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Romanovs: Europe's Most Obsessive Dynasty

Romanovs: Europe's Most Obsessive Dynasty

by Oliver Thomson

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The Romanovs - the second and final dynasty to rule Russia - have captured the imagination of the world like no other royal family. The mysterious execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his immediate family in 1918 further fuelled this fascination. Yet the intrigue surrounding the family began centuries earlier with another notorious tsar - Ivan the Terrible. So-called due


The Romanovs - the second and final dynasty to rule Russia - have captured the imagination of the world like no other royal family. The mysterious execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his immediate family in 1918 further fuelled this fascination. Yet the intrigue surrounding the family began centuries earlier with another notorious tsar - Ivan the Terrible. So-called due to his dramatic changed in temperament following the death of his wife, Ivan instigated one of the most terrifying periods in history as he and his Oprichniki viotently tortured his people. And he is only one of many Romanovs with a reputation... Tracing the ancestry back to the marriage of Anastasi Zakharyina and Ivan IV of Muscovy in 1547, through the demise of the House of Romanov, to the present generation, Oliver Thomson delves deep into the family's lineage. Including maps, portraits of family members and stunning colour photographs of the main surviving Romanov buildings, this absorbing book charts the rise and fall of one of the greatest families in history.

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The Romanovs

Europe's Most Obsessive Dynasty

By Oliver Thomson

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 Oliver Thomson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7544-8



'If they had not separated me from my little heiffer there would not have been so many victims'

Letter from Ivan IV to Prince Kurbsky

In February 1547 in the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin, Moscow, the seventeen-year-old Ivan IV, the first ruler of Muscovy officially to be given the title Tsar, married his teenage bride Anastasia. Both his new title and his choice of bride were to be of great significance in the centuries that followed.

His new title Tsar, or Czar, was the russianised form of Caesar, first borrowed informally by his grandfather Ivan III after the fall of two great cities had presented him with a unique opportunity. The capture by the Turks of Constantinople, known as the Second Rome, meant that Moscow could put itself forward as 'the Third Rome' and one that would last for ever. The other city was Kiev which had been captured first by the Tartars, then the Poles, which meant that Moscow had a claim to be the capital of the Russian Orthodox Church. Put the two concepts together and the Grand Princes of Muscovy could justifiably call themselves Caesar. They could also start promoting Moscow as the new capital of the Christian world.

Even at the age of seventeen Ivan IV was ambitious and impatient, so that the concept of a jump in status from mere grand prince to Caesar appealed to him. As we shall see his career was in many ways to justify these pretensions although at considerable cost. He and his successors as tsars were to turn the small state of Muscovy into one of the most powerful and autocratic nations of the world.

Ivan's choice of a bride might not immediately have seemed so significant but was to have far-reaching and unexpected consequences, for the girl's name was Anastasia Romanovna. Ivan, who had only just come of age, had initially toyed with the idea of finding a foreign princess to be the first tsaritsa, but there were none available that appealed. So he had organised a short list of all the virgins of Muscovy who were of suitable age and rank. Then he summoned the most likely 300 to Moscow for medical tests, for personal inspection of their appearance and to check on their table manners. He even sneaked into their quarters at night to make sure they did not snore or sleep-walk. From this extraordinary beauty parade, not the first to be held by a Muscovite ruler, many had soon been eliminated and once Ivan spotted Anastasia he seems to have plucked her like Cinderella from the crowd. It appears to have been a genuine love match. He presented the handkerchief and ring that meant she had won the contest.

Up to this point the Romanov family had been more minor gentry than serious aristocracy. Anastasia's father Roman Zacharin, who had died two years earlier, had provided the family with its new surname. He was himself descended from an Andrei Kobyla who in around 1346 had migrated to Moscow from the area of the Baltic coast known to the Russians as Prus (Prussia). That very year Estonia just to the north had been sold by the Swedes to the Teutonic Knights of Germany who had already overrun Lithuania from their crusading base at Marienburg. It was in this atmosphere that the ancestors of the Romanovs, who were almost certainly of Slavonic origin and the Orthodox faith, chose to seek asylum in Moscow.

