Romanov Dynasty

Romanov Dynasty in 1892
Romanov Dynasty in 1892

Probably the most famous Romanovs besides Peter and Catherine the Great were Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their five children, whom the Bolsheviks murdered in 1917. The legend of the survival of Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra, lingered into the 21st century, strengthened by the fact that her remains and those of her brother Alexei were still missing from the mass grave that covered her sisters, parents, servants, and pet spaniel, Jimmy.

The Romanov dynasty began in turmoil, which matched its end. Evil days followed each other in dreary succession in the Grand Duchy of Moscow after the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584. Many arguments raged over the succession and ushered in a Time of Troubles and ultimately the accession of the Romanovs, who would rule Russia from 1613 to 1917.

The House of Romanov ruled Muscovy and the Russian Empire for five generations from 1613 to 1762, then combined with the House of Oldenburg, known as Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov, to rule Russia from 1762 to 1917. The Romanovs descended from two dozen Russian noble (boyar) families, with Andrei Kobyla, attested as a boyar in the service of Semyon I of Moscow, as a common ancestor.

A giant increase in the family fortunes occurred when a Romanov daughter, Anastasia Zakharyina, married Ivan IV of Muscovy in February 1547. When her husband became czar, she became the very first czarina. Her untimely and mysterious death prompted her husband to start a reign of terror against the boyars, whom he suspected of poisoning her. He became known as Ivan the Terrible.

The fortunes of the Romanov family rose and fell during the years of the Godunov dynasty, a branch of the Romanov line, until finally the Godunov dynasty collapsed in 1606 and the Russian Assembly of the Land offered 17-year-old Mikhail Romanov the crown of Russia.

After receiving the offer, Mikhail burst into tears of fear and despair, but his mother finally persuaded him to accept the throne and blessed him with the holy image of Our Lady of Saint Fyodor. Never feeling secure on his throne, Mikhail asked the advice of the Assembly of the Land on important issues. This strategy proved successful, and the Russian population accepted the early Romanovs as relatives of Ivan the Terrible.

At first, the Romanovs did little to strengthen the Russian state. In the 1650s a reforming patriarch of the Orthodox Church nearly started a revolution when he ordered that the ritual and liturgy be revised to bring them closer to the original Greek text of the Bible.

Lesser Coat of Arms of Romanov dynasty
Lesser Coat of Arms of Romanov dynasty

This order exasperated hundreds of uneducated people who believed the Slavonic texts were sacred. For many years after that, Old Believers (Russian Orthodox) resisted the government religious policy despite executions and exile.

Besides Old Believers, the Cossacks also revolted against the czar. Cossack comes from a Turkish word meaning “free men” and is used to designate a group of people who lived in wheat-growing communities around the Danube River. The Don Cossacks were the largest group and led colonizing expeditions to Siberia.

As the czars extended their rule over Russia in the 16th and 17th centuries, they tried to integrate the Cossacks into Russia. Cossack men became eligible for military service, and the czars used them in wars against the Tartars in Crimea and the Caucasus.

The Cossacks jealously guarded their freedom and often rebelled against the czars. Revolts occurred in 1648 and 1662, but the 1670 to 1671 revolt gained the most notoriety. A Don Cossack named Stenka Razin, who became a hero of the common people, led this revolt. Eventually he was executed, but the Cossack rebellions helped Russia by leading the expansion into Siberia.

Throughout most of the 17th century, Russia often could not defend its frontiers against invading Swedes, Poles, and Turks. It did not have access to either the Baltic or Black Seas, although English merchants had contacted Moscow in the 1550s through the White Sea, and German merchants were active in Moscow.

Russia absorbed some Western technology, especially military technology, but cultural changes in the rest of Europe left it relatively untouched. The Renaissance, reformation, and scientific revolution brought ferment to the West but scarcely touched the peoples east of Poland.

Peter the Great

Peter the Great
Peter the Great

In 1689 Peter the Great, one of the most remarkable Romanov rulers, assumed the throne at the age of 17. For the next 36 years, until 1725, he transformed Russia from a feudal country into a power in Europe. He strengthened the Russian throne, expanded Russia’s borders, and Westernized Russia.

He reformed the military, political, and social institutions of his country, borrowing ideas and techniques from France, England, the Dutch Republic, Brandenburg, and Sweden. His methods were often more casual, informal, brutal, and ruthless than those of his Western counterparts, but they worked in Russia. During his reign Russia became an empire, with Peter as its first emperor.

The Russian Church became strictly subordinated to the state under a civilian official. Peter compelled the ancient hereditary nobility to serve the state, creating a “service nobility,” and he tightened the bondage of the serfs so that more than a century would pass before they would gain their freedom.

In 1707 Peter moved his government to a new city that he had built on conquered territory at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland. He named his new city in honor of his patron saint, Saint Peter, and Saint Petersburg symbolized his work in Russia. Unlike Moscow, it did not have roots in Russia’s past, since it had been built by forced labor on Neva River marshlands.

Peter the Great’s influence proved paradoxical for Russia. On one hand he linked Russia with Europe and the rest of the world, and from his time forward Russia was crucial in the European balance of power.

On the other hand Peter’s Westernizing policy stimulated a strong nationalistic and orthodox reaction in people, leaving the Russian psyche teetering between deep suspicions of everything foreign and ardent admiration of Western technology and power. Peter’s methods are as important as his accomplishments because they created a tradition of dynamic autocracy. His reign exemplified what a ruthless and determined czar could accomplish.

