Charlotte,  Russia,  Western Europe

The Romanovs

Romanov family tree
Romanov family tree

Romanov. That’s the name nearly all of us come up with when faced with the question of naming royalty in Russia. But why? The Romanovs only ruled Russia for a very brief period, and it is the female branch of the family that ruled the longest. This means that in countries, such as France or England, the name would have changed completely once the male line died out. Of course there is the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty, but that’s a whole different story. In Russia though, the name went from Romanov to Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov. Why the difference?

It’s starts with Michael I, the first Romanov tsar of all Russia. He ruled from 1613 to 1645 and upon his death his son Alexis assumed the role of tsar. Alexis had two wives that produced a brood of children, four of which would rule. First was Feodor (or Fyodor) III who ruled for only 6 years and produced no children and his line died. Next came Ivan V and his half-brother Peter I, later to be known as Peter the Great. These two ruled together because as it turns out Ivan had some disabilities of the mind and body so he could not rule alone. To complicate matters was that when Feodor III died, Ivan V was 16 (and incompetent) and Peter I was only 9. Neither of them could rule Russia, so Ivan’s older sister stepped in as regent. Sophie ruled as regent for 6 years until Peter was old enough to assume responsibilities of the throne. Ivan died 14 years after his co-rule with Peter began.  Find out more about Peter in this post:

During Peter’s rule, his title changed from tsar to Emperor so that when he died, his wife ruled Russia as Empress. Catherine was not a Romanov, but her rule only lasted a little more than two years. Peter II, the grandson of Peter I and his first wife, now became emperor but only for three years before he contracted smallpox and died.

That’s it. 1613 to 1730 was the rule of the Romanov Dynasty. At least through the male line. Peter II died at age 14 without producing heirs, Peter I only had one son who survived infancy and Ivan only produced females.

But this is where Romanov history becomes quite enthralling.

Ivan V of Russia
Ivan V of Russia

The last male Romanov died in 1730 after only three years of being emperor of all Russia. The name had died but the family continued on through female descendants and it wasn’t pretty.

After smallpox took Peter II of Russia at the age of 14, his second cousin Anna was made Empress. Her husband died shortly after they married. She decided not to take another husband, which resulted in her having no heirs. She was faced with the difficult decision of who to name as her heir and it was all about the family tree.

Remember Alexis I from the beginning? The son of Michael, the first Romanov tsar? He only had descendants from two of his children- Ivan V from his first marriage and Peter I (Peter the Great) from his second marriage. Empress Anna just happened to be the daughter of Ivan and she wanted very much for the following rulers of Russia to come from Ivan’s line and not Peter’s.

Out of 14 children born to Peter, only three survived infancy- one boy and two girls. The boy was Alexei, who became Peter II’s father. Then there was Anna (a different one) who died before Peter II, and Elizabeth, who became Empress a little later in the story but had no children. Alexei had two children and both had died before Anna became empress. This leaves the only child Anna (the different one) had: Peter (yes, another one). That was Empress Anna’s only choice from Peter I’s side. Confused yet?

Now for Ivan V’s descendants. We know Empress Anna had no children. Anna’s sister, Praskovia, had a son who died before Anna was empress. Her other sister, Catherine, had one daughter, another Anna, and then particular Anna had a son named Ivan. Don’t you wish they had named their children different names? Anyway…

So, Empress Anna was to choose between Peter’s descendant named Peter and Ivan’s descendant named Ivan. She chose Ivan. But that would only prove to be bad luck for Ivan and his immediate family.

When Empress Anna died, little Ivan was only 2 months old and this is when Elizabeth comes back into play and things start getting heated. Since Ivan could not rule in his own right, his mother was regent. However, many people did not like her connects with Germany as she had married a German. Elizabeth, mentioned above as Peter I’s daughter, particularly detested the German connection and less than a year after Ivan took the crown he was overthrown. Elizabeth seized the crown for herself in December of 1741, but that was not the end of her plans. Ivan and his family were held under house arrest until 1744. At that time, Elizabeth ordered the entire family to be imprisoned. Anna and her husband had four more children, all of whom were imprisoned from birth. However, Ivan was held captive separately from his family and was raised alone except for the guards who were to watch him.

Ivan and his family were kept locked up until Elizabeth died in 1762 and Peter III ascended the throne. This was the last descendant from Peter the Great’s side of the family, and he took pity on the poor family who had not had freedom for nearly 20 years. Unfortunately, Peter only held the throne for 6 months before dying under unknown and mysterious circumstances. Some believed he was assassinated, but of course, none of it has been proven. The assassination rumor was that his wife and successor, Catherine II (Catherine the Great) was the one who ordered his death.

Peter II of Russia, the last male Romanov
Peter II of Russia, the last male Romanov

Nonetheless, once Peter had died, Catherine became Empress and that did not bode well for Ivan. Let me state here that Ivan’s identity has been kept secret from everyone. No one, not even his guards, knew who he was. He was referred to as “a certain prisoner” or “the nameless one”. One clever guard learned Ivan’s story and made an attempt to free him. Unfortunately, this signed Ivan’s death warrant. This brave guard did not know of the orders made by Catherine to Ivan’s personal guard stating that if anyone attempted to free him, Ivan was to be murdered immediately. That is exactly what happened on July 16, 1764. Ivan was murdered by his guard after being in solitary confinement for nearly his whole life. All those who were a part of the attempt to free him were also murdered.

But the story isn’t over yet.

The rest of Ivan’s family was kept in prison until 1780. Catherine decided they should be released but only to house arrest. By this time, Anna and her husband had already both died but all four children were still alive. The two girls and two boys were kept segregated until the last of them died in 1807. This wiped out the Brunswick-Bevern side of Ivan V’s line, the only family left from his side.

This left only the Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov line, which is Peter III’s line.

And speaking of Peter III, we are not done with him yet either. After his rumored assassination, some believed that he was not killed but still alive and being held against his will. Then pretenders began showing up on the scene. Four fake Peter’s actually, all who gained support and led uprisings and revolts and all were crushed by Catherine. Catherine the Great is remembered for reforming Russia and making it great again- except if you were descended from the Romanov’s.


References available upon request