Andrei Kobyla was sufficiently respected for the Grand Prince Simeon, ruler of Muscovy, to give him some ambassadorial duties to the neighbouring principality of Tver which was not yet part of his growing state. Andrei and his fifth son Feodor Koshka seem to have made money, perhaps in the usual way in Moscow at that time by helping collect taxes for the Tartar overlords, perhaps from trade, for having moved from Prus they could not as yet be great landowners. They became influential but as yet untitled members of the boyar class, the group of semi-independent landowners who were entitled to advise the Grand Princes of Muscovy. They could if they dared even seek the protection of alternative grand princes in neighbouring states. One of Feodor Koshka's grandsons was called Zachariah and from him were descended Roman Zacharin and his daughter, the new tsaritsa, Anastasia Romanovna. Roman's brother Mikhail Zacharin (d. 1539) was a counsellor of Ivan III's and another uncle, Gregori, helped put Anastasia forward as a potential royal bride in 1547.

Nevertheless since Anastasia did not come from a top boyar family it was somewhat of a surprise when Ivan picked her from the final ten candidates and gave her the tokens which symbolised her triumph. Though their marriage was to last only thirteen years she was to make such a lasting impression that nearly half-a-century later it was to be her grand-nephew Mikhail who was elected the first tsar from the Romanov family and thus to alter the course of history.

It was Anastasia's pleasant personality that was the key to her success. An English visitor commented that she was 'wise and of such holiness, virtue and government that she was honored, loved and feared by all her subjects. He (Ivan IV) being young and riotous, she ruled him with admirable affability and wisdom.' Brought up quietly by her widowed mother she was not highly educated or sophisticated, but quietly pious, and in her own womanly way uniquely able to manage her unusual new husband. She behaved exactly as the textbook for Russian female behaviour, the Domostroy, said a woman should behave. Not that this entirely stilled the jealous tongues of the senior boyars.

We now turn to the teenager who had plucked Anastasia from obscurity. At this point Ivan IV was of course not yet known as Grozny (usually translated in English as Terrible though in Russian it means something more like Formidable which is not quite such a damning quality in a ruler). But already there were signs that his lonely childhood had left him psychologically scarred: he was rumoured to have dropped dogs from the battlements of the Kremlin. He was tall, but stooped and gawky with a hawkish face and close-set eyes.

Ivan had inherited the Grand Princedom of Muscovy at the age of three when his father Basil III (Vasili III ruled 1505-1533) died unexpectedly. Basil's first marriage had lasted twenty years but failed to produce an heir so he was already in late middle age when he put his wife aside and, to the horror of the Church, remarried. His new wife Helen was from Lithuania like the Romanovs and quickly bore him two sons, but as the bishops later chose to remind people, they had put the second marriage and its progeny under a curse which after Anastasia's death they were able to claim was fulfilled.

Meanwhile five years after Grand Prince Basil's death Helen, who had become regent for her son Ivan, was the victim of a palace coup. She was poisoned, her lover Prince Ivan Obolensky was stabbed to death and control of Moscow was seized by a faction of royal cousins and murderous boyars who were to create an oppressive atmosphere for the child tsar for the next few years.

Thus Ivan at the age of eight was made an orphan and until he came of age nine years later was left very much to his own devices. In particular as a bookish teenager he spent many hours sifting through the archives of the Kremlin and this gave him a unique awareness of the achievements of his father and grandfather in expanding the state of Muscovy. It was his grandfather Ivan III (1462-1505) who had captured Tver, subdued the princes of Yaroslavl, then conquered the city and mercantile republic of Novgorod 300 miles to the north-west. He had thus taken land-locked Muscovy to the Baltic Sea and right up to the White Sea where Ivan later founded the new sea-port at Arkhangelsk, albeit one that only functioned in the summer months.

