The Romanovs were the last of the Russian dynasties. For decades, they were one of the most powerful families in the world...and yet they will forever be remembered for how it all came crashing down. Over 100 years ago in 1918, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and all five of their children were executed. Before that, their lives were full of hope, love, fear, and tragedy. Here are 85 facts about the Imperial Romanovs, the last tsars.
Nicholas II was unprepared to rule Russia when he ascended the throne. He filled his court with his favorites, whether they were qualified or not, and many experts believe he brought about his own downfall through his incompetence.
The Romanovs, especially the daughters, lived a secluded life away from the prying eyes of the public. Due partly to the volatile political climate and partly because they were girls and not important to the survival of the dynasty, people hardly knew or considered their individuality. All the public saw of them were from official palace photos.
Anastasia Romanov was the fourth girl born to the Romanovs, but Nicholas' reaction to her birth was chilling. The Tsar and Tsarina already had three other girls, and were very much hoping for a boy. When Anastasia was born, the Tsar apparently went for a long walk to compose himself before visiting his newborn daughter. Way to make a girl feel wanted!
Alexei Romanov was the youngest of five children to Emperor Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra. Due to the fact that he was the only son of Tsar Nicholas II, he was automatically deemed heir apparent to the Russian Throne.
People often compared Maria Romanov, the third daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra, to one of Botticelli's angels because of her angelic appearance. She had light brown hair and big blue eyes that her family called “Marie’s saucers.” In fact, Maria had such a good nature that her great uncle nicknamed her "the amiable baby."
Alexandra and Nicholas had a true Romeo and Juliet story. She met the young heir when she was only 12 years old, but although they grew to love each other, their families disapproved. Alexandra’s family had visible contempt for the Russian people, while Nicholas’ family suspected she carried hemophilia, an almost certainly fatal disease for the era.
Despite these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, love triumphed and the pair married anyway.
Alexei, like most kids, was fond of the odd prank. One of the best-known cases of Alexei’s antics was when he stole a guest’s shoe while she was sitting down with his parents at dinner. He gleefully showed off his achievement to his father, who ordered him to return the shoe. The boy did—but not before putting a strawberry inside it first.
Though you might think that growing up a Romanov means beautiful clothes, jewels, and a luxurious lifestyle, the truth was much different. Queen Alexandra raised her children according to her own strict upbringing, which meant handing down clothes from daughter to daughter, making them sleep on iron beds, and forcing them to take daily cold baths.
The Execution of the Romanov family took place over 100 years ago, but their case is still officially open, with a criminal case being opened by the Russian government after the fall of the Soviet Union.
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Hemophilia is a genetic disorder that prevents the blood from clotting properly, and it was common in royal families at the time. Alexei Romanov inherited the disease from his mother Alexandra and his great-grandmother Queen Victoria of England.
As children, people called Maria and her sister Anastasia “the little pair.” They shared a room, wore almost identical clothing, and spent a great deal of time together. The two older girls, Olga and Tatiana, were "the big pair," and also shared a bedroom. Despite the pairings, all the girls were actually very close, and often signed letters with the acronym OTMA, the first letters of their names.
Maria Romanov had an overly sweet nature and was something of a goody two shoes. Her sisters, however, took advantage of her generosity and gave her an utterly cruel nickname. They often called her their “fat little bow-wow" because the plump little girl was so eager to please.
Due to his hemophilia, Alexei was a sickly boy. When traditional medicine failed the Tsarina Alexandra’s son, she turned to a Russian mystic by the name of Rasputin. You may have heard of him. As Rasputin’s influence over the Romanovs (and especially Alexandra) grew, so did the vicious, disapproving rumors that Alexandra was having an affair with the mysterious man.
Nicholas oversaw the first Russian census in 1897, and even participated himself. Under occupation, Nicholas wrote “Owner of Russia.”
Alexei's family forbid the fragile boy to play too roughly in case he was seriously injured. He wasn’t even allowed to ride a bicycle in case something happened. Which, to be fair, you all had at least five bike-related incidents in your life. Be honest.
Nicholas II was crowned on May 14, 1896. Thousands upon thousands of Russians gathered in Khodynka Field to witness their ruler take the throne, but the event was marred by tragedy. Rumors that there wouldn't be enough food and drink led to a stampede. More than 1,300 people died in what would be known as the Khodynka Tragedy.
