The House of Romanov ruled Russia for over three centuries, transforming the country into one of Europe’s greatest powers: a force to be reckoned with. But the Romanov dynasty was not all peace and harmony. Fraught with succession crises, coups and rebellion, the three centuries of Romanov rule were far from quiet. Peter I declared Russia to be an Empire in 1721, making himself not just the Tsar, but Emperor of All Russias. His successors strived to live up to his long-lasting legacy.
Peter the Great (1682-1725)
Peter became Tsar aged 10, with his mother as regent: despite attempts by Peter to take power, he only became Tsar in his own right when she died in 1694.
Under Peter, the Tsardom of Russia was transformed into a much larger Russian Empire, which became a key player on the European stage. This was not always easy: Russia waged war against the Crimean Khan and sought to control the Baltic, which was controlled by Sweden.
He also implemented wide ranging reforms across policy in Russia in an attempt to modernise (and westernise) Russia, including a beard tax, speaking French at court and introducing Western dress.
Industrialisation in Russia also began under Peter, although it took time to reach fruition. He embarked on a major building project in the form of St Petersburg – named after himself, the city was designed by Italian and German architects to make it feel more European.
Catherine was born as Marta to Polish parents in modern day Latvia – she was far from a princess. Married off at a young age, the beautiful Marta ended up in the household of the Emperor’s best friend, Prince Alexander Menshikov.
It was through Menshikov that she was introduced to the Emperor, and the pair were married secretly in 1707: they had 12 children, and their marriage was said to be very affectionate, with the two enjoying domestic tasks together in Peter’s log cabin whilst the city of St Petersburg was being built.
They were formally married in 1712, when Catherine (her name by this stage) became Tsarina of Russia. Peter died in 1725 without naming a successor: a coup led by Menshikov led to Catherine being proclaimed Empress of Russia, although she was primarily controlled by her Privy Council.
Catherine was the first woman to rule Imperial Russia: she succeeded on her main policy of reducing military expenses, which in turn meant the peasantry faced less tax. This helped create a reputation of being a fair, just and caring ruler. She died in 1727 aged 43.
Peter II (1727-30)
Peter was the grandson of Peter and Catherine: orphaned at a young age, he was brought up in seclusion on the orders of his grandfather and largely ignored during the reign of his grandmother, Catherine.
By the time Catherine died in 1727, Peter had been named heir apparent following Menshikov’s efforts, and initially, Menshikov assumed control of the young Peter and issued him orders.
With Menshikov gone, plenty of ambitious courtiers jostled to step into the role of royal favourite: Peter was a young man with little inclination for politics, which left something of a power vacuum in government. He was much more interested in a life of entertainment and debauchery.
He became dangerously ill in December 1729, and was diagnosed with smallpox: he died in January 1730, and is unusually buried in the Moscow Kremlin rather than in Peter and Paul Cathedral.
Anna Ivanova (1730-40)
Anna Ivanova was the niece of Peter the Great: married aged 17 to the Duke of Courland and quickly widowed, Anna spent her early 20s in Courland.
When the Tsar died in 1730, Anna was one of the five possible candidates for the throne: she was elected as the new Empress of Russia by the Supreme Privy Council – in part because she had some experience of government and she also was a widow, meaning foreign powers (i.e. a husband) would not interfere.
She was forced to sign some ‘Conditions’ which seriously curtailed her power: however, shortly after her accession she had the authors of the ‘Conditions’ executed and assumed autocratic powers.
Anna’s reign was heavily influenced by that of her uncle, Peter the Great, and she continued with his projects in St Petersburg, including the Russian Academy of Science and laying the foundations of the Russian Imperial Ballet School.
Often characterised as a ‘dark era’, Anna pursued policies which favoured the nobility, and many have seen her style of government as more in line with old Muscovy policies than the more westernised ones Peter the Great championed: one such example was the Secret Office of Investigation, which punished political prisoners.
Anna named her infant grandnephew, Ivan, as her successor and died in 1740 following a short illness.
Ivan VI (1740-1)
Ivan inherited the empire of all Russias aged just 2 months, although the late Empress’ lover, Ernst Johann von Biron, was to act as regent until he came of age. However, Biron was deeply unpopular, and a coup saw him banished to Siberia and Ivan’s mother, Anna Leopoldovna, made regent instead.
Just over a year later, in December 1741, a coup d’état placed Elizabeth of Russia on the throne and Ivan was imprisoned for the remainder of his short life. He was murdered on the orders of Catherine II in order to secure her place as Empress in 1764.
The second daughter of Peter the Great, and reportedly his favourite child, Elizabeth was known to be vivacious, bright and beautiful. She was initially used as a political bargaining tool, as her parents looked to find an advantageous match but her proposed fiancé and her mother died in 1727, and she was left husbandless.
Elizabeth quietly gained support from large swathes of the Russian Army, and managed to overthrow the infant Ivan VI, declaring herself Empress. She brought about an age of Enlightenment in Russia and enjoyed high popularity amongst her subjects thanks to her numerous construction policies, keen sense of national interest and her decision to have no executions during her reign.
Thanks to the help of her diplomatic vice chancellor Bestuzhev, Elizabeth managed to sign advantageous treaties with Sweden and help raise Russia’s profile in London and Vienna. She also led Russia through the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War, and enjoyed a series of victories against Prussia.
Elizabeth presided over a lavish court: she held two balls a week, with up to 800 guests attending on any one night, and dressing up was often compulsory. She was reported to own over 15,000 dresses and forbade any other woman wearing the same hairstyle, dress or accessory as her. In her last illness, she also forbade the word death being used in her presence. She died in 1761.
Peter III (1762)
German-born Peter was Elizabeth’s nephew, brought to Russia aged 14 to be raised as her heir after both of his parents had died. Peter maintained a pro-Prussian outlook much to the disappointment, frustration and anger of the Russian people. He succeeded to the throne smoothly following Elizabeth’s death, and in the six months he was Tsar, Peter established Russia’s first state bank, abolished the secret police, and put trade restrictions on imports of products which could be produced in Russia.
Peter’s wife, Catherine, raised support for a coup against him: he was forced to abdicate, imprisoned and later died under mysterious circumstances. Peter’s legacy was mainly determined by Catherine, who described him as a drunken boor with a liking for harsh corporal punishment.