Anna Ioannovna

Born: 1693, Moscow
Died: 1740, St Petersburg

Anna Ioannovna was the fourth child and fourth daughter of Ivan V and Praskovia Saltykova. She was born in Moscow on 28 January 1693. After the death of her father in 1696, Anna moved with her mother and two sisters, Ekaterina and Praskovia, to the suburban palace of Izmailovo – a stronghold of the old, patriarchal way of life.

Anna studied reading, writing, German, French, dancing and etiquette, but never advanced far beyond the bare essentials of literacy. She grew up into a clumsy and gruff young woman. Stout and masculine, she had a loud voice and a hard look in her eyes. Her character was spoilt by her early life of privations and humiliations, and most people disliked and feared her.

Count Burkhard Christoph von Münnich remembered her physical appearance: “Large and well-shaped, her lack of beauty was compensated by her noble and majestic features. She had large, sharp brown eyes, a slightly longish nose, a pleasant mouth and good teeth. Her hair was dark, her face was freckled and her voice was strong and piercing. She was well-built and never despondent for long.”

Countess Natalia Sheremeteva also described the future empress: “She was frightening to look at and had a repulsive face. She was so large that when she walked between two cavaliers, she was a head above them both. She was also extremely fat.” Other contemporaries noted her rough face, great height, dark complexion, clumsy manners, deep voice, slovenliness and many other unattractive features.

In 1708, the family was ordered to move to St Petersburg by Peter the Great, who wanted to further Russia’s foreign interests by marrying one of his nieces to a European prince. In 1709, his choice fell on Duke Friedrich Wilhelm of Courland, the nephew of King Frederick I of Prussia. Peter asked his half-brother’s widow, Praskovia Fyodorovna, which of her three daughters she would prefer to marry to a foreign prince. Praskovia had seen and disliked the duke of Courland, so she chose her least favourite daughter, the seventeen-year-old Anna.

Anna married Duke Friedrich Wilhelm in the still unfinished Menshikov Palace on Vasilyevsky Island on 31 October 1710. Peter the Great threw a grand banquet with a great amount of alcohol. The following day, he held a second celebration in honour of the wedding of two dwarves. Peter hoped to breed a race of small people and ordered dwarves to be sent to St Petersburg from all over Russia. Around seventy of them attended the wedding of his own minim, Yekim Volkov, to one of the court dwarves. The two weddings were joined together in a drinking bout lasting several days.

In January 1711, Anna and Friedrich Wilhelm set off for Mitawa, the capital of Courland (now the town of Jelgava in Latvia). On 9 January 1711, tired out from the heavy drinking, the duke collapsed and died twenty-five miles from St Petersburg. Anna was a widow only two months after she had married. The duke’s body was taken to Courland for burial and his wife returned to St Petersburg.

Peter the Great ordered Anna to return to Courland, where she was installed as duchess. Realising that his unintelligent niece might not necessarily act in Russia’s best interests, the emperor dispatched his lord steward, Count Pyotr Bestuzhev-Rumin, who was given three tasks – to govern Courland, to inform the tsar of everything going on there and to be Anna’s lover. Her mother protested at the last point, until she was reminded of her own youth, when she had betrayed Tsar Ivan V and given birth to a child fathered by her own bailiff, Vasily Yushkov.

Anna was unhappy in Courland. She was disliked by the local nobility and entirely dependent on the tsar for funds. Peter the Great allowed Anna forty thousand roubles a year for the running of her court. This sum was not enough to maintain her position as the ruler of a small European state and the duchess was constantly obliged to ask Peter or his wife Catherine for money. When she was allowed to visit St Petersburg, she also borrowed from Russian aristocrats.

After Count Pyotr Bestuzhev-Ryumin was recalled in 1727, Anna fell madly in love with Ernst Johann von Biron. He was an impoverished member of the local gentry who had escaped from prison in Königsberg, where he had killed a soldier in a fight.

On 19 January 1730, only hours after Peter II had died, the Supreme Privy Council met to choose a new ruler. During the discussion of the various candidates, Prince Dmitry Golitsyn explained the two main arguments in favour of Anna Ioannovna. She was the daughter of a tsar and the member of an old Russian family. This trumped the claims of the other two contenders – Elizabeth Petrovna (daughter of a Livonian washerwoman) and the son of Anna Petrovna (born to a German father).

The privy council decided to offer the throne to Anna Ioannovna, but with strict limitations on her power, which would have transformed the autocracy into a limited constitutional monarchy. A special list of “conditions” was compiled for Anna to sign. She was not allowed to declare war, make peace, set taxes, spend government money, sign death sentences and distribute or confiscate estates and honours without the permission of the eight-man council. On 25 January 1730, Russian envoys arrived in Mitawa with the document, which Anna duly signed.

