‘Blood’ Relatives: Russia’s Royal Family

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Between 1676 and 1741, the emerging power that would become the continent-straddling Russian Empire was ruled by nine different members of the Romanov family. Despite their familial links, the majority of these transfers of power were bloody. This article will examine the power structures affecting early Romanov Russia and seek to explain why potential Tsars were so at threat from their own kin.

Much of the tension amongst the Romanov family can be traced back to the death of Tsarina Maria Miloslavskaya in 1669. She had been married for 21 years to the second Romanov Tsar, Alexis I (ruler from 1645-1676), bearing him 13 children. Eight months after her death, Alexis’ courtier Bogdan Khitrovo – the ‘whispering favourite’ – organised a bride-show, the traditional method for Muscovite rulers to select their spouse. The result of this bride-show was the Tsar’s 1671 marriage to Tatar noblewoman Natalya Naryshkina, 22 years his junior and the mother of Peter the Great. Despite Maria’s death, the Miloslavskys remained a strong force in Russian court politics, and their conflict with the Naryshkins would define Russian politics for the next 65 years.

Their struggle was prompted by a twofold desire to maintain their side of the family in power and reap the many benefits thereof. They aimed to secure positions as regents and senior advisers from which they could control the apparatus of the state for their own personal gain. They were aided in this by various allied families who expected prominent positions if the right ruler was in charge. Conflict between these families was also driven by a fear of what would happen if the ‘other’ side came to power. Even once the two extended families – Nashykins and Miloslavskys – ceased to be in open opposition, the split caused by their actions caused would be exploited by other conspirators for much the same purposes.

The strife first started with Alexis’ death on 29 January 1676, when the accession of the frail Miloslavsky heir Fyodor III, chronically ill in bed, returned his mother’s family to power. In turn, Natalya and Peter were immediately exiled to Preobrazhenskoye and Alexis’ Chief Minister Mateev was persecuted on trumped up charges of attempted regicide. This simmering tension would be a harbinger of events to come.

 On 27 April 1682, Fyodor finally succumbed to his ill health, sparking the Moscow Uprising of 1682, one of the bloodiest non-military events in Russian history. The two candidates to succeed him as Tsar were his mentally infirm brother Ivan, aged 15, supported by the Miloslavskays, and the healthy 10-year old Peter, later the Great, supported by the Naryshkins. An assembly of Boyars (nobles) decided that Peter should succeed Fyodor, and his uncles, Tsarina Naryshkina’s brothers, were promoted to senior positions. This angered Sophia, Ivan’s older sister, who began to fabricate rumours of Fyodor’s poisoning by the Naryshkins at his funeral. The presence of 25,000 musketeer guards, demanding punishment for their corrupt Colonels, further provided the Miloslavskays with the opportunity to spread the rumour that Prince Ivan, the elder brother and rightful Tsar, was in grave danger from the Naryshkins.

As these whisperings spread, they evolved into a belief that Ivan had been strangled by Peter’s uncles in an act of cold-blooded murder. With the encouragement of Prince Tolstoy, sent by the Miloslavskays to inflame the tensions, thousands of musketeers gathered at the steps of the Kremlin’s Red Staircase demanding to see Ivan, either dead or alive. On the appearance of both young Princes – Ivan and Peter – at the gates the musketeers fell silent and began to disperse. Mikhail Dolgoruky, son of a famed general, unwisely threatened the musketeers as they left. Turning round, they charged up the red staircase with a cry of “death to the traitors,” massacring Dolgoruky, throwing him off the balcony and slicing him to pieces.

Over the following days many other Naryshkin sympathisers, notably Mateev, the General Yuri Dolgoruky (father of Mikhail) and even Ivan Naryshkin, were carved up and displayed in the now abattoir-esque Red Square. Eventually, on 26 May, Ivan V was declared co-Tsar with Peter. Sophia, daughter of Alexis and Maria Miloslavskaya, was appointed regent as ‘Great Sovereign of the Realm.’ Having been at risk of losing power to the Naryshkins, the Miloslavskys were back in charge.

