What Happened to the Russian Imperial Family

by | Sep 15, 2023 | Aristocracy, Emporers, Noble Titles, Royal Titles

Throughout the ages, the Russian Empire has played a key role in the history of Europe. 

This once-vast imperial realm was the home of some of the most iconic rulers, such as the legendary Catherine the Great, and her predecessor in greatness, Peter the Great. 

The Russian territories have also been the location of some of the world’s most breathtaking imperial residences. From the vast Winter Palace of St Petersburg to the architectural splendour of The Peterhof Grand Palace, the homes of Russia’s Imperial Families have wowed the world with their epic proportions and spectacular opulence. 

Yet in modern times, the Russian nation is more renowned for its status as a republic, in particular with a strong communist ethos of governance.

So, it’s natural to wonder how Russia evolved from the heights of ancient imperial rule to the modern nation we know today. Why did Russia abolish its monarchy? What became of the Romanov Dynasty? And perhaps one of the most intriguing questions of all: what happened to the Russian Imperial Family?

A gathering of members of the Romanov family in 1892

A gathering of members of the Romanov family in 1892 – De Jongh frères, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What Happened To The Russian Imperial Family? 

The last members of the Russian Imperial Family were executed by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918. 

Their assassination is perhaps one of the most notorious and shocking of political killings in modern history. 

While accounts vary, the general consensus is that the Imperial Family, including the Last Tsar, Nicholas II, his wife the Tsarina, their five children and a number of close family aides, were ordered into an underground room, on the pretext that they were to be moved to a safer location. 

This development occurred after the family had been placed under house arrest by the revolutionaries, and Tsar Nicholas had abdicated his imperial throne. 

The various warring factions of Russia’s revolutionary forces had created an atmosphere of panic and chaos, and in the midst of the violence and rebellion, it was decided that the Tsar would be executed as punishment for his actions that the Bolsheviks claimed were crimes against the people of Russia. 

So when the Imperial Family were ushered into the basement by their captors, they were subsequently shot by a firing squad. The entire family perished, some were killed in the first rounds of bullets, but some of the palace aides and the younger children survived the initial shootings and were then executed with bayonets. 

It’s believed that the female members of the family had priceless jewels sewn into the corsets of their dresses which had caused some of the bullets to ricochet across the room. 

After the massacre, the remains of the Imperial Family were thrown down a mineshaft, only to be retrieved later and subjected to more brutality before being buried nearby.

Church Burial & Sainthood

The frenzied nature of the massacre, along with the chaotic period of revolution, meant that the bodies of the Imperial Family were denied a proper burial until many decades later. 

Towards the end of the 20th century, as the reports of the tragic end of the Last Tsar and his family became more widely known, there were many who were keen to recover the bodies and move them to a burial site befitting their status as the Imperial Royal Family. 

For a number of years, there were some doubts about the location of the bodies, as well as the accuracy of the identification of the remains. Eventually, with the aid of DNA testing, all of the members of the Russian Imperial Family were identified. Some eighty years after the execution, the remains of the Last Russian Tsar, along with his wife and daughters, were given a dignified burial ceremony in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg. 

In the decades since the massacre, a number of the members of the Imperial Family have been canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church. Despite the violent uprisings of the revolution and the intervening years of communist rule, there were many who regarded the Tsar and his family as martyrs and sought for them to be granted sainthood from the church.

Tsar Nicholas II, the Last Emperor of Russia, became known as Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer, despite a great degree of controversy over his status as a saint or martyr. Nicholas, along with his wife Alexandra and their children, were canonised as passion-bearers rather than martyrs, in that they did not die as a result of their faith but rather died in ‘a Christ-like’ manner, i.e. holding strongly to their faith even in the face of death. (It’s reported that both the Empress Alexandra and one of her daughters attempted to make the sign of the cross in the moments before they died, as they witnessed the shooting of the Tsar and were told that they too were to be executed.) 

The sister of the Tsarina, Princess Ella of Hesse who had married Tsar Nicholas’s brother and had also been executed by the revolutionaries, was also canonised, in respect of her devotion to her adopted religion and her life as a nun following the assassination of her husband.   

The Romanov Legacy

With the execution of the Imperial Royal Family, many believed this to be the end of the famous Romanov family line, especially as other members of the family were routinely rounded up and killed in the wake of the massacre of the Tsar and his family. 

A few years after the executions, a number of individuals emerged claiming to be the Tsar’s youngest daughter Anastasia. It wasn’t until the remains of the Imperial Family were finally located that these claims could be refuted with any certainty. 

Ultimately, these claimants were proved to be imposters, yet they had established a strong narrative of escaped Romanovs and various other individuals have since stepped forward and claimed to be members of the Imperial Family or their ancestors. 

Given that the House of Romanov had been the Imperial Family of Russia for centuries, it’s likely that there are many descendants from the original branch, along with some of the cadet branches after so many generations. 

The history of this tragic family, along with the legend of the House of Romanov, make for an appealing claim in those looking to share in this imperial lineage, especially when the family has been renowned for its vast wealth over the ages. There are even accounts of Romanov jewels emerging throughout Europe in the decades following the fall of the Imperial Family. 

Whatever the truth of these claims, the stories serve to keep the tragic tale of the Russian Imperial Family alive in the hearts and minds of those who value the history of Russia’s Tsars and Tsarinas, along with their descendants and relatives.

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