Not only had Ivan III thus quadrupled the size of his princedom, but he had worked hard at its image as the focal point for the Slavonic nations. Rival Russian princes were gradually eliminated. The Great Bell of Novgorod was brought to Moscow and Ivan, instead of being the first amongst equals, began to emphasise his independence from boyar advice and his role as an autocrat (samoderzhetz) and sovereign (gosudar). Then Ivan also exploited the opportunity created by the fall of the two great cities which had previously been the centres of the Orthodox Church. Constantinople had been captured by the Turks in 1453 and Ivan in 1472 married Zoe, a princess from the old Byzantine dynasty, thus giving credence to the idea that Moscow would take over from Constantinople (the Second Rome) and become a Third Rome that would be everlasting. The other rival city which had previously been the centre for the Russian Orthodox Church was Kiev, but this had fallen to the Lithuanians and Poles who had turned it into a Catholic outpost directed against the heretic Orthodox. So the archbishops of Moscow could see their potential role as leaders of Orthodoxy and aped the elaborate ceremonials of the Byzantine Church. Princess Zoe was renamed Sofia (the Greek for wisdom) and Anastasia was christened in the same fashion for her name was the Greek for resurrection.

To sustain the new image of Moscow as a religious and ethnic capital Ivan III had imported Italian architects and masons to rebuild the city. The vast triangular fortress of the Kremlin facing the Moscow River was given five huge square towers. With the tributary Neglinnaya on one other side and a wide moat on the third the Kremlin became an impregnable island. There were new dungeons and torture chambers including the Beklemishev Tower named after a boyar who had pushed his luck too far with Ivan III and been executed as an example to the rest. The main gateway to the Kremlin was the Saviour's Tower with its venerable icon and perpetually burning candles where all those who entered took off their hats in respect. In addition there was the new arsenal, not used just for the manufacture and storage of weapons, but also for a whole range of other crafts such as icon-making for the new cathedrals and jewellery for the royal family. Ivan also had three new cathedrals built. The largest was the Uspensky Sobor (Assumption) which contained the specially fabricated (but not genuine) throne of Vladimir Monomakh that was to be used for the coronation of all tsars. This magnificent white building with its huge four-arch façade had four onion-shaped domes surrounding a larger one in the centre. By the time of Napoleon the cathedral held 5 ½ tons of gold and silver for the French soldiers to steal.

The two other new cathedrals were the slightly Italianate Archangel Mikhail and the smaller but riotously domed Blagoveshchensky (Annunciation), the first for funerals and burials, the second for royal weddings for it was here that Ivan IV was to marry Anastasia. The three cathedrals bounded a square which also included a group of new bell towers, including the as yet half-built Ivan the Great Tower eventually 270 feet high and built to hold the monster Novgorod Bell, the symbol of Ivan III's greatest conquest. On special occasions this bell and three dozen smaller companions would ring out and receive a response from ten times that number of bells in the many other churches round Moscow.

For living quarters, Ivan III had built the Palace of Facets (it had diamond-shaped stones in its façade like its Florentine models) for state banquets and the display of dynastic wealth, while the new Terem Palace was for ordinary living and the royal females who were kept there in rigid seclusion. The two were partly connected by the Red Staircase.

As a long-term side-effect of Ivan's recruitment of Italian builders came the first introduction of spirit distillation, for the Italians brought that skill with them and the new beverage now produced for the first time in Russia was called little water or vodka.

The expansion of Muscovy continued under Ivan's father Basil III who conquered the states of Pskov and Ryazan and worked on the further embellishment of the Kremlin, but his death when his heir was only three years old created potential problems for the Rurik dynasty. However, after an uncomfortable period of regency young Ivan IV eventually asserted his adulthood in 1547 and donned the great crown of Vladimir Monomakh. He then very rapidly began to show that he had the character and ambition to make an effective tsar. After a brief honeymoon with Anastasia at the famous Troitse Monastery outside Moscow he settled down to work. Despite his subsequent reputation for cruelty and promiscuity his first marriage seems to have been a model of domestic normality. Though Anastasia kept herself mostly away from the public eye in the Terem, when she did appear she seems to have exuded an air of saintliness which was to boost the image of the Romanov family in years to come. In this she was helped by her brother Nikita Romanov or Romanovich Zacharin who became an influential courtier and friend to the tsar. Then in turn his brothers were also promoted, Daniel Romanovich becoming steward of the Grand Palace and his cousin Vasili Mikhailovich the steward of Tver, a move not too popular with rival boyars. There seems to have been a purge of the Glinsky clan, the relations of Ivan's mother, using as an excuse the accusation that their tricks had led to a fire that swept through the wooden houses of Moscow in 1547.

