As an avid-traveler, I am a big believer in understanding the culture and knowing the history to fully grasp the story behind each country that I am traveling to. On my journey to Russia, I was able to learn the Russian renaissance history and I would love to share a quick run-down of Russia’s history from the 1500s to 1917.
The first ever Tsar in Russia
For your information, the first ever Tsar wasn’t Peter the Great (not by a long shot). The first one was actually Ivan the IV (or Ivan the Terrible).
During the 1200s, Russia was ruled by the Monguls. However, rather than actually ruling over the land, they allowed the existing Russian princes and dukes continue to rule their own land. All of the Russian principalities had to pay tribute to the Golden Horde (Monguls), effectively operating like a vassal state. Then, it wasn’t until the 1500s when the Monguls were in their real decline that they couldn’t maintain their rule in Russia. The Grand Prince at the time, Ivan the IV, decided to officially revolt against the Monguls, cease tribute to the Golden Horde and completely declared independence. After consolidating all remaining Russian principalities, Ivan the IV established Russia.
Rather than calling himself King or Emperor, he wanted a different title. Julius Caesar, being the first dictator of the Roman Empire, has created a legacy with his name. During the period of the Roman empire, the word “Caesar” became a title for the ruler. “Caesar” eventually became synonymous with words such as “ruler”, “king” etc. In Russia, Caesar is pronounced as Tsar. Ivan the IV would like to be crowned as “Tsar of All the Russians”. By being crowned Tsar, Ivan was sending a message that he was now the one and only supreme ruler in the country. Therefore, the first Tsar title in Russia was used.
The Romanov Family
So how did the Romanov family even come into power? Well, after the death of Ivan the Terrible, his son took over as the next Tsar. After his son died, Russia fell into a succession crisis known as the Time of Troubles. During the next 15 years, several rulers ruled over Russia with different family names. It wasn’t until 1613 when Michael Romanov was elected to the throne, thus establishing the dynasty of the Romanov family.
A grandson of Michael Romanov, Peter the Great, later on inherited the throne. One great thing he did was to reorganize the Russian state along the Gulf of Finland, and thus established the Russian Empire in 1721.
I will give you a brief summary of each of the Romanov Tsars that have ever existed after Peter the Great. There are a total of 13 Tsars.
1. Peter the Great (1682 - 1725)
Peter the Great continued using the title Tsar. His first major policy was to move the capital of Russia. While he was exploring for the ideal land, he realized the importance of sea trade as it was an essential criteria to boost the strength of its country. Unfortunately, the Swedish Empire at the time was very strong. Though, under Peter's excellent military leadership and with the help of Prussia, he was able to defeat the Swedish Empire and took down the Gulf of Finland, along with land today known as Estonia and Latvia. Since he took down the Baltic sea and made peace with Sweden, he soon called himself Peter the Great.
As he established the new capital, he paid tribute to a patron saint, Saint Peter, and accordingly named the city as Saint Petersburg. He immediately built Peter and Paul fortress as a military base to prevent the Swedes from returning, though they never actually came back. Later on, Peter and Paul fortress was used as a prison.
During Peter’s reign, he rebuilt the culture of Russia by attracting western European influence from France and England. As such, the dresses in Russia were in Victorian style. Also, he believed that a man’s look should be proper. Rather than a beard, he opted for a mustache look. At the time, it was considered to be modern and soon became a symbol of Peter the Great. I also heard that Peter had imposed an annual “beard tax” for the men who kept their beard.
The imperfection of Peter's marvelous history was his son, Alexei. Alexei was considered weak and feeble. He often curses his father for his harsh discipline and constant criticism. At the time, the people of Russia didn’t like some of Peter’s reform policy and chanted Alexei’s name to be Peter’s replacement. Peter, being an ultra paranoid father, confronted Alexei numerous times to determine whether any conspiracies were being plotted. At one point, Alexei even escaped Russia and fled to Austria. After Alexei’s return, Peter immediately imprisoned him and tortured him to confess his crimes and to spill the names of his confidants. Long story short, Alexei was tortured to death at Peter and Paul Fortress.
During Peter’s later years, his health was in great decline. One day, while he was inspecting some ironworks at the Finnish Gulf, he saw a group of soldiers drowning near the shore. He quickly dove to the water and rescued the soldiers. Unfortunately, after the rescue, he got hypothermia and became really sick. Shortly after, he passed away.
2. Catherine I (1725 - 1727)
While Peter was alive, he married to Catherine I who was just a village girl. Catherine I was Peter’s second wife, step-mom of Alexei. Historians have considered the wife fat but at the time, it was considered to be the standard of beauty.
