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 cruel punishments to her own version of the "Red Wedding," there’s a reason Anna’s reign still casts a shadow over Russian history.
Russian history has not been kind to Empress Anna. Historians call her 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.” These are pretty harsh words right from the get-go, but as you’re about to find out…they were all too true.
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 hiding a dark secret. Anna's father 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. And honestly, it was so much worse than people thought.
Maybe it’s no wonder Anna didn’t turn out to be the most, er, socially adjusted Tsarina in history. 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 our girl Anna.
Even as a young girl, Anna started showing disturbing signs of following her father’s dysfunctional footsteps. Everybody in court knew her as 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.” And as Anna grew up, this didn't get better.
In February 1696, tragedy struck the Russian royal family. The feeble and feeble-minded Ivan V kicked the bucket before he even hit the age of 30. What’s more, he now left his three-year-old daughter Anna fatherless and nearly alone in the fierce and competitive Russian court. And then again, there was her mother to deal with…
Anna’s mother, Praskovia Saltykova, was a battleax if there ever was one. Having somehow endured the rigors of her marriage to “Ivan the Ignorant,” 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. Welp, now we know what Anna going to rebel against.
As Anna matured, she didn't get prim and proper like her mother wanted; the girl got bloodthirsty. She was an avid hunter, and she had an extremely decadent way of getting her vicious fix. Anna 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.
Everyone who knew Anna personally was well aware of her cruel nature, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her. In fact, the young Russian princess famously 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.” Um, thanks?
When Anna was still a burgeoning young woman, her family moved to St. Petersburg. It was a total revelation. 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. It also meant she had a whole new city of men to meet...
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In 1710, Uncle Peter did Anna a solid and engaged her 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.” Too bad they were doomed for a heartbreaking end.
Oh sure, Frederick and Anna started out well enough. When Anna married the Duke, she did not skimp on the style. Since the 17-year-old had expensive tastes, 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. Only, then things took a strange turn…
Two days after Anna’s big ceremony, her uncle Peter the Great put on a….second ceremony? Only, this one was completely bizarre. The Tsar staged 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. The big question is: Uh, why?
While Peter the Great’s parody of the wedding wasn’t funny, it also 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.
Anna’s nuptials were already off to a rough start, and they weren’t going to get any better.
As it turned out, Anna’s new husband Frederick William was quite the drinker, and during the wedding reception, he tied more than few on with Peter the Great, even engaging in a drinking contest with the Tsar of all Russia. Sounds like fun times all around, right? Wrong. See, Frederick William lost the contest in the worst way possible.
This being Imperial Russia, the men took their drinking extremely seriously, and Frederick overdid it big time. The bridegroom got so sloshed, he fell brutally ill within a just few days...and then passed. Yes, that really happened: A hangover can kill you. Suddenly, Anna didn’t have a husband anymore, and she did not react well to the news.
With Frederick’s tragic and ridiculous end, Anna was a teenaged widow—and she could barely handle the idea of her domestic bliss getting ripped away from her. So she resorted to drastic measures. Almost immediately afterward, Anna started looking for husband number two, with Frederick still warm in the ground. She was in for a big disappointment.
You can’t say Anna didn’t try to join the Second Wives Club. In order to find herself a man, the Russian princess wrote over 300 letters to various family members, begging them to put out their feelers and throw single men in her path. Yet for one reason or another, Peter the Great rejected all her suitors, and after her ominous start, Anna never married again. And, well, she soon had bigger things to worry about than weddings…
In 1730, Anna life took a surprise turn. After Peter the Great passed, the Privy Council turned her into the Empress of All Russia. 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.
Almost as soon as she became Empress, Anna started stirring up trouble. In particular, she ignited a vicious family feud with her incredibly beautiful cousin Elizabeth Petrovna. Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great, wasn’t just a looker though—she had also been a rival for the throne. So when Anna came out on top as Empress, she didn’t just make Elizabeth bend the knee, she practically destroyed her.
As a chubby-cheeked widow who couldn’t seem to find herself a husband, Anna didn’t look on Elizabeth or her legendary beauty kindly, and she stoked their rivalry to disturbing heights. After the deaths of a series of family members, Elizabeth’s marriage prospects plummeted, and Anna was all too happy to help quash them further.
