In his book, Simon Sebag Montefiore explores the lives of all the Romanov Tsars and Tsarinas, from Mikhail I to Nicholas II. He explores all the conspiracies, romances, deaths, and like in any important and long dynasty, its myths.
A beautiful mansion with servants and all the luxuries one can imagine and a group of women living in it, attending parties, and being judged and observed at all times.
These women must compete against each other to win this man's affection and become his wife. Yes, these are the basic elements that make up the 21 seasons of The Bachelor, a popular reality show whose purpose is to find a match for a man who seems incapable of doing it by himself. But what if I told you that this famous show’s dynamics were commonly used during the sixteenth and seventeenth century in Russia?
It's well-known that arranged marriages were the norm in countries looking to strengthen their coffers. For centuries, the way to assure a position or amass a great fortune was through the union of two strong families. However, during the seventeenth century this was taken to extremes by one particular royal family. It was during the ruling of Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov, where he and his counselors decided to organize a bride contest to choose the ideal woman to marry the young Tsar.
When we hear the name Romanov, we tend to associate it with the last royal family of the Russian monarchy and their tragic story. However, the Romanov lineage goes way back to the seventeenth century, when young Mikhail I was chosen to be the new Tsar. Inexperienced and young, Mikhail was more like a pawn in a political game played by his mother and counselors. Two years after his crowning, he was pressured by his mother to call for a bride contest in order to secure the family's position of power.
This was not a simple contest where influential nobles proposed their nominee as it happened in other European courts. The Russian bride contest involved months of preparation and a lot of money; after all, there were over 500 candidates involved. These "lucky" participants were sent to a mansion where a designated team closely analyzed their behavior and profile. Then the team would select the top 60 and their profiles would be sent to the Tsar and his counselors for evaluation. They would focus on their bloodlines, family history, and their beauty of course.
This type of contest was designed to end the rivalry between nobles, who would do the impossible to place a candidate on the throne. While this contest appeared to pacify the aristocracy, nobles would still bribe the jury and promote their contender so they'd reach the final stage or smotrini, where the Tsar would finally meet the finalists and choose a winner.
The top six were selected by the Tsar and examined by doctors to find out if they were healthy and fertile, which was the main purpose of the arranged marriage. They would then be sent to a special mansion at the Kremlin. The disqualified ladies were sent back home with many presents and the honor of having being picked as one of the most beautiful and influential women in the country.
The six finalists were tidied up and presented to the monarch. It was the moment of truth.
In The Bachelor, the contestants would receive a rose to symbolize they were still in the running, while the Tsar would offer a handkerchief and a golden ring. Just like in the show, the relationships were short lived. Mikhail's choice was Maria Khlopova; however, the Tsar's mother and real ruler didn't approve of his son's choice. So, together with her trusted counselor, Saltikov, they plotted against the girl and had her poisoned to prove she was not healthy enough to bear his children. Disappointed, the Tsar sent her and her family to exile in Siberia.
The Tsar needed a bride, so he chose another girl among the finalists, Maria Vladimirovna Dolgorukova, a girl his mother approved. They got married with all the fanfare and luxury that entails a royal wedding, but unfortunately, four months later she passed away. Once the Tsar went back to the remaining finalists and chose Eudoxia Streshnyova, with whom he had 10 children. Their love life wasn't exactly a fairytale romance. She spent most of the life secluded in the Terem Palace (similar to Muslim harems) where royal women lived away from carnal temptations.
These bride contests were a tradition in this part of the world, which lasted for years. While it was seen as an exotic tradition by many foreigners, it was a good way to distract the population from the strife and difficulties they had to live through.
In his book, Simon Sebag Montefiore explores the lives of all the Romanov Tsars and Tsarinas, from Mikhail I to Nicholas II. He explores all the conspiracies, romances, deaths, and like in any important and long dynasty, its myths. Speaking about myths and rumors, if you're interested in royal gossip, take a look at The Empress Who Died In Her Pursuit Of A Celestial Orgasm.
Simon Sebag Montefiore, The Romanovs (1613-1918)