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Rare Photos of the Romanovs Offer Intimate Glimpse at Russia’s Last Royal Family


The Romanovs were the last imperial dynasty to reign in Russia. The ruling family held the throne for more than 300 years after rising to power in 1613. The sovereignty of the legendary monarchs came to a dramatic end with Russia’s last Czar, Nicholas II, during revolution in 1917. Known for their lavish lifestyle, tumultuous rule and fateful demise, the Romanovs have captivated the world until this day. Take a look at this rare collection of salvaged photographs providing an intimate glimpse at the last days of Russia’s iconic royals.

The Allure of the Romanov Sisters

Czar Nicholas II and his wife, Czarina Alexandra, had five children, four of whom were daughters. Known for their illustrious beauty and tight-knit relations, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Nikolaevna (referred to as OTMA) are still considered intriguing historical figures nearly 100 years after their tragic ending.

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This poignant official portrait features the Romanov sisters dripping in pearls and wearing ornate evening gowns while sitting in one of the imperial salons where concerts were regularly held. In the background of the photograph, dated to 1915 or 1916, French furniture and an organ can be seen. All of the czar’s daughters learned to play the piano with Tatiana regarded as the most talented.

Self-Portrait of the Czar

Considered to be anointed by God, Nicholas II ascended the throne in 1894 and ruled until his forced abdication in 1917. His reign was marked by periods of political and social upheaval. While he was widely unpopular among his subjects and seen as a politically weak and inept leader, he was regarded as a caring family man.

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The last Russian emperor was an avid photography-lover and shot many of the following photographs taken between 1915 and 1916. As this self-taken photo likely was, many of the black-and-white images saved by a confidant of the royals after their demise were hand-colored by the czar’s third daughter, Maria. Despite their privilege and fairy tale regard, the following pictures largely depict the down-to-earth, day-to-day activities of the historic monarchs.

Carefree in Finland before the Fall

Nicholas II and Alexei are seen in a boat rowed by unnamed sailors in Finland in this seemingly impromptu photo. Prior to the outset of war, the Russian monarchs regularly boarded the imperial yacht to vacation during the summers in the Finnish skerries.

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Until 1917, the Russian czar’s title included ruler as the Grand Duke of Finland. The predecessor of the modern Scandinavian state had existed as an autonomous part of the Russian Empire since 1809.

A Royal Visit

All five Romanov children are seen accompanying their father the czar (center) while visiting a regiment of Kuban Cossacks in Russia during World War I. In 1915, the Russian leader left his imperial residence to take command of the failing military front during the war.

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Beinecke Library Yale University/Wikimedia Commons

The czar’s public image flailed considerably during the conflict. Meanwhile, appointed as regent in the capital, his Czarina Alexandra exercised influence on the state of affairs and further irked the public. Nicholas II’s poor handling of the Russo-Japanese War, 1905’s Bloody Sunday and World War I are credited with leading to the collapse of the Russian Empire.

Stay versed on your imperial history by continuing through the slideshow.

The Illustrious Anastasia

Undoubtedly the most mentioned Romanov in the decades following the family’s exile, Anastasia is seen playing with false teeth in this somewhat disturbing photo taken before her untimely death. Her renown was fuelled by unending lore about her possible escape from the Bolsheviks, as the location of her burial remained a mystery during the Communist era.

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However, during her lifetime she was a vivaciously spirited child who was always striving to be at the center of attention. Despite her high energy and mischievous manner, though, Anastasia was often in poor health and possibly carried the hemophilia gene like her brother, Alexei.

 Russian Royal Zoo

In this playfully candid shot, the Czar Nicholas II, his son Alexei and his tutor are seen with the royal pet elephant in 1914 at a zoo near the imperial estate in Tsarskoye Selo. On that day, the czar wrote in his journal: “Took the elephant to our pond with Alexei today and had fun watching him bathe.”

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Various photos of the Romanovs visiting and feeding the elephant relay their affection for the sizeable mammal. The zoo, however, was closed after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The fate of the elephant and other animals in the zoo remained unknown after the monarchy’s fall from grace.