When Peter died, he didn’t name a successor. Through a coup, the throne was passed to his wife, Catherine I. At the time, it was acceptable for females to become rulers. There isn’t really much to talk about her except that she reigned for only 2 years. Again, when she died, there was no succession plan. Catherine I had no male issue. Since Alexei died from torture, it made sense that the throne was passed to the step-grandson, Peter II.
3. Peter II (1727-1730)
Peter II was known to be depressed because his grandfather killed his father. After a short 5 year reign (he was only 14), the throne was given to his cousin, since he had no sons or daughters. The cousin was Anna Ivanovna (daughter of Peter the Great’s half-brother).
4. Anna (1730-1740)
There isn’t really much to say about her. Historians have said that she advanced science. However, at the same time, Anna was also considered to be cruel as she made fun of disabled people and enjoyed serfdom (slavery). When she died, Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth managed to gain the favour of the populace and took back the throne.
5. Elizabeth (1741-1761)
Elizabeth ruled quite long in her reign. However, she was also known to be a big spender. She was basically a shopaholic. Also, rumours said that she had many lovers, as many as one new person per day. There were a few good things that she did though. First, she established University of Moscow. Second, an interesting fact was that she never executed a single person during her reign. When she died, she passed the throne to her nephew, Peter III (grandson of Peter the Great).
6. Peter III (1761-1762)
Peter III was known to be a drunk. He basically had no talent except married to a very smart and intelligent wife, Catherine II. Before Peter III became the Tsar, Russia had a Seven Year’s War against Prussia. As soon Peter became the Tsar, he ended the war and showed his love towards Prussia (for your information, Peter III grew up in Germany). This move was very unpopular in Russia and his military hated him. Catherine II saw that her husband was not doing his job properly and that the army was giving her the support. She then decided to stage a coup, force Peter III to abdicate the throne and killed her husband. Peter III only ruled Russia for 6 months.
7. Catherine II (Catherine the Great) (1762-1796)
Catherine the Great basically transformed Russia and took Russia to a new golden age. She was originally a German and didn’t understand the Slavic language at all. After spending a significant amount of time perfecting the language, the culture and understanding the history of Russia, she was basically born ready to rule.
One of her greatest achievements was her battle against the Ottoman empire in the Russo-Turkish war at the Black Sea. After this war, she gained full access to the Black Sea. Her achievements in this war allowed her to be called a Great.
Catherine was also known to be a big spender, but at least she bought the stuff that she liked, rather than to steal as war loot. She had many precious items that she decided to build and expand her own palace - a new wing to display her artifacts. This wing is now known as the famous Hermitage.
Unfortunately, when she died, her son never gave her any credit. Her son, Paul I, really hated her for killing his father. Currently, Catherine the Great’s coffin does not have any plaque. This is a sign that Paul I took out all kinds of recognition. Paul I also abolished any possibility for a female Tsar in the future.
8. Paul I (1796 - 1801)
Paul I was described as weak (but probably because historians compared him to his mom). He never had a good relationship with his mom, Catherine the Great. Remember his father was killed? In fact, he wasn’t supposed to become the next Tsar. Catherine chose Paul I’s son, Alexander I as the heir, but Paul I took advantage of Catherine’s stroke and took the throne himself. During his reign, there were rumours in town that spread the idea of democracy and constitutionalism. Even the famous Russian poet, Pushkin, voiced his concern against monarchy. What made it worse was that Napolean from France was gaining significant territory in Europe. In fact, Napolean eventually was knocking Russia’s door.
Fearing that Russia might be taken over by Napolean, the magistrates and generals decided to support a new ruler, a better ruler skilled in battle. They assassinated Paul I and announced Alexander I’s succession.
9. Alexander I (1801-1825)
Alexander I was basically known for his war against Napolean during his reign. In fact, he changed his position with France multiple times: from neutrality, opposition, alliance and opposition again. Before then, he joined UK against Napolean which he lost. Then he became an ally with Napolean and fought against UK (strange huh?). Then, since there were too many disagreements between Alexander I and Napolean, they fought again. This time, they fought big.
As proven, Alexander I was really skilled at battle. He along with Mikhail Ilarionovich deployed the scorch-earth strategy and defeated Napolean on the invasion to Russia. Although Napolean already took down Moscow, the lack of food and the unforgiving winter was too much for the French army. After the victory, Russia once again became a superpower. When he died, he had no heirs, and the throne was succeeded by his younger brother, Nicholas I.
10. Nicholas I (1825-1855)
Nicholas I isn’t the brightest individual. A lot of his policies were poor and his reign had a corrupt bureaucracy. Although he had gained some land, particularly Armenia and Azerbaijan, his other wars were a total disaster and spent the Empire a lot of money.