After the death of the Regent Sophia in 1689 and Tsar Ivan V in 1696, Peter the Great began to hold power on his own. His transformation in status from a monarch in name only to undisputed autocrat, shifted the balance of power over to the Naryshkin side of the family, where it stayed following his death in 1725. He was succeeded by his second wife Empress Catherine and then, in 1727, his grandson Peter II.

However, in February 1730, 34 years of uninterrupted rule from the Naryshkinan family ended. On the morning of his wedding to Elizaveta Dolgorukaya, Peter II died without a male heir. Faced with the evaporation of their plans to elevate themselves through a royal marriage to power, the Dolgoruky family, long-time allies of the Naryshkins, leapt into action. Before Peter’s body was even cold, Prince Ivan Dolgoruky stormed out of the royal bedchamber and proclaimed Catherine’s daughter Elizaveta Petrovna the Empress. Peter’s will was forged to include her as his chosen successor.

Prince Dimitri Golitsyn – one of the most senior nobles of the realm – however, maintained that, in the absence of a male heir, the throne must remain in the Romanov family and refused to support Elizaveta on the grounds of her supposed illegitimacy. Although Elizaveta’s parents are said to have eloped secretly before her birth, the official records suggest that Peter the Great’s marriage occurred in February 1712, when the Princess was already two. Golitsyn and the Dolgoruky therefore chose one of Ivan V’s daughters, from the Miloslavsky side of the family, as a figurehead in return for conceding to terms which granted the conspirators sweeping control over the Russian state.

They settled on Anna, his middle daughter, widow of the Duke of Courland. On arrival in Moscow, messages smuggled to her revealed that the terms to which she had agreed were not the true wish of the Russian people. In response, she seized power herself, returning Russia to autocracy. While not rooted in the conflict between these two cadet branches of the Russian royal family, Anna’s accession occurred because the pre-existing split gave the courtiers an opportunity to exploit this dormant conflict for their own purposes. Additionally, the resentment towards her felt by Peter the Great’ allies would ultimately lead to the final conflict between the two factions.

Upon her death 10 years later, Anna appointed her lover Prince Biron, Duke of Courland, to serve as regent for her two month old nephew, Tsar Ivan VI. Anna is believed to have done this to allow her lover to continue to wield power and influence even after her death, typical of the underlying motives driving this familial clash. However, the Duke had made many enemies among both the Romanovs and the wider court, and was quickly deposed by Ivan’s mother, Anna Leopoldovna.

Meanwhile, Elizaveta Petrovna had been gathering support among those hostile to the new regime. She was assisted in this by the French and Swedish ambassadors, who, in the same fashion as the courtiers, spied an opportunity to further their own foreign policy interests by exploiting her anti-Prussian views.

Elizaveta found particular success in building up her support among the guards, who remained loyal to the line of Peter the Great and developed an affection for Elizaveta on account of her regular visits and compassion towards their children. It was with the regiment originally founded by Peter in his childhood, the Preobrazhensky Guards, that Elizaveta was to seize power. Arriving at their headquarters on 25 November 1741 wearing a warrior’s breastplate, she invoked their loyalty to their founder by questioning whether they would rather serve their natural sovereign, or those who had stolen her inheritance. The guards, accompanied by Elizaveta, marched on the Winter Palace, arresting the Tsar and his parents in a bloodless coup. This coup, following which Peter and Natalya Naryshkina’s line would rule until 1917, traces its origins to the original tension that followed questions over the succession in 1676 and 1682 which established two rival options for the Romanov succession that were exploited by those on the periphery of power.

Following the bloodless coup of 1741, the question of the Romanov succession was no longer complicated by the existence of two rival branches of the family. This is not to say, however, that the transfer of power ceased to be tumultuous. Following Elizaveta, both Peter III and Emperor Paul would be overthrown by scheming courtiers in favour of their wife and brother respectively. Paul was inadvertently killed in the coup of 1801 and Peter ostensibly died of hemorrhoidal colic in prison 12 days after his 1762 deposition. While Elizaveta’s accession did not put an end to the regicidal practices of the Romanov family, it did mark the last time when these actions could be directly traced to the fateful death of Maria Miloslavskaya and her husband’s remarriage 80 years earlier.

Miles, J., 2018. St. Petersburg: Three Centuries of Murderous Desire. Hutchinson.

Sebag Montefiore, S., 2016. The Romanovs. W & N.