Prominent Russians: The Romanovs
The Romanov Dynasty (1613 to 1917) was the last imperial dynasty to rule Russia. During the Romanov reign Russia became and remained a major European power.
The Romanovs share their origins with a handful of other Russian noble families. One of the ancestors of the world-renowned dynasty was Andrey Kobyla – a boyar who lived during the middle of the 14th century. Kobyla was documented in contemporary chronicles only once, in 1347, when he was said to have been sent to Tver with the purpose of meeting the daughter of Alexander I of Tver. Later generations assigned other more illustrious pedigrees to Kobyla, however, they are highly unlikely to be true.
An 18th century genealogy chart even claimed that Kobyla was the son of the Prussian prince Glanda Kambila, who came to Russia in the second half of the 13th century, fleeing the invading Germans. Indeed, one of the leaders of the Prussian rebellion of 1260-1274 against the Teutonic order was named Glande, but the theory acquired no further proof.
In another theory, which is more likely to be true even though it is less complementing, Kobyla's origins were not that spectacular – his relatives were nicknamed after horses and other house animals (“kobyla” means “mare” in Russian), thus suggesting his descent from one of the royal equerries.
One of Kobyla's sons, Feodor, a boyar in the boyar Duma of Dmitry Donskoy, was nicknamed Koshka, or “cat.” His descendants took the surname Koshkin and then changed it to Zakharyin. Later the family split this surname into two branches: Zakharyin-Yakovlev and Zakharyin-Yuriev. During the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the former family became known as Yakovlev, whereas the grandchildren of Roman Zakharyin-Yuriev changed their name to Romanov.
The Romanov Dynasty began with the election of Mikhail Romanov, a 16-year-old boyar, by the Zemsky Sobor, or Assembly of the Land – the first Russian parliament of the feudal estates type.
Rise to power
Initially, Mikhail’s mother protested against the election of such a young and inexperienced man, but the boyars assured her that Mikhail would be held responsible to God for the destruction of Russia and other mortal sins if he persisted in his refusal to accept the title.
When young Mikhail learned he was about to be granted the highest title anyone could dream of in Russia, he burst into tears of fear and despair. He was finally persuaded to accept the throne by his mother who saw no way out, so she blessed the young man who had to obey. Mikhail Romanov was crowned on 22 July 1613.
The first member of the Romanov Dynasty and founder of the clan dedicated the time of his reign to reforms, thus changing the political situation that had formed by that time in ancient Russia.
The first task of the new Tsar was to clear the land of the invaders infesting it – thus Sweden and Poland were dealt with respectively.
Thanks to Mikhail Russian industry entered an era of prosperity: the first manufactories appeared, alongside the all-Russian market. Diplomatic and trade relations with other countries improved greatly and agriculture seemed to get a second wind. Mikhail’s politics helped raise the living standards of the common people and made Moscow one of the most beautiful and festive cities of the time.
In order to develop crafts in Russia, Mikhail invited foreign manufacturers – armorers and molders among them - to Russia on special terms. In 1632, for example, a Dutch merchant named Vinius received permission to build a gun factory in Tula. Since that time the city has been known for its gun shops, which are still considered some of the best in Russia and the world to this day.
In 1625 Mikhail took the crown and became the all-Russian sovereign.
In 1642 the Tsar laid the foundation for the military reorganization of the country – foreign officers taught military science to Russian vaivodes (a Slavic title that originally denoted the principal commander of a military force). This was just the first step towards the creation of the regular national armed forces.
For quite some time Mikhail suffered from a serious leg injury he received when he fell of off a horse early in 1644. This resulted in much difficulty walking towards the end of his life.
The first Russian Tsar was married twice. The first union was with Princess Maria Dolgorukova in 1624. Unfortunately she died just four months after the marriage, and Mikhail had to remarry. Thus in 1626 he took Evdokiya Streshneva as his wife. This marriage was long-lasting and Evdokiya gave Mikhail 10 children.
Mikhail Romanov died in July 1645 at the age of 49. It is believed that edema, a disease that presents an abnormal accumulation of fluid beneath the skin or in one or more cavities of the body, caused his death.
The founder of the Romanov Dynasty was buried at the Cathedral of the Archangel in Moscow, and his title was inherited by his only son, Aleksey.
On the very day of Mikhail Romanov’s death, his son Aleksey acceded to the throne at the age of 16, just as his father had.
But quite unlike his father he was already an experienced young man at this age and truly wanted to accept the responsibility of ruling the country. He remained the Tsar of all Russia through some of the most eventful decades of the mid 17th century.
Aleksey was a gentle and very religious man who was loved and cherished by the common people – the Tsar was even called Aleksey the Quiet.
At first young Aleksey was committed to the care of the boyar Boris Morozov. This Muscovite statesman led the Russian government during Aleksey’s early reign when the Tsar was far too young to rule the country on his own. Morozov managed to secure a truce with Poland and did his best to carefully avoid complications in Russia’s relationship with the Ottoman Empire. He also wanted to somehow limit the rights and privileges of foreign traders, the number of which had by then surpassed Russian manufacturers.
On 17 January 1648 the Tsar married Maria Miloslavskaya, a younger daughter of the nobleman Ilya Miloslavsky. The Tsar’s choice was far from occasional – Morozov strongly encouraged Aleksey to decide in favor of this woman. Morozov in turn married her sister, Anna, just ten days later.