Siberia still had shadows of pagan mysticism lurking in its midst, and as a child, Rasputin disturbed his parents and neighbors with his “divine” abilities. They claimed the boy Rasputin was able to heal horses simply through touch.
Tsar Nicholas II’s wife Alexandra was born into royalty. Her parents were Duke Louis IV and Princess Alice of the United Kingdom, and her grandmother was none other than Queen Victoria.
One of the more famous incidents involving Alexei and Rasputin occurred during the summer of 1912. After a jolt during a carriage ride, the young prince “developed a hemorrhage in his thigh and groin.” But that was just the beginning of the nightmare. Not only did this cause severe pain to Alexei, but the hematoma that formed in his body was life-threatening.
Frantic for her beloved son, Alexei’s mother sent word to Rasputin, who was away at the time. Rasputin wrote back, urging her that God was looking after her child, and commanded the doctors to leave him alone. Then, a "miracle" happened. Amazingly, Alexei’s bleeding ceased of its own accord a couple days after Rasputin’s letter came. Alexandra took it as a divine intervention.
Because of the seriousness of Alexei’s condition, the Tsar and Tsarina treated their son's hemophilia as a state secret.
Anastasia Romanov was the most headstrong and mischievous of the Romanov sisters. She was always trying to make her sisters laugh, and she enjoyed playing pranks on her tutors and nurses. Most of her tricks were harmless fun, but sometimes she took it way too far. One of her cousins even said that she was “nasty to the point of being evil.”
Maria's father Nicholas was often concerned that his daughter was too perfect. He was actually glad to know the rare occasions when she got in trouble and once remarked, "I was always afraid of the wings growing. I am glad to see she is only a human child."
The Tsarina Alexandra never quite managed to win the hearts of the Russian people. Despite her best efforts, her German heritage prevented her from getting a fair chance, and no matter what she did, people always spun it into something negative. As anti-German sentiment rose during WWI, their hatred became even more focused on her.
In the early 1900s, photography was beginning to gain global popularity, and Nicholas became quite the shutterbug. He owned a US-made Kodak camera and would often take pictures of his family and their closest friends. Alexandra was also fond of photography and paid for professional photography services. These photos portray the happiest moments of the family’s life.
From the time he was born, doctors had warned the Royal Family that Alexei probably wouldn’t live to see his 16th birthday. When he was 13, disaster struck. He suffered a recurring hemorrhage in his knee, and an early death seemed imminent. Eventually, he recovered—but for the remainder of his short life, he couldn't really walk.
When Olga Romanov was born, she had the official title of "Grand Princess" or "Grand Duchess." The title made her an imperial highness, which, according to Russian ranks, was higher than any other princess in Russia. Unfortunately for her, she was born a girl, so despite being first born, she wouldn’t have been able to inherit the throne.
We don't know much about Rasputin's childhood other than his “devilish” reputation in his village. In addition, Rasputin had no formal education and was illiterate until adulthood. Nonetheless, this was the man who bewitched the Tsarina.
Alexei was the baby of the family, and his parents and sisters adored him. Reportedly, the mood of the whole Russian court often hinged on how Alexei was feeling. When he was healthy, the rest of his family was far more relaxed and pleasant, while his more serious episodes would fill his family with great worry and melancholy.
King George V of England looked nearly identical to his cousin Nicholas II, and they were very close. Yet when revolution started, George dealt his cousin an utterly cold-hearted betrayal. He did almost nothing to help him, and didn't even offer safe haven in England. Historians believe it was an act of self-preservation: George was worried that his cousin’s poor reputation in Russia could damage his own monarchy. So much for familial bonds.
When Tatiana and Olga were of marriageable age, everyone from the press to Queen Victoria started considering who the girls might marry. As hard as her parents tried to find Olga a match, she refused to marry a foreign prince and leave Russia, and her parents refused to force any of the girls into a marriage they didn’t want. Not smart politically, but a pretty cool move as parents.
The execution of the Romanov family is well-documented, but who exactly ordered their execution has remained a mystery. Many historians believe that Lenin and his lieutenant Yakov Sverdlov ordered the execution in lieu of a public trial. Regardless, there wasn't any paper trail, so the buck basically stops with Yakov Yurovsky, who was commandant of the House of Special Purpose.
Tatiana, the second-born of the Romanov children, was direct and orderly. Her sense of duty included keeping her siblings in line, earning her the nickname “the Governess.” Her striking resemblance to her mother also gave her father a soft spot for her, and whenever the sisters wanted anything from their father, they elected Tatiana to go and ask him.
