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Five myths about the Romanovs

Members of the Romanovs, the last royal family of Russia, including: 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)

The Romanovs celebrated their dynasty’s tricentennial in 1913 – just five years before communists gunned down Nicholas II and his family in the basement of a house in Yekaterinburg. Under Romanov rule, which began in 1613 with Mikhail Romanov, Russia grew to become the biggest land empire in the world. These czars’ talents and foibles have long fascinated historians, the public and artists; a new Amazon series tells eight fictionalized stories of people who believe they are Romanov descendants. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) But some of what people think they know about the dynasty doesn’t stand up to historical scrutiny.

Myth No. 1

The last of the tsars, Nicholas II, was a decent man.

The blockbuster biography “Nicholas and Alexandra” by Robert K. Massie, highlights the czar’s “personal charm, gentleness, deep religious faith and strong Russian patriotism.” He was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, which cited his “humbleness, patience, and meekness,” in 2000. And it’s true that Czar Nicholas was a pious man devoted to his wife and children. Before his forced abdication in March 1917, he allowed a few reforms and even permitted the establishment of a parliament. After his death, as Russia plunged into dictatorship and terror under the communists, the tendency to romanticize him grew.

But his reforms were too little, too late, and they had been extracted from him like teeth by a dentist. Nicholas grimaced with regret whenever he contemplated how he had agreed to make concessions to political critics that limited his autocratic powers. He dubbed elections a “senseless dream.” Worst of all, he was an incorrigible anti-Semite, blaming Jewish people for all the woes that preceded and followed his abdication: “One thing is clear: it is that as long as the Yids are in charge everything will get worse,” he wrote to his mother in 1917. In captivity, he read aloud to his family the book that in the West we know as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” His belief in a world Jewish conspiracy, combined with his contempt for democracy, made him a fascist before the word was coined.

Myth No. 2

Catherine the Great was an out-of-control hedonist.

Drawing on her reputation for sexual conquests, Lord Byron imagined Czarina Catherine II “just now in juicy vigour” making love to Don Juan. A French visitor to the Russian court wrote that she had “two passions, which never left her but with her last breath: the love of man, which degenerated into licentiousness, and the love of glory, which sunk into vanity.” Most infamously, anti-monarchist French revolutionaries started an outlandish rumor that she died while attempting intercourse with a horse, a story that somehow remains in circulation.

Whose ‘Romanoffs’? Not mine, or my grandfather’s.

Yes, Catherine II had a generous appetite for men. She came to the throne after her husband, Tsar Peter III, was killed by military officers acting with her connivance; once in power, she had several lovers, to whom she wrote letters in French. Yet she was also one of Russia’s most disciplined rulers. Born a German princess, she brought a European imagination to her adopted country and pushed as hard as she could to eliminate what she considered its barbarities. Working against reactionary upper social classes, Catherine proceeded by gradual measures to expand urban self-governance, book publishing, theater and science throughout the empire. Not for nothing does Angela Merkel keep a portrait of her on her office wall.

Myth No. 3

Peter the Great was an exemplary modernizer.

Peter the Great was “a visionary modernizer, builder, and diplomat,” according to an article in the online publication the Diplomat, discussing what Vladi­mir Putin has learned from Peter. That’s the standard view: Even Stalin, no admirer of czarism, put a positive gloss on Peter’s reign. An impetuous young Romanov ruler, Peter was determined that Russia should benefit from the advances made in Western Europe. In 1697-98 he took the huge risk of touring the Netherlands and England to learn about the newest methods of shipbuilding and public administration.

In reality, Peter modernized the empire only superficially and only at the highest social levels. He built a new capital at St. Petersburg, on the Gulf of Finland, to confront the imperial Swedes and have a “window on the West.” But he achieved this only by dragooning hundreds of thousands of peasants into working on the project — and reduced many of them to serfdom; he constructed beautiful palaces on the bones of his poorest people. He punished dissent mercilessly, including by excruciating torture. (His son and heir Alexei perished after physical torments that Peter ordered.) Peter the Great took the bits of modernity that he fancied but mostly he preferred to use what he could find in the traditional rag bag of Ivan the Terrible.

Myth No. 4

One or more Romanovs escaped the Yekaterinburg cellar.

When the communist squad shot Nicholas and his family in July 1918, they announced that they had killed only Nicholas, to dampen public outrage. This gave rise to speculation that some family members had managed to get out of the cellar alive. Through the 1920s, individuals turned up in Russian villages claiming to be Alexei. But it was a woman in a Berlin mental asylum known as Anna Anderson who attracted the most attention abroad by claiming to be Anastasia, Nicholas’s youngest daughter. “Anastasia Romanov” married an American history professor and died in Charlottesville in 1984.

A pair of British journalists with the BBC, Anthony Summers and Tom Mangold, also claimed — in their 1976 book, “File on the Tsar” (revised in 2002) — to have found written evidence that one or more members of the royal family had been spirited away to Perm, in the Ural Mountains, which gave fresh life to the myth.

I have reviewed the “file”; it says anything but what they claim. Most former servants of the Romanov family denied Anna’s story, which a DNA test of her and a true Romanov relative disproved. All of the immediate Romanov family members were killed.

Myth No. 5

Nicholas II was a puppet of

the 'mad monk' Rasputin.

Rasputin — who was not, in fact, a monk but a wandering “holy man” — “gained great influence through his apparent ability to treat the hemophilia of Alexei, the heir to the throne,” according to one account on the BBC website, which follows the familiar line.

But although the Romanovs — particularly Alexandra — were deeply grateful to Rasputin for his apparent ability to quiet Alexei’s pain, his influence over Nicholas’s policymaking and diplomacy was quite limited — and exaggerated by enemies of the Romanov administration. Rasputin, for example, wrote to the czar’s confidante, Anna Vyrubova, in July 1914, urging Nicholas to avoid war at all costs. The czar replied that Rasputin should stay out of politics. “Great will be the ruin, grief without end,” Rasputin repeated. In July 1914, Nicholas called for a general mobilization against Germany. Still, the idea that Rasputin had great sway was sufficient to invite the attention of aristocratic assassins, who shot him in December 1916.

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