Anna Leopoldovna was born in Rostock on 7 October 1718. She was the daughter of Duke Carl Leopold of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Ekaterina Ioannovna, elder sister of Anna Ioannovna and niece of Peter the Great. The girl was christened Princess Elisabeth Katharina Christine.
Duke Carl Leopold was a mean and petty tyrant who physically abused his wife. In 1722, Ekaterina Ioannovna managed to escape from her tyrannical husband and flee back to Russia, taking her three-year-old daughter with her. Eight years later, her life changed for the better when her sister Anna Ioannovna ascended the throne.
Anna Ioannovna decided to take her niece under her wing and bring her up herself. On 12 May 1733, at the age of fourteen, the girl converted to Russian Orthodoxy and took the name of Anna in honour of her aunt. She grew up into an attractive and sensitive young woman, who spent most of her time daydreaming or in a state of melancholy.
As Anna Ioannovna did not have any children of her own, she decided to marry her niece in an attempt to produce a male heir for the Russian throne. She sought among the various German princes for a suitable husband and her choice fell on Prince Anton Ulrich of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. He was the nephew of the Austrian empress and the son of Tsarevich Alexis Petrovich’s sister-in-law, making him a cousin of Peter II.
Prince Anton Ulrich was summoned to St Petersburg in 1733, where he failed to create a favourable impression on either the empress or his future bride. The wedding was postponed and the prince joined the Russian army as a lieutenant colonel of the Cuirassier Guards Regiment.
A contemporary described Anton as “an extremely good chap, but that was all; he had a kind heart, but no brains or energy.” He distinguished himself at the capture of the fortress of Ochakov during the Russo-Turkish War, for which he was promoted to the rank of general and awarded the Order of St Andrew.
While her future husband was fighting the Turks, Anna Leopoldovna fell in love with Count Carl Mozritz zu Lynar, the handsome and swashbuckling Saxon ambassador. In 1735, her aunt learnt of their love affair and asked the Saxon government to recall the ambassador. Lynar was sent home in 1736 and the empress kept a closer watch on her niece.
Distraught at being parted from her lover, Anna Leopoldovna became withdrawn and unsociable, spending her days reading French and German novels. When the empress’s lover, Ernst Johann von Biron, attempted to marry her to his own son Peter, a drunken boor, Anna rejected this offer with unconcealed horror.
Anna Ioannovna did not give up her attempts to marry her niece and produce a male heir for the Russian throne. In June 1739, she finally came to an agreement with the Austrian ambassador, who formally asked the empress for the princess’s hand on behalf of Prince Anton Ulrich.
The couple were married in St Petersburg on 3 July 1739, in the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin, on the site of the future Kazan Cathedral. Witnesses reported that the groom looked “like a human sacrifice,” while the bride’s eyes were red from crying. Anna spent her wedding night walking alone in the Summer Garden.
When this news reached the empress’s ears, she angrily slapped her niece across the face. Anna pulled herself together and gave birth to a son on 12 August 1740. The boy was called Ivan, after his great-grandfather, Tsar Ivan V. Two months later, Anna Ioannovna died and Ivan became the emperor of Russia, with Ernst Johann von Biron as regent until he reached the age of seventeen.
Fieldmarshal Burkhard Christoph von Münnich disliked Biron and hatched a plot with Ivan’s parents. On the night of 8/9 November 1740, Biron was overthrown and exiled to Pelym in Siberia. The troops assembled at the Winter Palace swore a new oath of allegiance to “our truly believing sovereign and ruler, Grand Duchess Anna of All the Russias.”
One of Anna’s first acts as regent was to appoint her husband a generalissimo of the Russian army. The decree was signed with the fingerprint of the three-month-old emperor. Anna returned Count Carl Mozritz zu Lynar to St Petersburg, where he was given a position at the court. Uninterested in affairs of state, she preferred to leave the government of the country to Heinrich Johann Friedrich Ostermann, while she spent her time in bed or playing cards.
All this set the scene for another palace coup. Although Anna Leopoldovna was warned of a plot against her, she did not attach any importance to the information. She paid the price on the night of 24/25 November 1741, when Elizabeth Petrovna burst into her bedroom with several officers of the guard and rudely awoke her niece. Anna and her family were arrested and sent to the fortress of Dünamünde near Riga, then to Rannenburg in Voronezh Province, before finally being banished to Kholmogory in the Far North.
Four months before Elizabeth’s coup, Anna had given birth to a daughter called Ekaterina. She was followed by Elizaveta in 1742, Pyotr in 1745 and Alexei in 1746. Nine days after Alexei’s birth, on 19 March 1746, Anna Leopoldovna died of post-natal fever at the age of twenty-seven in Kholmogory. She was buried alongside her grandmother, Praskovia Fyodorovna, at the St Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St Petersburg.
Anna Leopoldovna’s family lived under close guard in Kholmogory, in a house surrounded by a high fence. Although the children were not provided with any tutors, they learnt to read and write by themselves. They grew up into kind, modest people haunted by a series of misfortunes.
During her mother’s arrest, Ekaterina was knocked to the ground, leaving her deaf and with a stutter. Elizaveta, who most closely resembled their mother, fell down a stone staircase at the age of ten and often suffered from migraines, particularly during bad weather. A childhood injury left Pyotr hunch-backed and crooked on one side. Alexei was the luckiest, though he too had to spend most of his life in prison.
In 1768, Prince Anton Ulrich petitioned Catherine the Great, asking to be allowed to emigrate with his family. He did not receive any answer. After spending over thirty years in captivity, he went blind and died in 1774. The former regent’s husband was secretly buried in an unmarked grave in the courtyard of their house in Kholmogory.
In 1780, Catherine II allowed the rest of the family to go to Denmark to live with their aunt, Queen Juliane. They were provided with money and allowed to settle in the town of Horsens. But the queen did not wish to see her Russian relatives, who were kept under house arrest and mistreated by their Danish servants.
Regretting ever having left Russia, the three youngest children of Anna Leopoldovna died in quick succession – Elizaveta in 1782, Alexei in 1787 and Pyotr in 1789. They were each given a Russian Orthodox funeral in the local Lutheran chapel.
Ekaterina lived the longest. When Tsar Alexander I inherited the throne in 1801, she wrote to him, asking to be allowed to return to Russia and enter a convent. She received no reply and died in Denmark in 1807.