Tatiana’s official title was “Your Imperial Highness,” but she was rarely called by anything other than her first name in private. Once, when someone did refer to her by her title, her response was explosive. She apparently kicked her under the table and exclaimed “Are you crazy to speak to me like that?” Judging by her reaction, the correct answer here is probably “yes?”
At least three Romanov children had pet dogs at the time of their execution. Two of the dogs died along with the princesses, but the dog belonging to Crown Prince Alexei miraculously escaped. Amazingly, the dog made the trek across Siberia and eventually to England, where he lived out his days close to Windsor Castle.
Because of her spirited and energetic personality, Anastasia's family nickname was "The Imp."
From an early age, two Russian sailors were Alexei's personal attendants, and their loyal service was heartbreaking. Klementy Nagorny and Andrei Derevenko acted as close bodyguards, following the fragile heir around so he wasn’t ever injured. They would also carry him around when he was too weak to move of his own volition.
One of the contributing factors to the downfall of Nicholas II was his belief in Divine Rule. In Nicholas’ eyes, God gave him the right to rule and as a result, there were no limits to his power. While most of Europe was becoming more democratic, Nicholas stubbornly refused to give up on the outdated idea of absolutism.
The Princess Anastasia was a short and chubby child with strawberry blonde hair and blue eyes. According to her governess, someone once called her the most charming child he had ever seen, and her mother’s friend Lili Dehn said her face was clever and her eyes were extremely intelligent.
After the execution of the Romanovs, the Bolsheviks deliberately told the Russian people that only Nicholas was dead and that Alexandra and Alexei were in a “secure” place. They then flip-flopped their stories several times over the years. Finally, after an investigation in 1926, the government admitted that the Romanovs had perished.
In 1917, after the upheaval of the February Revolution, Nicholas abdicated and ceded the throne to his son, Alexei. Almost immediately, he also abdicated on Alexei’s behalf. This left Nicholas’ brother, Michael, in charge, but Michael refused to accept the throne unless the country voted to remain a monarchy.
When they didn't, Russia’s tsarist monarchy came to an end after three centuries.
Rasputin may have been a holy man, but he had absolutely horrific hygiene. As an adult, he went long periods of time without touching himself or washing. He also once bragged about not changing his underwear for over six months, and food would often rot in his beard. Throughout the rest of his life, people would complain about his smell.
When World War I broke out, Tatiana Romanov was 17 years old. She, along with her mother and older sister Olga, became certified as surgical nurses. Of the three, Tatiana was most suited to the work. While Olga was somewhat more delicate in disposition, Tatiana was calm and steady. She may have been a princess, but all of the medical aides who saw her said that she was born to be a nurse.
Tsar Nicholas II's coronation was filmed by a French journalist; it was the first film ever shot in Russia.
In 1905, the Russian royal family hired Pierre Gilliard, a scholar from Switzerland, to be a French tutor for their children. As it turns out, the Romanov legacy owes a lot to this humble tutor. Gilliard survived the Revolution and wrote about his time with the royal family, including their private habits and little-known woes.
When Nicholas made the decision to abdicate the throne in 1917, he did it to protect his family’s safety. This was extremely naïve: Soldiers placed he and his family under house arrest and transferred them to a tiny town. They were able to bring many of their family treasures there, so you couldn’t really blame him for thinking that everything would be okay.
The revolutionaries didn't look kindly on the Romanovs continuing to live in privilege. They prepared a house in Yekaterinburg for the family and called it “the house of special purpose.” As the family entered the house, the captors addressed Nicholas as “citizen Nicholas Romanov,” indicating that their royal titles were a thing of the past.
While she was imprisoned, the beautiful Maria Romanov caused a tragic scandal. She was always the prettiest and most flirtatious of her sisters, and she soon struck up a close friendship (and possibly more) with the guard Ivan Skorokhodov. He even smuggled in a cake for her 19th birthday—but they were doomed to an absolutely heartbreaking end.
Her family discovered their relationship and quickly sent Skorokhodov to prison. Meanwhile, Maria got off with a scolding.
Rather than rejecting sin, Rasputin believed that spirituality was grounded in bodily experience. He often would indulge in physical relations and alcohol, and preached that without sin, one could not repent and reach redemption. Sure...that’s one way to think about it.
Schoolwork in general was not one of Anastasia’s favorite activities, and she especially hated being stuck in a classroom. To get out of lessons, she would climb up a tree and refuse to come down. She also resorted to mischievous methods to keep her grades up, including bribery. She once offered her English teacher flowers in exchange for a better grade.