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796 and came to the throne with specific goals in mind. She sought to minimize Russian connections to Europe, but she also wanted to continue Westernizing Russia in the manner of Peter the Great.

She wanted to bring the Enlightenment to Russia and read authors like Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu, incorporating their theories into her ruling methods. She encouraged the publication of numerous books and periodicals and embraced the arts.

During her reign Catherine the Great worked to increase education in Russia by creating elementary and secondary schools and universities. In 1763 she established a medical commission to improve medical conditions in Russia and led the way by being the first person in Russia to be vaccinated. She helped Russian expansion through two Russo-Turkish wars, one from 1768 to 1774, and the other from 1787 to 1792.

She added Ukraine to Russia after a 1781 to 1786 war and gained portions of Poland through partition. She also gained the Crimea and most of the northern shore of the Black Sea for Russia. Catherine improved the lives of the nobility while decreasing the status and rights of the peasants and serfs.

The centuries after Catherine the Great saw several Romanov czars named Nicholas and Alexander ruling Russia. During the reign of Alexander I, Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. The Russian winter and supply line problems forced Napoleon’s armies to depart along the same route they had used to enter Russia.

Nicholas I came to the throne in November 1825, with an agenda of Russian Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationalism. He and others working with him published a Complete Collection of Laws of the Russian Empire, meant to make rulings more uniform throughout Russia.

One of the departments he created he put in charge of monitoring subversive groups. This was a precursor to the modern FSB (Federal Security Service). During the reigns of Nicholas I and Alexander II some of the most important Russian writers, artists, and composers enhanced the arts.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment and other works. Alexander Pushkin produced his great novels; Tolstoi wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina. The composer Tchaikovsky wrote his scores for ballets and the 1812 Overture.

The Crimean War, a military conflict between Russia and a coalition of Great Britain, France, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire, fought from 1853 to 1856 at the end of the reign of Nicholas I, made it obvious that Russia needed reform.

Alexander II

The next czar, Alexander II, the son of Nicholas I, helped Russia reform. Alexander ruled from 1855 to 1881 and became known as the czar liberator because he freed the serfs. Alexander II realized that forcing labor from the serfs was not an economical way for Russia to operate, and many nobles were also beginning to think that serfdom should be ended.

Just before the American Civil War began, Alexander II freed the serfs with the Emancipation Act of February 18, 1861. The Emancipation Act freed 52 million serfs, or about 45 percent of Russia’s population, but it did not solve Russia’s problem of peasant unrest.

Only serfs who had been farmers were given land, excluding house serfs. Serfs had to continue working for estate owners for two years after being freed and had to pay over a 49-year period for the land that they had been given.

Alexander II also instituted other reforms. He changed the military and shortened the required time of service for peasants from 25 to six years. He created the legal profession, opening trials and instituting equal treatment under the law.

Beginning in 1864 he instructed the Ministry of Education to create a national system of primary schools. As people, especially university students, became better educated they became more critical of the government.

University students and the populace at large began to demand changes. On March 13, 1881, an agitator threw a hand-made bomb at Alexander’s carriage. He got out of the carriage to see what had happened, and a second bomb exploded. The czar and his assassin, Ignacy Hryniewiecki, were killed.

Alexander III succeeded his father, and, fearful of his father’s murderers, he tightened the autocratic rule in Russia, reversing many of the reforms that the more liberal Alexander II had pushed through. He renewed the policy of Russian Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationalism. Marxism began to grow during his reign, with Bolshevik and Menshevik groups forming, and leaders like Lenin, Plekhanov, and Pavel Martov emerging as revolutionaries.

Alexander’s son Nicholas II began ruling Russia in 1894, after Alexander unexpectedly died of kidney disease at age 49. Industrialism had finally reached Russia, and a working middle class was emerging. Nicholas II did not want to allow workers to unite and form unions, as they were doing all over the world.

After the czar created state-approved unions, he refused to meet a striking group from one of these and ordered his soldiers to fire upon it. The resulting massacre of hundreds of people, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, set off a revolt in 1905 that motivated Nicholas II to endorse the October Manifest, which gave people civil liberties and created the Duma.

Russia went to war in 1914 to defend the Serbs when Austria declared war on Serbia, but the Russian armies had inadequate weapons and suffered from poor leadership. Nicholas II himself went to the lines to lead his armies, but the problems increased and many soldiers deserted.

These soldiers were instrumental in the February Revolution in 1917, which ended the Romanov dynasty. Nicholas II and his family were put under house arrest and taken to Yekaterinburg. Bolsheviks killed the last Romanov czar, Nicholas II, and his family in the cellar of Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, Russia, on July 17, 1918.

In a historical irony, the Ipatiev House had the same name as the Ipatiev Monastery in Kostroma where the Russian Assembly of the Land had offered Mikhail Romanov the Russian crown in 1613.

In June 1991 the bodies of Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and three of their five children were exhumed from their 70-year-old graves, and the exhumers discovered that two of the family were missing. The other two graves were found in 2007.

After the bodies were exhumed, they languished for years in laboratories while Russians fought over whether they should be buried in Yekaterinburg or Saint Petersburg. Finally, a Russian commission chose Saint Petersburg, and the last Romanovs were buried with their ancestors.

The Romanov family still exists in the 21st century, with Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna of Russia having the strongest claim to the Russian throne. Despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union and zealous campaigns by her supporters to recognize her as the constitutional monarch, it is not likely that she will gain the throne because there is little popular support for the resurrection of a Russian monarchy.