler, the first moon landing, the collapse of the USSR and the end of the world in 2013.
After being beaten by priests, stabbed by a prostitute, and surviving after eating wine and cake laced with cyanide, Rasputin was beaten, shot and tied up before drowning in Neva river.
The Romanov’s Final Journey
On April 29, 1918, the deposed Romanovs, including Grand Duchesses, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, were making their final trip the Urals. The almost inhospitable mountain range runs from North to South through Western Russia and housed the Ekaterinburg, the hub of Russia’s penal system. Nicholas had renounced his claim as Russia’s leader, citing his decision for the betterment of Russia and for fear of his family’s safety.
After a five-day journey, the Romanovs entered what was known as the House of Special Purpose and were greeted with, “Citizen Nicholas Romanov, you may enter.” The Romanovs would no longer be greeted with special titles.
A Slow End To A Long Reign
The family was confined to a five-room space within the compound, windows boarded and blacked out as they were told not to look out. Out of curiosity, Anastasia took a little peek out the window only to be fired upon by a sentry, who missed her head by a slight distance.
After months of boredom, illness, and claustrophobia, the family was taken to the firing squad. What could have been a clean and quick death turned into an inexplicable show of pain and suffering. The bullets had not killed the family fast enough and the squad was forced to finish off the former first family with bayonets and close-range shots.
A Surviving Heir?
After the massacre, many questions arose about whether any of the family members survived their brutal fate. After nearly 60 years, the remains of the family were uncovered and only nine of the eleven bodies were exhumed from their resting place. Rumors began to spread about the youngest Romanov daughter making a fast escape with a portion of the family’s riches.
In 1921, a woman showed up to a German mental hospital claiming to be the heir of the Romanovs, the Grand Duchess Anastasia. A decades-long legal battle ensued in order to claim the fortune of the former Russian leaders.
Anna Anderson The Imposter – Science Clears The Air
The German court rejected the claims and a DNA test in the 1990s confirmed she was not related to the Romanovs. Using evidence and clues left by the firing squad, scientists located the remaining two bodies of the Romanov family. When the last of the family members remains were uncovered in 2007, the Russian Orthodox church expressed doubts the bodies should be buried with the rest of the family at the Saint Petersburg cathedral.
Stories of the last surviving Romanov family were turned into Russian folklore and translated into books, musicals, and feature films, the most recognizable being the animated Warner Bros hit Anastasia in 1997.