Episode 153: Catherine the Great, *Part Two of an entirely true story

Elle Fanning will mature and look exactly like the real Catherine. Maybe. Probably not.

Are you watching Hulu’s series, The Great, and wondering what the real story of Catherine the Great is?  We’ll finish up her life in this episode, so you can do your own comparing and contrasting. We left Catherine at the end of Part One alone, sad, and directionless. The perfect time for a woman to make some life changes, right?

Oh yeah. (more…)

Episode 33: The Romanovs, Part Two

Part One of our discussion ended with the very deadly coronation events of Nicholas II and Alexandra. Russia was heading into a dire economic crisis and Nicholas stated that he intended to continue his reign in the  same manner of his father, Alexander III.  Will the new Tsar and Tsarina turn the country around? Will Nicholas lead his country to recovery? Will Alexandra ever get away from the meddling eyes of her Mother-in-law? Will she produce that male heir that is so necessary to the future of the Romanov dynasty?

It really does sound a little like a soap opera, doesn’t it? Sadly, the scenes that played out- while filled with glitz and drama like a movie- were very real.

The family circa 1913

What Nicholas and Alexandra thought of as strong traditions, others viewed as old fashioned and not at all in touch with the needs of the people.  Politics aside, the couple did have a very beautiful life and were very much in love. They settled in Tsarkoe Selo, creating as cozy a home as they could in a corner of a very large, very opulent palace.  Their entire life was filled with extravagant homes, jewels, and living. (For more detailed information on the palaces, Faberge eggs, and other peeks into the lifestyle of this family and Russia during their reign, please see the shownotes for Part One of this series, or start at Alexanderpalace.org)

Oh, this little place? Home base- Tsarkoe Selo just outside of Saint Petersburg

The Tsar and Tsarina got busy building a family ever yearning for the male heir to carry on the family business, so to speak.

Grand Duchess Olga, the first born in 1895 was followed by Tatiana two years later. Two years after that, Maria and right-on- time-child number four- Anastasia. While all of the children were loved by there parents, and very much wanted- they were not the desired male child and Alex started to freak out just a little. As always we go into greater detail on the podcast, but she went to some extreme methods (and you know how much we love to talk extreme fertility methods) to conceive a son.

Finally, in 1904, Alexandra gave birth to Alexei,Tsarevich of Russia. The family was complete.

The family was finally complete

Unfortunately, Alexei’s mother passed down to her son a trait that she had inherited from her grandmother, Queen Victoria- hemophilia. Early in his life he was diagnosed, and Nicholas and Alexandra chose to keep his condition secret. Desperate for a cure from the painful and life threatening condition, Alexandra turned to a rather unorthodox measures, including befriending and entrusting the services of Grigori Rasputin- a sham sham mystic with questionable ethics. But it seemed as if he was able to help young Alexei’s bleeding, and for reasons that perplexed many Alexandra trusted him with her family and often called upon him for guidance and counsel. Rasputin’s unusual relationship with the family, as well as his scandalous  lifestyle would draw harsh criticism from the Russian people. His violent murder the result of some thinking that he had undue, and misguided influence over the Imperial family. (Basically, he didn’t play well with everyone)

Grigori "Mad Monk" Rasputin

Stranger Danger... Grigori Rasputin

As the children grew, Alexei’s condition caused Niki and Alex to protect him not only from injury, but to help protect the secret. The family became more withdrawn from society, cloistering themselves in their various residences. Educated at home with the best tutors, the girls adored their baby brother and were each other’s besties. The family traveled, from one palace to the next- creating a sort of annual migration between them all.  While the family hobby of photography left us with an abundance of pictures, the family themselves participated in as few official functions as possible and spent most time with each other. We see  far more of them now than their contemporaries did at the time.

A rare smile on the face of Alexandra, with Olga rollerskating on the deck of The Standart

"Would you like eggs for breakfast, my Dear?" "Oh yes, but from a chicken, not a jeweler." *Insert regal laughter* Ok, made that up. But Niki and Alex being chill on the royal yacht

The idyllic and private life that the family created for themselves was not to last long. With the outbreak of , and Russia’s entrance into, World War I-Nicholas left for the front. Alexandra and the older two girls became nurses, and the younger two were given a small officers hospital to “oversee”. As war efforts go, they all were very hands-on participants, not afraid of a little blood and very attentive to those in their care.

