The Ice Queen

Tsarina Anna Ivanovna Romanova

Tsarina Anna Ivanovna Romanova

Anna Ivanova (1693-1740) was one of Russia’s lesser known empresses, and, arguably, the cruelest. A blip on the tsarist radar, her ten-year rule was dubbed a reign of terror as well as one of reform and remains contentious among historians. Anna could be petty, progressive or hideously harsh to both man and beast. Some scholars have traced her often erratic behavior to her father Ivan IV, whose mental illness is a matter of record. Her mother, Praskovia, only worsened matters as a cold, controlling woman who raised Anna for the nunnery with all the requisite strictness. As an ignored, unloved, only child, Anna’s emotional growth was understandably stunted.

Anna shows her contempt for authority.

Anna shows her contempt for authority.

When Tsar Peter II died without an heir in 1730, several potential candidates were passed over in favor of Anna who was the daughter of Ivan IV and the niece of no less than Peter the Great. At seventeen, Anna was forced into a marriage with Friedrich-Wilhelm, Duke of Courland. She was unmoved when the duke died during their long honeymoon and, after settling in Courland, exercised her new-found freedom through a series of lovers. Undeterred that he was the husband of one of her ladies-in-waiting, she chose as her favorite Ernst Johann Biron. A member of the local German gentry, Biron was one of several powerful men exerting strong influence on Anna, little of it good. When she was offered the crown, it was on the condition that she not remarry or name a successor and that she must allow the Supreme Privy Council to continue running the country. Anna signed the agreement but her simmering resentment at being once again manipulated ignited when some 150 noblemen petitioned her to take control and oust the Council. The empire was stunned when this previously meek woman tore up the document and assumed autocratic control. The genie was out of the bottle, and Russia got a taste of what was to come when, one after the other, Anna’s opponents were sent to the gallows or banished to Siberia. Historians offer several theories for her often sadistic actions. Childless and bitterly resentful of her hateful childhood, she lived in fear of being ousted by a coup staged by Elizabeth, Peter the Great’s sole surviving offspring. Anna’s paranoia prompted repeated purges of conspirators, real and imagined, and no one was safe from her execution squads, not even Russia’s highest-ranking nobles. More than 20,000 men and women would be executed during her bloody ten-year reign!

Anna’s idea of good sportsmanship was hunting from her palace balcony.

Anna’s brutality was not confined to politics. Indeed, it was often intensely personal. She added dwarfs to her court and took great pleasure in ridiculing their deformities. She blasted her favorite jester with birdshot, seriously injuring him when he was propelled backwards into a fountain. She attempted to console him with a gift of five hundred rubles, but history is mute on his forgiveness. Anna was also fond of hunting but eschewed inconvenience by having game brought to the palace so she could slaughter it from her balcony. As horrifying as this was, the empress reserved her most inventive humiliation for Prince Mikhail Golitsyn, who outraged her by marrying an Italian and converting to Catholicism. When his wife died, Anna’s delight in perverse punishment literally soared to new heights. During the especially bitter Russian winter of 1839-40, she paid architect Peter Yeropkin 30,000 rubles to create a fantastic Palladian-style ice palace complete with ice statues, trees and furniture and situate it on the frozen Neva River. The court deemed it only an elaborate divertissement until Anna not only commanded Golitsyn to marry one of her servant girls but forced him and his bride to spend their wedding night in the ice palace. To get them there, she heightened her amusement, and appalled the court, by putting the newlyweds in a cage on the back of an elephant! Records do not indicate if the poor couple survived, but Yeropkin was beheaded a few months later when Anna decided he was plotting to overthrow her.

An ice palace similar to the torture chamber built by Anna.

An ice palace similar to the torture chamber built by Anna.

Anna’s convulsive rule was not without merit. A year into her reign, she founded the Cadet Corp, an elite coterie of young men trained with great discipline to become military officers. She funded the Academy of Science founded by Peter I, adding arts to the curriculum and importing German instructors to teach enlightened European thinking. (The famed Boshoi Ballet had its roots there.) Anna also continued her uncle’s grandiose building projects in St. Petersburg, completing a major canal and expanding the imperial navy. She left the governing largely to others, many of them German opportunists, whose policies were sometimes reasonable and occasionally benefited the people. Roundly resented for putting so many Germans in power, Anna proclaimed that she did so because she didn’t trust Russians. This insulting attitude scarcely endeared her to her subjects, and few were sorry when she suffered a slow, agonizing death from kidney stones. The bells announcing her death might well have been tolling, “Ding dong, the witch is dead!” A posthumous blow followed when Anna’s infant successor, Ivan VI, was ousted and her nemesis, Elizabeth, became tsarina.

The Romanovs are the focus of my time travel book, Past Time, due in August, 2015.

1 Comment

  1. Liz
    Jul 9, 2015

    Quite a gal, that Anna! Any thoughts about whether or not she was responsible for her husband’s untimely death… on their honeymoon?!

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