Series Explores Ivan the Terrible’s Link to Romanov Dynasty

turbulent period in russian history bookended by two dynasties

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Two of Russia’s most famous rulers have a direct historical connection. The latter even began a dynasty that reigned over Russia for over 300 years. How did Ivan the Terrible facilitate the Romanov dynasty?

Tsar Ivan The Terrible
Tsar Ivan the Terrible was responsible for a reign of terror against the hereditary nobility of Russia. Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Russia’s Romanov dynasty ruled from 1613 to 1918. For context, the Romanovs came to power while William Shakespeare was still alive—and remained on the throne until the final months of World War I. The time of the Romanovs included the reign of Peter the Great, who transformed Russia into a truly great European state, and the advisement of infamous mystic Grigori Rasputin. It ended violently with the assassination of the entire Romanov family by Bolshevik revolutionaries in the basement of a merchant’s former home.

How did this historical dynasty come into power? Many don’t know that another Russian ruler, Ivan the Terrible, was responsible for the rise of the Romanovs. In her video series Understanding Russia: A Cultural History, Dr. Lynne Ann Hartnett, Associate Professor of History at Villanova University, explores the transition from one world-famous Russian ruling power to another.

How Did Ivan the Terrible’s Dynasty End?

“The groundwork for Romanov rule was laid by the Riurik dynasty of the 15th century, led by Ivan the Terrible—the Tsar of All the Russias from 1533 until his death in 1584,” Dr. Harnett said. “The Riuriks reclaimed Russian sovereignty from the Mongols. They oversaw the establishment of a separate Russian Orthodox Church, built the Kremlin, and expanded into non-Slavic lands to forge the Russian empire.”

The rule of Ivan himself was noted by a period called the Time of Troubles, which began after Ivan killed his own son and heir. Despite this, following his own death, Ivan’s successors maintained order for nearly two decades. Ivan’s younger son, Fyodor, officially ruled, though he depended on an uncle and a brother-in-law to make decisions for him. Fyodor had no children, and when he died in 1598, the Riurik line ended with him. His brother-in-law, Boris Godunov, succeeded him.

“But then, famine gripped Russia, and resentment against Godunov escalated,” Dr. Hartnett said. “A pretender posing as the dead Prince Dmitri now invaded Russia from Poland. Posing as Ivan the Terrible’s young son, who had died years before in 1591 at the age of nine, he was advancing on Moscow when Godunov died in 1605.”

Godunov’s death led to the false Dmitri’s ascension to power.

How Did the Romanovs Come into Power?

Tumult continued after Godunov’s death. The false Dmitri was overthrown within a year and several more would-be rulers came and went—including a second impostor claiming to be Dmitri. Polish forces occupied the Kremlin, but were run off by a grassroots Russian army in 1612. Given the decline of governmental stability over the previous 15 years, nobody knew what would come next.

“At the start of 1613, a specially convened Assembly of the Land—the Russian term is zemskii sobor—decided the issue,” Dr. Hartnett said. “Consisting of about 500 nobles (called boyars), lesser gentry, clergy, merchants, and even some peasants, the zemskii sobor selected as the new tsar the 16-year-old great nephew of Ivan’s beloved first wife, Anastasia. This was the young Mikhail Romanov.”

Mikhail had little connection to the throne and had never known his aunt, who died before he was born. Mikhail’s father, Fyodor, however, had played a big part in Kremlin politics until Godunov shut him out. Rather than killing Fyodor, Godunov forced him to become a monk and exiled the Romanov family. However, after Godunov’s death, Fyodor rose through the ranks of the Russian Orthodox Church to their highest ecclesiastical authority in a town near Moscow.

“Mikhail Romanov first balked at the idea of assuming power,” Dr. Hartnett said. “He expressed no interest in the intrigues at the Kremlin. He was also quite young, and unrelated by blood to the Riurik line, but these were exactly the reasons the zemskii sobor selected him: He had no old scores to settle, or allies to reward. And his aunt Anastasia […] was still fondly remembered.”

Thus, began the 300-year Romanov dynasty.

Understanding Russia: A Cultural History is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily