The Romanoffs: what’s the real history behind the new Amazon Prime Video series?

Who were the Romanovs, and why did creator Matthew Weiner think the intrigue surrounding their descendants would be the perfect project after Mad Men?

(Amazon)

There is one important thing you need to know about Amazon Prime Video’s new series The Romanoffs: this is not an historical drama.

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The eight-part anthology series is not about the Russian royal family – at least, not directly. It does not depict the history of the Romanovs, and apart from the oblique opening credits, barely references the brutal way in which their reign came to an end.

This is no sad story of the death of kings.

Instead, each individual episode of The Romanoffs revolves around characters who think they are descended from royalty.

Whether they really have Romanov blood flowing through their veins is neither here nor there: the point is, does believing it affect who they are?

Series creator Matthew Weiner says that while he did take a deep dive into the history of the Romanovs when first starting out on the series, he quickly moved beyond it.

“I read everything I could about the Romanovs – and then we just forgot it,” he says. “Seriously, you just absorb it, then you start thinking about the people.”

Weiner may say he ‘forgot’ the history while writing, but in a series full of flaws, neuroses, traumas, broken tiaras and tantrums, it probably pays to understand a little bit about where all these people are coming from.

Or, at the very least, where they think they’re coming from…

Who were the Romanovs, and how did they die?

The House of Romanov had ruled Russia for over three centuries by the time of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

However, in just three short years, war and revolution would bring the Russian royal family to a bloody end. Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate on 15th March 1917, and a provisional revolutionary government took charge. The fate of the former emperor and his family was uncertain.

The Family of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
The Family of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (Getty Images)

Initially there was discussion about sending the family into exile, putting them on trial for their perceived crimes against Russia, or negotiating with foreign powers for their release.

In April 2018, however, the Bolsheviks sent them to the city of Yekaterinburg, and placed under house arrest. It was here that the whole family would meet their deaths.

On the night of 16th-17th July 1918, Nicholas, his wife Tsarina Alexandra and their five children – Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei – were told to go into the basement of the house they were being detained in, ostensibly to protect them from fighting nearby.

“They were told to get dressed, and go downstairs into the basement for their own safety,” author and historian Helen Rappaport explains in the podcast History Extra.

Instead of being taken to safety, however, they were murdered by their Bolshevik captors, along with their doctor Eugene Botkin and servants Anna Demidova, Alexei Trupp and Ivan Kharitonov.

It was a brutal end, with the killers first shooting and then bayonetting their victims.

“It’s hard to imagine the scene, after 11 people being butchered in that room. The blood, the chaos,” Rappaport says. “I don’t think people can quite imagine how terrifying it was. Those victims did not die quickly or easily, except Nicholas. It was so savage, so chaotic, and the worst of it: so inefficient.”

To find out more about the night of the Romanovs’ killing, download and listen to the History Extra podcast.

Did any Romanovs survive the killings?

Rumours that some of the younger family members survived began to swirl almost immediately after news of the deaths was reported. The conspiracy theories grew thanks to the secrecy surrounding the family’s final moments; throughout decades of Soviet rule, the location of the bodies remained secret. The final location of all the victims was not confirmed until 2007.

Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II (Getty)
Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II (Getty)

The stories surrounding daughter Anastasia (above) in particular have proved remarkably persistent, beginning in 1920, when a woman claiming to be Anastasia Romanov was rescued from a Berlin canal. She later moved to the United States, calling herself Anna Anderson, but her continuing attempts to prove her identity gave rise to a whole new world of myth-making and royal imposters.

Are there any real living descendants of the Romanovs?

While it is now generally agreed that all the immediate family under house arrest with Nicholas II were killed, there are genuine, distant descendants of the Romanov family still alive today. Prince Philip, for example, husband to Queen Elizabeth II, is the grand-nephew of Tsarina Alexandra; a sample of his DNA even helped identify the remains of the bodies discovered in the unmarked graves.

There are other descendants, including Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna, great-great granddaughter of Tsar Alexander II.

Even one of the actors in the series, House of Cards’ Corey Stoll, claims that his wife Nadia Bowers is a Romanov relative.

“Her mother was born in Paris and raised in Germany and then escaped back to France and then to the United States. When she became a citizen, she had to renounce the throne and had to sign an affidavit swearing she wouldn’t try to reinstate the monarchy in the United States,” Stoll says.

“I didn’t know that much about the Romanovs before I was cast in this and subsequently read a few books about it. But I’ve definitely been hearing about that family from my wife.”

Corey Stall and his wife Nadia Bowers pictured in New York in February 2018 (Getty)
Corey Stall and his wife Nadia Bowers pictured in New York in February 2018 (Getty)

However, The Romanoffs creator Weiner says that he did not speak to any actual relatives ahead of the new series.

“No, I’ve never met a real Romanov. There are some, but I haven’t met them. I’m sure that I’m going to!” he says.

He adds that he has no concerns about depicting fictional characters claiming to be descendants of the Russian royal family.

“It’s a hundred year old story. I happen to know that Amazon, in addition to all the other freedoms, has an extremely aggressive legal team,” he says.

If they were concerned, he believes, “they would have never let us get this deep into this thing!”

Why change the name from Romanov to Romanoff?

The simple answer is, for a long time ‘Romanoff’ was a standard, accepted English spelling of the Russian name. However, while Weiner is hesitant to attach too great an importance to it, he admits that there could be a secondary meaning to the name change in the show title.

“It’s a name you can adopt and there is an imagined status that comes with it,” he says. “That why I spelled the title with two F’s: an adopted, phoney flavour — an opportunity for people to pretend to be related to them.”

Marthe Keller and Inès Melab in The Romanoffs episode 1, The Violet Hour (Amazon)
Marthe Keller and Inès Melab star in The Romanoffs episode 1, The Violet Hour (Amazon)

Are any of the characters in The Romanoffs based on real people?

“I knew that the Romanov story had been told in a certain way. I knew the tropes of the Romanov story: the Rasputin story, the Anastasia story,” the Mad Men creator explains.

His interest however did not lie in trying to fictionalise real history. Instead, the intrigues of the Romanov ‘bloodline’ makes for curious starting points for each episode.

“I won’t say whether they really are Romanovs or not,” Weiner says. “Some of it’s true, and some of it’s not, but it’s like, ‘What’s your family story? Do you know where your family is from?’”

That, he says, is the key link between the series’ eight very different episodes. Each character in some way defines themselves in relation to their, well, relations. Who they were. What they lost. What they have to gain, and who they could be again.

“If you are nobility and you lose everything, are you still noble?” Weiner asks. “Does our past influence how we live now?”

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The first two episodes of The Romanoffs are released on Amazon Prime Video on Friday 12th October 2018, with subsequent episodes streaming weekly