Aleksey’s marriage was a great success – Maria bore him thirteen children in twenty-one years: the Tsar had five sons and eight daughters. Sadly, Maria died only weeks after her thirteenth childbirth. Aleksey remarried on 1 February 1671, this time his choice was Natalia Naryshkina, a beautiful young girl from a petty noble family. They had three children.
Morozov, however, quite unlike Aleksey Romanov, was very unpopular with the common people, who considered him a typical boyar – greedy for gain and with an axe to grind. In 1648 he was even accused of being a sorcerer, and the Russian people rose against him in the so-called Salt Riot. Aleksey the Quiet literally had no choice but to send his friend and elder aide into exile. He was desperately sorry for Morozov and is believed to have written many letters to him and even asked the guards in person to treat the boyar as kindly and as well as possible.
This forced separation meant that from 1649 Aleksey would rule the country all by himself. Without the help of his aides and advisers Aleksey composed decrees and orders. He also tried to write his memoirs describing his recollections about the war with Poland, but the work was never finished.
Among his few great achievements in the field of foreign policy Aleksey managed to reunite Russia and Ukraine in 1654. He also made attempts, which turned out to be successful, to build the first warships in Russia and to form the first regular national army that laid the foundation for the future system of recruiting.
Having gotten used to having an intelligent advisor by his side, the Tsar sought advice from Patriarch Nikon, who helped Aleksey make important decisions and ruled the country in his absence. Nikon took the opportunity not only to address the issues connected to the church, but also to meddle in matters of politics. Due to his church reforms several religious sects appeared whose representatives renounced official religion and the Russian Orthodox Church. With time these people acquired a special name – raskolniki, or dissenters, which is still used today.
Nikon’s interference in the domestic and foreign policy of the country led to a breakup between the Tsar and the Patriarch.
Though Aleksey was not a man of superior strength of character, he was still quite progressive. His last years were more or less tranquil. In 1675 Aleksey announced his son Fyodor as the heir to the throne, which the young man gladly accepted. In January 1676 Fyodor became the Tsar, thus continuing the Romanov Dynasty.
The time of infirm Tsars
Fyodor was an intelligent man. He knew Latin well, spoke fluent Polish, loved composing verses and did it masterfully. He had received an excellent education at the hands of Simeon Polotsky, the most learned Slavonic monk of the day. But, horribly disfigured and half paralyzed by a mysterious disease supposed to be scurvy, he was crippled from the day of his birth. Thus, despite all his talents, during the six years of his rule he never managed to exhibit proper independence – the power was consolidated in the hands of his relatives, the boyars Miloslavsky.
The most important achievement during Fyodor’s rule was the abolishment of the so-called mestnichestvo, or place priority – a feudal hierarchical system that existed in Russia from the 15th to the 17th century. It revolved around a simple principle that the boyar who estimated that his origins were more ancient and his personal services to the Tsar more valuable could claim a higher state post. The system was finally abolished in 1682 and that same year the Tsar issued an edict against luxury that established limits to the fortunes a given social class was allowed to possess.
On 28 July 1680 the Tsar married Agafia Grushevskaya, a Ukrainian noblewoman who shared her husband’s progressive views. In July 1681 Agafia gave birth to their son, Ilya – the expected heir to the throne. Unfortunately, the young mother died as a consequence of the complicated childbirth three days later, and a week after that the future heir died as well thus creating the issue of the heir to the throne.
Half a year later Fyodor remarried, this time the monarch’s choice was Marfa Apraksina, but the Tsar died three months after his second wedding, in April 1682, aged only 22, and Russia never saw his heir. He didn’t leave any directions as to who was to succeed him.
The last days of Fyodor Romanov’s rule were quite significant for the country’s future: the Tsar endorsed the project of the Slavic Greek Latin Academy. The academy was organized in 1685-1687 under the guidance of two Greek brothers, Joannicus and Sophronius Likhud, on the premises of the Zaikonospassky Monastery with more than 70 students.
After Fyodor’s death his two brothers Ivan and Peter claimed the throne. Ivan was by then 16, whilst Peter was just 10 years old, and according to the rules of succession the older brother was to become the Tsar. Still, the boyars were afraid that the ill health of the older boy would prevent him from ruling the country with proper independence and confidence. Thus, Peter was declared Tsar of all Russia.
Ivan’s henchmen lifted their voices against such a solution. In order to set the whole country in turmoil they put about a rumor that young Ivan was strangled by Peter’s followers. The lies immediately led to a riot, known as the Streltsy Uprising. Streltsy (guardsmen) were the units of Russian guardsmen in the 16th – early 18th centuries, armed with firearms. Finally Ivan was declared Tsar and his elder sister, Sofia, became his regent, as the young monarch was still officially under age. Ivan’s reign however was only formal, since he had serious physical and mental disabilities and sat still for hours at a time. He was even believed to need assistance in order to walk without falling down.
The boyar Duma agreed to this solution upon one condition: both brothers were supposed to rule the country together. Ivan, who had a very close relationship with Peter, did not really want to become Tsar but was persuaded to. So in June 1682 the festive coronation of the young men took place in Moscow. A double throne was made especially for the event, and an identical set of crowns was produced.
Tsar Ivan, who was seriously ill, died in January 1696. He was buried at the Cathedral of the Archangel in Moscow. And thus his half-brother Peter became the sole and exclusive ruler of the country.
