Move over Catherine the Great, Anna of Russia is in town. This hard-living, bitter-hearted Tsarina may not be as well known as the so-called Great, but she has more debauched antics and cruel tricks than Catherine would know what to do with. From vindictive ice palaces to a really weird thing about chickens, there’s a reason Anna’s reign still casts a shadow over Russian history.
Anna of Russia Facts
1. Daddy Issues
Anna’s father was Tsar Ivan V, who co-ruled Russia with his brother Peter the Great. The little girl was born into privilege—but behind the scenes, the family was far from functional. Ivan, AKA “Ivan the Ignorant,” was severely mentally disabled and certainly couldn’t run the country, leaving most of the work to Anna’s uncle Peter.
2. Ship of Fools
While many Western history books see Anna’s reign as continuing Peter the Great’s cultural advancements, Russians definitely don’t feel the same. They call Anna’s time on the throne a “dark era,” and one minister sniped that it was “comparable to a storm-threatened ship, manned by a pilot and crew who are all drunk.” Well, at least it sounds fun.
3. Terrible Toddler
Even as a young girl, Anna was a spiteful child with a chilling mean streak, and many people commented on her lack of manners and vulgar attitude. Eventually, the court started calling her “Iv-anna the Terrible.” Not to her face, I hope.
4. Big Betty Draper Vibes
The bloodthirsty Anna was an avid hunter and, being the Empress of All Russia, she had a lot of outlandish ways to get her fix. She reportedly kept a rifle by her window just so she could pick it up and blast away at the birds on her lawn. On other days, she got servants to unleash wild animals in the royal park so she could hunt them down.
5. Alas, Poor Ivan
In February 1696, tragedy struck the Russian royal family. Ivan V kicked the bucket before he even hit the age of 30, leaving the three-year-old Anna fatherless.
6. I’m Not a Cool Mom, I’m a Terem Mom
Anna’s mother, Praskovia Saltykova, was a battleax if there ever was one. Having somehow endured the rigors of her marriage to Ivan, Praskovia was deeply religious in the Old Russian ways. She raised Anna and her two other sisters in an austere environment that prized feminine virtue and domestic habits over cleverness and luxury.
7. Hamming It up
Despite her cruel nature, little Anna looked like a chubby-cheeked cherub. She carried her fleshy jowls all the way into adulthood, leading the writer Thomas Carlyle to very flatteringly call them “comparable to a Westphalian ham.” Uh, yum?
8. Bad and Bougie
Though Anna spent her formative years in Moscow, her uncle Peter the Great eventually moved the family into St. Petersburg. It was a total revelation for Anna. Instead of her mother’s Spartan living, St. Petersburg was full of splendor, and the sheltered girl took to the decadence of high society like a duck to water.
9. You Never Forget Your First
In 1710, Uncle Peter did his niece a solid and married her off to Frederick William, the Duke of Courland. Though Anna was supposedly a grim, mean little piece of work, she was pretty pumped at the prospect of marrying the Duke, even writing to him that “nothing could delight me more than to hear of your declaration of love for me.”
10. Absent Father
Maybe it’s no wonder Anna didn’t turn out the most, er, socially-adjusted. Her father’s mental disabilities often left him in a vegetative state for hours on end, and he very frequently couldn’t even walk without leaning on his courtiers. Not exactly a strong parental (or genetic) support system for Anna.
11. The Bride Wore Swag
When Anna got married to Frederick William, she did not skimp on the style. Since the 17-year-old was now accustomed to fabulous wealth, her uncle gave her a whopping 200,000 roubles for her dowry—but that was really just the beginning. Anna also looked resplendent in a gold-embroidered cape and a bedazzled tiara.
To top it all off, the ceremony ended with fireworks. Meghan Markle wishes.
12. Mini Me
Anna’s wedding festivities may have put Say Yes to the Dress to shame—but they quickly took a strange turn. Two days after the ceremony, Peter the Great held a copycat, farcical wedding with two dwarfs acting as the groom and bride while the rest of the court looked on. Even this elaborate (and distasteful) joke was a luxurious affair.
13. Tall Girl Problems
Anna was quite tall for a woman of her time, and reports claim she often towered above her male courtiers.
