Tsar Alexis of Russia chooses his bride, c. 1882. (Photo: Public Domain)

For the past 14 years, millions of hopeful romantics and cynical snarks have watched matchmaking TV show The Bachelor and its numerous spawns. Everyone knows the formula. A group of attractive singles stays in a generic mansion, gradually getting whittled down to one by an allegedly desirable “bachelor.” The bachelor then gives this “true love” an engagement ring, and the rest is tabloid history.

This process may seem like an entirely modern conceit—a collaborative game show in which love is the prize. But the ratings juggernaut’s roots can be found in the royal bride-shows that captivated Russia for two centuries. And at these bride-shows, the fate of entire families—of the empire itself—often depended on which young girl received the metaphorical final rose.    

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the tsars of Muscovy (later Russia) had a plethora of problems when choosing a bride. European royals were reluctant to send their daughters to this isolated land, which was considered to be backwards and dangerous. They also did not want their fair princesses to have to convert to the mysterious Russian Orthodox faith.

A map of Russia (Moscovia) published by Sigismund von Herberstein in 1549. (Photo: Public Domain)

Among Muscovites, things weren’t much better. While tsars were supposedly all-powerful, they were actually heavily influenced by shifting alliances of noble families, which made up the royal court in Moscow. In an age where marriages were the main way to build alliances and accumulate influence, it was not wise to take as a wife a close relation of an already powerful boyar (aristocrat).

In 1505, the future Vasili III and his advisors decided to hold the first Russian bride-show to select a perfect mate. Russell E. Martin, historian and author of the fascinating A Bride for the Tsar, believes they probably got the idea from the ancient Byzantine Empire, who in turn may have been inspired by the fictional “Judgement of Paris.” For many centuries, the Chinese royal family also held bride-and groom-shows. No matter the location, these performative contests had many of the same aims. “Bride-shows helped to control conflict,” Martin explains. In his book he says that “until the end of the seventeenth century, nearly every native born bride of the Muscovite tsar had participated in a bride-show, even when the choice was decided beforehand.”

While each bride-show was different, all shared a common pattern reminiscent of the fairy tale Cinderella. The first step was to find virginal, well-born women throughout the land who were from good, but not great, families. Martin describes the preliminary process in A Bride for the Tsar:

An edict was drawn up in Moscow and disseminated to all the land owners of Russia…to all regions, to bring their maiden daughters to town for a bride-show … At the regional bride-show, the tsar’s trusted servitors were to select the most beautiful maidens and compile a special list. These beautiful maidens were then supposed to appear in Moscow, within a specified period.

Once these girls, who may have numbered in the hundreds or low thousands, reached Moscow, they were faced with another round of preliminary viewings. These evaluations, overseen by the tsar’s advisors, were often held in the open courtyards of the Kremlin. “The contestants first appeared before a jury of courtiers and doctors who weeded out the weakest,” historian Simon Sebag Montefiore writes in The Romanovs. “Descriptions were sent to the tsar and his advisers, but apart from beauty and health, the essential details were any kinship ties to Kremlin clans.”

A wedding feast of the Boyar, a class of Russian aristocrats, showing the toast to the bride and groom. (Photo: Google Cultural Institute/ Public Domain)

Noble families campaigned heavily for their relatives and tried to ensure they were finalists. This negated one of the main reasons for the bride-show in the first place—that of neutralizing powerful courtiers. “Since the brides’ families were to become enormously important after the wedding, the court—the boyars especially—wanted to know who was going to be riding in the brides’ wake into the Kremlin,” Martin explains. Chancellery documents discovered by Martin, show that “the tsar’s boyars…were deeply involved in the search for a bride for the tsar, that their wives performed the investigations into the prospective brides’ health and ’virtue,’ and that they picked who would end up in the final line-up of candidates before the tsar.”

The young women who passed the test (who ranged in number from under 10 to over 50) had made it to what was essentially the final round. According to a 16th-century Polish diplomat, what happened next was very Bachelor-esque:

A large and beautiful house with many rooms was prepared, and in each bedroom there were placed 12 beds, each assigned to one of the girls. And they all lived together in one house, waiting for the royal bride-show…When that time had arrived, his tsarist majesty came to the house…and he sat on a beautifully decorated seat prepared for him; then the daughters…all dressed in the finest maiden’s costumes…entered one after the other before the tsar, and bowed at his feet. At that time, the tsar gave each of them a kerchief, sewn with gold and silver thread and with expensive pearls, throwing it at the girl’s feet, and then each girl returned to her own room.  

