Tsarevna Anna Ivanovna Romanova was the fourth child and daughter of Tsar Ivan V of Russia and his wife, Praskovia Saltykova. Anna was born on February 7, 1693 in Moscow and had three older sisters and one younger sister. Her two oldest sisters, Maria and Feodosia, had died in infancy so only Anna, her older sister Ekaterina, and her younger sister Praskovia survived to adulthood. Anna’s father had become the Tsar of Russia in 1682 but his accession was a problem since he suffered from both mental and physical disabilities. Therefore, Ivan V had a co-monarch, his younger half-brother, Peter I, who could rule ably while Ivan could not.
Although the brothers were supposed to share power, Peter clearly dominated his invalid brother, who spent most of his time with his wife “fasting and praying day and night”. Around late 1683 or early 1684, he married the obscure daughter of a minor nobleman, Praskovia Saltykova. The couple actually had a good relationship in face of Ivan’s mental issues and she spent her days caring for her simple-minded yet gentle spouse. But Anna’s mother had problems of her own; she was an ill-mannered, narrow-minded, and archaic woman who cared nothing for her children. In fact, she hated her daughters and pushed them to the extreme to mold themselves after her in terms of morality and virtue. This was rather ironic considering that during Praskovia’s marriage to Anna’s father, she cheated on him with her own bailiff and had an illegitimate child. With a spiteful mother and an enfeebled father, it is no wonder that Anna was raised in a cold, unloving home. She received a very basic education, which consisted of learning French, German, religious texts, and some music and dancing. Naturally a very shy and introverted girl, Anna developed a mean-streak and became an ungainly and surly woman in her later years. Even her appearance was unappealing; she was known for her unattractive features and was described as having a “rough face, dark complexion, bad manners, deep voice, slovenliness, and great height” along with huge cheeks that rivaled “Westphalian ham”.
|The Parents of Empress Anna: Ivan V of Russia and his wife, Praskovia Saltykova|
In early 1696, Anna’s father died at the age of twenty-nine. At the time of his death, he had been “senile, paralytic, and almost blind” for at least two years. After his passing, his co-ruler and Anna’s half-uncle, Peter the Great (who was like a second father to her) took the throne as the absolute ruler of Russia. He then commanded the royal family to move from Moscow to the new capital of St. Petersburg in 1708. The move was good for Anna, as she liked the new atmosphere of the royal city, the extravagant court, and the luxury of the aristocracy; all of which was the exact opposite of the grim and rigid lifestyle of her upbringing. In 1710, Peter the Great arranged the marriage of his half-niece to the German Frederick William, Duke of Courland and Semigallia, whose maternal grandfather was the Duke of Prussia and the Elector of Brandenburg. Anna and Frederick William were seventeen and eighteen respectively at the time of their marriage on November 11, 1710 in St. Petersburg. Peter didn’t hold back in the grandeur of his niece’s wedding ceremony, for he wanted to display the rising power and regality of the Empire for all to see. The festivities celebrating the event lasted for many days before Anna and her husband left the capital in January of 1711 for Courland (located in present-day Latvia). However, during their journey, Frederick William, weakened by heavy drinking from the past few weeks, fell ill and died on January 21, 1711 at the age of eighteen just twenty-five miles from St. Petersburg. So, after a little more than two months of marriage, Anna was now a widow.
|Ernst Johann von Biron,|
Duke of Courland and Semigallia
Anna went back home to St. Petersburg where she remained quietly for the next six years until Peter sent her to Mittau again in 1717, this time to rule Courland herself. Since she was inexperienced and young, he sent his lord steward, Peter Bestuzhev-Rumin, with her to make sure she ruled the province in Russia’s best interests. He also wanted him to become her lover in order to make sure that he was privy to everything she did, said, and thought. Though Anna struggled with money during her tenure in Courland (her uncle gave her barely any funds to get by), she promoted the growing Russian influence and presence in the eastern Baltic region simply by being in Courland. Anna was still ruling the province in 1725 when her uncle died and his wife, Catherine I, took the throne. Anna’s lover, Bestuzhev-Rumin, was sent back home after Peter’s death and Anna quickly became infatuated with a poor local nobleman named Ernst Johann von Biron who had recently escaped from prison in Konigsberg where he had been sentenced for killing a soldier in a duel. Although Biron was a married man and a father, he remained Anna’s lover for many years and would prove to have a dominant and lasting influence over her.
After Catherine I’s death in 1727, she was succeeded by Peter the Great’s grandson by his first marriage, the twelve year old Peter II. But the reign of Anna’s half-first cousin once removed lasted for less than three years before he died in early 1730 at the age of fourteen from smallpox. Since he died unmarried and with no children, the Russian Supreme Privy Council chose Anna to be the new Empress of Russia in her own right. They chose Anna over Peter the Great’s teenage daughter with Catherine, Elizabeth, because they hoped that Anna would feel so obligated towards them for her unexpected luck that she would give most of her power to the Council and rule more as a figurehead. Indeed, before she was crowned, Anna had to sign nine articles that limited her authority.
