History of the Romanov dynasty

Ivan the Terrible died in 1584. His natural successor was his eldest son, Feodor. Feodor was sickly, and unable to govern. Ivan’s youngest son Dmitry was still a child and in 1591 he died. The cause of death was suspicious and debated to this day. When Feodor died in 1598, the Rurik dynasty, founded by the first ruler of Russia, Prince Rurik, had ceased.

It was on 21 February 1613, when the Time of Troubles had ended, that Michael Romanov, the first of what would become the Romanov dynasty, came to power as Tsar of Russia. He was 16 years old. The Romanov family would rule from 1613 to 1917.

Star Media produced a fascinating documentary on the Romanov dynasty in 2013. Episode One:

The family name of Romanov (“Ru-mahn-ovf) was adopted by the descendants of Nikita Zakharin. The new name reflected their rise in status among the Moscow Boyars. Their status among the elite had been secured when Ivan the Terrible married Nikita’s sister, Anastasia in 1547.

Nikita and Boris Godunov were regents (co-rulers) for a time, but then Godunov declared himself to be the Tsar. Forced to leave Moscow, the Romanov family was exiled to mountains beyond the Urals. The family head, Feodor Nikitich, was forced to take monastic vows, under the name Filaret. After Godunov’s death, Filaret became Patriarch, and effectively ruled Russia for a period.

Mikhail (Michael) Romanov was just sixteen years old when he was elected to be Tsar by a council of the boyar nobles. His mother, Ksenia, ruled the country up until the year 1619, until the young man was ready to assume ruling responsibilities. He is credited with dealing with the invasions of Poland and Sweden, and he worked to restore diplomatic relations with Europe. Mikhail also reorganized the Russian army.

Mikhail (Michael) was succeeded by his son Aleksei in 1645. Aleksei was also 16 years old. In his early years he was mentored by Boris Morozov, a boyar. Boyars were the rich nobles. They were landowners, the leaders in society, and the highest rank of aristocrats under the ruling family. Over generations they have played important roles in Russian political and economic life.

Today in Moscow one can visit the Boyars Museum. To do that is easy. We will make our way from Red Square to just around the corner, entering Varvarka (Barbara) street, in the Kitai-Gorod (China Town) area in the district of Zaryade.

Varvarka street Moscow 1483 ed

Photo above: Varvarka Street boasts several ancient churches including the Church of Saint George, on the left, with the red brick and beautiful blue and gold domes. To the right is the old Church of the Theotokos (Virgin) of the Sign. It is part of the Znamensky monastery.

Varvarka Street was named for the Orthodox Saint Barbara. In ancient Moscow she was the patron saint of merchants, and many merchants lived and conducted business in this district. The present Saint Barbara church, shown below, was constructed in 1795 at the address Varvarka, #2. The church faces the Kremlin.

Varvarka street Moscow 1428 st barbara church ed

Varvarka is the oldest surviving street in Moscow and dates to the 12th Century. It is just steps from Red Square, but sadly one of the least visited places in Moscow. The closest Metro station is Kitai Gorod (China Town) and the street is filled with old mansions, churches and museums. Due to its age and status, the city officially considers this to be “Main Street” in Moscow although it is not a long street, or a major artery. (Nearby Tverskaya Street is Moscow’s main thoroughfare due to its location and length.)

Varvarka street Moscow 1455 Znamensky monastery ed


Above: the old Znamensky monastery, of which a restored part is shown in the photo, dates back to the year 1670. It was along this short street that Dmitry Donskoy paraded after Russia defeated the Mongol Horde invaders.

Below: the Church of the Theotokos of the Sign (Znamensky Monastery) was erected in the year 1684 at Varvarka Street, #8a, and today is in a state of disrepair. It is a large brown-brick church, with four green domes around a gold dome in the centre.

Varvarka Street Moscow 1447 Church of the Theotokos of the Sign Znamensky Monastery ed

The photo below shows the old English Embassy, perhaps the first diplomatic mission to Moscow. It was the home to Tsar Ivan Bobrishev, and at his death there were no heirs, so the property was assumed by the government. In 1553, Sir Richard Chancellor opened the Northern Sea Route, connecting Russia and England. Ivan the Terrible granted free trade with England, and gave the English this house to use as an Embassy. The address is Varvarka #4a.

Vavarka Street Moscow 1430 ed

Sharing the same address with the Old English Embassy is the Church of St. Maksim, located adjacently. The original wooden church was constructed in 1698 by merchants of Novgorod to protect the remains of Maksim, a holy fool, who died in 1433 and was buried there. That church had to be rebuilt, thus the structure you see below. The bell tower is known as the city’s “leaning tower.”

Varvarka street Moscow 1431 1698 church of St Makism ed

Below is the Chambers of the Romanov Boyars, where the Romanov family lived in the 16th century. Mikhail, the first Romanov Tsar, was born in this house in 1596. Today it is a museum dedicated to the time of the Boyars, and although rarely visited, the Boyars Museum houses many of the Romanov history artifacts. The museum is open daily from 10:00 to 17:00, closed on Tuesdays and the first Monday of each month. It is well-worth a visit, and this short street is a photographers dream!

Vavarka street Moscow 1466 Boyars ed

While the museum is owned by the State Museum of History, even today the history of the Imperial rulers is often shunned. Thus, the exterior of the building is in disrepair. The interior however is delightful, however one gets the impression that the older matrons who oversee the museum are the ones who have taken great personal pride in maintaining and honouring the memory of this historic place.

Vavarka Boyars Museum Moscow 1435 crop edit

At one time, before being demolished, Varvarka street was dominated by the large Rossiya Hotel. It stood at Varvarka, #6, looming over everything else with 3,200 rooms. Unfortunately the Soviets demolished a swath of historic buildings, museums, and churches in order to erect the Rossiya. During Soviet times the street was renamed after Stepan Razin the Cossack revolutionary.

Varvarka Street has been accurately described as an open air museum of ancient Russian architecture. Several times during the Soviet period it was planned to be demolished, and even in recent years the government has considered demolishing more of the street in order to build a new hotel near the Kremlin.

Directions to this fascinating street just off Red Square: Take Metro Katai-Gorod, and enter the pedestrian underpass as you come off the escalator of the station. There you will walk up a staircase which leads up to Varvarka (St. Barbara). As you walk through the underpass there are displays from the excavation work done under the basement of the St. Barbara Tower.


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