Amazon Prime’s The Romanoffs -- created, written, and directed by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner -- has a bizarre, yet simple, premise: The anthology-style show follows a number of families who all claim to be descendants of the Romanovs, Russia’s last royal family, whose deaths during the Russian Revolution were the final paving stone on the road to the communist Soviet Union. So, what exactly is the big deal about this family, and why does everyone in this show want to be one of them?
To fully understand, we need to travel a few hundred years back in time, because Weiner's work is nothing if not steeped in the minutiae of history. Until 1613, the Romanovs were boyars, members of the highest rank of Russian aristocracy below princes, and were offered the tsardom by the zemsky sobor, a kind of state parliament, who gave the crown to family patriarch Mikhail Romanov. His grandson, Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great, whose portrait shows up in the opening credits of The Romanoffs), transformed the country from a feudal nobody into a formidable continental power, establishing the Russian Empire, which was a major player in European politics for centuries. The Romanov family reigned in Russia for more than 300 years, until Tsar Nicholas II abdicated his throne in 1917 after the February Revolution -- the first of Russia's two revolts against the aristocracy in 1917.
There were more than a few bumps along the way, however, that make the Romanovs an atypical royal house. For one, the male line of the House of Romanov actually died out many years before the family's final fall; Peter the Great's son and heir, Alexei, despised his father and resisted becoming his successor. He died before he could ascend to the throne (not that he would've accepted), and his son, who would become Peter II, passed away at age 14, officially ending the "true" male lineage of Romanovs.
That left Peter the Great's daughter, Elizabeth of Russia, to reign as Empress for 21 years before dying in 1762. Unmarried and without children, Elizabeth made her nephew, Peter III, the grandson of Peter I, the royal heir. But Peter III was actually a member of the House of Holstein-Gottorp, a branch of the royal House of Oldenburg of Denmark. So the House of Romanov is technically the House of Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov, and has many, many, many members whose claim to the Romanovs gets muddier the further down the line you go.