The Wild True Story of the Romanovs: How Empire, Marriage and Murder Shaped Russia’s Royal Family

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When Grand Duke George Mikhailovich Romanov married Victoria Bettarini in St. Petersburg on Oct. 1, their lavish nuptials marked a rather epic return to the world stage for the Romanov family, whose 304-year rule in Russia ended more than a century ago in a hail of state-sanctioned bullets.

Which begs the reminder, no matter how scandalous the behavior of the modern royal families of Britain, Spain, Sweden, Monaco, et al., nothing really compares to the millennia of bloody intrigue that once defined the reigns of so many monarchs across Europe and beyond. King Henry VIII alone had two wives executed because divorce wasn't an option. His daughter Queen Elizabeth I ordered the beheading of her perceived rival Mary, Queen of Scots because maybe Mary was plotting against her. Catherine the Great came to power and ruled Russia for a record (for a female leader, anyway) 34 years after her husband (and second cousin) Peter III was violently overthrown in a coup and promptly died-or-was-assassinated in captivity. 

"No member of the Romanov family ever thought we would come back here," the 40-year-old groom told The New York Times in an email before the grand religious wedding (the bride, born Rebecca Virginia Bettarini, converted to Russian Orthodoxy and took the name Victoria Romanovna), which followed their official civil ceremony on Sept. 24.

And the power struggle continues, George the disputed heir apparent to the headship of the Imperial Family of Russia, House Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov. (Not that, even when/if he becomes head of the family, he'd have any power in the country, where Vladimir Putin has been president for the better part of two decades. "This marriage does not belong on our agenda in any way," a Putin spokesman told reporters before the wedding.)

The headship, meanwhile, is disputed due to the not-uncommon confusion over which man in the Romanov family tree had the right to jumpstart the line of succession after the last tsar of Russia was deposed in 1917. But we'll get to that.

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It all started with the reign of Michael I, the first Russian Tsar of the House of Romanov, upon his election to the post (by parliament, not the people) in 1613. He lived till the ripe old age of 49 and was succeeded by his son Alexis, one of only four of his 10 children to reach adulthood.

Alexis died in 1676 and his sickly son Feodor III became emperor until 1682, when he died and his younger half-brother Peter the Great (as he was eventually known) ascended, at first sharing power with his older half-brother Ivan V until Ivan's death at 29 in 1696. (They only co-reigned in the first place because, while Ivan V was a son from Alexis' first marriage, he was mentally and physically unwell and ruled in name only.)

Peter, the eldest of Alexis' three children with his second wife, expanded Russia's military might and turned the nation into an industrial and cultural powerhouse—and when he tired of his first marriage, he got a divorce and installed his ex in a convent. He had his second wife, Catherine I, crowned empress in 1724, though he ruled over her shoulder till his death the following year. And when she died, their son Peter II, 12, ruled for only two years until his untimely death from smallpox.

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Peter II was the last male Romanov leader who could be traced directly back through the family's paternal lineage. When he died, his cousin Anna, daughter of Peter the Great's half-brother and former co-ruler Ivan V, became empress. There were other candidates, including her older sister, but Anna was chosen because she was a childless widow, therefore less prone to distraction and influence. (However, her 10-year reign was known derisively as the Age of Biron, after her alleged affair with the German Duke Ernst Johann von Biron, who supposedly wielded tremendous decision-making power behind the scenes.)

Empress Anna picked grand-nephew Ivan VI (grandson of her older sister Catherine Ivanovna) as her successor; but he was only 2-months-old when she died, so his mother, Anna Leopoldovna, reigned as regent empress for one year—after which she and her emperor baby were overthrown and locked up. (Ivan VI was killed in 1764 at the age of 23 by prison guards, having spent his whole life incarcerated. A delusional army officer showed up with a plan to bust him out and make him emperor, not knowing there were orders to kill "Prisoner Number One" should anyone try to get to him. The officer was later beheaded.)

Peter the Great's second-eldest daughter Elizabeth Petrovna took the throne in 1741 and presided over an Age of Enlightenment in Russia—the last Romanov leader who could be tracked directly through the paternal line back to Michael I. She was very popular with the people, ironically—considering she became empress thanks to a coup—because she ordered no executions during her reign. She didn't marry or have children, so she designated nephew Peter IIIthe only child of her elder sister Anna Petrovna—as her successor.

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