According to one source, the tsar occasionally spied on the girls to help him make up his mind: “They all dined together at one table, where the Tsar had an opportunity of seeing them in public, and incognito, in order the better to direct his choice to one of this beautiful company.” Some reports claimed that when the tsar had made his choice he handed his new fiancé a golden ring. Runners-up were married to lesser nobles, sent home with cash and prizes or banished, depending on the mood of the times. In 1505, Solomonia Saburov became the first woman to become tsarina as a result of the bride-show, when she married Vasili III.  

Konstantin Makovsky’s 1889 painting The Russian Bride’s Attire. (Photo: Public Domain)

Not everyone was excited about the prospects of a tsarina in the family. Many rural boyars were horrified by stories they heard about abuse of the girls by the tsar and his cronies, by the invasive medical examinations that came with the show, and by the prohibitive costs of outfitting their daughters for their public exhibition. Others simply did not want to enter the fraught, often deadly world of court politics. One man even claimed “it would be better if you drowned your maiden daughters in water that to take them…to the bride-show.”

The girl who accepted the risk and won the ultimate prize found her life immediately transformed. She was given a royal name and whisked into the Terem Palace at the Kremlin to be groomed for her new role. “Muscovite elite women—boyars’ wives and the tsaritsa herself—lived in seclusion,” Martin explains. “They occupied parts of the Kremlin royal complex that was segregated from men (except young boys). They did not go out in public and they were veiled, even inside sleds or carriages as they moved about, or when going to church.” But this did not mean they were protected from the court intrigues that swirled all around them.

Take, for example, the story of Maria Khlopova. In 1616, Michael, the first Romanov Tsar, shocked his influential mother and her allies when he selected Maria, over their chosen candidate, at his first bride-show. Maria’s name was changed to the royal Anastasia, and she was installed in the Terem Palace with her family. She soon fell ill, vomiting and fainting in front of the court. Though her family claimed she had simply had too many sweets, a rumor started that she was unhealthy and therefore unable to perform her main duty—bearing royal heirs. Instead of simply being sent home, she was exiled in disgrace. Years later, single and still smitten with Maria, Michael discovered that not only had she been poisoned by one of his top aides to make her appear ill all those years ago, but that she was now in perfect health.

Though Michael ached to recall Maria and marry her, his mother again stood in the way of his true love. At the next bride-show he picked his mother’s choice—but she quickly fell mysteriously ill and died. In 1626, another bride-show was held, and Michel picked Eudoxia, the daughter of poor gentry. Perhaps because of her lack of court ties she survived, and bore him 10 children, making her the perfect royal spouse.

An engraving of Maria Khlopova, the would-be bride of Tsar Michael I. (Photo: Oleg Golovnev/shutterstock.com)

Maria would not be the last woman to suffer as a result of these court battles. According to Martin, the first picks of the first three Romanov tsars each fell prey to similar intrigues. The Tsar Alexi’s first choice fainted suspiciously as a crown was placed on her head. She was sent into exile, with some fine linens made for her aborted wedding night as a consolation prize. Another girl’s hair was reportedly braided too tightly so that she would faint. And those that actually made it to their wedding day? Well, they could look forward to a lifetime of secluded childbearing. If they were one of the wives of tsars like Ivan the Terrible, they faced death by execution, poisoning, or life-long imprisonment in some forlorn nunnery.

The bride-show went out of fashion in the late 17th century, during the rule of the Westernizing, forward-thinking Peter the Great. Until the violent end of the Romanov Dynasty in 1917, Russian tsars would increasingly marry European princesses, as Russia became more and more a part of the surrounding world.

Wedding of Nicholas II and Grand Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna, 1894. (Photo: State Russian Museum/Public Domain)

But the bride-show had already firmly fixed itself in the collective memory. “Official sources and…foreigners portrayed the custom as a true love match,” Martin says. “The tsar picked the ’fairest in the land,’” creating a “façade of autocracy.” But he thinks “the bride-show reveals a more traditional monarchy in Russia—one, like in the West at the same time-that relied a lot on collaboration with elites at court.” While the final choice was nominally picked by the tsar, behind the scenes he essentially had producers, agents and writers in his ear, telling him who to pick. The game of love has never been simple.