On February 21, 1613, a Russian national assembly unanimously elected 16-year-old Mikhail Romanov tsar, thus establishing a dynasty that would last until Nicholas II was deposed during the Russian Revolution in 1917.
The origins of the Romanov family are a bit murky; they fully emerged from obscurity when a Romanov daughter, Anastasia Zakharyina, married Ivan IV in February 1547. After her mysterious death in 1560, Ivan’s character took a turn for the worse, earning him the nickname “the terrible”. He killed his eldest son during a quarrel, and his throne was inherited by his younger son, Feodor, who died childless.
Even before Feodor’s death, the Romanovs and the family of Boris Godunov (Feodor’s brother-in-law) struggled for the throne. Godunov finally prevailed and was elected tsar in 1599. One of his first acts was to banish most of the Romanov family members to the Russian North and Ural. Feodor Nikitich Romanov, the head of the family, was sent to monastery and forced to take vows under the new name Filaret.
The Godunov dynasty did not last long. In 1605 it fell, and Romanov supporters started speaking up for the family again. After the Russian crown was turned down by several Rurik and Gedimin princes, it was offered to Filaret’s son, Mikhail, who allegedly burst into tears of fear and despair when he heard the news that he would be tsar. His mother persuaded him to take the throne, and he proved to be a popular tsar, wisely seeking the advice from the Assembly of the Land on all important issues.
For the next three hundred years the Romanovs held power in Russia, despite dynastic and political crises and assassinations that took the lives of more than a few tsars. One assassination, that of Alexander II in 1881, brought Alexander III to the throne with a giant chip on his shoulder. Fearing he, too, would be assassinated, Alexander cracked down and strengthened autocratic rule in Russia, reversing many of his more liberal father’s reforms. Needless to say, this upset a lot of people. When Alexander died suddenly at age 49, his relatively unprepared son, Nicholas II, came to the throne. Nicholas continued his father’s harsh policies, and his marriage to a German princess, Alexandra (a granddaughter of Queen Victoria) did not go over well. He unwisely left her in charge of the government when he took control of the army in the front lines during World War I (when Russia was fighting against Germany), and she made a mess of things, proving indecisive and unwilling to trust others’ advice.
Nicholas’s disastrous reign came to an end in 1917, when he was forced to abdicate in favor of his brother, Michael. Michael refused to accept the throne, and the Romanov dynasty’s rule over Russia officially ended. Nicholas, Alexandra, and their five children were imprisoned and later executed in July 1918.