14. Kind to Be Cruel
Peter the Great’s dwarf parody of Anna’s wedding may have hidden a cruel secret. According to experts, Peter’s farce was actually intended as a commentary on Anna’s rude manners and crude behavior, holding a mirror to the ugliness inside of her. Passive-aggressive much, Peter? You didn’t need to spend a million dollars to tell her she sucked.
15. We Built This City
Lest you think Anna was all torment and terror, she did do a lot in her reign to improve Russia’s architecture and waterways. She built a canal, bolstered the Russian navy, and completed many marvelous buildings in her time as Empress.
16. This Guy Can’t Hold His Liquor
Anna’s nuptials were off to a great start—and then tragedy struck. Except, this being Imperial Russia, even the tragedy was bizarre. Anna’s new husband Frederick William was quite the drinker, and ended up in a drinking contest with Peter the Great during the wedding. Well, he lost the contest in the worst way possible.
Frederick got so drunk, he fell sick within a few days and then died. Take note people: A hangover can kill you.
17. Thirsty Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday…
After Frederick died, Anna was a teenaged widow—and she never married again. However, this wasn’t for lack of trying. Especially in the years just after her husband’s untimely demise, she was absolutely desperate for a husband, and wrote her family over 300 letters begging for a man. For one reason or another, Peter the Great rejected all her suitors.
18. Matchmaker, Matchmaker
As a confirmed bachelorette after her husband’s tragic, boozy end, Anna delighted in making matches for her courtiers instead. One Russian historian called her “The National Matchmaker.” As we’ll see, this…was not a good thing.
19. Back by Popular Demand
In 1730, Anna surprisingly became the Empress of All Russia. She finally graduated to the big leagues after Peter the Great’s grandson died childless and the Russian Supreme Privy Council selected her as heir. This wasn’t the greatest compliment, though: They liked her because she was widowed and childless, and so less likely to cause trouble.
Did that work out for them? Nope, not at all, but points for trying.
20. No Laughing Matter
Anna was particularly known for her crass sense of humor, which is really saying something given that we’re talking about 18th century Russia here. Case in point: She apparently loved humiliating people with disabilities.
21. Absolute Power, But Make It Child-Sized
Anna had some severe limitations to her power when she first became Empress. According to the declaration of “Conditions” that the council forced her to sign, she couldn’t declare war or peace, levy taxes, or even spend money without their consent. If you think that stopped Anna, though, you clearly haven’t been paying attention.
As soon as she had secured her power, Anna did away with the whole council and its lame “Conditions,” sending the men either to the scaffold or Siberia. Then she simply carried on as absolute monarch.
22. Let’s Hear It for the Boys
Okay, one of Anna’s other positive changes was the founding of Russia’s Cadet Corps, which sought to give young boys an education as well as military training.
24. Yeah, It’s Not Looking Good
The day that Anna said “heck no” to her Conditions from the council, a blood-red aurora borealis appeared in the sky. Many people took it as an ominous sign for her reign—and they weren’t wrong.
25. Bohemian Queen
Anna was sour on a lot of things, but she did love the arts. She helped to introduce subjects like theatre, architecture, and journalism into Russian higher learning, and also laid foundations for the world-famous Russian ballet tradition. In fact, the first public performance of a ballet in Russia happened in front of her.
26. Mr. Right-hand Man
Russia wasn’t exactly the most progressive place on Earth at the time, even when they had a woman running the country. Unsurprisingly, then, people often refer to Anna’s reign as “The Age of Biron,” AKA her lover. Sure, she did give him a lot of power and influence—but hey now, equal opportunity for horrific despots of ALL genders, please.
27. Cutting Deep
If there was one thing Anna adored, it was a good punishment. She even resurrected the Secret Office of Investigation, which used, er, inventive methods to reprimand people for their wrongdoings. In one case, a group of rebels were beaten and then had their noses slit as a reminder not to cross Russia or its trigger-happy Empress.
28. Nerds Need Not Apply
Thanks to her bare-bones education, many historians believe Anna was functionally illiterate. Well, who needs boring books when you have people to humiliate?
29. Foreign Affairs
The Empress had a soft spot for Germans—including her German lover Duke Biron—and her court and councilors were unusually made up of a lot of foreigners, particularly German nobles. Plus, call it self-hatred, but she just really didn’t like Russians.