Princesses at a Palace

Members of the House of Romanov inhabited various residences, including royal palaces, during their centuries of reign. This rare World War I-era photo shows Grand Duchesses Maria, Anastasia and Olga posing on the terrace of one of the grand imperial properties.

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The official residence of the royal family was the opulent, 1,500-room Winter Palace in St Petersburg. However, of the crown’s various properties, the czar was known to favor the suburban Alexander Palace on the outskirts of St Petersburg in Tsarskoy Selo. Despite their fond memories of the palace, it would later become their prison.

Aboard the Palacial Imperial Yacht

Before the revolution, the Romanovs enjoyed an unmatched level of wealth and luxury with a family fortune valued at about $30-$45 billion. Their abundant assets included gold, jewels, land, cash, art, palaces and other properties, including the Russian Imperial Yacht, the Standart.

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Beinecke Library

The czar and his four daughters are pictured in regal nautical attire in this photo taken aboard the top-of-the-line vessel. The palatial floating craft was fitted with ornate fixtures including crystal chandelier and mahogany paneling. In 1914, the royal family was vacationing abroad the Standart when they were informed of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

The Czar and his Baby Boy

A young Alexei Nikolaevich is pictured with father, the czar, in this touchingly candid shot taken years before the royal family met their fateful end. Affectionately referred to both as Alyosha and “Baby,” Alexei was doted upon by his parents and sisters.

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Beinecke Library

After four daughters, Alexei was born in 1904 as the Romanovs’ long-awaited son. Fearful for their son’s state, the emperor and empress turned to the self-proclaimed holy man of ill-repute, Rasputin, for mystical advisory and treatment of Alexei’s ailment. Suffering his whole life from hemophilia, the czarevich was confined to a wheelchair for the final weeks of his short life.

Olga Romanov in her Bedroom

The eldest Romanov daughter, Olga, is pictured laying in her bed in this photograph. Olga’s future nuptials were the subject of much conjecture in Russia at the time. Alleged matches were rumored with the czar’s cousin Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia, Prince Edward of Wales and Crown Prince Alexander of Serbia.

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In years after her death, a woman named Marga Boodts came forward purporting that she was the grand duchess herself. One of several Romanov imposters, Boodts was disregarded as a sham. Russian investigators exhumed and identified Olga’s remains in 1991. She was reburied, along with her parents and two sisters, at a 1998 ceremony in St Petersburg.

Scroll on to the next fascinating photos taken prior to the tragedy that the Romanovs would soon befall.

Drastic Change in the Imperial Image

A bout with the measles spurred the Romanov daughters to shave their heads while house arrest in the spring of 1917. The shocking image of the sisters with bald heads and plain clothes was strikingly different from their meticulously coiffed appearances a year before. Due to their stricken condition, the Romanovs allegedly missed a window to evacuate to Britain.

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The children contracted the disease as unrest in St Petersburg threatened the safety of Czarina Alexandra and her five children. At the time, the Czar was still at Russian military headquarters, but he soon abdicated and returned to Alexander Palace to join his family.

The Czar and his Daughters

This photograph, snapped sometime between 1915 and 1916, shows Czar Nicholas II and his daughters Maria, Anastasia, Olga and Nicholas (from left to right). The sisters shared a close bond along with their younger brother Alexei. They shared rooms and were known to all dress alike.

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For decades romanticized narratives about the four Romanov sisters pervaded. The princesses grew up among the grandeur and pomp of the royal court. Yet, in their nursery, they were raised in a relatively austere and simple fashion following the tradition of their maternal lineage. Surprisingly, the sisters were said to have shared hand-me-downs, slept in simple iron beds and bathed in cold water.

The Eldest Romanov Sisters

The older three Romanov girls are seen in this relaxed capture taken just a year or two before their family’s exile. According to historian Helen Rappaport, first-born Olga was described as a romantic and dreamer, who held the great responsibility of setting an example for her younger siblings.

