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On this day: Russia in a click

17 February

On February 17, 1740, according to the decree of Empress Anna Ioannovna, two court jesters were made to marry and a house made entirely out of ice in the center of St. Petersburg was constructed in honor of the event.

In 1730, Empress Anna Ioannovna ascended the throne. Anna did not want her court to be inferior to the courts of the European monarchs, so she conducted balls, masquerades and theater performances regularly. She had six jesters to entertain her, and Avdotia Buzheninova, an aged unattractive woman, was one of them. One day, Avdotia jokingly complained to Anna about not being married, and Anna promised Avdotia to marry her off to another jester, Mikhail Golitsyn. This wedding was not to entertain the Empress and the Court, and it had to be spectacular.

In spite of being a court fool, Mikhail Golitsyn had the title of prince. In 1729, Golitsyn’s wife died, and he went to Italy to cast the grief away. In Italy, he fell in love with a local woman, and turned Catholic to marry her. When Mikhail and his new wife returned to Moscow, Mikhail had to conceal both the marriage and the change of religion, but the secret service learned everything quite soon. Mikhail was forced to divorce, his wife was sent back to Italy, and Golitsyn was made Anna’s court jester. The new duties of the 51-year-old Mikhail included sitting in the basket near Anna’s study and bringing kvass to her.

Anna announced her decision to the courtiers, and they convened the “Masquerade Commission” to work out the plan of the wedding. The Commission developed the project of the unique ice house for the celebration. The winter of 1739 – 1740 had been extremely cold, so such a construction was possible.

The house was built from ice blocks, and its decorations and interior were made of ice, without using any other materials. Its facade was about 16 meters long; the house was five meters wide and six meters high. A porch divided the building in two halves, with two rooms in each half: living room and dining room in one, bathroom and bedroom in another. The House was furnished with ice furniture – there were tables, armchairs, sofas, a bed and a sideboard with tableware. The tableware was made of ice too, and so were the candles. To light the candle one had to first smear it with the petroleum. In the ice fireplace burned ice logs, also smeared with petroleum.

Along the roof was a gallery decorated with sculptures, and in front of the house there were two ice cannons, which could actually fire. The fountains – two ones shaped like dolphins, and the largest one, in the shape of an elephant – threw out jets of burning petroleum. In the ice bathhouse, built near the main building, one could take a steam bath.

On February 17, 1740, Golitsyn and Buzheninova got married in a church. Then, after the celebratory dinner, the newly-weds couple got into the cage on an elephant’s back, and the wedding procession headed to the ice house. That procession consisted of about three hundred people of different nationalities, dressed in their national costumes. Horses, pigs, deer, goats and dog teams were harnessed to their sleighs. When the couple entered the ice house’s bedroom, two guards stood at its door to stop the jesters from leaving before morning.

After the celebration, the spectacular frozen construction remained intact until the spring. When it started to melt, some of sculptures and the biggest ice blocks were transported to the palace’s own ice-house. Golitsyn and Buzheninova moved to Golitsyn’s manor near Moscow. Buzheninova gave birth to two children and died in 1742. After her death, Golitsyn got married again, and died in 1778 at the age of 90.