The Romanovs: A Look at the Historical Family

On October 12, 2018, Amazon will release The Romanoffs: a new show from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner. I am fairly excited about that, as I imagine many are, insofar as Mad Men was one of the best TV shows to ever grace our screens.

It was also, though, a show that paid exceptional attention to historical detail; down to making sure they got the weather right if they told us what the date was. A pink cake box aside, Mad Men was exceptional in its historical accuracy, and so I imagine that this new show—even if it is not set in an historically distant time—will play with, or at least allude to, the actual history of the Romanov dynasty in Russia.

So, I set about doing a little research. I am in no way claiming to be an expert in Russian history, and there are a good 300 years of it that one could dig into, but I thought that at least a little something about the end of the era and its beginning might be helpful to set the stage for what I hope is another exceptional show from Matthew Weiner.

The Romanov dynasty began with the ascension of Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov in 1613. The country was exiting what has come to be known as the “Time of Troubles” that began with the death of Feodor Ivanovich in 1598 and included a terrible famine that was apparently responsible for the deaths of some 1/3 of the population. Things were not good in Mother Russia.

Image result for times of troubles
In the Time of Troubles by Sergey Ivanov

It is worth noting that in this period prior to the rise of Romanov, there were three different men who pretended to be Dmitry Ivanovich—the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible—in an attempt to become Tsar (known as False Dmitry I, False Dmitry II, and False Dmitry III). The real Dmitry was either murdered, or stabbed himself in the throat during a seizure, depending on whom you believe. He was only eight years old at the time, and there was controversy as to whether he had been assassinated due to a perceived threat to the throne. This is what the pretenders aimed for in claiming that Dmitry escaped from his attempted assassination and that they were, in fact, he, but even at the time it does not seem many believed their claims to be genuine, even if they said they did for political purposes. (And, for what it’s worth, many historians apparently believe young Dmitry really did stab himself in the throat, as odd as that may seem.)

Without focusing too much on the complicated historical details that led to his selection—I will leave you to look into those on your own, if you are so inclined—in 1613 the assembly that was—the zemsky sobor—decided that Mikhail Romanov had the most legitimate claim to the throne, and thus it was that the sixteen-year-old that became Tsar.

He wasn’t a dummy, though, as he maintained the counsel of the group that appointed him, while also showing his own judgment. There was fighting going on with Poland and Sweden, and his father had been taken captive by the Poles. But Mikhail got him back, and Feodor Nikitich Romanov (a.k.a.  Patriarch Filaret of Moscow), who was also a Bishop of the Church, became his son’s chief advisor, if not the de facto ruler, or Russia.

I would expect, though, that it might be the end of the Romanov dynasty that is more relevant to Weiner’s show. Maybe there will be things in those 300 years of history that come up—and I will do my best to have an eye out for that—but it is the ultimate fate of the dynasty, and its aftermath, that I suspect inspires Weiner’s interest more than anything.

Cut to 1917 and brewing turmoil. The lives of the peasants were terrible, and Communism was about to catch hold. The February Revolution (sparked by death and rationing caused by World War I) led Nicholas II to abdicate. The royal family was taken captive, and moved to one remote location after another. The Bolsheviks were on the march. Counter-revolutionaries mobilized, and there was fighting, death, etc., and ultimately the October Revolution, which sparked the Russian Civil War and led to creation of the Soviet Union in 1922.

It was in this context that, in 1918, the newly ascendant government—worried about the potential return of the Tsar—decided to kill Nicholas II. They also decided to kill his whole family. And they did. Telling them that they were moving them somewhere safer, the Romanovs were ushered into a basement and shot.

It was messy. Apparently all of the soldiers doing it wanted to shoot the Tsar, which left the others frantically running about the room for a bit; including the children. And rumors circulated for years—nay, decades—that at least one of those kids got away: Anastasia Nikolaevna; the youngest daughter of Nicholas II. This was facilitated by the fact that the soldiers who killed the Romanovs hid their corpses in two different locations, such that Anastasia’s was not actually found until 2007. (The majority of the family was found in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union; but two were missing. These were the two found in 2007, with all having been officially confirmed to be Romanovs by DNA testing. Which is whom is, of course, harder to confirm, making it possible that Anastasia was perhaps a part of the original batch. Regardless, the numbers ultimately add up: seven Romanovs; seven skeletons—though this has not kept some from claiming a conspiracy.)

Thus, in what could be seen as a kind of historical repetition of the series of False Dmitries that had sprung up three centuries prior, imposters began to appear, claiming to be Anastasia Romanov. The most famous of these was a woman known as Anna Anderson.

Image result for anna anderson anastasia comparison

This story more or less begins in a mental hospital in Germany, where a woman who had been admitted after a suicide attempt in 1920 (whose name was unknown) was claimed to be Tatiana Romanov by a fellow psychiatric patient (Clara Peuthert) in 1922. This claim was believed by Captain Nicholas von Schwabe, who visited the woman who would come to be known as Anna Anderson in the hospital. He further persuaded others who had known the Romanovs to visit, including a former lady in waiting of Tatiana’s, who dismissed the claim because the woman in question was too short. At this point, the unknown woman purportedly said that she had never said she was Tatiana, and the notion that she was instead Anastasia Romanov began to take hold.

So far, so convoluted, and in fact I have offered what may be an overly simplified account (a more detailed story can be found here). Regardless, the young woman started to self-identify as Anastasia. Some believed this to be the case; others did not. And besides the question as to whether she truly was Anastasia there is the question as to whether she truly believed herself to be, particularly given the fact that this story began in a mental hospital.

She took the last name Tschaikovsky and was supported by those who believed he claim, including Nicholas II’s cousin Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich of Russia. She moved to the U.S., and it was when Sergei Rachmaninoff arranged for her to live in a hotel on Long Island that she first used the last name Anderson, which stuck.

The controversy as to whether Anna Anderson was in fact Anastasia Romanov would continue for the rest of her life, and even beyond her death in 1984. In fact, it continues to this day, insofar as there are those who do not believe in the veracity of the DNA results from the tests run on the bodies found in 2007. Indeed, there are some who even question whether the bones found in 1991 were authentic, positing through conspiratorial thinking that the entire royal family escaped execution in 1918—that it was all a hoax foisted on the world by the Soviets, and/or a cover to keep them safe in exile. There is a Facebook page called, “Anna Anderson WAS Anastasia Romanov” that currently has 244 followers, which may not seem like a lot, but which is certainly evidence that Anderson continues to exert a hold on the imaginations of a number of people.

This strikes as the most likely thing that Weiner’s new show will play with: the possibility that some, or all, of Nicholas II’s immediate family survived. The limited promotional materials that exist at this point in time indicate that the series will feature characters claiming to be Romanoffs, and while it would certainly be possible for a person to be descended from one of Nicholas II’s cousins, it is the idea that the direct line survived that fascinates.

Anna Anderson’s story has already inspired a number of works of fiction, including the 1956 film Anastasia, starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brenner, and the 1997 animated feature of the same name. So it is also possible that The Romanoffs may include some references or allusions to previous fictional portrayals.

One way or another—whether explicitly or implicitly—I expect that some of this history, and perhaps other historical nuggets I have not mentioned here, will be relevant to the show, and I, for one, am excited to see how.

The Romanoffs premieres on Amazon Prime on October 12, 2018. Look for our coverage on a weekly basis beginning October 15.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos


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  1. Hey Cam, I love this but it wasn’t disney that did the animated film, it was Don Bluth through 20th Cent. Fox.

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