Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Pistol Packin' Empress

Throughout history, most Russian rulers have been pretty adept at scaring the pants off their subjects, but for her eccentricity, excesses and sheer unattractiveness, there can be few to rival the Empress Anna Ivanova, one several Romanov dynastic tsarinas during the 18th Century.
Anna, image The Hermitage
She was born in Moscow in 1693, a daughter of the lacklustre Tsar Ivan V who suffered from some mental and physical difficulties (producing several children wasn't one of them) and who went by the unfortunate nickname of Ivan the Ignorant. For seven years, Ivan had reigned as co-tsar with his much smarter younger half-brother, Peter – later to be known as the Great – who eventually sent Ivan into retirement and took complete control of the Romanov family business.

Anna and her many sisters grew up quietly in a village outside Moscow and although she studied all the required refinements of the aristocracy, she never advanced beyond the bare essentials of literacy, and grew into a frowsy and uncouth woman with a superstitious, vindictive and capricious character. She was huge with it, a real Amazon, and she towered over everyone in the court. Her fat cheeks were famous and the British author Thomas Carlyle once compared her looks to that of a 'Westphalian ham'.

Frederick William
In 1710, Peter ordered Anna to marry Frederick William, Duke of CourlandNeither party had a say in the matter and one can only wonder at the poor Duke’s reaction at being condemned to holy matrimony with this Russian colossus. Not only that, he had to suffer the humiliation of sharing his wedding celebrations with more than seventy dwarves. They had been invited by Tsar Peter to a second wedding that he had arranged at the same time between two of the court’s dwarves (he had ideas of breeding a race of small people). This was followed by days of drinking that became the biggest vodka binge involving dwarves in history. When one looks at the portrait of the hapless Duke of Courland and sees that he was a most delicate young man, it is quite understandable to learn that he drank himself to death while still on his honeymoon.

The wedding

Some years later, Peter despatched the widowed Anna to her late husband's Latvian dukedom to look after the business there. But Peter knew her limitations so he ordered one of his senior diplomats, Alexey Bestuzhev-Ryumin to accompany her and attend to the 
Alexey Bestuzhev-Ryumin
practical side of things which included the unpaid post of gigolo, or more politely, 'gentleman of the bedchamber', to Anna. You did not argue with Peter the Great, and no doubt Ryumin did exactly as he was told in all respects. His portrait shows a man of much more sturdy construction than the Duke and he probably managed his duties with aplomb.

Ernest Johan von Biron
Peter the Great died in 1725 and Ryumin was recalled to Moscow, leaving Anna at a loss in the bedchamber and thus ripe to fall madly in love with Ernst Johan von Biron, an impoverished local nobleman with an eye on the main chance. He had just escaped from prison in Konigsberg where he had been jailed for killing a soldier in a duel and he clearly saw his opportunity with Anna. As he also looked like a Westphalian ham, there is no doubt he must have been Anna's idea of a match made in heaven. According to some sources Anna had a son with him but the boy was said to have been raised by Biron's wife. Her relationship with Biron was to last the rest of her life.

It was largely by accident that Anna ascended the Russian throne. The fourteen-year old Tsar Peter II died the day before his wedding and less than three years into his rule. Smallpox was alleged to be the culprit this time but it was probably the cure that killed him and no doubt included bleeding by leeches and other 18th century quackery aided by that inevitable anaesthetic vodka.

One bonus was that with Moscow packed for the royal wedding, all of Russia's dignitaries and political elite were assembled in one place and the succession crisis went into conclave over who should take over the Romanov family firm. With a potential for factional infighting, and in sheer desperation, the privy council offered the job to Anna. Everybody knew she wasn't the best choice, so it was on the strict proviso that she would be a figurehead tsarina and subject to tight restrictions on what she could and couldn't do as supreme ruler of all the Russias.

She was handed a long list of 'conditions'. She could not marry, nor appoint her own successor and she was told she could not declare war (nor make peace), she was not to impose taxes, not to confer ranks, not spend government money, not sign death sentences and not distribute or confiscate property or honours without permission of the privy council. As all of this is what tsars had done willy-nilly for centuries, it almost smacks of a reformist constitutional monarchy, but there was an uproar among the imperial guards and the nobility as it was having none of these ludicrous semi-democratic ideas and demanded that Anna reject the conditions and reign autocratically as all tsars were expected to do. A group of Anna's friends promptly ganged up and overthrew the privy council and Anna dramatically tore up the conditions in full public view. And of course you can guess at what happened to the members of the privy council. Death involving some sort of stretching and dismemberment procedure, or the frozen wastes of Siberia for life if you were lucky.

On April 28, 1730, Anna Ivanova was crowned Empress of Russia in the Kremlin, becoming the second crowned female ruler of Russia after Catherine I (not to be confused with the more famous Catherine II who came along later as Catherine the Great).

