Empress Anna I of Russia isn’t remembered as a good ruler, but rather for her ruthless ways to punish those who dared to love.
Heartbreak can take anyone to very dark places. For most of us, that unpleasant place takes the shape of depressing actions like watching bad rom-coms and drunk-texting our exes. However, for some people, a broken heart can mean the beginning of a really dark time that can be hard to recover from. That is the case of our protagonist today, an empress who, according to her contemporaries, brought the Russian Empire into a very dark era. Known as Ivanna the Terrible, Anna Ivanovna’s story is one of loss and resentment towards love and those who experienced it, to the point that it’s said she even punished those who found happiness.
Born in Moscow in 1693, Anna was the second daughter of Tsar Ivan V and Praskovia Saltykova. Her father, who had been diagnosed with several physical and mental ailments, shared the throne with his half-brother, the famous Peter I, also known as Peter The Great. Though it’s said she always had an unappealing personality, it would all change a couple of years later, in 1710, when her uncle arranged her marriage to Frederick William, Duke of Courland (modern-day Latvia).
As was customary with the Romanovs, the wedding was an extremely lavish and pompous event that the entire Empire knew about. The party got so out of control, that even the Tsar and the groom ended up engaging in a drinking competition (the groom lost). And then, on the way to their new home, Courland, Duke Frederick passed away, allegedly after drinking too much. So, at seventeen, Anne became a widow who lived alone in a strange land she now had to rule.
Now, not only did she lose her husband just when they had gotten married, according to letters they had exchanged before the wedding, she really seemed to love him a lot. Adding to her despair, for years Anne begged her uncle to find her another husband, but he never agreed. This only made her despise love, a sentiment that only grew over time.
Anne ruled as Duchess of Courland for almost twenty years until 1730, when she was summoned by the Russian Supreme Privy Council, who wanted her to take the crown of the Empire. Since Anne was a widow without a voice in the government, she was perfect to manipulate and rule with autocracy. They were so wrong! Before naming her Empress of all of Russia, the Privy Council made her sign a declaration of conditions in which she agreed she would basically become a decorative figure that would not rule at all. However, they missed one point: she ended up dismissing the entire council by either sending its members to the scaffold or to exile in Siberia. Soon, she declared an autocracy and became the sole ruler of the Empire.
Outside Russia, her reign was seen as a continuation of Peter’s policies. On the inside, it was known as a dark era by her fellow nobles, who resented her for many different reasons. The first one was that she dismissed the council, which was conformed mainly by old noble Russian families. Also, she appointed Ernst Johann von Biron, a Baltic German man (who was allegedly her lover) meaning that a foreigner was in charge of everything. Adding to her fame as a ruthless and despicable woman was the episode she had with Prince Mikhail Alekseevich Golitsyn (who belonged to the noble family that controlled the former council).
As the story goes, young Mikhail was madly in love with a noblewoman. She hated them and their relationship so much that even after she died (shortly after the wedding), she was determined to see them suffer. She forced him to become her personal jester and, not only that, she also made him marry one of her old (and allegedly ugly) maids in a very public ceremony that ridiculed the couple in the court and the streets of St. Petersburg.
As if that weren't enough, she made an ice palace where the couple was obliged to spend the night with nothing to cover themselves with. Oh, and did I mention it all happened on a very cold winter night? It’s said that Anna even told them mockingly that the only way they could survive was by having sex all night to keep themselves warm. Apparently, the poor bride had to bribe a guard with one of her family heirlooms in exchange for his coat.
Whether these stories are true or just mere rumors created by her enemies to degrade her image, we must say that she’s quite an interesting character people don’t often talk about. At the end of the day, it might’ve been a dark era for those who had to endure her strange and probably cruel ways, but it wasn’t as bad for the empire as it’s often believed.
During her reign, Anna followed and created some important initiatives that helped Russia grow. She created the Naval Cadet Corps, a program for young boys to get formal military training and general education in science and arts. She also carried on with Peter’s Academy of Science by expanding its curriculum to arts and culture, including the now-famous Russian ballet. But of course, she will always be remembered as the ruthless Empress who hated love so much that she punished those who dared to experience it near her.