She made it very clear that no nobleman could marry Elizabeth, and meanwhile, if Elizabeth chose a commoner, the Empress would strip her of her titles and her claim to the throne. And that’s not even the worst part.
One day while having to look at Elizabeth’s stupid, gorgeous face at court, Anna had a real “Mirror, Mirror” moment and tried to bait a Chinese minister by asking who was the most beautiful woman in the room. When the minister pointed over to Elizabeth (uh, obviously), Anna nearly blew a gasket. Then she started plotting her revenge.
People at court had eyes, so even while Elizabeth couldn’t marry anyone, she did start a steamy relationship with a strapping sergeant named Alexis Shubin. She would live to regret her “sins.” Although it was a strictly bedroom relationship with no hope of marriage, Anna eventually found out...and her response was legendarily bitter.
Take heed: Do not cross your jealous cousin if your jealous cousin happens to be the Empress of All Russia. When Anna found out about Elizabeth’s side-piece Shubin, the unhinged Empress ordered her men to cut out Shubin’s tongue and, as if that weren’t enough, exiled him to Siberia for the rest of his miserable life. Still, if you think this was the end of Anna's debauchery…hold onto your seats.
Just because Anna never remarried didn’t mean she wasn’t ready to mingle. She took several lovers, but her most infamous squeeze was the German Duke Ernst Johann von Biron. There was one big problem, though. Biron himself was married, though that didn’t seem to matter much to either of them. Besides, there was one reason Biron was perfect for her.
Anna’s illicit match with Biron was made in heaven—or rather, hell. Just like Anna herself, the Duke was infamous for his cruelty and his weakness for decadence. While they were together, he kept rooms just as lavishly decorated as hers, and controlled the court through terror, bribery, and egotism. Aw, they’re perfect for each other. Until, that is, they hit a little snag...
The Empress’ tryst with Duke Biron raised eyebrows, but it might have had an even more scandalous side. Some experts believe that Anna and the Duke also had a secret love child together. Oh, and they didn’t stop there. They raised child, a son, in Biron’s household as if he was his wife’s issue, just to keep it all top secret. If Mrs. Biron felt a certain way about that, I doubt she brought it up with Anna.
Anna didn’t limit her hatred to her cousin Elizabeth; she also utterly despised a courtier named Prince Mikhail Golitsyn. One day, she dealt him a cruel and unusual punishment. She 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’s pleasure.
She had him sit in a nest within her reception room, and whenever anyone came to visit, he had to mimic laying eggs. I really wish I could say that was the end of that.
As a confirmed bachelorette after her husband’s tragic, boozy end, Anna delighted in making matches for her courtiers instead, as if living vicariously through other people could repair the massive hole in her heart. She was so obsessed, one Russian historian even called her “The National Matchmaker.” Only…was not a good thing. Eventually, Anna turned her “skills” toward her most hated courtier Prince Mikhail, and he did not thank her for the results.
In a semi-psychotic, very Freudian episode that would have had Anna’s therapist going “hmmm,” Anna woke up one morning and decided to force Prince Mikhail “as a joke” to marry her attendant Avdotya Buzheninova, mostly because the bride-to-be was a lower-class, older maid, and reportedly not a beauty. Oh, but that was just the beginning of the nightmare.
Anna gave the Prince and his new bride a lavish wedding just like she once had—but, also like her own wedding, it came more than a few cruel twists. First, after the ceremony wrapped up, Anna placed Prince Mikhail and Avdotya in a cage, dressed them as clowns, and paraded them on top of an elephant. She then wound the elephant through the streets of St. Petersburg so crowds could laugh and jeer at the couple.
And when they got to their real destination, the blood must have drained from their faces.
In honor of Prince Mikhail’s wedding night, Anna gave him an extremely disturbing gift. She had constructed an entire ice palace for the honeymoon, complete with ice beds, chairs, and even a goddarn ice fireplace. Cool, huh? Except she then made them both sleep there. On an extremely cold night. In the middle of winter. In Russia. Can this get worse?