Peter ruled Russia from May 1682 until his death in 1725.
Until 1689 he lived in the Moscow-area village of Preobrazhenskoe together with his mother Natalia. He was a rare guest in Moscow, coming to the capital only for important official ceremonies that required the presence of both Tsars.
In Preobrajenskoe the young Tsar loved to play war games, and a special toy army was formed especially for this purpose, which consisted of Peter’s playmates – the sons of noblemen. Some time later these childish games would turn into the regular army and at the same time the core of the future Russian national army.
In January 1689 Peter, at the suit of his mother, married Evdokia Lopukhina, who was chosen as a bride for the Tsar primarily on account of Eudokia's mother's relation to the famous boyar Fyodor Rtishchev. The marriage, however, was a total failure, and thus ended in divorce quite quickly.
For the next five years it was Peter’s mother who headed the government, while Peter himself was still too young to rule. Then in 1696 after his half-brother Ivan’s death, Peter became the sole Tsar of Russia.
In 1724, Peter officially had his second wife, Ekaterina, crowned as Empress, although he remained Russia's actual ruler. The Order of Saint Catherine was instituted by her husband on the occasion of their wedding. For the majority of the time of Imperial Russia, it was the only award for ladies (the Order of Saint Olga existed briefly from 1916-1917, but ceased with the fall of the Romanov Dynasty).
It is believed that the couple actually married secretly in 1707. They had nine children, two of whom survived into adulthood: Elizabeth (born 1709) and Anna (born 1708). The relationship was successful and lasting and a great number of letters exist demonstrating the strong affection between Ekaterina and her monarchial husband.
In 1689 Peter’s elder sister Sofia, who played the role of his regent, was brushed aside and sent to the Novodevichy Convent where she was locked up until her death in 1704.
Peter was known and remembered as a truly energetic and intelligent person, who also possessed great will, open-mindedness, consistency of aim and inquisitiveness. Having not received a proper education in his childhood, Peter continued to study throughout his life and was always eager to learn something new, especially if he could use that knowledge for the good of Russia. But apart from these wonderful traits of character, Peter possessed some others, less complementary ones: he was quick-tempered and ruthless, and even took part in executions in person, never hesitating to carry out a death sentence.
In 1703 Peter gave the order to start building the Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress was constructed on the small Hare Island by the northern bank of the Neva River and was destined to turn into the second “northern” capital of Russi, - the great city of Saint Petersburg. It was declared the capital of the country in 1712 and remained so until the beginning of the twentieth century.
Peter was remembered by his contemporaries as the Tsar who managed to implement numerous reforms that were aimed at overcoming the distance that separated Russia and the West – a strong, but badly-developed country vs. a highly-advanced Europe.
In 1721 Russia was proclaimed an Empire, making Peter the Emperor. He died in 1725 due to serious health problems, and his death brought about competition – there were at least two parties vying for power.
The first woman in command
The first party wanted small Peter, Peter the Great’s grandson, to become the Tsar, while the other believed it would be much better if Peter’s widow Ekaterina I would govern Russia. After a brief struggle for power Ekaterina was chosen to rule the country thus becoming not only the Empress, but also the first woman ever to head the Russian Empire, opening the legal path for a century almost entirely dominated by women.
Ekaterina was a fibreless woman who responded far too quickly to external influences. She had no action programs or plans of any kind and trusted her advisers and aides in everything - no matter how important the issue or how reliable the person.
In order to rig the most important state issues and to stuff Ekaterina’s head with things she could not understand, the Supreme Privy Council of Imperial Russia was founded in 1726. Among the members of the Council was Aleksandr Menshikov – Peter’s close associate and the Empress’s alleged lover. The Council wielded great power indeed – no edict issued by the Empress could come into force until the Council gave its approval.
Russia at the time became involved in several lasting wars, and this sadly could not but affect its financial soundness. This, together with extremely poor harvest caused bread prices to rise dramatically, resulting in a tide of discontent, which was growing in strength throughout the country.
The Supreme Privy Council did not exactly fancy the rebellion that was about to break out, and so it was decided to reduce the head tax.
Ekaterina gave her name to Ekaterinehof near Saint Petersburg and built the first bridges in the new capital. She was also the first royal owner of the Tsarskoye Selo Estate, where the Ekaterin Palace still bears her name.
In spring 1727 Ekaterina fell ill, and two months later died, bequeathing the throne to young Peter.
Minor tsar and major statesman
The new heir to the throne was not given a proper education – when he was officially named the great Emperor, Peter was just fifteen years old. Aleksandr Menshikov, who sensed his golden days might soon be over, as the young Tsar did not like him very much, was quick enough to engage his daughter Maria with Peter. Thus Menshikov secured his place near the Emperor and could control what Peter was doing. Feeling his power, Menshikov became increasingly arrogant and domineering. "Not even Peter the Great was so feared or so obeyed" – wrote one foreign ambassador that happened to be in Russia at the time of Menshikov’s glory.
Peter did not get along with the powerful statesman too well, so it was easy for Menshikov’s ill-wishers to persuade Peter to arrest Aleksandr and send him to Siberia. When Menshikov was finally put out of his way, the Emperor moved to Moscow where he spent most of his time not worrying about the fate of the country but hunting in the vast woods and amusing himself.
