Ivan VI

Ivan VI, emperor of Russia, son of Prince Anton Ulrich of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and Anna Leopoldovna, great-grandson of Ivan V
Born: 1740, St Petersburg
Died: 1764, Schlüsselburg

Ivan VI was born in St Petersburg on 12 August 1740. He was the son of Prince Anton Ulrich of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and Anna Leopoldovna, niece of Empress Anna Ioannovna. The boy was named after his great-grandfather, Tsar Ivan V, who was the half-brother and co-ruler of Peter the Great.

On 17 December 1731, Anna Ioannovna issued an unusual decree, requiring her subjects to swear loyalty to the heir to the throne, whom she would name at some later date. This manifesto restored Peter the Great’s practice of the sovereign designating his or her own successor.

Twelve days before her death, on 5 October 1740, Anna Ioannovna named the two-month-old Ivan as her heir. This cut the “Peter I” line off from the throne, giving the upper hand to the “Ivan V” branch of the Romanov dynasty. Ernst Johann von Biron was to serve as regent until the boy reached the age of seventeen.

On the night of 8/9 November 1740, Ivan’s mother ousted Biron and declared herself the regent. Biron was arrested and exiled. Ivan VI thus ruled Russia under two regents – Biron and his mother.

A year later, on the night of 24/25 November 1741, Anna Leopoldovna was herself overthrown by Elizabeth Petrovna. Supported by the grenadiers and officers of the Preobrazhensky Regiment, the daughter of Peter the Great arrested Anna, her husband and all her children, including the infant emperor. Ordering the guards to wait until the boy awoke, she stood next to his cradle for over an hour and then picked him up with the words: “You are not to blame, little one.” They then emerged from the palace and drove off in a sledge.

Anna and her family were sent to the fortress of Dünamünde near Riga, then to Rannenburg in Voronezh Province. On 29 August 1744, the four-year-old emperor was separated from the rest of the group and taken under the name of Grigory to Kholmogory in Arkhangelsk Province, where the empty bishop’s house was converted into a prison. He was not allowed to see the rest of his family, who were also moved to Kholmogory and did not even suspect that they were actually living in the same house.

The deposed emperor was harshly treated and not allowed to see a doctor when he was ill. He did not die, however. In January 1756, Elizabeth Petrovna brought Ivan to St Petersburg for an audience in the house of her favourite, Ivan Shuvalov. She learnt that he had developed normally and was fully aware of who he was.

After his audience with the empress, Ivan was transferred to Schlüsselburg Fortress. He was imprisoned in the barracks and placed in solitary confinement, under the watch of a special guard. Not even the prison governor was told the identity of the inmate. Elizabeth feared a coup in favour of the overthrown emperor and attempted to keep his existence a complete secret from the rest of the world.

Possession of documents, books and coins bearing the young emperor’s title or image was punished as an act of treason. All official papers from the reign of Ivan VI were removed from circulation and destroyed. Even mentioning his name in private correspondence was a crime. But this did not stop people from remembering and whispering about the “royal martyr.”

The prisoner was kept in harsh conditions. Daylight was not allowed into his cell and candles were his only source of light. The dungeon was closely guarded and the boy never knew whether it was day or night. The only book he was allowed to read was the Bible.

Ivan’s guards officially reported that his “mental abilities were disturbed and he did not have the slightest memory or understanding of anything ... he stuttered so badly that even those with practice had difficulty understanding him.” But although the staff claimed that their prisoner was an idiot, “Grigory” was perfectly sane. While he suffered from a speech impediment, he knew who he was and remembered his real name.

In March 1762, Peter III visited the fortress in disguise and held an interview with Ivan lasting many hours. He saw a fair-haired young man of average height with a hooked nose and large eyes. Although he stuttered, Peter observed that “his conversation was intelligent and animated.” Peter planned to free Ivan from imprisonment, but he himself was overthrown by his wife Catherine three months later.

In August 1762, Catherine II herself came to Schlüsselburg. She had initially planned to let Ivan become a monk in a distant monastery, but then changed her mind. A deposed emperor was dangerous to a German princess who had seized the Russian throne. Catherine ordered him to be guarded more carefully and, in the event of an attempt to free him, to kill the prisoner.

Soon afterwards, on the night of 4/5 July 1764, Vasily Mirovich, a sub-lieutenant of the Smolensk Infantry Regiment who served in the garrison, led a mutiny of the soldiers. He entered the fortress with a small detachment and attempted to free Ivan, who was instantly put to death by his captors.

Much about this murky incident remains unclear. After surrendering to the authorities, Vasily Mirovich was neither tortured, nor were his relatives investigated. The instructions to kill the prisoner in the event of an escape attempt were not mentioned at his trial. Mirovich was found guilty and beheaded in St Petersburg on 15 September 1764.

There is good reason to believe that the “rescue attempt” was instigated by Catherine the Great. Like the earlier demise of Peter III two years earlier, Ivan’s death was very convenient for the empress, although there is no direct evidence that Mirovich’s actions were part of a government provocation. Ivan VI was secretly buried in an unmarked grave at Schlüsselburg Fortress.

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