Nicholas II and his cousin King George V bore such a strong resemblance to each other that when Nicholas attended George’s wedding, several guests confused the two. Even Queen Victoria, George's grandmother, noted the similarity.
In the winter of 1916, Alexei was staying with his father in the army headquarters. During this time, he found out that an officer, John Hanbury-Williams, had just received news that his son had died. Nicholas encouraged his son to go sit with the despondent man and offer his sympathies. The boy's words were touching and unforgettable.
Alexei told the man straightforwardly, "Papa told me to come sit with you as he thought you might feel lonely tonight."
Alexei was reportedly very cheerful and intelligent, though his bouts with hemophilia greatly hampered his education.
While under house arrest in 1917, the Romanov sisters contracted measles and started losing their hair. As a result, Alexandra decided to shave their heads. I hope they had a good selection of hats.
Of all the countries he visited, Nicholas seemed to enjoy his time in Japan the most, at least at first. He even got a tattoo to mark the visit. The tattoo—a black dragon on his right forearm—was done by traditional tattoo artists in Nagasaki.
Though the rumors about his affair with the Tsarina were unfounded, Rasputin's real bedroom habits were even more scandalous. He had a reputation for immense sensual appetite, and crowds of women followers would gather outside his apartment and wait days to meet him. Over time, he curated a group of favored women he called his "little ladies."
Despite his illness, Alexei was actually one of the very first people in Russia to become a Boy Scout. No word on how many badges he managed to earn.
When the Romanovs got to The House of Special Purpose, soldiers forced them to subside on military rations and endure restrictions they had never experienced before. For Nicholas, the final humiliation came when he received an order that he could no longer wear epaulets, the last petty symbol of his former authority.
Over the years, more than 100 women have surfaced claiming to be the youngest Romanov daughter, Anastasia.
Alexei Romanov always seemed to be aware that he was in danger of meeting an early death. One day, his eldest sister Olga saw him lying down, looking at clouds, and asked him what he was doing. "I like to think and wonder," he said.” When Olga then asked what he liked to think about, his reply was heart-wrenching.
"I enjoy the sun and the beauty of summer as long as I can. Who knows whether one of these days I shall not be prevented from doing it?” The precocious heir commented.
Because of their secluded lifestyle, the Romanov children did not have peers to play with, but they did have their mother’s holy man and counselor Grigori Rasputin. The girls learned to view Rasputin as their friend and confidant, and it was revealed after their deaths that the girls all wore amulets containing Rasputin’s picture.
At the time of his death, Nicholas II was worth $900 million, roughly the equivalent of $300 billion now. Were he alive today, Nicholas would be the richest man in the world three times over.
Rasputin apparently referred to the Tsar and Tsarina as “Papa” and “Mama.”
Despite her being an energetic and vivacious child, Anastasia suffered from a few health problems. She had bunions on her feet, a weak back muscle, and many believe she inherited the hemophilia gene from her mother.
Anastasia particularly loved Rasputin. She referred to him as her “only true friend,” and spoke of him with great love and affection.
Although Anastasia and Olga were the youngest and eldest of the four sisters respectively, they were actually quite close. Their letters and diary entries frequently mention each other separately from the other sisters, and they both enjoyed doing physical activities together such as cycling, skiing, and boating.
The Romanovs' end was tragic—but Rasputin suffered an even darker fate. Angered by Rasputin’s influence, Prince Felix Yusupov and several co-conspirators lured him to a home and poisoned him, only to find out that the poison had no effect. Felix then shot him in the back, at which point Rasputin screamed, fell to the floor, and passed out. But that was just the beginning...
The conspirators then began to dispose of Rasputin’s belongings. Shortly after, Rasputin awoke, leapt up from the floor with a “devilish look” on his face, and attacked Felix. After a brief fight, another co-conspirator shot Rasputin twice: once in the back and once in the head. Rasputin fell to the ground once more, clutching his head.
They men brought his body back inside and made another chilling discovery. He was still alive. Again. After another round of beatings, they were quite certain they had finally succeeded, but decided to tie him up, wrap him in cloth, and dump him in the freezing river...just to make sure. I mean, wouldn't you?
During the World War I, Alexei kept close to his father, even when Nicholas II was staying at army headquarters. For his part, Alexei loved the military life, even eating the same meals as soldiers. When someone offered him his own specialized food, he refused to eat it, saying, "It's not what soldiers eat."