Peter II was as lazy and shiftless as his famous grandfather was industrious and energetic. He announced that he was an active adversary of his grandfather’s reforms and eliminated all the novelties Peter the Great had imposed on Russia. The common people were not content, foreign ambassadors wrote that Russia presented “one big disorder” at the time of Peter’s rule, and the Emperor devoted all his energies to entertainment instead of taking care of Russia or at least convening the Supreme Privy Council.
In 1730 the Emperor fell ill – he had smallpox, and quite soon the disease took a lethal turn. He was buried in the Kremlin, thus becoming the only post-Petrine Russian monarch given that honor.
This sad event was crucial for the family – it marked the end of the Romanov Dynasty in the male line, as after Peter’s death the Supreme Privy Council decided that the best candidate for the throne would be Anna Ioannovna, the daughter of Peter the Great's half-brother and co-ruler, Ivan V. They had hoped that she would feel indebted to the nobles for her unexpected fortune and remain a figurehead at best and a malleable woman at worst.
Immediately after succeeding to the crown, Anna was made to sign a document limiting her powers greatly and practically becoming dependent on the will of the Supreme Privy Council, but the Empress thought better of it and terminated the humiliating agreement.
Anna Ioannovna had not received a proper education and remained an ignorant and illiterate person throughout her life. Her favorite pastimes were horse-riding and hunting. Generally, she was not known to possess exquisite taste: she loved clowns, and when visiting a theater, she preferred plays where the characters fought and called each other names – in this case the Empress would even whistle approving encouragement to the actors.
Anna quite openly favored foreigners, which put the Russian nobility in her bad graces, whilst foreign courtiers were relished and much respected. In reality all the powers were concentrated in the hands of the chancellor Osterman and the Empress’s favorite Ernst Biron who was notorious for feeding at the public trough. The army was headed by a foreigner as well – a German-named Burkhardt Munnich. The Supreme Privy Council was mercilessly annihilated – Anna could not forgive it for wanting to limit her powers. As one of her first acts to consolidate her power Anna restored the security police, which she used to intimidate and terrorize those who opposed her and her policies.
Nonconformity was strictly persecuted in the times of Anna Ioannovna – the mistrustful Empress ordered everyone who seemed in the least bit suspicious or dangerous sent to Siberia. Once again, she decided it would be better for the state to harden the tax policy, and rebellions and public disturbances were not late in arriving. The serfs went to pot and ran away, while the court maintenance costs grew fivefold. Although Anna did not move the capital back to Moscow, she spent most of her time in the city in the company of her maids and favorites.
The only sphere that did not suffer during Anna Ioannovna’s rule was that of education; the National Defense Cadet Corps for the nobility was founded and a divinity school for more than 30 young men was opened.
Anna died in the autumn of 1740 at the age of 47 of kidney disease. Before her death the Empress declared her grandnephew, Ivan VI, who was just a year old at the time, the heir to the throne.
Baby tsar and a coup d’etat
Obviously, the newly crowned Tsar was so young he was physically unable to govern the country, and Biron, Anna’s favorite, played the role of the Tsar’s regent. During the time of his short rule, which lasted no more than a month, Biron managed to lower the head tax, impose restrictions on luxury and issue a manifesto on strict law-abidingness. In late autumn 1740, however, Biron was arrested and sent into exile, and Ivan’s mother, Anna Leopoldovna, was claimed the ruler of the country.
A year later Elizabeth, Peter the Great’s daughter, who was supported by the Russian national army, arrested the governess and her whole family together with the baby Tsar, and declared herself Empress.
The rest of the young former Tsar’s life, however, was more than sad – he died at the age of 23, and spent practically his whole life imprisoned, unable to enjoy the very brief moments of his power. He was killed by his guards in an escape attempt.
Back to Peter the Great
As a child, Elizabeth was bright, if not brilliant, but her formal education was both imperfect and desultory. Her father adored her. Elizabeth was his daughter and in many ways resembled him as a feminine replica – she was active, resolute and sociable.
Elizabeth grew into an intelligent and kind woman, but she was extremely promiscuous and restive. She presented a combination of modern western trendiness and Russian conservativeness, and her policies were characterized by those same features. Her usually keen judgment and her diplomatic tact repeatedly recalled Peter the Great.
Elizabeth’s domestic policy was based more on reconstruction than modernization – the condition the country was in after the last muddled years called for a period of recovery. Her domestic policies allowed the nobles to gain dominance in local government while shortening their terms of service to the state. She was desperate to return to the rules and orders that were in effect during her father’s reign. Elizabeth eliminated capital punishment much to the common people’s fanfare, and the Senate once again became the principal controlling authority in the country.
Still, the financial position of the state remained unchanged – after the rule of the German nobility Russia experienced a crisis. Several agreements dealing with external trade were signed in order to improve Russia’s financial standing. Discount and State banks were founded for the same purposes, and thus trade and industry advanced, slowly but surely.
The sphere of education was given renewed momentum in the times of Elizabeth – the first gymnasiums were opened in Moscow. In 1755 Mikhail Lomonosov founded the Moscow State University – the higher educational establishment that is still considered the best in Moscow and in the country in general. Under the reign of Elizabeth, the francophile Russian court was one of the most splendid in all of Europe.
Thanks to Elizabeth the position of Russia on the international arena was strengthened greatly.