One of Anna's first acts to consolidate her power was to reinstate the most excellently titled Secret Search Chancellery (the 18th Century forerunner of the Cheka, NKVD and the KGB). Those good old Russian traditions of torture, death and exile were rightfully back on the agenda with Anna's lover Biron taking charge. Anybody foolish enough to protest was swiftly eliminated.
Pytor Yeropkin

Anna could be surprisingly contradictory and she must have had a civilized side as she supported French and Italian opera and comedies and even established Russia’s first ballet school. She also continued the vision of Peter the Great and made noticeable improvements in the layout of St Petersburg - although her most prominent architect Peter Yeropkin came to a sticky end when he foolishly involved himself with someone who had fallen out of favour with Biron, and he ended up being staked out and broken over a wheel and then beheaded. Anna also enthusiastically reinstated the death penalty for blasphemy and woe betide anyone who said anything against the Orthodox church.

While Anna grudgingly allowed a form of privy council to be restored, she didn't trust the old political elite and the guards who had served under them, so she created several new guards regiments comprising mostly foreigners as well as a new nobility. She gave them increasing benefits while at the same time she reinforced serfdom and enslaved other sections of the population. In 1736 she decreed that all factory workers were the property of their owners.

Anna's court was a mix of the archaic Russian and the new European styles as introduced by Peter the Great. Visitors were astonished at the splendour and her passion for luxuries. Biron ran most of the affairs of state, while Anna spent much of her time with card games and idle entertainments including cruel jokes at the expense of the old nobility, making them crawl like animals or squawk like birds. She gathered around herself jesters, gypsy fortune-tellers and dark-skinned slaves plus all kinds of other people considered to be freaks with more of those dwarves as well as cripples, and she particularly liked forcing them into wrestling matches between each other.

But what Anna became most notorious for was her craze for artillery and guns of all sorts, pistols and rifles. Large numbers of wild animals were imported into Russia, stocked and released into the grounds of Peterhof Palace just to satisfy her lust for hunting. Loaded weapons stood ready and available in all palace rooms so that Anna could shoot at anything that went past the window that took her fancy and every year she killed several hundred animals and untold numbers of birds - and no doubt a few luckless guards, gardeners and estate peasants in the process!

One of the most memorable and bizarre events of Anna’s reign occurred near the end of her life in the bitter winter of 1739-40 when she ordered that a palace be built in St Petersburg to celebrate Russia's victory over the Ottomans, but that it be made completely of ice. She had the doomed Yeropkin design the building before he was sent to the rack. It was about 20 metres tall and 50 metres wide and built of solid blocks of ice. The building's ice sculptures included artillery pieces, trees, birds and dolphins and an elephant that some sources say spouted a substance that did not freeze, possibly naptha. The interior furnishings were likewise all made of ice, right down to an ice four-poster bed with ice mattress and pillows.

Around this time an elderly prince of the house of Galitzine (or Golitysn) had offended Anna by marrying an Italian Catholic woman rather than a good Russian Orthodox one and although his wife had died, he was still punished by Anna and made to become one of her court jesters. She then searched throughout her staff for the oldest, most unattractive maidservant she could find and forced the prince to marry her. Anna displayed the newly-weds dressed as clowns and made them ride on an elephant at the head of a procession of Anna's freaks with farm animals bringing up the rear.

The newly-weds were taken into the ice bedroom of the ice palace, stripped completely naked and then locked up under guard. The legend is that the couple only survived the night of around minus 40 degrees because the bride traded her necklace with one of the guards for a sheepskin coat. What happened to them after that is unknown but Anna probably decided they cheated with the coat and packed them off to Siberia as per usual.

Wedding at the House of Ice, Valery Jacobi, 1878

The ice palace was reconstructed in St Petersburg in 2006.

Anna passed away from kidney failure in 1740. Just before she died, and without children of her own, she rushed to organise her succession, choosing her baby grand nephew as her heir with the wily Biron to be his regent. But after Anna's death, Biron's control was short-lived and he was seized in his bedroom by one of his rivals and immediately condemned to death by quartering, although he somehow managed to sweet-talk his way out of it and get his sentence reduced to banishment to Siberia for twenty years.

The baby grand-nephew Tsar Ivan VI reigned less than two years before being deposed in turn by the next Empress on the scene, Elizabeth, the legitimate daughter of Peter the Great, and Ivan VI and his family were locked up for life. Tsarina Elizabeth proved to be one of the better examples of Russian rulers in that she refused to ever sign a death penalty and so not a single person was executed during her reign. But the foxy Biron certainly was a survivor and he came back into favour many years later under the reign of Catherine the Great.

This modern image, created by George S. Stuart of the Empress is my favourite!

Anna from the George S. Stuart collection

Here is my own fun take on the Pistol Packin’ Empress (With apologies to Al Dexter)

Oh, drinkin' vodka with the dwarves
Was I havin’ fun!
Until one night she caught me right
And now I'm on the run.
Oh, lay that pistol down, babe
Lay that pistol down
Pistol packin' Anna
Lay that pistol down

Oh, she kicked me out the palace
And she hit me on the head
She cussed and cried and said I lied
And she planned to have me dead

Oh, lay that pistol down, etc.

We're all tough gals us Romanovs
From far out Moscow way
We got no pals coz
They don't like the way we play
We're rootin tootin tsarinas ...
But the best of us is Anna
She's a terror make no error
But there ain't no nicer terror
Here's what we tell her:

Oh lay that pistol down, etc.

Follow these links for more images on the rebuilding of Anna’s ice palace:

Other links and sources on Anna can vary as to the reliability of their information, but the Russian ones tend to be more comprehensive and here a few already in translation.