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Meanwhile, second-born Tatiana was regarded as a great beauty with a brisk and reserved temperament. Maria, in contrast, was known to have an affectionately warm, maternal disposition. As the young women sat for the ethereal shot, Russia faced usurping turmoil on the domestic and international front.

Royal Beach Bathing

Grand Duchess Olga of Russia and unnamed woman pose for the camera, unbeknownst of the upheaval soon to unravel the Romanov dynasty. Olga’s friends and family commonly called her by the nicknames “Olishka,” “Olenka” or “Olya.”

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Simultaneously known to harbor a great compassion and a quick temper, Olga went on to volunteer as nurse during World War I. Like all of her siblings, Olga seemed to confide in the controversial Rasputin, whom they were taught to treat as “our friend.”

The Loving Romanov Siblings

Olga, Alexei and Tatiana are captured in this 1914 picture, taken four years before their execution. Alexei’s older sisters, particularly Olga, were known to take care of their brother. Due to his fragile condition, the youngest Romanov was said to be somewhat spoiled, yet a playful and affectionate child.

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The czarevich was said to love playing pranks on guests. Yet, he was prohibited from riding bicycles and rough activities. His French tutor, Pierre Gilliar, noted that the nature of Alexei’s hemophilia was kept a state secret due to its life-threatening severity and his position as the royal successor.

Keep reading for more nostalgic images that depict the romance, mystery and tragedy surrounding one of history’s most famed families.

Royal Company

Anastasia, Tatiana and Alexei are pictured here in the spring of 1917 during captivity at Tsarskoe Selo holding their respective furry pals Jemmy, Ortipo and Joy. A wounded officer gave the French bulldog puppy, Ortipo, to Tatiana. The pet became a family favorite and was often mentioned in their personal writings.

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Ortipo would ultimately accompany the Romanovs in their exile and imprisonment at the Alexander Palace and then in western Siberia’s Tobolsk. There, according to records, Tatiana tried to balance both the dog and her luggage while the banished royal family trekked in the mud from the train station to their accommodations. Ultimately, Alexei’s dog Joy was the only survivor of the revolution.

Tatiana with a Companion

Tatiana is seen standing in front of a blooming flower bush alongside an unidentified man in this photograph from 1915 or 1916. She would have been 18 or 19 years old at the time. The second-born Romanov was regarded as the best known of her sisters during her life.

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Described as tall and slender with deep auburn hair and gray-blue eyes, many courtiers considered Tatiana the most becoming of the four grand duchesses. King Peter of Serbia allegedly sought for his son to marry the blossoming beauty. However, the outbreak of World War I put a halt to marriage negotiations. Despite their expected noble couplings, all of the Romanov girls were known to be drawn to men in uniform.

Your Impreial Highness

Grand Duchess Tatiana was the second child of the Czar and Czarina. As a matter of fact, her Russian title is best translated as ‘Grand Princess’, and as an imperial highness, she was actually higher in rank than all the European princesses, who were only ‘royal’ hignesses.

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Tatiana’s official title wasn’t used very often– her friends and family usually called her Tanya, Tatya, Tanushka or Tatianochka, all ordinary Russian nicknames, or by her patronym, Tatiana Nikolaevna. As one story goes, when addressed as “Your Imperial Highness” by a Baroness, Tatiana was so unsettled that she kicked the Baroness under the table.

Calm Before the Storm

This photograph of the Czar (far left) and members of his family is dated to approximately 1915 or 1916. Due to his hemophilia, the Czarevich Alexei (pictured center) was in the constant eye of two Navy officers assigned to monitor him and carry him when he could not walk.

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Alexei’s sisters were born in quick succession much to the private joy of their parents. However, until his birth as the male heir to the throne, the survival of the monarchy was in jeopardy and public scrutiny along with superstitious murmurings of a curse enshrouded the royal family.

 Mother-Daughter Time

The Empress Alexandra is seen lounging while her eldest daughter, Olga, and youngest, Anastasia, enjoy some quiet time with their mother in this photograph taken around 1916. Historical accounts present Alexandra as a domineering force in the lives of her daughters and husband.