The Winter Palace and the Smolny Cathedral remain the chief monuments of her reign in Saint Petersburg. Generally, she was one of the best-loved Russian monarchs, because she did not allow Germans in the government and not one person was executed during her reign.
As an unmarried and childless Empress, it was imperative for Elizabeth to find a legitimate heir to secure the Romanov Dynasty. She chose her nephew and Peter the Great’s grandson in the hope the young man would be able to continue her policies and help Russia avoid another economic crisis.
Elizabeth invited her young nephew to Saint Petersburg where he was received into the Orthodox Church and proclaimed heir on 7 November 1742. Elizabeth spared neither trouble nor expense to find good teachers of Russian for the future Emperor, so that by the time of his coronation the young man could meet the situation head-on.
In the late 1750s, Elizabeth's health started to decline. She began to suffer a series of dizzy spells and refused to take the prescribed medicines. The Empress died in 1762 after six weeks lying in state.
Despite Elizaveta’s efforts, the heir Peter III, turned out to be a bad pupil. Moreover, he was notorious for lying and drinking, sometimes heavily. Practically every day of his rule presented a new scandal involving visitant actresses and singers and the like. Peter had only one true passion – he adored army. But even in this field Peter’s top achievements were in war games
According to most historians, Peter was mentally immature and very pro-Prussian, which made him an unpopular leader in his own country.
In 1762 he issued a manifesto that revoked compulsory military service for the nobility. Under Peter the Great all male members of the Russian nobility had to serve in the military or the civil service, without regard for individual preference of occupation.
The time of Peter’s rule, which lasted only seven months, can be called significant because of the several edicts issued by his henchmen in order to make the monarch more likeable to the common people. Among these edicts was one abolishing the practice of allowing industrialists to purchase serfs as workers for their enterprises. Peter also forbade the importation of sugar into Russia to stimulate domestic manufacturing.
In addition, the Emperor tried hard to pressure the Russian Orthodox Church to adopt Lutheran practices.
According to Peter’s contemporaries, he was disliked unanimously and vigorously both by the common people and the court nobility. The mass discontent grew stronger every day and finally crystallized into another exorcism among the guardsmen. The main conspirator was, curiously enough, Peter’s wife Catherine. She, along with her lover Grigory Orlov, was said to have long wanted to overthrow Peter, as she believed he would divorce her in order to marry his mistress Elizaveta Vorontsova.
In June 1762 both the Senate and the guardsmen swore fealty to her. Thus Catherine was proclaimed Great Empress, and Peter had to sign his abdication. He was immediately arrested and sent away. A short while later, an event occurred that resulted in Peter’s tragic death. It was initially described as an accident. But later it emerged that Peter III was killed by conspirators upon sufferance of his wife, the new Empress of Russia.
Enlightenment and the lovable Empress
The new Empress, who was also called Catherine the Great, possessed an unusual power of mind and a virile character. She was immensely interested in history and philosophy and was considered to be one of the most highbrow and well-educated women of her time. In her free time she maintained correspondence with Voltaire and other French scholars.
Catherine’s main political goal was to strengthen autocracy in Russia, while at the same time decreasing the influence of the aristocracy and the guardsmen to its absolute minimum. For example, in 1763 Ekaterina transformed the Senate from a legislative body into a law enforcement one.
Generally, the Empress spent every effort to assert the power of the local state apparatus and to raise the profile of the local nobility – their liberties were greatly extended.
Despite the heightened attention to the nobility, the erfs seemed to be ignored at best and derogated at worst. The oppression intensified, and the peasant rebellions that broke out every now and then throughout the country turned into a full-scale war in 1773-1775, that ended in the rebels’ defeat.
Catherine’s foreign policy revolved around two aching problems – Russia’s access to the Black Sea and its relations with Poland. The Empress managed to regain the coasts of the Black and Azov Seas, and the Crimea was officially declared an independent territory. Thus, Russia was able to develop its trading relations with other countries and industrialize.
During her reign Catherine extended the borders of the Russian Empire southward and westward to absorb New Russia, Crimea, Right-Bank Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Courland at the expense, mainly, of two powers – the Ottoman Empire and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.
After Catherine’s unexpected death in 1796 from a stroke, Russia had to invent new missions to accomplish in the sphere of foreign policy, as the Empress had managed to fulfill all the objectives the country had had till then. Under her direct auspices the Russian Empire expanded, improved its administration and continued to modernize along Western European lines.
Poor eccentric Emperor Pavel
Pavel I, the son of Catherine the Great and her assassinated husband, became Emperor after his mother’s tragic death in 1796. The young man was extremely nervous, too impressionable and suspicious and extremely quick-tempered. At an early age he already demonstrated a passion for military parades and military service in general. Moreover, he was idealistic and wonderfully generous, but also mercurial and capable of vindictiveness.
At first Catherine the Great did not want her son to rule the country, emphasizing the fact that he possessed a difficult nature and no talent for state governing. She wanted her grandson Alexander to become the Emperor, but the henchmen were against such a solution and as a result it was Pavel who finally inherited the throne.
The first thing Pavel changed after acquiring the title was the succession edict, according to which the elder son succeeded to the crown no matter what. All the policies of the new Emperor were directed at annihilating and abolishing each and every edict his mother issued during the time of her rule.
In what concerned interior policy Pavel was harsh – he initiated severe censorship in the country, closed all private publishing houses and banned the importation of foreign books.
