Amazon’s Romanoffs vs the Real House of Romanov
‘I am so tired of this Romanoff shit’ (says lead character)
— I know the feeling
“Letters and emails from people claiming to be related in some way to a member of the Romanov family just keep on coming…”
The Amazon Prime series The Romanoffs — a historian’s take
There had been considerable controversy, even before it began transmission, about the new Amazon Prime series The Romanoffs.
Some people were clearly initially confused that it might be about the real Romanovs and would tell the story of the Russian Imperial Family who were murdered by the Bolsheviks in July 1918. Thankfully no, these are eight self-contained, modern-day stories set around people who think they are descended from the Romanovs and who in various ways cling to the fantasy. But in the telling of these stories considerable reference is made to the real Romanovs, often in the most tasteless and disrespectful fashion.
The series may proclaim itself to be a tongue-in-cheek Hollywood-style fictionalisation, but there is no doubt that the scripts exploit the same tired old myth-making about the Romanovs, the circumstances of their murder and subsequent claims of miraculous survival by would-be Romanov claimants and their descendants. Alas, these are precisely the same old exploitative themes that Romanov historians and aficionados such as I are sick to death of seeing and reading about. We are all longing to see an end to Romanov false claimants and all the attendant mythology. Sadly Amazon Prime’s The Romanoffs does nothing but dredge up and exploit, yet again, the same old tired fantasies and with it all the untruths and misconceptions.
At the request of TIME Magazine I wrote a tie-in piece for the series ahead of the first episodes becoming available. I opened it thus:
In the trailer for Amazon Prime’s The Romanoffs, one of the lead characters, looking somewhat frazzled, exclaims, “I’m so tired of this Romanoff s–t.” I know the feeling.
As a Romanov historian who has spent the last 12 years writing about Russia’s last Imperial Family, I have lost track of the number of letters and emails I have received from people claiming to be related in some way to a member of that illustrious family, or whose ancestor was involved in their miraculous escape from Russia. They just keep on coming.
I should point out that the original quote from the TV series was explicitly ‘I am so tired of this Romanoff shit’, but after much debate the editor at TIME was obliged to censor the profanity to ‘s—’.
So far I have only seen three episodes of The Romanoffs but these already had been enough to inflame the sensibilities of people who revere the Imperial Family – right from the crude, tasteless – and I have to say – totally inaccurate representation of the murder of the Imperial Family in the opening credits. Hollywood – indeed television in general is yet to convey the absolute horror and barbarity of that brutal moment in history. For an accurate description of what really happened to the Imperial Family on the night of 16/17 July in Ekaterinburg please see chapter 15, ’The Will of the Revolution’ in my book Ekaterinburg (The Last Days of the Romanovs in the USA).
Crude & gratuitous…
In episode 2 the representation of the Imperial Family as dwarves in a supposedly slapstick – but in fact deeply unfunny cabaret act – upset many people I know on the Romanov discussion group circuit. It was crude and gratuitous and to my mind did nothing but perpetuate the same old vile insinuations about Alexandra and Rasputin. And yes, I know it was meant to be satirical. But this kind of satire does the Imperial Family a deep disservice. Why must they be the vehicle for cheap jokes? Which brings me to episode 3.
The House of Special Purpose
With its ominous title ‘The House of Special Purpose” – a reference to the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg where the Romanovs were held – I knew that this episode was going to tackle the actual murder of the family. It is of course abundantly clear that the producers’ story-within-a-story device of having a modern-day actress travelling to Austria to film a historical drama about the murders was also intended to be satirical. It set out to parody a particular kind of second rate, trashy Hollywoodization of the Romanov story that is cynical and lazy in its inaccuracy, to the point of being downright laughable. So bad indeed is this production; so crazy the half-demented female director who believes that she herself is a reincarnated Romanov, that the lead actress soon realises what a turkey the whole thing is. ‘I cannot be a part of this piece of shit’ she announces and stomps off the set (excuse the profanity, but it’s there in the script). The problem is that this parody production is not just dire TV historical drama; in order to make its point it trots out all the tired clichés about Rasputin the demonic rapacious monk (sigh) making sexual moves on the Tsaritsa Alexandra (sigh), and ends up perpetuating the clichés rather than exposing them. The lurid representation of Rasputin and Alexandra, like it or not, perpetuates the idea that this is what really happened.