30. A Slavic Specimen
Ironically, the German-loving Anna was actually the only pure-blood Russian Empress in history.
31. Child’s Play
Though Anna named her two-month-old grandnephew Ivan VI as her successor before her demise, this backfired terribly. Because, you know, a baby can’t really call men to arms to defend its throne. Almost as soon as Anna passed on, Peter the Great’s daughter Elizabeth threw the tot in a dungeon and took power. Not exactly a great legacy to leave.
32. A Game of Chicken
In order to discipline her most hated courtier, Prince Mikhail Golitsyn, Anna forced him to become the court jester. But not just any court jester. Get this: Poor Prince Mikhail had to pretend to be a chicken for the Empress’ pleasure. She had him sit in a nest within her reception room, and whenever anyone came to visit, he had to pretend to lay eggs.
33. Rotten From the Inside out
The final years of Anna’s life were wracked with pain. She apparently developed an ulcer on her kidneys (yeah, ouch) and suffered from agonizing attacks of gout.
32. The Prince and the Pauper
For some reason, Anna had something major against Prince Mikhail Golitsyn, and she once let him know it in an absolutely brutal way. Like, worse than the chicken thing. One day, she forced him to marry her attendant Avdotya Buzheninova, mostly because she was a lower-class, older maid, and reportedly not a looker.
Oh, but that was just the beginning of the nightmare.
34. Gee, Thanks
Anna gave the Prince and his new bride a lavish wedding just like she once had—but, also like her own wedding, it came with a cruel twist. Our girl Anna constructed an entire ice palace for their wedding night, complete with ice beds, chairs, and an ice fireplace. Cool, huh? Except then she forced them to sleep there.
On an extremely cold night. In the middle of winter. In Russia. Just before shutting the Prince and the maid in to face their fates, Anna reportedly advised them to get doing the dirty if they wanted to keep warm enough to stay alive.
35. It’s a Circus Out There
On the way to their pleasant little ice palace, Anna also forced Prince Mikhail and Avdotya to sit in a cage, dressed as clowns, on top of an elephant. She then paraded them through the streets of St. Petersburg so crowds could laugh and jeer at the couple. Forget passive-aggressive, this is just straight-up psychotic.
36. Frozen: The Later Years
Prince Mikhail and the maid did manage to survive their icy ordeal, but only through an ingenious plot. Avdotya traded one of her wedding baubles, a pearl necklace, for the much more practical sheepskin coat from one of her guards—er, I mean complimentary attendants, sorry your Supreme Empress Anna, forgive me.
37. Out of the Ice Palace and Into the Grave
Folk legend says that after Prince Mikhail and the crafty Avdotya survived their ice prison, they went on to live long happy lives—but the truth is much darker. According to historical records, it’s more likely that Avdotya succumbed to pneumonia a few days after the debacle.
38. Poetic Justice
Perhaps fittingly, for all the torment she inflicted on others, Anna died a slow and painful death. On October 17, 1740, she succumbed to an excruciating kidney stone that had been working its way through her system. She was only 47 years old.
39. If You’re Going to Do Something, Do It Right
Anna’s infamous ice palace, it has to be said, did show off the Empress’s cracking attention to detail. Yes, there were ice beds and chairs, but there were also ice clocks! Additionally, an ice elephant statue blew water from its trunk and could even bellow. Well, sort of. Someone got paid to sit inside and blow a horn. No word if that guy died.
40. We Belong Together
Just because Anna never remarried didn’t mean she wasn’t ready to mingle. She took several lovers, but her most infamous squeeze was Duke Ernst Johann von Biron. It was a match made in heaven, as Biron was known just as much for his cruelty as Anna was. Aw, they’re perfect for each other.
41. Rising Son
The Empress’ tryst with Duke Biron might have had an even more scandalous side. Some experts believe that Anna and the Duke also had a secret lovechild together. The child, a son, was then raised in Biron’s household as if he was his wife’s issue. Wonder how Mrs. Biron felt about all that…
42. Biron, Baby
Maybe she did have a heart after all: As Anna expired, her last words were apparently for her lover Ernst von Biron.