20 Facts About the Russian Tsars

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

In 1613, Russia was mired in turmoil. Having witnessed a succession of wannabe Tsars attempting to take the throne, the country was plagued by rampant famine, disease, and chaos. The people were in want of a ruling hand to bring back order. They chose for the task a timid sixteen-year-old boy named Michael Romanov, thus beginning the three-hundred-year rule of the Romanov dynasty, which wielded (mostly) absolute power over Russia until the March Revolution of 1917.

With great power comes great ridiculousness, of course, and each emperor or empress exhibited his or her own brand. Below is a select list of Romanov tomfoolery, as chronicled by Michael Farquhar’s Secret Lives of the Tsars.

1. Russia’s second Romanov Tsar, Alexis, was known as gentle and mild tempered. But when a peasant was charged with leading a failed revolt in 1670, the peasant was whipped, branded with hot irons, tortured, and cut into quarters while still alive. Reputation changed.

2. Alexis's wife Natalya was especially bold. At a time when most women stayed hidden behind closed doors, she dared open the window of her carriage slightly.

3. While young brothers Ivan V and Peter I co-Tsared at the behest of a people’s revolt in 1682, older sister Sophia (who may have maneuvered the revolt) was behind them whispering instructions. Literally. She sat in a chair behind their thrones and whispered orders.

4. Peter the Great was a "hands-on" Tsar and was known to hack off his enemies’ heads himself. Most Tsars just hired executioners.

5. Peter the Great also had an affinity for education, and he took the opportunity of his mistress Mary Hamilton’s beheading in 1719 to show the crowd where her vertebrae, windpipe, and carotid arteries were.

6. Peter the Great loved dwarfs and kept many around at a time. He was even known to have a naked dwarf jump out of a giant pie for his amusement.

7. Even a Tsar can't escape the consequences of wild behavior: Peter the Great had gonorrhea.

8. Empress Anna was especially fond of firearms, and wild beasts were collected around Russia and brought to her estates so she could shoot them at will (along with any birds that might have been flying by).

9. Empress Anna had absurd inclinations, and she would force her noblemen to act as fools and sit in giant nests while covered in feathers. This was her idea of a fun time.

10. Gorgeous Empress Elizabeth at times ordered men to dress like women and women like men. She was fond of cross-dressing herself, but no one ever pulled it off as well as she did.

11. After a botched dye job, Empress Elizabeth had to shave her head. The empress would not have others walking around with full heads of hair, so all women in the court were made to cut theirs, too.

12. Catherine the Great, like many of her lusty predecessors, had a procession of young lovers into her sixties (when she died) — several of them were younger than half her age.

13. Catherine’s deepest and longest-lasting relationship was with one Gregory Potemkin, whom she showered with a string of pet names. These included “dear plaything,” “lion of the jungle,” and “golden cock.”

14. Tsar Paul had a dog named Spitz.

15. In pretending to buddy up to Napoleon, Alexander I showed interest in an actress participating in a performance the two attended. Bonaparte advised against it, explaining that within a week, all of France would know the Tsar’s measurements.

16. For Nicholas I, the Third Department (a secret police force that surveilled the citizenry) was not enough. He’d travel the country to snoop on his subjects himself. In one instance, he visited a high school and scolded the director for having ugly pupils.

17. Alexander II had the audacity to free Russia’s serfs, ultimately leading to seven assassination attempts made against him. There were only seven attempts because the last one, in 1881, proved successful.

18. Though not a monarch himself, self-proclaimed holy man Grigori Rasputin was held in high esteem by Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra. Many feared Rasputin's control over the throne, and he was subjected to many assassination attempts.  According to some accounts, when his assassination was finally successfully carried out in 1916, it wasn’t the poisoning or gunshot wounds or blunt force trauma that killed Rasputin, but the drowning that followed.

19. Despite being crowned emperor, Nicholas II was not ready to ascend the throne. Thus, when asked about crucial government matters, his response was, "Ask my mother."

20. Before the Romanovs came to power, Ivan the Terrible ruled Russia with a gory fist. Known for ordering that his enemies be skinned, boiled, burned, and broken, he was the favorite Tsar of Joseph Stalin.