Alexandra, however, didn’t do so well with Nicholas gone. And as World War I sort of morphed (overly simplified version, we know- we do go into more detail in the podcast) into a Revolutionary War- Nicholas’s absence from the family made her a little, well, nutty. To add to her Worry List, by 1917 serious plots were forming to overthrow the government. Revolts were getting organized and the people who supported the Tsar were becoming fewer and clashed with those who demanded change.

Eventually, Nicholas was asked to abdicate the throne- a position that he never had the training, skill, or temperament for but felt God had place him in.  Thinking that he could walk away, sort of retire- Nicholas abdicated, not just for himself but also for his son, Alexei.

But a peaceful retirement was not in the future for this former Tsar. His family was put under house arrest at Tsarkoe Selo. As two different armies- White and Red- strengthened and jockeyed for power, the family was moved from their home to increasingly less opulent, then downright meager surroundings.

One of the last images of the Romanov sisters-Maria, Olga, Anastasia and Tatiana in captivity at Tsarskoe Selo in 1917

On July 17th, 1918 as Vladimir Lenin was gaining power, his Red (Bolshevik) Army battled the White Army that was still in support of the Tsar.The only way to guarantee a victory was to not have the Tsar rise back into power. The only way to do that, was to execute Nicholas.

Late at night, the family was awakened, told they would be moving again and to gather in a basement room. They did. And, in that room, the entire family was executed.

But the story doesn’t exactly stop here. The bodies were moved and hidden. With no bodies, the whereabouts of the family could not be determined. For many years people came forward claiming to be members of the Imperial Family, the most notable being Anna Anderson. All were found to be fraudulent.

All but two of the bodies were discovered in 1979- with confirmed identification not taking place until 1991. The final two, Alexei and Maria- were not found and the identities were not confirmed until 2007. (More detailed information about the last days, the house where the murders took place, as well as the discovery, exhumation and identification of the bodies can begin here, at Romanov-memorial.com)


For other media recommendations, please see the shownotes for Part One of this series because we are about to go book-tastic all over this space.

This is by no means a fully inclusive list of books about these women, this family, this dynasty, this country- this is simply a list of the ones that we would recommend based on our research.

This is the book that Beckett specifically mentioned in the episode (and the title is one that we felt we were living while getting this two part episode to you.)

The Curse of the Romanovs, Straton Rabin

The rest are in alphabetical order based on book title…it was the only fair and orderly way we could think of.

One of Beckett's Favorites:Alexandra: The Last Tsarina byCarolly Erickson

One of Susan's faves: A Lifelong Passion by Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko

Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina by Virginia Rounding

Before the Revolution by Kyril Fitzlyon

Chronicle of the Russian Tsars by David Warnes

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie

Nicholas and Alexandra: The Family Albums by Prince Michael of Greece

One of Beckett's Faves:The Court of the Last Tsar by Greg King

The Last Tsar by Larissa Yermilovna

One of Susan's Favorites: The Lost World of Nicholas and Alexandra by Peter Kurth

The Riddle of Anna Anderson by Peter Kurth

As always our music comes courtesty of Music Alley, visit them at music.mevio.com

Episode 32: The Romanovs Part One

Every season we let you choose a winner in our Guaranteed Content Poll. We grant that request and bring Season Three to a close with your winner- The Romanov Sisters. But, we decided to give you more than you asked for and expanded on the topic to include the entire family. What an epic subject! The story of the Romanovs begins in 1613, and doesn’t really end until 2007! More than one episode could handle, so we have broken it into two parts.

We'll chat about all of them...and more! Romanov family circa 1913

Part one begins with a Tiny Tiny Romanov Tutorial. We give a very brief history of the very long reign of this Imperial family. Beginning in 1613 when the 16 year-old nephew to Ivan the Terrible- Mikhail is crowned the first Tsar of Russia. Fast forward through time, past some Greats (and some not-so-greats) we finally land at Alexander III who we fondly call,”Papa Tsar”. He is the father of Nicholas and his death shortly after the engagement of his son to a well connected Princess begins the reign of the last Tsar, Nicholas II.

The Princess in this story was christened (deep breath) Princess Victoria Alix Helena Louise Beatrice of Hesse and by Rhine. Or Alix for short (and “Sunny” if you knew her really well).

