On October 12, you’ll meet a family with a very particular kind of identity crisis. The characters in Matthew Weiner’s ambitious new Amazon Prime show The Romanoffs differ in age, race, and orientation, but are united by one strange fixation: They’re convinced they’re descendants of Russia’s Romanov family. When the show was initially announced, many (including your naive author) pictured a lush period adaptation about a once-powerful family doomed to a country teetering on the edge of stark change. Instead, we’re getting a meta-show consisting of eight loosely-linked, feature-length episodes. Though it's not a historical drama, since each character is sure — sure! — he or she is a Romanov, it’s essential to know some of the family’s history, beyond the impressions you may have picked up from the (unfortunately, historically inaccurate) cartoon Anastasia.
Who were the Romanovs?
Simply put, the Romanovs were the last imperial dynasty to rule Russia. Over the course of their three centuries-long rule, which began in 1613, the Romanovs oversaw the creation of the Russian Empire and asserted Russia as a powerful entity in Europe. In total, 18 Romanovs ruled — including Peter the Great, credited for transforming Russia into one of Europe’s largest empires, and Catherine the Great, who ushered in the Golden Age of Russia through emphasis on the arts and economic flourishing.
The lesser-known Romanovs are no less interesting: In 1739, the notoriously cruel Empress Anna Ivanovna built a massive ice palace for the sole purpose of getting revenge on Prince Mikhail, a member of the royal family who had once married a Catholic woman. After Mikhail’s Catholic wife died, Anna forced Mikhail to marry Avdotya Ivanovna, an elderly maid of hers — and then spend the night in the freezing ice palace, naked. The couple miraculously survived the night, though Avdotya died of pneumonia a few days later.
The last Romanov ruler was Tsar Nicholas II, who assumed the throne in 1894 after his father, Tsar Alexander III, died suddenly. Nicholas was self-admittedly unprepared for the role. "I am not prepared to be a tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling,” Nicholas told a close friend. A month after his father’s passing, Nicholas married Alexandra Feodorovna, the granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth. They had five children together: daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, and Alexei, their sole son and heir. Alexei, their youngest, had hemophilia.
So, what happened to the Romanovs?
You want to get grim so quickly? Fine. In the early morning of July 17, 1918, Bolshevik troops instructed Tsar Nicholas II and his whole family to dress up in their party clothes and line up for a photograph. Soldiers, preparing for what was to come, drank shots of vodka. Then, a guard entered the room and formally sentenced the family to death.
The execution, which was supposed to be quick, actually lasted a gruesome 20 minutes. The soldiers began with a firing squad. Apparently, though, Romanovs had sewn jewels into their clothing, which stopped the bullets. The family suffered terrible, violent deaths with bayonets and bullets — especially the four daughters.
What happened to the bodies?
After the massacre, the Romanovs' bodies were stripped, burned, and buried in unmarked graves. However, since the assassination was carried out in private and the remains’ location kept secret, urban legends spewed. Some suspected that Anastasia had survived the massacre and escaped. In 1920, a woman named Anna Anderson famously claimed to be Anastasia Romanov. In 1991, all talk of potential survivors was voided when modern DNA testing determined the remains belonged to the royal family.
Zoom back. What were the Romanovs doing in that safe house with Bolsheviks, anyway?
If you really, really want to understand the historical context for the Bolshevik revolution, we recommend a college course — or at least a podcast. But we'll do our best. In 1917, Russia was in the midst of a disastrous involvement with WWI, decimating the country's resources and economy. By 1917, the people were starving. They began to protest the monarchy's corruption and ineptitude. In April 1917, Nicholas abdicated the throne, leaving room for a Russian Provisional Government to rule instead. The Romanov family was placed under house arrest. In November, the Bolshevik party, led by Vladimir Lenin, seized power in a bloodless revolution, making Russia the world's first Communist nation.
On April 29, 1918, the Romanov family left St. Petersburg, the then-capital of Russia, for the last time and traveled to their new home in Yekaterinburg, which the Bolsheviks named “The House Of Special Purpose.” While the Romanovs were confined in their five-room suite in the House of Special Purpose, a civil war — which began in June 1918 — raged. In July, anti-Bolshevik forces marched toward Yekaterinburg to rescue the Romanovs. In order to prevent the rescue, local authorities pronounced a death sentence on the family.
Where does Rasputin come into all this?
For many Russians, Rasputin, aka “The Mad Monk,” embodied everything that was corrupt about the royal family. Rasputin occupied an outlandish, over-the-top presence in the royal court. The press, who had unprecedented access to the inner court, spread stories about his womanizing habits and drunken speeches. Rasputin also affected the Tsar's ability to rule: By the time Nicholas decided to abdicate the throne in 1917, Rasputin had the Tsar on a steady diet of hashish psychoactive herb henbane. His great influence over the royal family was instrumental in damaging their reputation.
Initially, Rasputin came into the Romanovs' lives because Alexandra thought that the Russian monk could cure Alexei of his hemophilia. In a way, he did — Rasputin refused to let doctors treat Alexei. Back then, aspirin was considered a cure-all, though it had the side-effect of being a blood-thinner. So, by keeping Alexei away from aspirin, Rasputin appeared to be a miracle worker.
Is Rasputin going to be in The Romanoffs?
We hope so.
Are any descendants of the Romanovs alive today?
There sure are — and you know them. Prince Philip, and thus all of his descendants (including Prince William and Prince Harry) are related to the Romanovs. Prince Philip was actually responsible for solving the last great lingering mystery: His DNA was used to identify the Romanov’s remains.
Why have you been spelling it “Romanovs” the whole time if the show is The Romanoffs?
According to press notes, the spelling was chosen for its "phony flavor.” Remember, this is not a show about the Romanovs. It’s about a bunch of phonies who spell it with an “f.”