The House of Romanov ruled Russia for over 300 years, before meeting its famous – and grisly – end in 1918. How did a dynasty which created one of Europe’s largest powers, and one of the biggest empires in the world at the time, get overthrown so dramatically and in such a relatively short space of time?
Catherine the Great (1762-96)
Born Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, Catherine married her second cousin, the future Tsar Peter III, aged 16 and moved to Russia, where she began to energetically integrate herself with the Russian language, culture and customs, as well as the Empress Elizabeth. It took 12 years for their marriage to be consummated, and by all accounts Catherine disliked her husband immensely.
Catherine had made allies at court, and Peter’s pro-Prussian policies further alienated many of his nobles. In July 1762, Catherine staged a coup with the help of her supporters, forcing Peter to abdicate in her favour. She was crowned 2 months later, wearing the newly commissioned Grand Imperial Crown – one of the most lavish symbols of autocratic power created by the Romanovs.
Under Catherine, the Russian empire continued to expand at the expense of the Ottoman Empire: she waged war against the Persian and Turkish empires, and worked hard to have her power and influence recognised by other rulers within Europe too. However, wars required soldiers and money: the additional taxes and introduction of conscription proved unpopular with peasants.
Despite this, Catherine’s rule is often referred to as a Golden Age for Russia. She was a keen supporter of Enlightenment ideals (especially education), continued to Westernise Russia and to promote further elaborate construction projects. She died in November 1796 following a stroke.
Paul I (1796-1801)
Reigning for only 5 years, Paul spent much of his life overshadowed by his mother. Their relationship deteriorated badly once Paul hit his teenage years as he believed his mother should abdicate for him to assume his rightful position as king. As a result, one of his first actions on ascending the throne was to pass the Pauline Laws, which sought to enforce primogeniture.
Much of his foreign policy was also a direct reaction against Catherine’s, recalling almost all of the troops she had sent to the edges of the empire in order to facilitate expansion. He was vehemently anti-France, particularly following the revolution, and raised troops to participate in the French Revolutionary Wars. Paul’s attempts to reform the army were deeply unpopular, despite his apparent enthusiasm for doing so.
His behaviour did much to antagonise the nobility: he tried to tighten up the rampant corruption in the treasury, forced nobles at court to adopt a code of chivalry and implemented policies which gave peasants and serfs more rights and better working conditions.
He was assassinated by a group of army officers in March 1801 – it is said his son, Alexander, knew of the conspiracy and had tacitly sanctioned it. Paul’s official cause of death was recorded as apoplexy.
Alexander I (1801-25)
The eldest son of Paul I, Alexander inherited the throne aged 23 and initially was viewed as an enlightened, liberal ruler: he built several universities, initiated major educational reforms and made plans to create a constitution and parliament.
However, this liberalism soured later in his reign: foreign teachers were expelled from schools, education was forced to become more conservative and military leaders were given more prominence and power.
The Napoleonic Wars dominated much of Alexander’s reign, including Napoleon’s disastrous attempt to invade Russia in 1812. As a consequence of this, Russia formed the so-called ‘Holy Alliance’ with Prussia and Austria in an attempt to resist secularism and revolution across Europe, which Alexander believed was a driving force of chaos.
Alexander’s behaviour grew increasingly erratic as he aged, and some have suggested he had personality traits of a schizophrenic. He died of typhus in December 1825 with no legitimate heirs.
Nicholas I (1825-55)
Nicholas was the younger brother of Alexander: for a large proportion of his life it seemed unlikely he would ever become king given he had two older brothers, but as time ticked on and his brother did not produce any heirs, this changed.
He inherited the throne following his older brother Constantine’s refusal to take the crown, and quickly suppressed what has been known as the Decembrist Revolt – a plot which took advantage of this period of confusion and uncertainty over the line of succession.
Despite a rather inauspicious start, Nicholas saw the expansion of the Russian Empire reach its zenith – it spanned over 20 million square kilometres at its peak. Much of this expansion came from conquest of the Caucasus, as well as successes in the Russo-Turkish War.
