How much Russian blood ran through Romanov veins?

Natalya Nosova
Here are the hard facts about the ethnic origins of Russia’s tsars and tsarinas.

Can anyone be more Russian than a Romanov tsar? Well, get ready for some surprising genealogy facts about the imperial dynasty.

Have a look at the picture below – can you guess which one is the Crown Prince of Russia, and which one is the future King of Great Britain?

Here's a clue – as far as we know, cousin George parted his hair on the left, while Nicky, the last Emperor of Russia, wore his lock a little differently. Their mothers Dagmar and Alexandra were daughters of the king of Denmark, Christian IX.

Does that mean they were half Danish? Sort of. But if you ask, does that mean the last Russian emperor was half Russian; the answer is, No. One quarter? Wrong again. He had a Russian great-grandmother?! Sorry to disappoint you… The true answer is: he was less than one percent Russian! To be correct 0.7 percent, and that’s no joke. Let’s see how this happened.

Peter I is to blame

Mikhail Fyodorovich, the first ruler of the Romanov dynasty, assumed the Russian throne in 1613. His father was a Boyar, and a member of the Romanov noble family; his mother was Boyarinya Shestova. Mikhail was a nephew of the last ruler in the ancient Rurik dynasty; so he was 100 percent Russian.

Over the following 112 years the picture didn’t changed at all. There were five full-blooded Russian tsars (including Mikhail), and even one full-blooded regent. The rulers mixed their blood only with fair ladies from influential families such as Streshnevy, Miloslavskye, and Naryshkiny. The fifth and best known of those tsars, and Russia’s first emperor, was Peter the Great.

With Peter, however, everything changed. While great he was, Peter was plagued by some serious father-son issues, eventually executing his potential successor, Tsarevich Alexey, who was charged with conspiring to overthrow the tsar.

This allowed a person with no Russian blood to rule the country for the first time in history! Peter the Great’s second wife, Catherine I, was born as Marta Helena Skowrońska in a poor maybe Polish, maybe Lithuanian, half Swedish or even German family. No one knows for sure.

Catherine I, the Russian empress in 1725-1727

You can find out more about her journey from laundress to empress in another Russia Beyond article. Here, we are only saying that her two sons died very early, and that she ruled for two years before passing away.

The last full-blooded Russian tsar

Then it was decided that the seventh Romanov tsar would be a 10-year-old boy and son of the murdered Alexey. When Alexey was alive he found a wife in the House of Welf, which is clearly not a Russian family. The Welf dynasty has provided many German and British monarchs during the past 1,000 years. Peter the Great originally considered the wedding of his son and Charlotte Christine Sophie as a form of diplomacy, because her elder sister was married to Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. So the very young ruler, Peter II, was only half Russian. He didn’t rule long and died at the age of 14.

Portrait of Peter II by unknown artist, 1800s

Throughout the remainder of the 18th century, most Russian rulers were women. The eighth Romanov to sit on the throne was Anna Ioannovna, daughter of the fourth tsar, Ivan V. Her mother was from a well-known and powerful Russian family, Saltykovy, so we can say that Anna was the last full-blooded Russian in the dynasty. She was childless, however.

There was an attempt to continue the line of Ivan V by proclaiming as emperor his two-month old grandson, Ivan VI, but that didn’t last long. What happened to the poor boy (by the way a son of German Duke Anthony Ulrich) you can find out here. Next, we move on to the ninth Romanov sovereign.

Cunning Catherine II

Next was Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I, aka Marta Helena Skowrońska. Elizabeth was of course only half Russian. She couldn’t have children of her own, and so left the throne to her sister’s son, Peter III.

Now, Peter was only 25 percent Russian. His father was Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp, who owned lands in present-day Denmark and north Germany. Members of this family acceded to several European thrones such as in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Greece, and Russia.

No surprise that Peter III married a princess from the ruling German family of Anhalt. Sophie and Peter didn’t get along from the start. She was a bit wiser than her spouse, and more popular among high society, so she let him rule for just 186 days, and then forced him to sign an act of abdication. She declared herself Catherine II, and was the last of the House of Romanov with not even a drop of Russian blood. But then came those “drops.”

German and Danish princesses

The rest of the story is simple math - “divide by two.” Even though Sophie and Peter III hated each other, a child was born. Catherine II named her son and heir, Paul. Peter III was one quarter Russian, Catherine II – zero; so the amount of Russian blood in the veins of Paul I was (25/2=), or 12.5 percent.

For some reason, every subsequent emperor, including Paul, was married to a German or a Danish princess. If the goal was to live in peace with the rest of Europe, we must say it was a bad strategy, because it never stopped wars from breaking out; take World War I, for example.

So, Alexander I, son of Duchess Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg had (12.5/2 =) 6.25 percent Russian blood.

The same with Nicholas I, Alexander’s younger brother.

Alexander II was the son of Princess Charlotte of Prussia – 3.1 percent.

The mother of Alexander III was Princess Marie of Hesse and by Rhine – 1.5 percent.

And you already know everything about the last tsar, Nicky.

How shall we treat this newly learned fact? We’re not mixing whiskey with soda, right? Now, this might not be the best comparison, but the weight of the Russian soul is immeasurable, especially if we’re talking about the soul of a tsar! 

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