However, he was considered to be one of the most handsome Tsar ever lived. There was an interesting story between his love affair and Natalia, which I will explain later in the Pushkin section. Fast forward 30 years, he gave the throne to his son Alexander II.
11. Alexander II (1855-1881)
Alexander II was one of the most loved Tsars in history. It was apparent when his coffin was specially decorated. He was the Tsar that emancipated Russia’s serfdom policy (abolished slavery). He also set up a judicial system, with local judges and promoting self-government. Unfortunately, there was a movement in Russia to overthrow Russia’s autocracy and have attempted to assassinate the Tsar many times. Alexander II eventually was assassinated 7 times in his life, last one being successful. Unfortunately, he was killed by a bomb at the end. The explosion also killed his wife as well.
His son, Alexander III, constructed a massive church in memory of him. This church is now known as the Church Saviour on Blood.
12. Alexander III (1881-1894)
Alexander III was known for constructing the church in memory of his father. However, this church started construction in 1883 and took 24 years to complete in 1907. Anyway, the lack of funding and the decline of the Russian economy proved to be too much for this church.
Alexander III also didn’t fight in any major wars and was considered a peacemaker.
13. Nicolas II (1894-1917)
Nicholas II was the last Tsar in Russia. He wasn’t really well-liked. He was considered to be weak in comparison to his ancestors. His weak character was reflected in his own portrait. His painters painted his portrait as a weak person, as you can tell from the picture below.
His horse looked tired. On the other hand, Alexander III’s horse looked strong. This was one of the ways that you could express your opinion against the ruler, through painting.
However, it was known that Nicholas II knew 8 languages and was a frequent traveler.
The downfall of Nicholas II was that he did two things: 1) he lost the Russo-Japan war, 2) he participated in World War I. All these reasons led to an inevitable revolt and eventually led to the fall of the Romanov family.
After the abdication, Nicholas II was killed along with his family and close servants during the revolt. A soldier of the army was tasked to bury Nicholas II and others. However, there was no proper burial and it was discovered that Nicholas II’s body and others were buried at a random place. Years later (around 1998), Russia recognized that Nicholas II was after-all a monarch and should deserve a proper burial and should be buried at Peter and Paul fortress, the same church that buried all Tsars. When they discovered the burial site, they were only able to find 9 out of 11 bodies. Some of the bodies were servants and cooks. The Russians were able to verify Nicholas II”s body through DNA testing. Anyway, all 9 bodies were buried together in one big site at Peter and Paul fortress.
Special mention 1: Anastasia
A disclaimer is that the following story isn’t true and it was proven to be a fake tale as of 2007. Though, for entertainment sake, I will talk about the story.
Anastasia is the daughter of Nicholas II. When Nicholas II was killed, Anastasia was able to escape and left Russia. Since the Russians could only recover 9 out of 11 bodies, one the remaining bodies must have been Anastasia who didn’t die from the wrath of the firing squads. There’s more to it and you should definitely watch the 1997 animated series Anastasia. It has entertainment value.
Special mention 2: Pushkin
Everyone in Russia knows about Pushkin, he is that famous. Pushkin was a poet who had thousands of fans, including the poor and the rich. The problem was that he wrote poems that expressed his discontentment with the monarchy. At the time, the Tsar was Paul I. Paul I couldn’t really do anything about it because he was well-liked.
When Pushkin was young, he met a beautiful girl Natalia. However, Paul I’s son, Nicholas I, was also chasing after Natalia. Eventually, Natalia chose Pushkin. Nicholas I, despite being a handsome Tsar, lost the battle of love.
Soon, Napolean threatened to take over Russia. Alexander I couldn’t risk any civil revolt from Pushkin’s idea against imperialism. Therefore, Alexander I exiled Pushkin. After Napolean was defeated, Nicholas I became the new Tsar. Urban myth suggested that Natalia seized the opportunity and went to Nicholas I to beg for mercy on behalf of Pushkin. Nicholas I granted permission to free Pushkin (obviously with some kind of condition). No one knew what the exact condition was but there were indications that Natalia gave birth to a daughter that belonged to Nicholas I’s. For example, out of Pushkin’s poem, he never mentioned about his 4th daughter.
In order to subdue any kind of possible scandals, Nicholas I had employed a person as a cover-up and pretended to have visited Natalia’s house to conjure a possible seduction. Even though Pushkin knew about the scandal, he couldn’t do anything because Natalia essentially sacrificed herself for Pushkin’s freedom. Unbearable to see his honour tarnished, he eventually dueled against the seductor, a French officer. Mind you, Pushkin was really good at gun duels and had won 26 times. Unfortunately, with his clouded mind over the scandal, he was fatally wounded in this gun duel and eventually died. Anyway, all of this could just be an urban myth.
Now, Pushkin’s home turned into a museum.