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Born in Germany, Alexandra was the sixth child of Grand Duke Louis IV and Princess Alice of the United Kingdom. At the age of six, she tragically lost both her mother and younger sister to diphtheria and was later educated by her grandmother, Queen Victoria. The future Russian empress first met her husband-to-be when she was only 12.

War Games

The Crown Prince Alexei (left) plays soldiers with the children of one of his tutors in this photograph as war breaks out in 1914. During World War I, Alexei joined his father at Stavka – the high command of Russia’s armed forces.

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Though he had none if any military experience, Czar Nicholas II took over the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army in 1915. Despite his health issues, Alexei was apparently very fond of the military life and even took pride in eating soldier’s rations. Little did the young royal know, his days of make-believe war would soon make way for a brutal reality.

The Czar Sawing

This photograph taken circa late 1917 or early 1918, shows Nicholas and Alexei sawing during captivity in Siberia. The photo was likely taken by the fallen czar’s daughter Maria in Tobolsk. Due to his hemophilia, Alexei often was not able to engage in such rigorous physical activity.

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At the time that the photo was snapped, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks had come to power and the royal family had to dismiss a score of loyal servants. The family also had to adhere to dietary restrictions, giving up butter and coffee and subsisting on soldiers’ rations. The end spells near in the final haunting images of Russia’s fated royal family.

Visiting Wounded Soldiers

Less than a decade after the Russian Revolution of 1905, the empire entered World War I in support of Serbia, France and Britain. This war-era photo features Czar Nicholas II’s youngest daughters Maria and Anastasia visiting soldiers.

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With death toll estimates at about 2 million, Russia sustained more casualties than any nation in any previous conflict. Grievances with the crown along with rampant food and fuel shortages, corruption and a plummeting economy, propelled Russia, yet again, toward revolution.

The Winds of War

As part of propaganda efforts to bolster the monarchy’s image during World War I, the four Romanov sisters would visit Russian troops. Draped in elegance and grace, the young women were coming of age, yet the popularity of the crown was waning.

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The sisters had lived relatively sheltered lives apart from public pageantry until the war allowed them to have more engagement with the outside world. The eldest Romanov girls (Olga and Tatiana) were regarded as “The Big Pair,” while the younger two (Maria and Anastasia) were styled as “The Little Pair.”

 The Princess Nurses

The czar’s eldest daughters and wife volunteer as Red Cross volunteers during World War I, caring for wounded Russian troops. Although Anastasia and Maria were too young to help with medical duties, they made hospital visits to help bolster the morale of soldiers.

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The Romanov women helped treat soldiers at a private hospital on the grounds of the imperial residence in Tsarskoye Selo. While both Olga and Tatiana displayed great dedication to the practice, strains of the heart and responsibilities ultimately proved overwhelming for Olga. Tatiana, meanwhile, thrived as a talented and courageous nurse.

 Apple of the Empress’ Eye

Empress Alexandra and her second-born daughter, Tatiana, are positively striking in this sumptuous time capture. Tatiana was said to most resemble her mother out of all her sisters. There was also an alleged mutual favoritism between Tatiana and her mother.

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Beinecke Library

Like her siblings and mother, Tatiana greatly confided in Rasputin. Yet, controversy prevailed when an imperial governesses expressed horror that Rasputin was granted access to the nursery while the sisters were in nightgowns. Rumors circulated in society that Rasputin had seduced not only Alexandra but also her four daughters. However, most accounts point to Rasputin’s contact with the children as innocent in nature.

A Taste of Crisis

Czar Nicholas II is pictured in 1916 inspecting the troops and porridge near the Russian military headquarters in Mogilyov during World War I. The czar’s leave to the front lines served a further blow to the crown as his wife, advised by Rasputin, shuffled through skilled ministers and replaced them with weak replacements.

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The omnipotence of the dynasty’s grasp was unremittingly unraveling as the monarchy faced accusations of treachery and anti-imperial sentiments increased. Further, the war drained national resources and the Duma (the legislative assembly established by the czar) called for political reforms as the nation teetered on collapse. Upon the czar’s return to the capital, domestic disaster began to ignite.