|Empress Anna of Russia|
Before she was crowned, Anna had to agree to some terms the Council put before her. She could not marry or choose her successor, she couldn’t declare war or make peace, she was unable to create taxes, give anyone a rank higher than that of colonel, spend government money, sign death sentences, or take and give away any estates or honors without asking the Council first. Had all of these terms been carried out, they would have been the first quasi-constitutional limitations on a Russian monarch. But the Russian nobility and imperial guards were so outraged at this limitation in power that in February of 1730, less than a month after the thirty-seven year old Anna’s reign had begun, a group of Moscow nobleman came to the Empress with a petition that bade her to reject the Council’s limitations and rule with absolute power. Anna agreed and on March 8th, a group of her close friends staged a coup that overthrew the Council. Anna publicly tore up the contract of limitations and then arrested the members of the Council, all of whom were either executed or exiled. Finally, on April 28, 1730, Anna Ivanovna was crowned the Empress of Russia in her own right (the second in Russian history, after Catherine I) in the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin. Now, just like her predecessors, Anna held absolute power in her hands.
|Empress Anna of Russia|
(Louis Caravaque, 1730)
One of the first things that Anna did as Empress was to bring back the Secret Search Chancellery in 1731, a political investigative group that used banishment, torture, and death to threaten anyone who went against the Empress. She made her lover, Biron, the Count and Head Chamberlain, although he was smart enough not to integrate himself too deeply into government affairs. Anna favored the nobility, especially those of foreign origins, such as Baltic Germans. The common yet somewhat exaggerated image of Anna’s reign is that of a period where foreigners, such as the prominent Biron, received honors and privileges that only served to increase their power. In 1731, Anna created the Cabinet in place of the deposed Supreme Secret Council and also started new military regiments headed by foreigners, as she did not trust the guards and officers who had served her predecessors. Serfdom expanded under Anna’s rule in a decree in 1736, which made all workers of industrial businesses the legal property of their employers. The economy, trade, and industry also developed while Anna was on the throne. Russia even became the leading nation in the world in iron production. Two important conflicts occurred during Anna’s reign: the War of Polish Succession (1733-1735) and the Austro-Russian-Turkish War (1735-1739). The first war was a success for Russia and although the war against the Turks resulted in an overall military victory for Russia, tens of thousands of men were killed by disease. Overall, the war was significant in that it proved that the Ottoman army could be defeated and it also indicated the start of Russia’s push southward to gain land.
The arts and culture also flourished during this time period; St. Petersburg was further developed and architecture reigned supreme, as countless numbers of buildings were constructed that still survive today. Anna promoted the rise of ballet as well as opera and the largest bell in the world, the Tsar Bell, was made under Anna’s orders. But it was Anna’s court that proved to be one of the most remembered aspects of her reign. The extravagance of the Imperial Court was jaw dropping and Anna’s lust for lavishness only increased as she aged. The court was constantly filled with different types of entertainment ranging from comedic plays, jesters and dwarves to cripples, fortune-tellers, and African slaves. Anna loved fighting so she would often set up wrestling matches between her court jesters. She also had a fondness for card games and gambling but her favorite activity above all was hunting. She killed hundreds of animals every year when she had wild animals set loose in the Peterhof Park for her own recreation. She also had loaded rifles put up around the palace so that she could shoot at birds flying past the windows whenever she pleased.
|Empress Anna of Russia|
But Anna (who seems to have inherited some of her father’s mental instability) hated love and romance as much as she liked to kill. When a noble Russian named Prince Mikhail married a Catholic Italian woman, who he was deeply in love with, Anna was furious not just because she despised Catholicism but also because she couldn’t stand how happy the couple was together. So, when Prince Mikhail’s wife tragically died shortly after the wedding, Anna made him a court jester and married him off to one of her old and ugly maids named Avdotya Ivanovna. Anna loved to host weddings, despite her disgust for love, and she forced Mikhail and his elderly bride to dress up as clowns during the ceremony and ride around on an elephant surrounded by people “deemed ethnically undesirable and physically handicapped”. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she made the unhappy couple spend their wedding night in a large ice palace she had constructed especially for the event. The poor jester and the frail, elderly maid had to stay inside the chilly structure the entire night, which happened to be in one of the coldest winters in Russian history, completely naked. Though they both survived, Avdotya Ivanovna died a few days later from pneumonia, which she most likely contracted from her ice palace experience.
By the spring of 1740, Anna’s health had begun to fail. She quickly made plans for the succession and chose her infant grand nephew, Ivan Antonovich of Braunschweig, as her heir with Biron as his regent. She wanted anyone but her half-cousin and Peter the Great’s daughter by Catherine I, Elisabeth Petrovna, to take the throne, although Elizabeth had a much greater claim to the crown than the babbling Ivan. The forty-seven year old Empress Anna of Russia died on October 28, 1740 in St. Petersburg after months of suffering from a severe kidney stone, which caused her an agonizing and slow demise. She was buried in the Peter and Paul Cathedral alongside other rulers of Russia. Although little Ivan succeeded to the throne as Ivan VI, he was the Emperor for just two years before Elizabeth Petrovna seized power with a huge backing of popular support, overthrew Biron, imprisoned the one year-old Ivan, and exiled his mother. She then took the throne for herself as the Empress Elizabeth and became one of Russia’s greatest sovereigns to ever rule.