Alix was the daughter of Alice, and Alice was the third child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Not too shabby as royal lineage goes. Early in her life Alix lived up to her nickname and was sunny and happy. Then a diphtheria epidemic hit her home and Alix lost her little sister and her mother. Gan Gan Victoria did give Alix and her siblings a mother figure as often as she could while they grew up.

Alice and Louis and family, little Alix (in white) is leaning against her mother, looking concerned.

She also gave Alix something even less cheery and warm: Hemophilia- or rather the gene that carries it. Through her bloodline, Alix became a carrier for the bleeding disorder.

As always, we go into much more detail in the podcast, but life briefly became sunny again for her when she spent time with Nicholas. They met when he was 16, she merely 12 at Alix’s older sister Ella’s wedding. Both were smitten, however neither family was crazy about the match and tried to throw more politically adventagous suitors before both of them (as well as one that was merely designed to distract the young man). But the plots were unsuccessful and, after many years of exchanging letters, visits and flirtations, Nicholas proposed

Alix cried.

And not happy Yes! Yes! tears, either.

Taken at the wedding where they became engaged. Alex looking a little flirty (middle row, second from right) and Nicholas looking really uncomfortable in the arm of Cousin Willy (Kaiser Wilhelm)

And shortly afterward (note: same clothing), the happy (?) couple

She would have to leave not only her country, but also her Lutheran faith. To become part of the Imperial family, to become the next Tsarina she would have to convert to Russian Orthodoxy. After many tears, and questionably intended drama, she accepted.

Our couple would not have a leisurely engagement. Shortly after their betrothal was announced the rapidly failing health of Papa Tsar took a turn for the worse. Nicholas called Alex to be at his side as his father passed away. For more prepared future rulers, this would have been a time of  sadness as well as a preparation to step up to the role that he had been trained for his whole life.

But that’s not exactly how Nicholas felt. In the shadow of his strong father, Nicholas had grown up lacking both the temperament to rule but also the training.  But with his father’s death, he had to accept his role and duty to Russia.

Nicholas and Alexandra -as her name became- were wed.

Not only was Alex now in a new country with new customs and societal rules- she had some rather unique Mother-in-law issues.

Dowager Tsarina Maria was not only unwilling to give up the life she knew, it wasn’t required of her. She stood at her son’s side, as his wife walked paces behind them, continuing with her life as it had been before her husband had passed. To complicate the situation, the newlyweds had to live with her. The wedding was so rushed that no home had been set up for Nicholas and Alexandra.

Within a year the first child, Olga was born to the couple. They both loved being parents, but were also preparing for another life change: their coronation of the new Tsar and Tsarina of Russia. The religious ceremony would establish Nicholas as the head of the autocracy, and marry him to his country in what was thought of his God given position as ruler.

Crowds packed Moscow to witness the coronation of the new Tsar, with disastrous results.

This happy event brought out millions of spectators and, despite the falling economy of the country, no expense was spared. Parades and balls and pagentry galore- and all went well…until a stampede of spectators eager for ceremonial swag created a deadly situation. The exact number of people that were trampled to death us unclear, but up to 3,000 people died that day. How the people saw the reaction of their new ruler played a part in what will be the legacy of his rule.

Tune back in soon for Part Two of this sad story of the last Imperial Family of Russia.


You want more Romanovs! We get that. We did, too. There is no shortage of images, websites and blogs of this Imperial Family online. We whittled down the list to our favorites and because this is a two-part subject, we are going to link you up with everything but books here. Check back for Part Two for all of our (many) book recommendations.

You want pictures and the stories behind them? You want to tour the palaces from the comfort of your home? You want to see all those jewel encrusted Easter eggs? Click on over to Alexander Palace Time Machine to get enough Romanov intel and images to keep you occupied for a very long time.

Another really great site that has videos and tons of biographies is Royal Russia- The Romanovs.

Finally, you might enjoy checking out NicholasandAlexandra.com

The podcast that we reference in Part Two, Russian Rulers History Podcast, can be found on your favorite podcast aggregator.

Movies!  Although we end this part of our tale before Anastasia is even born, she is the subject of two films that were pretty good.

1956 Anastasia with Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brenner

1997 Animated version starring voices of Meg Ryan and John Cusak

We talk about it these movies and links in Part Two(which will make this link make sense) but you might enjoy checking out the Animated Things Club podcast.

And because it’s funny, here is a link to part one of the Frasier episode, A Tsar is Born.

As always, music comes courtesy of  Music Alley. Visit them at Music.mevio.com