Arriving in Moscow in February 1730, the new empress quickly established close ties with the imperial guards and the lesser nobility. On 25 February 1730, a group of noblemen presented her with a petition, asking her to reject the conditions and rule as an autocrat. Anna tore up the document in public and arrested the members of the privy council, who were either sentenced to death or banished. On 28 April 1730, she was crowned empress of Russia in the Dormition Cathedral.

Although Anna ostensibly ruled Russia with the help of a cabinet of five ministers, she left the running of the state to Ernst Johann von Biron. This period of Russian history was a time of German influence and power abuses, when all the key government posts were held by men of foreign origin. Ironically, Anna Ioannovna was the only purely Russian empress in Russian history. The unintelligent and lazy tsaritsa took virtually no role in the running of the state. She did not even sign the majority of official documents, preferring to leave them to her ministers.

Despite Anna’s laziness as a ruler, her government pursued successful policies at home and abroad. Russia was victorious in wars against Poland (1734–35) and Turkey (1736–39). Her troops occupied the Crimea and besieged and captured the fortress of Ochakov. Russia entrenched her positions in Poland and Courland, where Biron was elected the reigning duke in 1737.

Anna won the support of the nobility by reducing the length of their compulsory state service and granting them various privileges. She surrounded herself with loyal friends – Baltic Germans and Russians not involved in the attempt to limit her power in 1730.

Anna remained firmly under Biron’s influence. She could not bear to be parted from him even for one day. In 1728, she went to Courland to secretly give birth to his son, Charles Ernest. Although brought up at the imperial palace, the boy was officially considered the son of Biron’s wife, Benigna Gottlieb von Trotha-Treyden.

Fearing the supporters of the Supreme Privy Council in Moscow, Anna Ioannovna transferred the court back to St Petersburg in January 1732. After living in relative poverty in Europe, the empress decided to make up for lost time. Foreigners gasped at the splendour of the Russian court and Anna’s own passion for luxury.

The empress held parties and other forms of wild entertainment involving jesters, dwarves, idiots, Negroes, cripples and Kalmyks. Anna enjoyed watching comedies performed by Italian and German actors. She particularly liked fight scenes and organised similar contests between the court jesters. One of the empress’s other passions was card games, in which enormous sums were won and lost. One of her jesters, an Italian fiddler and juggler called Pedrillo, amassed a large fortune and returned to his hometown of Naples.

Wild animals were let loose in Peterhof Park to satisfy Anna’s lust for hunting. Loaded rifles stood in all the palace rooms so that the empress could shoot at birds flying past the windows.

Anna’s interests and passions were typical of this transitional period. The values and notions of old Muscovy went hand in hand with a taste for European fashions, customs and amusements. As empress, she filled the court with dwarves, jesters and cripples. Her favourite pastime was shooting from firearms. She adored the theatre, introducing the ballet to Russia and staging the first opera.

The empress loved discussing gossip and rumours. As autocrat, she was convinced of her own infallibility, stating: “I am free to favour whosoever I want!” She was uninterested in the day-to-day task of governing, telling her ministers “not to bother us with trivial matters.”

Anna Ioannovna’s love of holding weddings for her subjects led to her being termed the “national matchmaker” by one Russian historian. The most famous marriage presided over by the empress was the wedding of one of her jesters, Prince Mikhail Golitsyn-Kvasnik, to a Kalmyk woman called Avdotia Buzheninova. The event was celebrated in a special house carved from ice on the frozen River Neva.

All this was paid for by taxing the population. Under Anna Ioannovna, the institution of serfdom was strengthened, with landless peasants being sold like cattle. When people complained, they attracted the attention of the dreaded Secret Chancellery of Investigations, who sent the more unruly elements to the block or scaffold.

With the help of the Secret Chancellery, Anna mercilessly hounded her political opponents. Towards the end of her reign, she gave full vent to her cruel and suspicious nature, taking revenge on her former enemies in the Supreme Privy Council.

In 1737, Prince Dmitry Golitsyn was sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment. Although the Dolgorukovs had long been sent into exile, new charges were brought in 1738. Many members of the family were executed in Novgorod and Tobolsk in 1739. Artemy Volynsky, a cabinet minister who had argued with Biron, was beheaded in 1740. He was followed to the execution block by several of his friends, who were falsely accused of plotting against the empress.

On 5 October 1740, Anna Ioannovna fainted during lunch. After twelve days of illness, she died of as a result of a kidney stone on 17 October 1740. The empress was buried in the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral on 23 December 1740.

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