To romanticize an entire family is nothing new; observers of history and naturally curious people have done it for ages, especially because each world power (or what was once a world power) had a dynastic family at its helm: England had the Tudors, the Mitfords, and Cavindish family (although the last two were not rulers, they occupy a special part in the English imagination), France has the Bourbon dynasty, and for Austria, there are the Hapsburgs. In America, there are the Vanderbilts, and the biggest name of all, the Kennedys. And finally, in Russia, a nation filled with old, princely families, only one name has stood out the test of time: The Romanovs. Of all these families mentioned, only three of them, the Mitfords, the Kennedys and the Romanovs have been attached with a cult of celebrity that has endured, and over time gotten stronger due to factors no one had ever expected. While the Mitfords had their famous eccentricities, and the Kennedys combine a heady mix of glamour and tragedy, what is most interesting about the Romanovs is that they are a dynasty has lasted throughout time, much longer than the other two families. Their faults and frailties have been brushed under the carpet, and the many curiosities of their lives have been examined and critiqued. It is difficult to pinpoint where the fascination lies: unlike the Kennedys, who, with all of their drama and excess were still able to achieve a great, many good for their country, the Romanovs never really achieved what they should have. Indeed the generation that garners the most discussion and maniacal following isn’t of Peter The Great’s, the greatest of the Romanovs, but that of the last family in his line, Nicholas the II, the man synonymous with bringing down the entire dynasty to its disaster. There are a myriad of reasons for this adulation: their glamorous impracticality, the entire scope of their tragic deaths and its immediate aftermath, the fact that Nicholas II understood how to use his family in the public eye, and the advent of new technology like the internet that has only spurned on this interest. This endless reverence is unlikely to die soon.
There was a discord within the family itself. On the one hand there was Nicholas II and Alexandra, both stringent and pious, influenced by things as varied as dark, cold lonely childhoods, the stresses of ruling an empire as vast and nearly-crumbling as Russia, and the burdens of maintaining a perfect family image: there was no way it could be let out that their son, the Tsarevich Alexis was afflicted with hemophilia. Indeed, the more glamorous of their relatives considered the Emperor and Empress as “pathetically quaint and obsolete.”[i] These very same cousins eschewed the idea of “Russian-ness” as Nicholas and Alexandra saw it, and did not bother concerning themselves with state matters because as they saw it, they were not the Tsar or his wife. Most of them spoke French better than Russian, traveled to the glamorous spa towns, and more often than not, did not consider Russia as home. They lived hedonistic lifestyles: according to Nicholas’ sister, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, the last generation “did not live up to their standards or the traditions of the family…and lived in a world of self-interest where little mattered except the unending gratification of personal desire and gratification.”[ii] In other words, they were acting the same as every rich, spoiled, bored member of a famous family did. The Emperor and his wife, although by no means effective rulers of Russia kept themselves and their children separate from the rest of the unruly family. The problem was, no matter how hard Nicholas tried to distance himself from the scandals or tried to stop it, in the eyes of the Russian citizens, he was just as much a culprit as his corrupt relatives. Either he didn’t enough to stop, or he was part of it. The lasting image of all the Romanovs was that none of them had any such sort of self-control, and all lived a life of opulence. It is one that still survives today, and is given as one of the primary reasons for the fall of the dynasty. The image that everyone has of this last generation is they didn’t really do anything, but led glamorous lives.
The years between the Franco-Prussian war (1874) and World War I (1914-1918), known as the Belle Époque is seen as the greatest time in Europe, and the Romanovs, along with all the dynastic houses in Europe took advantage of the golden era accorded to the higher classes. When the war began, it changed the scope of Europe, especially all the old traditions of class distinction. The interconnected royal families all suddenly either died out (the case for the smaller, Germanic principalities) or entered into war against each other. The Romanov dynasty ended. Most of them quickly moved to other neighboring European countries willing to shelter them, but the hand dealt to Nicholas II and his family was the cruelest, shot in the basement of a house they had been held in house arrest in for three months. The fact that a monarch had been murdered is nothing new in history: Charles I, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette all met their grisly end the same way. What made Nicholas different was he was murdered without trial, and his whole family suffered his fate. That his children, the four Grand Duchesses and the Tsarevitch were innocent, had no bearings on those who killed them: they were Romanovs, and in a testament by Leon Trotsky, their deaths were needed to “frighten, horrify, and dishearten the enemy…to show the world that we could continue to fight on mercilessly, stopping at nothing.”[i] When news of the violent deaths reached outside Russia, there were shockwaves, shockwaves that managed to erase the fact that Nicholas II on the whole had been an incompetent ruler: suddenly he was “not Russia’s last sovereign but as a man, a husband, and a father.”[ii] This heavily romanticized notion of Nicholas II was aided by his allowance of the presentation of his family to the world. Historians Greg King and Penny Wilson argue “he was not shy about using his family, particularly his beautiful daughters and handsome young son, to evoke patriotism and loyalty to the throne.”[iii], the result of which is a huge fascination with the children, particularly the four Grand Duchesses with their disparate personalities: Olga, the eldest was the intellectual and independent one, then there was Tatiana, the beautiful, elegant one who “you felt [that] she was the daughter of an emperor,”[iv], Marie, the sweet, flirty good girl of the family, and finally, Anastasia, “the perfect enfant terrible”[v] born with an inferiority complex (she knew her father wanted a male baby) and destined to become the most famous of Nicholas II’s children. These descriptors provide the perfect ammunition for curious observers and fanatics alike to start websites like livadia.org[vi] a website dedicated to the four sisters, with information and a diary section where someone is in charge of writing entries in the voice of the sisters, and photo albums that show the sisters in a relaxed mode in their home, surrounded by finery yet made utterly relatable. The result of this is “to imbue the Romanovs with modern sensibilities and contemporary relevance, to wish illusion into reality.”[vii]
Over the years, there have been many factors that have softened the views on the last Russian royal family. More and more accounts of the gruesome murders have turned hate into pity, incompetence into helplessness, and what was probably a miserable life for the family even before their imprisonment into something that embodies “romance, sentiment, nostalgia, national religion and myth.”[i] This is what spurns on all the rumors of Anastasia’s escape: people want to believe that the mischievous, unwanted, youngest daughter of the Emperor escaped her sad fate and lived a full and happy life. Their history “[was] invoked as a morality play, as a means of naming victims and persecutors, of honoring good and chastising evil.”[ii] Romanticizing the Romanovs brings us back to an easily imagined past, one that had all the elegance and traditions, notions that seem hopelessly outdated today, yet seem very comforting.
Text by Sara Sigiuon Reyna
[i] Nicholas Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, pg 231
[ii] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, pg 231
[i] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, Pg 497
[ii] Greg King and Penny Wilson, The Fate of the Romanovs, pg 527
[iii] King and Wilson, The Fate of the Romanovs, pg 528
[iv] King and Wilson, The Fate of the Romanovs, pg 48
[v] King and Wilson, The Fate of the Romanovs, pg 50
[vii] King and Wilson, The Fate of the Romanovs, pg 15
[i] King and Wilson, The Fate of the Romanovs, pg 528
[ii] Mark D. Steinberg, The Fall of the Romanovs, pg 2.
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- King, Greg. Fate of the Romanovs. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. Print.
- Massie, Robert K. Nicholas and Alexandra. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000. Print.
- Steinberg, Mark D. Fall of the Romanovs political dreams and personal struggles in a time of revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1995. Print.