No matter how serf-y your background, there’s something endlessly alluring about learning what the blue-bloods of our planet get up to – otherwise the weekly mags wouldn’t exist, right? But when it comes to royal power, there were none so autocratic, so all-ruling, so on-paper-despotic-even-if-they-had-some-ideas-about-liberalisation than Russia’s long-lived Romanov dynasty.
But it isn’t just their iron fists that keep us coming back for more… it’s also the Fabergé eggs, the perfect symbol of just how extra these royals were. Oh, and how the line came to a brutal, ignoble end at the hands of Communist Party secret police.
A hundred years on from the execution of Nicholas Romanov and his family, we have Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner taking a fresh look at the mythology and a suite of new books like Helen Rappaport’s The Race to Save the Romanovs (following last year’s batch of Russian Revolution centennials, the best of which were China Mieville’s October and Victor Sebestyen’s Lenin the Dictator). There’s plenty of life in the saga yet, and it’s not difficult to see why.
It’s a ripping yarn, spanning three centuries, and the best way to get a sense of this royal family is through Lucy Worsley’s three-part doco, Empire of the Tsars: Romanov Russia – which showcases the best portraits, architecture and even fashions while spilling the royal goss.
Here’s a taster…
From interregnum to empire in three generations
It was way back in 1613 when Michael I reluctantly became the first Romanov tsar, ending a difficult and lawless period in Russian history. But it was his grandson Peter who would really give us something to get excited about.
It takes a strong leader to bring about lasting reform, and it takes an exceptionally powerful one to single-handedly reshape a society. Peter the Great was one of those rare despots who left the world in a better state than he found it. Imagine the sheer authority and strength of will required to not only enforce a modernised dress code and make men pay a special tax if they want to keep their old-fashioned beards, but also change the nation’s calendar.
If that’s not enough to keep you enthralled by this once-in-a-dynasty ruler, he also toured Europe, learning how to build ships while kicking through his British hosts’ walls for easier access, getting hammered on brandy laced with peppers, destroying furniture and racing wheelbarrows. Oh, and upon his return he founded St Petersburg, built a proper Russian navy and kicked Sweden’s arse up and down the Baltic.
All that, and he still had time to throw parties where naked dwarves wore bishop’s hats and carried sex toys on cushions, while equally naked girls leapt out of pies. Oh and he tortured his son to death for plotting against him.
Greatness returns with Catherine
Another shining star in the Romanov firmament was Catherine the Great, who oversaw the Europe-shocking expansion of Russian borders and is still renowned for her famed suite of lovers (which did not include her horse, despite the vicious slander of the time).
Starting life as a minor German princess, Catherine had her husband knocked off six months after he ascended the Russian throne and turned herself into the most powerful woman in Europe (yeah, okay, it was more complicated than that but go with it). Under her reign, Russian troops were kicking back in the Crimea while the Ottomans fled, and interior decoration reached heights of gaudiness that wouldn’t be seen again until Trump Tower gained a penthouse. Her wardrobe was extra, her garden designs were extra and her appetites for young lovers were beyond extra.
If you want to know more about this extraordinary woman, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Catherine the Great & Potemkin is a great read (and, of course, his The Romanovs is an even better overview of the whole dynasty).
Some more incidental highlights
Peter and Catherine are probably the best known of the early tsars, but they weren’t alone in bringing autocratic decadence and military might. Elizabeth introduced the University of Moscow, the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg and shedloads of cats to the Winter Palace (now the Hermitage Museum, and still cat-heavy).
After a disappointing start to his martial career, Alexander I thrashed Napoleon and marched on Paris – something Stalin would remain jealous of during his reign.
Paul I… well, he was killed by drunken conspirators who found him hiding behind a screen. (Paul was not a popular tsar.)
The fall of the empire
But even if you dismiss all the wild and wonderful stories of his predecessors, Tsar Nicholas II and his family provide enough fodder for fascinating tales. It’s odds-on you’ve heard of the “mad monk” Rasputin, who held the tsarina in thrall with his seeming ability to keep little Alexei’s haemophilia at bay, and survived multiple assassination attempts before succumbing to a combination of being poisoned, shot and dumped in the freezing Malaya Nevka River.
Nicholas II was the sort of man Peter the Great would’ve thrown through a wall before calling for another pepper-laced brandy, and Catherine the Great would’ve dismissed as unsuitable to warm her chamber pot. He wasn’t the brightest spark, let’s just say – when thousands of peasants were crushed to death by the crowds at his coronation, he was convinced to continue with the planned celebrations. (He was also a vicious anti-Semite.)
Forced to abdicate by the revolutionary forces of 1917, Nicholas and clan were moved to a secret location in Tsarskoe Selo, where they lived a peaceful exile until… well, it wasn’t so peaceful anymore. Thinking they were being taken into a room to have a family portrait taken, the Romanovs were shot, bayoneted and bludgeoned to death by a Cheka firing squad.
And, of course, long after the shocking execution of Nicholas and his family in a cellar, the legend of Anastasia lived on. According to urban legend, she escaped the fate of her brother and sisters, thanks to jewellery sewn into her corset which blocked the bullets, and fled the USSR. Of course, it was nonsense – despite the young women eager to put their hand up and claim the title – but an exciting tale nonetheless. Her story was still being romanticised in 1997, with Fox Animation’s take on the legend.
Identity is still at the root of the Romanov story today – Prince Philip’s DNA was used to confirm their remains were authentic, as was the exhumed body of Nicholas’s father, Alexander III, in the pursuit of giving the Romanovs a proper burial at last. Combine that with church-sponsored marches in their honour (the family was canonised in 2000), and it’s fair to say that those deposed tsars have managed to cling to power in one way… they’ll never be forgotten.
Empire of the Tsars: Romanov Russia airs Mondays at 7:30pm on SBS. Watch the first episode at SBS On Demand: