Members of the Romanov family pose for a photo. Seated (left to right) Marie, Queen Alexandra, Czar Nicholas II, Anastasia, Alexei (front), and standing (left to right), Olga and Tatiana. (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

If you think your family is overrun with eccentric, controlling lunatics — drama, drama, drama — please meet the Romanovs.

For more than 300 years, the Romanovs ruled roughly one-fifth of the entire planet. They were both “incapable and insane,” as one historian put it, and made up of characters who were “fascinating and charismatic, odd and odious.”

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That might be a monumental understatement.

We are speaking of this Russian band of autocratic misfits now — 100 years after the Bolsheviks executed the remaining members — because Matthew Weiner, the creator of the hit TV show “Mad Men,” has returned to the small screen with a new series called “The Romanoffs.” (Try not to get distracted by the discrepancy between the TV show spelling of the family’s name and the historically accurate spelling of the family’s name. It’s just one of those things.)


Kerry Bishe in a scene from "The Romanoffs." (Jan Thijs/Amazon Studios via AP)

The show, which premiered Friday, is a drama about present-day characters who believe they are descendants of the Romanovs, a nod to the story that the czar’s youngest daughter, Anastasia, somehow survived the execution. (Spoiler alert: She didn’t.

Being a Romanov is a somewhat curious thing to aspire to, considering the monarchy’s legacy. Here’s a good summary of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book “The Romanovs: 1613-1918”:

The Romanovs inhabit a world of family rivalry, imperial ambition, lurid glamour, sexual excess and depraved sadism; this is a world where obscure strangers suddenly claim to be dead monarchs reborn, brides are poisoned, fathers torture their sons to death, sons kill fathers, wives murder husbands, a holy man, poisoned and shot, arises, apparently, from the dead, barbers and peasants ascend to supremacy, giants and freaks are collected, dwarfs are tossed, beheaded heads kissed, tongues torn out, flesh knouted off bodies, rectums impaled, children slaughtered; here are fashion-mad nymphomaniacal empresses, lesbian ménages à trois, and an emperor who wrote the most erotic correspondence ever written by a head of state.

There isn’t enough room on the Internet to completely examine the lives of each Romanov individually and completely, so we apologize for that.

A few names probably sound familiar. But some of this probably wasn’t taught in seventh grade.

Peter the Great fought a bunch of wars in the 17th century against the Ottomans and some other empires. He transformed Russia into a world power. Not a fan of fake news, he helped launch Russia’s first newspaper. He even liked and promoted science.

Peter the Great is, quite simply, one of history’s most consequential characters. Yet, even he was a bit demented — at least by somewhat current standards of leadership. He liked to surround himself with drunk dwarfs. Also, one time he ordered the decapitation of an ex-mistress, then held her head in his hands while explaining windpipe anatomy. What a guy.

Catherine the Great, who ascended to the throne in 1725, is another character from seventh-grade history books. What middle-schoolers probably don’t learn is that she was a total party animal — but with limits. She once decreed that “no ladies are to get drunk upon any pretense whatever nor shall gentlemen, before 9 p.m.”

Also, Catherine was very, very amorous, according to Montefiore:

she thoroughly enjoyed the young men now available to her, taking a young lover, flaxen-haired chamberlain Count Reinhold von Löwenwolde (who closely resembled the decapitated Mons). But she played so hard that Löwenwolde collapsed, either from sexual exhaustion or alcohol poisoning.

Party on.

Other Romanovs aren’t as well known — like Empress Anna.

Talk about a mean girl.

She liked to dress men as chickens and make them cluck. One of her favorite sports was dwarf tossing. “Yet she also cared for her entertainers,” Montefiore wrote. “She had her veteran dwarf Bakhirev thrashed for asking not to be tossed — then funded his medical treatment and supply of wine.” Now that’s compassion.

Michael ruled from 1613 until he died in 1645. There isn’t much to be said for Michael when you consider that he was “scarcely literate, decidedly unmasterful and chronically sick,” Montefiore wrote. Told of his appointment as the sovereign, Michael cried.

And so it went with the Romanovs. One after another, they ruled in brutal and astonishing fashion.


An oil on canvas of Czar Nicholas II painted in 1900 by Ernst Karlovitch Lipgart. (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston via AP)

Their reign ended in 1918, nearly two decades after their last czar, Nicholas II, came to power much as Michael did centuries before — unqualified, unwilling and ultimately unable. He lost a war with the Japanese, blundered through World War I and gave up his crown in 1917.

Next up: The Russian Revolution.

The Bolsheviks captured Nicholas, his family and their servants, moving all 11 of them to a home in Siberia. They weren’t exactly doing hard time. The guards allowed them to take long baths. Nicholas was provided medicine for hemorrhoids.

“Imprisonment,” wrote Helen Rappaport in “The Last Days of the Romanovs,” was “a positive in their lives, a release into ordinariness and anonymity.”

Several months went by.

Then one day they were ordered into a basement room with no furniture. The windows had been nailed shut to prevent the escape of the Romanovs and to keep people from hearing their cries for help. One of the captors arranged the group as if they were about to take a family photo.

“Conscious of his position as Tsar and paterfamilias,” Rappaport wrote, “Nicholas took a position in the center of the room.”

An execution squad entered, shooting everyone dead.

The Romanovs were gone but incapable of being forgotten.

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