You don’t want to miss the foreboding next photos that foreshadow the dramatic downfall of the last Russian dynasty.

Banished to Siberia

The centuries-old myth of benevolence of the Russian monarchy dramatically ended on March 15, 1917 when the czar was forced to renounce the throne in the midst of sweeping chaos plaguing Russia. Nicholas II named his brother, Grand Duke Michael, as the next Russian emperor, but he ultimately declined.

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Stripped of his title as “emperor,” Nicholas II was now referred to as Colonel Romanov. The fallen royals were placed on house arrest in Alexander Palace before eventually being exiled in August 1917 to Tobolsk in Siberia. In the spring of 1918, the family was moved to their fateful, final destination of Yekaterinburg in the Urals.

Fallen Czar in Captivity

Apart from the fallen czar’s immediate family, the Bolsheviks also executed several of his extended kin. In total, 18 members of the Romanov family were killed, including Nicholas II’s brother, Michael; the emperor’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth; his cousin Sergei and his nephews Ivan, Constantine, Igor and Vladimir.

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Russian School

A firing squad also shot Nicholas II’s uncle Paul and cousins Nicholas, Dmitri and George at the Peter and Paul Fortress in Petrograd. Of the 53 living Romanovs at the time of the violent revolution that dismantled czarist autocracy, it is estimated that by 1920, only 35 imperial relatives remained alive.

Anastasia’s Last Days

Speculative tales of the possible escape of Anastasia from the hands of Bolsheviks flooded public interest decades after this photograph was taken of her in captivity in 1918. The haunting image of the imprisoned princess in Tobolsk was likely taken mere days before her family’s execution.

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Several women falsely claiming to be the surviving grand duchess perpetuated mystique and intrigue in Anastasia for generations to come. Her legacy has inspired many books and films, including the 1997 animated Disney movie classic based on the premise of her fabled escape. DNA testing, however, takes account of the remains of the entire Romanov family.

The Trials of Internment

Princess Tatiana is seen with a soldier transporting sod in this photograph taken in the spring of 1917 while the Romanovs were detained in their residence in Tsarskoe Selo. While the deposed Imperial Family grappled with captivity, Tatiana was accustomed to physical labor from her days as a nurse during World War I.

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United States Library of Congress

The second-oldest Romanov girl allegedly served as a great uniting force for her family during the trying period. She helped her siblings sew the family jewels into their garments so that they would have the means to finance a new life in the event that they escaped imprisonment.

Gilded Cage

Olga, Alexei, Anastasia and Tatiana are pictured on the grounds of the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo in May 1917, about a year before their gruesome deaths. Anastasia is lovingly holding her sister Tatiana’s cherished dog, Ortipo.

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Unpictured sibling Maria and another sister were said to have survived the initial shooting attempt of her family and reportedly “sat up screaming” on a vehicle transporting their family’s bodies before they were again attacked. The account led to unsubstantiated claims that at least one Russian Grand Duchess had survived the massacre.

Imprisonment Dampering the Royal Spirit

The former Empress Alexandra is pictured flanked by her daughters, Olga and Tatiana, in what was likely one of the last photographs of the Czarina. The three forlorn-looking women sit under an umbrella on a balcony at the Governor’s Mansion in Tobolsk, Siberia, where they were held in captivity.

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The photo was taken in the spring of 1918, months before their transfer to Yekaterinburg, where they were eventually killed. Alexandra was 46 at the time of the family’s assassination, while Olga was 22 and Tatiana was just 21. The Romanov sisters were cited by historians as the most photographed princesses of their day.

 The Doomed Days of the Romanovs

Czar Nicholas sits with his children Tatiana, Olga, Alexei and Anastasia along with the young son of a servant while in captivity in Toblsk. Soon after this photo was taken, Nicholas, Alexandra and Maria were transported by train to Yekaterinburg in April 1918.

