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Alexis I, Fyodor III, Catherine the Great, Paul I, Alexander II--they're among the 20 tsars and tsarinas who ruled the enormous empire of Russia for 300 years. Like the characters in HBO's Succession and Showtime's Billions, they had it all. But they weren't the products of a screenwriter's imagination. They were real.

And in 2018, the 100th anniversary of the end of their good times, the Romanovs have regained some of their long-lost notoriety. Thanks, popular culture!

They were a dysfunctional and rowdy crew--six of the last 12 tsars were murdered. Peter the Great tortured his own son to death; Catherine the Great overthrew her husband, who was murdered soon afterward; Alexander II eluded five attempts to do him in.

According to, the Romanovs' wealth was like no other family that has lived since, with a net worth in today's terms of $250--300 billion. Swank palaces (think gold fountains, walls covered with semi-precious amber, film screening rooms, elevators), lavish wardrobes from French couturiers, exquisite shoes and hats from elite London designers, handmade perfumes, and flowers (delivered daily) from the south of France were part of everyday life.

They got around on a nicely equipped royal train and had an elaborate 400-foot-long yacht with mahogany paneling, crystal chandeliers and a private chapel. Let's not even start on those jeweled Faberge eggs commissioned as Easter gifts for the wives of Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II.

Where did the wealth come from? The website Quora reports that "for the majority of Russia's history, practically up until the Revolution, the Tsar was the government ... all government property could have been considered property of the Tsar."

Funding came from taxation, mining of gold, silver, copper, coal and lead, precious metals and jewels that were spoils of war (Russia did a lot of conquering, Quora says), a mess of gold bullion, fine art, sculpture, and monuments created by the superstar artists of the era.

After centuries of oppression, the proletariat had enough.

The last tsar, Nicholas II, was forced by legions of revolutionaries to abdicate in 1917. Along with empress Alexandra and their children Tatiana, Maria, Alexei (who suffered from hemophilia), Olga, and Anastasia, Nicholas was exiled to a mining town in western Siberia. They lived a markedly simple existence there until July 17, 1918, when they were gathered in a room supposedly to have a family portrait taken, then were shot, bayoneted and bludgeoned to death. Next up: Communism. The Soviet Union. And all that.

Anastasia, Nicolas II's youngest daughter, was rumored to have escaped the fate of her parents and siblings. I Was Anastasia, published earlier this year, is a novel. If you get your history from a work of fiction, you get the history you deserve. But some history is better than none, and this ripping tale, structured around facts, imagines the details of real-life Anna Anderson, who gained worldwide attention in the 1920s by claiming to be the tsar's youngest daughter and massacre survivor. Many believed it was true. Turned out that she was an imposter. And not the only one.

After the Soviet Union disintegrated in December 1991, Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, described by The Washington Post as yearning to put Russia on a path to Western democracy, promoted a culture of remembrance and reconciliation with Russia's violent past. To that end, the Romanovs' remains were given a state funeral in 1998. In a speech at the burial ceremony, attended by government officials, diplomats and Romanov descendants, Yeltsin called for Russian repentance for a century of "blood and violence."

Vladimir Putin, elected president in 2000, concerned himself with restoring Russia to what he termed "a great power," which involved portraying Nicholas II along with Communist leaders Lenin and Stalin as great leaders. Never mind that they were on opposite sides of the Revolution.

Since then, PR for the Romanovs has been outsourced to the Russian Orthodox Church, which canonized Nicholas II and his family in 2000. So now they're saints. All that nasty business of violent repression pretty much lost its power.

Until now.

Now there's The Romanoffs (spelled phonetically), an anthology series on Amazon Prime. From the first three of its eight episodes, it seems like creator Mathew Weiner (the brains behind Mad Men) is writing a bunch of curious 80-minute stories that don't really go anywhere (although I kept thinking they might) that gain association by containing a character who's a descendant of or connected to the Romanovs.

It's frustrating, but has a terrific soundtrack. Especially effective is the use of Tom Petty's "Refugee" in the opening sequence.

The second episode, aggravating in its lack of direction or resolution, stars Corey Stoll (he plays a character named Michael Romanoff). The actor is married to actress Nadia Bowers, an actual Romanov descendant. According to, she does not intend to try to start the monarchy again in the United States.

Fans of print might want to know that along with I Was Anastasia, there's a fabulously detailed and superbly researched work of nonfiction by Simon Sebag Montefiore titled The Romanovs: 1613-1918. There's not much political history here; it's much more a social and cultural exploration of the brutal, powerful, and unbelievably crude tyrants who apparently never took No for an answer when it came to power-mongering and personal desires.

There's no way I'll make it through the book's 744 pages. But the photos are evocative, and no matter what page you choose, there's a fascinating fact to be found.

Any resemblance to 21st-century power-mongers, families, or events is purely coincidental.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.

Editorial on 11/18/2018

Print Headline: A media-muscled Romanov revival

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