There is not a single Romanov historian, fan or aficionado I know who does not eternally long, as I do, for TV or film to finally produce a retelling of the Romanov story in a way that is honest, sensitive, accurate and – most importantly – respectful of its real-life subjects, rather than sinking to the level of the same old tabloid sensationalism. I anticipate that the remainder of the series will contain a great deal more that will upset the Romanov fans and also, more importantly – and the producers have not, for one moment, taken account of it – the Russian Orthodox faithful who revere the Imperial Family as Holy Passion Bearers.
A Statement from the Chancellery of the Head of the Imperial House of Russia on the release of the new Amazon series The Romanoffs
In response to considerable disquiet about The Romanoffs expressed not just by the Romanov fan base but also by descendants of the wider Romanov family and its collateral branches, the Imperial House of Russia has now issued a statement expressing its own serious reservations:
The official Chancellery of the Imperial House of Russia has now issued this statement with regard to the series:
The Grand Duchess Maria of Russia and the Chancellery of the Head of the Russian Imperial House have received a number of enquiries from around the world about the Imperial Family’s attitude towards “The Romanoffs”, a new television series of 8 episodes, each featuring characters who believe themselves to be descendants of the House of Romanoff.
The Chancellery has viewed the series and issues the following statement:
The Chancellery of Her Imperial Highness regards this series as a singular lost opportunity to delve into the true history of the modern Imperial Family. The Chancellery concurs with the general consensus of the critics, a majority of whom, according to a leading review-aggregate website, deems “The Romanoffs” to be “fatally indulgent, asking for the utmost patience from audiences without a compelling incentive.”
Given the incredible popularity of “The Crown”, a landmark drama series based on the recent real history of the British royal family, the formula for success in this niche TV genre seems obvious. A focus on real history seems particularly sensible given that the fascinating history of the modern Imperial Family post-1917 affords considerable potential for more landmark television. That the creator, who is also the series director and co-writer, instead opted to squander this opportunity in order to make a series of plodding fictional stories on banal subjects of no consequence is lamentable.
However, were these the series’ only failings, “The Romanoffs” would not have merited this statement. Dullness may be disagreeable, but it seldom causes offence or insult. Alas, to the series creator’s great discredit, “The Romanoffs” manages to do both. The Imperial Family does not approve of hagiography and appreciates the value of critical, objective and fully-rounded historical assessments of individuals, actions and events. Regrettably, the series creator never set his sights so high — on the contrary, they seem fixed at a far baser level. This series displays a sad level of disdain, insensitivity and crassness in its treatment of individuals, institutions and events that are hugely important to the Imperial Family and are revered worldwide by hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians.
To see the martyrdom of the Imperial Family treated as a piece of gory entertainment, the horrific murder being used as a backdrop for the opening credits of each episode, was appalling. So too was the treatment afforded to these same family members elsewhere, where they were mocked and farcically parodied by costumed dwarfs. Surely standards of decency still count for something in the portrayal of certain events and the individuals involved.
It is particularly regrettable that “The Romanoffs” makes its debut in the year of the 100th anniversary of the martyrdom of the canonized Emperor, St. Nicholas the Tsar-Martyr, his family, faithful servants and many other members of the Imperial Family and those who supported them.
Her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess and her son and Heir have no desire to fan the flames of publicity around this series; however, in the interests of accuracy and for the hundreds of millions who venerate members of the Imperial Family, and as the Imperial House will always object to any sort of misrepresentation of the history or present circumstance of their family for commercial purposes, it has been necessary to release this statement.
Ph. D., Associate Professor, director of the Chancellery of the Russian Imperial House