The first thirteen years of Ivan's rule which coincided with his marriage to Anastasia were successful in almost every way. He made a good choice of ministers who made intelligent reforms in the law and church. In his first major military campaign at the age of twenty-two Ivan accompanied by Nikita Romanov captured the important city of Kazan on the Volga some 500 miles east of Moscow from the Muslim Tartars. It was to celebrate this victory that he started work on another new cathedral outside the Kremlin in Red Square, the spectacularly domed Cathedral of the Intercession. It was later more usually called St Basil's after the wandering holy man Basil (Vasili Blazhennovy) who was befriended by Anastasia and was buried in a side chapel when he died in 1588. Thus by a strange coincidence both the first tsaritsa and the last were to be influenced by wandering holy men, in Alexandra's case Rasputin. Another church built for Anastasia was St Catherine the Martyr in the Fields and to emphasise her holiness she went on pilgrimages with Ivan to Rostov, Pereslavl and Yaroslavl.

Four years after the Kazan campaign Ivan also conquered Astrakhan which gave Muscovy its first outlet onto the Caspian Sea and meanwhile trade routes had been opened up to the rest of Europe from Arkhangelsk on the White Sea. Anastasia who so far had two daughters that had died in infancy at last produced the first of three sons, so the dynasty appeared to be secure. The only hint of difficulty was when Ivan himself was extremely ill in 1553 and tried to extract an oath of allegiance from the boyars for his infant son Dimitri. Anastasia and her brothers Nikita and Daniel were amongst the few who supported him and when he recovered there was the first hint of neurosis as Ivan realised how few of his boyars he could trust. Even then Daniel seems to have been dismissed briefly for a period soon afterwards. In a mood slightly suggestive of his later paranoia Ivan accused some of his less cooperative boyars of stirring up hatred of Anastasia by hinting that she was like evil princesses of the past. Implicated in this criticism of Anastasia were two key men in Ivan's entourage: Prince Andrei Kurbsky, for a long time Ivan's favourite general, but one who perhaps did not relish having to serve under Anastasia's brother, seems to have fallen out with her. Her other critic was the fire-eating Sylvester, the homophobic arch-priest of the Assumption Cathedral who ranted about the immoralities of court life, allegedly wrote the anti-feminist textbook the Domostroy and blamed Anastasia for her slow production of a male heir. Yet what exactly he had against her is not clear unless it was her patronage of the eccentric Saint Basil who like Rasputin nearly 400 years later was not part of the religious establishment.

The complexion of Ivan's reign started to change drastically when Anastasia fell ill herself. She went on a pilgrimage in the hope of recovery but died soon afterwards at the Kolomenskoe Palace outside Moscow, probably of natural causes, though there were the usual Kremlin suspicions of poison. Ivan blamed Sylvester and his allies for preventing her from going to other places of pilgrimage to aid her recovery, but at the time he was himself helping to put out another fire that was raging through Moscow. Yet since she had borne six children, four of whom died in infancy, it is hardly surprising in those days of minimal sanitation and uneven diet that she should succumb to illness.

Anastasia had been twenty-nine and Ivan still had twenty-four years of his reign ahead of him. Though little Dimitri had died as an infant there were still two sons: Ivan (1554-81) and Feodor (1557-98). But with his sister gone it was to be a major test for the key surviving male member of the Romanov family, Anastasia's brother Nikita.


Excerpted from The Romanovs by Oliver Thomson. Copyright © 2011 Oliver Thomson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Oliver Thomson is the author of Easily Led: A History of Propaganda and From the Bloody Heart: The Stewarts and the Douglases.

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