Pavel did not share his mother’s love for the nobility, so their liberties and rights were limited, and they were once again subjected to the threat of corporal punishment. The serfs, quite on the contrary, were finally allowed to lodge complaints. Pavel’s actions induced a controversial reaction: the Emperor managed to get on the wrong side of the nobility, while the common people seemed to like the ruler more and more.
Pavel’s morbid suspiciousness and distrustfulness reached its peak in 1801 when he started accusing his family members of wanting to kill him. He believed he was the target of assassination plots. Earlier he also suspected his mother of intending to kill him, and once openly accused her of causing broken glass to be mixed in with his food.
Pavel’s premonitions of assassination turned out to be well-founded: a conspiracy against the Emperor arose. In March 1801 plotters, among them Pavel’s guardsmen, managed to sneak into Pavel’s chambers and murder him. However, for a long time the people were fed another version of what had happened that night – they were told Pavel died of a heart attack.
Pavel was succeeded by his elder son, the 23-year-old Alexander I. Alexander was in the palace at the time his father was murdered, and one of the assassins came up to the young man in the dead of night to announce his accession. It is still unknown whether the future Emperor knew about the conspiracy. The most popular version is that he was let into the conspirators' secret and was willing to take the throne but insisted that his father should not be killed.
Napoleon conqueror and the Patriotic War
Alexander I was brought up by his well-educated and enlightened grandmother Catherine the Great. She spared no effort to find good teachers for the boy, who grew up smart and canny even though he did not finish his education after his early marriage. In 1793, at the age of just 15, Alexander married 14-year-old Louise of Baden, who later took the name Elizabeth Alekseevna.
The beginning of Alexander’s reign was marked by a number of liberal reforms. The Emperor set free all those who were imprisoned by his hypochondriac father and issued an edict that annihilated corporal punishment. Alexander could not ignore the administrative system of Russia either – he introduced ministries, which greatly facilitated the work of the state.
In 1803 the Emperor issued an edict that allowed landlords to free the serfs. This edict earned the monarch the love of the common people who considered him their fairy godfather at the very least.
Several other notable steps were made, including establishing freedoms for publishing houses, the winding down of activities in the intelligence services and prohibition of torture.
The above-mentioned reforms and the personal charisma and charm of the young Tsar made him immensely popular with the common people and the nobility alike, he was even known under the affectionate name of Alexander the Blessed. Still, the strange contradictions of his character make Aleksander one of the most interesting Tsars in the history of Russia.
The overseas campaigns of 1813-1814 exposed the Russian people to the life and political movements of the West, which slowly led to the appearance of oppositional circles. With time some turned into secret societies that clamored against the existing political order.
Foreign policy was concentrated mainly around Russia’s relations with France. In 1810 these relations turned far worse than just sour, and in summer 1812 war broke out between the two countries. The result of the war was the defeat of the French army. Alexander was considered the true savior of the Russian Empire. In opposing Napoleon I "the oppressor of Europe and the disturber of the world's peace," Alexander in fact already believed himself to be fulfilling a divine mission.
During Alexander’s rule Russia expanded its territories greatly - modern-day Georgia and Finland were annexed, along with Bessarabia and Azerbaijan.
At the beginning of the 1820s Alexander became increasingly suspicious of those around him, especially after an attempt was made to kidnap him when he was on his way to a conference in Germany.
In 1825 during a trip to the south of Russia, the Emperor fell seriously ill and died in the autumn of that same year. His wife died a few months later, while the Emperor's body was being transported to Saint Petersburg for the funeral.
The unexpected death of the Emperor far from the capital caused persistent rumors that his death and funeral were staged while the Emperor had allegedly renounced the crown and retired to spend the rest of his life in solitude, but the rumors were never confirmed.
“It was all a mistake”
After Alexander’s death Russia remained without an emperor for more than a month. According to the then existing rules of succession, Alexander’s brother Konstantin was to be crowned the new ruler of Russia, but at the beginning of the 1820s he demised the crown to his younger brother Nicholas. Only in December 1825 did Russia acquire a new ruler.
Nicholas I completely lacked his brothers' spiritual and intellectual breadth. He saw his role simply as that of a paternal autocrat ruling his people by whatever means necessary. The government exercised censorship and other controls over education, publishing and all manifestations of public life. But despite such almost military repressions, Russia experienced a flowering of literature and art – the works of Aleksander Pushkin, Nikolay Gogol, Ivan Turgenev and other men of letters made Russian literature gain international stature and recognition throughout the world.
The Coronation Day was notoriously marked by an attempted coup d’etat that was later called the Decembrist Revolt. Nicholas was greatly influenced by the event, which is believed to have set the nature of his future reign.
Nicholas was never prepared to rule the country – he received a military engineering education and occupied the post of a supervising engineer in the army. He was a cruel and a tyrannical man who hated scientific theories and science in general, and was known as one of the most reactionary Russian monarchs. His reign represented the total domination of absolute monarchy in Russia.
In 1826 Nicholas set up a Secret Committee that was supposed to deal with the serf issue: the Emperor wanted to redress the situation in this field. First of all, the Committee founded several schools for the serfs – in total more than three thousand rural schools opened in Russia during his reign. Along with the schools he founded a Military and a Marine Academy in Saint Petersburg. Apart from that, starting from 1842 landlords were allowed to free their serfs when they wanted and even to grant them land in exchange for rent.