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Early photographs of the four sisters especially show the similar vestiges they would wear at the behest of their mother. During their lifetime, the daughters were reportedly often regarded as a homogenous group rather than unique individuals of consequence.

Siberian Exile

While in captivity at the Governor’s Mansion in Tobolsk, the Romanovs were allowed some comforts, but their daily lives had drastically changed from the days of palaces and splendor. The provisional government of Alexander Kerensky initially sent the family to Siberia on the premise of protecting them from uprising.

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The Imperial Family found it hard to cope, however, amid the bleak reality of isolation with limited interactions to the outside world. Yet, when the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917, the conditions of the royal family’s confinement became increasingly severe.

 Last Photo of Alexei and Alexandra

This 1918 photo of Alexei and his mother Alexandra was taken the same year that the royal family was killed in Yekaterinburg under the command of Bolshevik executioner Yakov Yurovsky. The photo is thought to be one of the last of the mother and her beloved son together.

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According to chilling accounts of the Romanov’s last night, the seven Romanovs, three of their servant and their doctor were shot to death by a firing squad. The ordeal was said to be quite chaotic as the gunmen’s visibility became hindered and some of the children endured the initial onslaught, protected by jewels sewn into their clothes.

Crown Concern

This photo of Czarina Alexandra was taken aboard the Standart in 1914, a few years before her death. A shy woman whom her subjects inferred as cold, Alexandra was treated with suspicion and scrutiny in court and by the masses.

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Romanov Collection General Collection Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Yale University

Her unquestioning faith in the questionable Rasputin led to further disapproval in aristocratic circles. Concern over his influence over the czarina eventually led a group of nobles to device Rasputin’s assassination. During her final years, the empress suffered from declining health and spent much of her time confined to a wheelchair.

Fleeting Imperial Glory

Russia’s ruling couple are seen here posing with a carriage flanked by their daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana. The imperial adjutant, Nikolai Pavlovich Sablin (second right), also appears in this picture taken circa 1915-1916.

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Nicholas married Princess Alix of Hesse, who later took the name Alexandra Feodorovna, in 1894 shortly after his coronation. She was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. The empress was largely unpopular with the Russian people in part due to her curt demeanor, German ancestry and adherence to notorious Russian mystic, Grigori Rasputin.

The Infamous Ipatieve House

The cellar of the Ipatieve House, where the Romanovs were heinously executed is pictured in this haunting image. At around midnight on July 17, 1918 the Russian royals were taken to the basement of the house as their captors said it was a precaution from nearing riots. There, the House of Romanov’s claim to the throne was relentlessly terminated.

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The burial sites of the Romanovs were secretly uncovered in 1976 and eventually exhumed in 1991 after the fall of communism. Mystery and controversy prevailed, however, as the bones of Alexei and Maria were not initially found. Russian archaeologists later said they had unearthed and identified their remains.

Aftermath of Execution

In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized the Romanovs as passion bearers and martyrs. The revered site of their execution now lays beneath the altar of the Church on Blood, aka The Church of All Saints.

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US Library of Congress

Immortalized in the wraiths of history, the Romanovs represent emblems of a world that disappeared forever. As these photos attest, however, the cherubic faces of the Romanov children will forever be ingrained as hauntingly beautiful and innocent reminders of the tragedies of history.

Bonding at the Beach

Maria, Olga, Tatiana and their brother Alexei Romanov pose at the beach along with family friend “Ritka” Khitrovo in this fun-loving photo that was found among six family albums rescued by Czarina Alexandra’s friend and confidant, Anna Vyrubova. The collection is now housed in the Beinecke Library at Yale University in Connecticut.

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It is estimated that Alexei was about 13-years-old at the time of the snap. The sole male offspring of Nicholas II and Alexandra, the heir apparent to the Russian imperial throne famously suffered from hemophilia. It is thought that the czarina carried the gene for the potentially life-threatening blood clotting disorder as may relatives of Queen Victoria inherited the so-called “the royal disease.”

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Sources: All That is Interesting, Hooch, National Geographic 

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