Although he opposed the war, Rasputin had a disastrous vision in which he claimed the Russian army would only succeed if the Tsar personally took over command. Nicholas listened and took the charge, but it was a huge mistake. It caused massive losses and unrest that undoubtedly led to the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.
On the night of the brutal executions of the Romanov family, Anastasia Romanov was the last one left alive.
There are some claims that attackers castrated Rasputin, and according to lore, the fate of his private parts is absolutely bizarre. Apparently, a maid found them and later brought them to Paris to be worshipped as a fertility object. The autopsy report, however, states that Rasputin's genitals were very much intact.
The famous yellow dress worn by Anastasia in the animated film Anastasia is modeled on a dress worn by the real-life Anastasia. The grand Duchess wore the dress in one of the last photographs taken of her before her execution.
When soldiers moved the Romanovs around while they were under arrest, there was such a risk of ambush or lynching that the group traveled under a Japanese flag to avoid unwanted attention.
Forensics of Rasputin's body tell a terrifying tale of his very last moments. After the conspirators dumped him, it appeared as if he had tried to claw his way through the ice. Water in his lungs also indicated he was still breathing while in the river. The man just wouldn't die.
While he was still the heir apparent, Nicholas was attacked during a trip to Japan by a madman with a sabre, and was nearly killed. His cousin managed to save him from a fatal blow with a bamboo cane. The Japanese Emperor then drove all night to see Nicholas and make amends.In response, the future Tsar showed his dark side.
He wasn’t really the type to forgive and forget, and he hated Japan and everything to do with it from then on.
Of the many women who claimed to be Anastasia, one woman, Anna Anderson, became the most famous. She first emerged sometime between 1920 and 1922 in a hospital, claiming that she had escaped with the help of a sympathetic guard. In 1994, experts compared her tissue to a sample from Anastasia's relative Prince Philip, and the findings confirmed the tragic truth.
There was no match, disproving her claim once and for all. Historians now widely believe that Anderson was actually Franziska Schanzkowska, a mentally-ill Polish factory worker.
One of the reasons that people so readily believed Anna Anderson was her resemblance to the real Anastasia. When she turned up in the hospital, members of the Romanov extended family and former servants showed up, and many of them said she eerily had the same eyes and even the same mannerisms as the long lost Duchess.
Not everybody who visited Anna Anderson believed that she was Anastasia. For one thing, she didn’t recognize people she should have known. Her tutor Pierre Gilliard said Anderson was a “vulgar adventuress,” and Anastasia’s grandmother, the Dowager Empress Marie, refused to even meet with her. Anastasia’s aunt Olga did visit, but stated that she was “looking at a stranger.”
Michael Goleniewski was a CIA spy who claimed to be Alexei Romanov. He even managed to have a reunion with a fake Anastasia in Rhode Island. Unfortunately for Goleniewski, the dark truth came out. He was a full 18 years younger than the real Alexei, he likely didn’t have hemophilia, and he was born and raised in Poland. The CIA was understandably ticked and fired him, but Goleniewski never gave up the charade, and claimed to be the boy until his death.
On the morning of their execution, the soldiers ushered the Romanovs down to the cellar of The House of Special Purpose, and a squad showed up to carry out the dark deed. The men were each supposed to fire at a different family member, but many privately didn’t want to shoot the girls, so they all aimed at Nicholas and Alexandra instead.
Sadly for both the Romanovs and the soldiers, the execution went horribly wrong. In the months leading up to their executions, Alexandra had the children sew valuable diamonds into specially-made underwear in case they needed quick money for an escape. The night of the execution, the children were wearing this special underwear, and it acted as a bullet-proof vest.
The bullets bounced off of the clothing, wounding but not killing the children. When the smoke cleared and the murderers discovered that the children weren’t dead, they had to try to kill them all over again.
In 2015, the Russian Orthodox Church, officially reopened the Romanov case to confirm that their alleged remains really did belong to them. Nicholas, Alexandra, and three of the children were found in 1991 near the city of Yekaterinburg, but Alexei and Maria weren’t discovered until 2007.
We still don't know for certain how exactly the Romanov children died. Based on the condition of their unearthed skeletons, a rather chilling theory is that while Nicholas II was definitely shot, his children were doused with acid and burned, possibly while they were still alive.
According to Bolshevik Peter Ermakov, Tsar Nicholas II’s last words on the day of his execution were “You know not what you do.”
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