Nicholas firmly believed that serfdom was evil and should be abolished as soon as possible.
The years of Nicholas’ rule were characterised by a certain detachment between the government and society.
Nicholas married in 1817. His choice was the Prussian Princess Charlotte. Soon after the marriage, the couple's first son Alexander, who would later become the great Emperor Alexander II, was born. Six more children were to follow. The Empress gave birth to four boys and three girls. But the ruler of the country didn't seem to believe that was sufficient - he had at least seven more children, all extramarital.
The misfortunes Russia suffered in its foreign policies upset the Emperor so much that he was believed to have taken poison in order not to face shame and humiliation. The Emperor died in February 1855.
There have been many debates concerning the time of Nicholas’ rule. Days before his death one of the Emperor’s most devoted citizens, Alexander Nikitenko, wrote the following: “The main failing of the reign of Nicholas Pavlovich was that it was all a mistake.”
The Great Liberator
After the death of the military Emperor Nicholas his elder son Alexander II ascended the throne. The young successor to the Crown had two tutors, one of them was a military man - a general named Merder; the other was Vasily Zhukovsky, a well-known and much loved and respected Russian poet and gifted translator. Thus Alexander did not only receive the military education his father valued so greatly; he was taught many subjects and thanks to Zhukovsky became familiar with the chief modern European languages. He lacked interest in military affairs, though, which greatly upset his father.
The first year of his reign was devoted to the prosecution of the Crimean War and, after the fall of Sevastopol, to negotiations for peace.
Encouraged by public opinion, Alexander started a period of radical reforms, including an attempt not to depend on landed aristocracy controlling the poor and to move toward developing Russia's natural resources.
Starting in the early 1830s Alexander began attending all the Senate sessions in order to familiarize himself with state affairs. The fact that the young man entered into all the tiny details of the state administration and understood quite early what the common people wanted and needed yielded fruit – in February 1861 the new Emperor abolished serfdom in Russia, liberating more than 22 million serfs. The act earned Alexander not only public love and respect, but also the affectionate name of the Great Liberator. This reform, however, was not the only one Alexander carried out.
Among the other reorganizations Alexander introduced was the judiciary reform of 1864 that separated the executive power from the judicial authority and introduced trial by jury.
In foreign politics Alexander had to finish up what had been started by his father – the Crimean War, which Russia lost in 1856. Army and navy reorganization and rearmament were initiated in response to the defeat Russia unfortunately suffered. The changes included universal military conscription, the creation of an army reserve and the military district system.
At the beginning of the 1860s Russia joined the territories of the Caucasus, the Amur Oblast and some others. In 1867 the Russian Empire sold Alaska to the United States.
Another success in the foreign policy of Alexander the Liberator was the triumph in the Russian-Turkish War, the result of which was the independence of Serbia, Romania and Montenegro.
Alexander married when still a very young man – at the age of 23 he wed Princess Marie of Hesse, who was known in Russia as Maria Aleksandrovna. The marriage was happy enough, and the couple had six children. This, however, did not prevent the Emperor from having quite a number of mistresses, more than any other Russian Emperor. The Great Liberator is even known to have fathered at lest seven illegitimate children.
In 1880, less than a month after his wife’s death, Alexander formed a morganatic marriage with his mistress Princess Catherine Dolgorukov, with whom he already had four children.
On 1 March the Emperor was mortally wounded by a terrorist bomb. This was not the first assassination attempt the Emperor experienced – there were at least three more, but this one, unfortunately for the Tsar, was successful.
A "tyrant" in power
After the assassination of Alexander the Liberator, his son Alexander III ascended the throne. The young man was brought up in military surroundings and thus as he grew up he became arrogant, boastful and tough, treating people as soldiers.
In disposition, Alexander III bore little resemblance to his soft-hearted, liberal father. And although he was an enthusiastic amateur musician and loved ballet, he was regarded as lacking refinement and elegance. He was also noted for his immense physical might.
Having not received the education befit for an Emperor, Alexander III was very capable, but lacked intelligence and tact. Unlike his father, Alexander was not a brave man at all and, afraid of assassination attempts, made up his mind to live in the Big Gatchina Palace that once belonged to his great-grandfather Pavel. The castle was surrounded by a deep moat and protected by a handful of watchtowers.
In November 1866 Alexander married the Princess of Denmark in Saint Petersburg. The union proved a most happy and long-lasting one. Unlike the marriage of his parents, there was no adultery in the union and Alexander seemed to truly love his wife.
In April 1881 Alexander issued a manifesto sanctioning autocracy that signified a return to a reactionary line in the sphere of domestic policy. In the mid-eighties Alexander carried out reforms such as the annihilation of the head tax, the reduction of purchase payments and others.
Alexander III was desperate to reclaim more land, thus he ordered more and more families to move to Siberia and settle there. All in all more than 400 thousand peasant families moved to Siberia and had to struggle to get life up and running in this part of the country. Although the settlers benefited from large areas of land at their disposal, they did not seem too happy to be made to start everything from scratch.
The Emperor was notorious for his anti-Semitic moods and policies. During the time of his reign he tightened restrictions on where Jews could live and limited the occupations that they could attain. His policies, supported later by his successor Nicholas II, made thousands of Jews flee to the United States. Such a stance could not and did not make Alexander very popular among the common people who considered him a tyrant and an oppressor.