Just before shutting the prince and the poor maid in to face their chilling fates, Anna gave them a crude piece of advice. In what she probably termed “good humor” but most would call “deranged rambling,” she reportedly advised them to get doing the dirty with each other if they wanted to keep their bodies warm enough to stay alive. Well, they found another way.
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. According to folk legend, the couple then went on to live happy lives—but the truth may be much darker.
Although the Prince and Avdotya were able to stumble out of Anna’s ice palace the next morning still breathing, they weren’t out of the woods yet. According to historical records, it’s likely that Avdotya succumbed to pneumonia a few days after the debacle, giving Anna what she probably wanted all along. Except don’t worry, the Empress's downfall was coming.
Anna was particularly notorious for her crass sense of humor, which is really saying something, since we’re talking about 18th-century Russia here. Still, Empress Anna's vicious jokes could drop the jaws of even the most hardened and world-weary courtiers. Case in point: She apparently loved humiliating people with disabilities.
If there was one thing Anna adored, it was a good punishment. She even had a secret guard force, which used, er, inventive methods to reprimand people for their wrongdoings. One of her cruelties was mind-boggling. In one case, she had her men beat a group of rebels and then slit their noses as a reminder not to cross Russia or its trigger-happy Empress.
Thanks to her mother’s stern belief in “traditional” education for women, Anna only got bare-bones instruction and had little understanding of the intellectual world. This led to a shocking oversight. In this age of Enlightenment, many historians believe Anna was functionally illiterate. Well, who needs boring books when you have people to humiliate?
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 stupid “Conditions,” sending the men either to the scaffold or Siberia. Then she simply carried on as absolute monarch.
The day that Anna said “heck no” to her Conditions from the meddling council, a blood-red aurora borealis appeared in the sky. Instead of believing this was a sign of her divine right, many people who knew the unhinged Tsarina personally took it as an ominous sign for the future of her reign. Well, it's not like Anna proved them wrong.
The Empress 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. Um, silver lining?
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.
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. I mean, how else was she going to announce to the world that she was the best?
Anna was quite tall for a woman of her time, and reports claim she often towered above her male courtiers. Now, this is a characteristic of Anna of Russia I can actually get behind. I do love a tall girl.
Perhaps fittingly for all the torment she inflicted on others, Anna met a slow and painful end. The final years of her life were utterly gruesome, as she developed an ulcer on her kidneys and suffered from agonizing attacks of gout. The Empress couldn’t help but realize that she had precious little time left, and she needed to set her affairs in order...
One of the biggest problems about Anna’s failing health was that her lover and confidant Duke Biron kept needling her to follow his own dastardly plan. Namely, he wanted her to announce her two-month-old grandnephew Ivan VI as her successor, but make him regent, functionally giving Biron all the power he had so long sought. Spoiler: This ended very, very badly for everyone involved.
Anna’s infamous ice palace, to be fair, 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. She paid someone to sit inside and blow a horn. No word if that guy died.
Although Anna of Russia was vicious, jealous, and just about every other negative adjective you can think of, she also did apparently have a heart. When she was expiring on her deathbed, she reportedly only thought of her lover Duke Biron, and her last words were for him. I guess the two of them really did belong together after all, huh?
On October 17, 1740, when Anna was just 47 years old, she finally succumbed to an excruciating kidney stone that worked its way slowly and painfully through her system. Just before she passed, she did indeed name Ivan as her heir and Biron as his regent—and just after she passed, the well-laid plan backfired. I mean, it backfired really horribly.
Apparently, Anna had forgotten two crucial things: First, since Ivan was only two months old, he couldn’t really call men to arms to defend his toddler throne. Second, pretty much everyone in her court hated Biron, and they weren’t about to let him take power. His regency lasted a pitiful three weeks, at which point a rival captured him and forced him into exile. As for baby Ivan? Well…
In the end, Anna’s legacy turned completely upside down. After months of palace finagling following her passing and Biron’s exile, none other than Anna’s old enemy and cousin Elizabeth seized power for herself, throwing little Ivan into a dungeon in the process. It was everything Anna would have never wanted. Isn’t justice sweet?
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