Nicholas was the embodiment of autocratic: he did not tolerate dissent, centralised administration so he could oversee it (much to the frustration of many, particularly his generals) and had an almost unrivalled sense of purpose and determination. Historians and contemporaries noted his lack of intellectual curiosity: he further cracked down on freedom within universities in order to limit disruptive foreign ideas entering Russia.
He also took control of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, keeping tight controls on artists and writers: paradoxically, Nicholas’ reign proved to be something of a golden period for Russian arts – particularly literature – and it was in this period that the Russian ballet really began to flourish.
Nicholas’ reign has widely been looked back on as a time of oppression by historians, who note the desperate lack of reform that was needed to get Russia moving forward again. Nicholas died in March 1855 from pneumonia.
Alexander II (1855-81)
Known as Alexander the Liberator, the emancipation of serfs in 1861 was the most major reform of Alexander’s reign, although he did enact a wide range of other liberalising reforms, such as the abolition of corporal punishment, the promotion of local self-government, and ending some of the nobility’s privileges.
A relative pacifist, Alexander attempted to stabilise Europe’s volatile political situation but continued Russian expansion in the Caucasus, Turkmenistan and Siberia. He also sold Alaska to the US in 1867, on the grounds that it was too far away for Russia to defend properly should it be attacked, and incorporated Poland (which had previously been a state with its own constitution) into full Russian control following a rebellion.
Alexander was faced with several assassination attempts, and began to act more conservatively after an attempt on his life in 1866. These were mainly orchestrated by radical revolutionary and/or anarchist groups who wanted to overthrow the autocratic system of government in Russia.
Eventually, a group named Narodnaya Volya (which translates as the People’s Will) succeeded, throwing a bomb under Alexander’s carriage, then throwing subsequent bombs to ensure Alexander was injured beyond recovery. He died several hours later, having had his legs torn off in the blast, on 13 March 1881.
Alexander III (1881-94)
Much of Alexander III’s reign was a backlash against his father’s liberal policies. Many were reversed, and he opposed anything which would challenge his autocracy, including reigning in the privileges and allowances of his own family.
Local government was weakened and authority made more central once again, which proved disastrous when famine hit in 1891: centralised government could not cope and efforts were made to give some power back to the zemstvos (an institution of local government) in order to mitigate the worst effects of famine. Up to 500,000 people died regardless.
A firm believer in the idea of Russianness, Alexander promoted the teaching of Russian culture, language, religion and customs across the empire, even in ethnically different territories. An active anti-Semite, his policies stripped Jews of elements of Russian citizenship and made life tougher for them: as a result, many Jews emigrated to the West during this period.
Alexander had a notably happy personal life: he married the widow of his older brother, Princess Dagmar of Denmark, and the two produced 6 children and remained faithful for the duration of their marraige, which was unusual for the time. He died from nephritis in Livadia, in the Crimea in 1894.
Nicholas II (1894-1918)
The last, and perhaps one of the most famous, of the Romanov Tsars, Nicholas inherited a firm belief in the divine right of kings, and the utmost faith in autocracy. As the world around him began to change, Nicholas adopted some reforms and gave some concessions, such as the creation of a duma in 1905, though he was unable to stem the rise in radicalism.
When war broke out in 1914, Nicholas insisted on leading troops to war himself – his direct control of the army meant he was directly responsible for Russia’s heavy failures, and being at the front meant he was cut off from the reality of everyday life. As supplies became scarcer and the vacuum of power in the capital widened, Nicholas’ already questionable popularity (damaged by the Royal Family’s aloofness, removal from public life and relationship with Rasputin) deteriorated further.
Nicholas was forced to abdicate following the February Revolution of 1917 in favour of his brother, Michael – who then immediately abdicated too. Russia was in the hands of the revolutionaries, and Nicholas and his family were imprisoned and moved deep into central Russia, far away from cities and their support bases. Eventually, the family was executed at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, where they had been under house arrest, in July 1918.
Conspiracy theories exist today that members of the family – most notably, Nicholas’ youngest daughter Anastasia – survived the hail of bullets and bayonets that brought an end to over 300 years of Romanov rule: these remain unfounded. The legend of the last of the Romanovs endures, and it remains enduringly fascinating how a family that had survived so much had their rule finished with more of a whimper than a bang.