Alexander III died in the autumn of 1894. The reason for his death has long been believed to be excessive consumption of alcohol, but the information has never been confirmed.
The last Emperor
Nicholas II, the elder son of Emperor Alexander III, became the new Tsar of Russia and, as it became clear years later, the last ever Tsar of the Russian Empire. Nicholas was well educated and spoke several foreign languages. Still, it is said that he felt unprepared for the duties of the crown, and once asked his cousin: "What is going to happen to me and all of Russia?"
His reign saw Imperial Russia go from one of the foremost great powers of the world to an economic and military disaster.
The first years of the reign saw little more than the continuation and development of the policies pursued by Alexander III.
By 1902, the Great Siberian Railway was nearly completed. The railway was built in order to facilitate Russian trade in the Far East. And though it was almost ready, it still required huge amounts of work.
Nicholas was sometimes called Nicholas the Bloody due to the bloody anti-Semitic pogroms he organized during the time of his reign. As the head of state, he approved the Russian mobilization of August 1914, which marked the first fatal step into World War I.
The Emperor tried to be as close to the common people as possible, and his contemporaries emphasized he was a very compassionate, but extremely weak-willed man. The time of Nicholas’ reign was a difficult time, marked by revolutionary movements. At the beginning of 1905 a revolution flared up in Russia – the Black Sea Fleet mutinied and a railway strike developed into a general strike that paralyzed the country. In hopes of deterring any further contradictions, many demonstrators were shot in front of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. It helped, indeed, but not for long.
In 1905 a manifesto was issued that marked the start of religious tolerance in the country as it allowed ethnic Russians to change their religion if they so desired. This manifesto was immediately followed by another one that recognized the basics of civil liberties: personal immunity, freedom of speech, assembly and association. The State Duma was founded and immediately acquired much significance and importance – no law could be passed without its agreement, though initially it was thought to be just an advisory organ. But with time, Nicholas’ relation with the Duma grew worse and worse.
In his foreign policies, Nicholas did his best to stabilize international relations. Generally, he followed the policies of his father, strengthening the Franco-Russian Alliance and pursuing a policy of general European pacification.
The beginning of March 1917 marked the beginning of the end for the Romanov Dynasty in general and the Emperor’s family in particular – the head of the State Duma announced that autocracy could only continue to be recognized in Russia if the throne passed on to Nicholas’ son, Alexey. In March that same year Nicholas demised the crown to his brother Mikhail, because Alexey was in ill health and could not physically govern the country.
But Mikhail, just like his monarchial brother, abdicated.
The end of the Romanov Dynasty: execution of the royal family
In 1917 after the February revolution and Nicholas’ ensuing abdication and home arrest, it was decided by the Russian Provisional Government that the former Emperor and his family should be sent to the small Siberian city of Tobolsk to reside at the Governor's mansion.
After the Bolsheviks came to power in April 1918 in the midst of a civil war, the Romanovs were supposed to return to Moscow, where their case was to be judged.
The Emperor was summoned to Moscow, but had leave all his children in Tobolsk except for his eldest daughter Maria, because small Alexey was seriously ill and needed to be cared for. Nicholas hoped to reunite with his three daughters and son later. At the very end of April the decision, however, was changed, and not for the better – the former monarchical family was sentenced to execution in Ekaterinburg, to where they were hurriedly moved early in the summer of 1918. One of the official reasons for the brutal and uncompromising massacre was an alleged conspiracy aimed at freeing Nicholas II. But as those who participated in the murder later recalled, this rumor was simply a provocation fabricated by the Bolsheviks in order to justify their bloody deeds.
In Ekaterinburg the family was lodged at the Ipatiev House together with five servants who decided to stay with the family on their own accord: a family doctor, a butler, two maids and a cook. The house was tidy but rather small – there were just four rooms. Still the family managed to settle there quite comfortably. The Ipatiev mansion was their home for nearly two months before they were gunned down in its basement.
The final decision on the execution was made in Moscow on 16 July 1918. On that day the family went to bed at the usual time – half past ten in the evening. An hour later the head of the wards entered the house, woke up the members of the family and the servants and announced that the mansion risked being bombarded by advancing troops, and the family needed to descend in the basement.
All the family – the former Emperor and his wife, their five children and four servants (the cook left the house a day before the tragic event) obeyed and went down to the cellar. There they found already several waiting for them. Immediately after they occupied the chairs, the guardsmen read out the sentence and the whole family was gunned down.
The guardsmen who enforced the sentence were Hungarian as the head of the guards feared Russian soldiers may have flatly refused to kill the Emperor. After the murder of the former monarchical family, all the members of the Romanov Dynasty, who for some reason had failed to leave Russia after the revolution, were found and murdered as well.
The family was believed to be buried not far from Ekaterinburg in a region known as Ganina Yama, but they were not found until early in 1979, when their remains were finally located not far from the city of Sverdlovsk. The remains of Tsarevich Alexey and his elder sister Maria, however, were not found until years later.
In 2007 the remains of a young man aged between 11 and 13 and a young lady aged presumably between 18 and 23 were finally found. In 2008 the remains were ultimately identified as Nicholas II and his family by Russian and American scientists using DNA analysis.
RT gives a detailed account of the events in its The last Emperor documentary.
Written by Anna Yudina, RT