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Prominent Russians: Anna Ioannovna

January 28, 1693 – October 17, 1740
Anna Ioannovna (image from Anna Ioannovna (image from

Childhood and youth

Anna Ioannovna was born in Moscow on 28 January, 1693. After the death of her father, Tsar Ivan V, Peter the Great's imbecile half-brother and co-tsar for seven years, in 1696 she grew up with her mother, Praskovia Saltykova, and sisters in the village of Izmailovo on the outskirts of Moscow.

Her mother was an ignorant, bigoted, old-style tsarina who neglected and even hated her daughters. A shy and reserved girl, Anna was educated at home. She studied writing, German, French, dancing and etiquette, but never advanced beyond the bare essentials of literacy and grew into a clumsy, grim and gruff young woman.

Contemporaries noted her rough face, dark complexion, bad manners, deep voice, slovenliness and great height; she towered above all the cavaliers of her court. Anna was also famed for her big cheeks, which Thomas Carlyle once compared to a “Westphalian ham.” Still, she had natural good sense and in her more cheerful moments was a true friend and amiable companion.

Marriage to the Duke of Courland

Peter the Great  acted as a second father to the Ivanovs, as Praskovia and her family were known. In 1708, on his order, the family moved to St. Petersburg and in 1710 Anna married Frederick William, Duke of Courland. The wedding took place in the still unfinished Menshikov Palace in St. Petersburg on 31 October. The next day Peter the Great held a second wedding for two court dwarves (he hoped to breed a race of small people) and ordered dwarves to be sent to St. Petersburg from all over Russia. About 70 dwarves attended the event. The two celebrations were joined together in a drinking bout that lasted several days.

Anna Ioannovna (image from Anna Ioannovna (image from

In January 1711, the young couple set off for the capital of Courland, Mittau (now Jelgava in Latvia). On the way, the Duke, exhausted from heavy drinking, fell ill and died 25 miles from St. Petersburg. Anna became a widow just two months after her marriage. The Duke's body was taken to Courland for burial while his widow returned to St. Petersburg where she spent the next six years.

In 1717 Anna was sent to Mittau again, this time to take over the government of Courland. However, realizing that his niece might not necessarily act in Russia's best interests, the Emperor dispatched his lord steward, Peter 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. Anna’s mother protested 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.

Anna's existence at Mittau was embittered by the utter inadequacy of her revenue. Peter the Great allowed Anna 40 thousand roubles a year for her court and the Duchess was constantly obliged to ask Peter or his wife Catherine I, as well as local magnates and Russian aristocrats, for money. Her presence provided an anchor for the growing Russian influence in the eastern Baltic region and her retainers doubled as agents of the Russian government.

Love affair with Biron

In 1726, when Bestuzhev-Rumin was recalled from Courland after Peter the Great's death, Anna fell madly in love with Ernst Johann von Bühren (Biron in Russian transcription; 1690 – 1772). He was an impoverished local nobleman who had escaped from prison in Konigsberg, where he had been jailed for killing a soldier in a duel. According to some sources, Anna had a son from him, but officially the boy was considered to have been borne of Biron's wife.

Ascending the Russian throne

Anna Ioannovna (image from Anna Ioannovna (image from

Anna ascended the Russian throne largely by accident, when the reigning emperor, the 14-year-old Peter II, died unexpectedly on 29 January 1730, on the eve of his wedding and less than three years into his rule. The succession crisis took place at a time when much of Russia's political elite had assembled in Moscow for Peter II's wedding.

The throne was left without a designated heir and with relatively few proper candidates. The Supreme Privy Council (a largely aristocratic body established a few years earlier to advise Catherine I and consisting of eight members led by Prince Dmitri Golitzine) chose Anna over Elizaveta, a teenage daughter of Peter the Great, who was another contender to the throne.

They offered the throne to Anna hoping that she would feel indebted for her unexpected fortune and remain a figurehead at best and malleable at worst. She was compelled to sign nine articles (conditions as they were called) limiting her power.

She was not to marry, not to appoint a successor to the throne, not to declare war or make peace, not to impose taxes, not to confer any rank higher than colonel, not to spend government money, not to sign death sentences and not to distribute or confiscate estates and honours without the permission of the Privy Council. She also had to agree to allow the Privy Council to name her successor.

Empress of Russia

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Had the conditions remained in place, they would have formed the first quasi-constitutional limitations on the sovereignty of a Russian ruler. The conditions, however, provoked a storm of protest among the imperial guards and nobility at large. Fearful that the clans represented in the council would gain a permanent advantage, the nobility demanded that there be no conditions, and in February, 1730, a group of Moscow noblemen presented Anna with a petition, asking her to reject the conditions and rule as an autocrat.

On 8 March a coup d'état, engineered by a party of Anna’s personal friends, overthrew the Privy Council and Anna tore up the conditions in public; the members of the Privy Council were arrested and subsequently either sentenced to death or banished. On 28 April, 1730, Anna Ioannovna was crowned Empress of Russia in the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin, thus becoming the second crowned female ruler of Russia, after Catherine I.

As one of her first acts to consolidate her power she restored (in 1731) the Secret Search Chancellery, the supreme body of political investigation, which used torture, death and exile to intimidate and terrorise those who opposed the tsarina. The most famous cases of prosecution were against Prince Dolgorukiy, Prince Dmitry Golitsyn, and Biron’s archrival Artemy Volynsky (1689 – 1740) who was executed several months before Anna's death.

Although Anna ostensibly ruled Russia with the help of a cabinet of five ministers, she did not sign the majority of official documents, preferring to leave them to her ministers and Biron who was made the official minion, Count and Head Chamberlain. However, Biron was sufficiently prudent not to meddle in foreign or military affairs and left these departments in the able hands of two other foreigners, Andrey Osterman (1686 – 1747) who essentially governed Russian foreign policy, and Burkhardt Münnich, a skilful administrator.

Russia in the hands of foreigners

Historians of Russia traditionally view the reign of Anna Ioannovna as a period in which ethnic Baltic Germans dominated the Russian court and its policies, to the detriment of ethnic Russians. Biron’s traditional image of the evil, controlling Count wielding German influence behind the throne is so persistent that the reign continues to be described as the Bironovshchina (‘the Era of Biron’).

Ironically, Anna Ioannovna was the only pure Russian (by blood) empress. Although the unpopularity and tactlessness of this German clique is undeniable, some scholars have challenged the idea of German dominance. In reality, occupying high posts at Anna's court, Biron, Münnich, Osterman, Levenvolde, et al. fiercely struggled to influence the Empress alongside Russian grandees. In fact, some of Anna’s closest advisers included several Russians such as Prince Alexey Cherkasskiy and Gavril Golovkin.

Under Anna's reign, Russia’s internal and foreign policies generally continued to follow the line of Peter the Great   After dissolution in 1730 of the Supreme Secret Council the value of the Senate was restored, and in 1731 the Cabinet, which would effectively rule the country, was created. In 1732, Anna Ioannovna brought the Imperial Court and high state institutions back to St. Petersburg from Moscow where they had been situated since 1728. Not trusting the former political elite and guards, the Empress created new Izmailovsky and Horse regiments – staffed by foreigners and Russians from the south.

Domestic policy

A number of major requests from the nobility, which had been put forward in 1730, were satisfied. In 1731, an unpopular decree regarding the inheritance of property passed by Peter the Great in 1714, was cancelled, a special military corps, the Shlyakhetsky Corps (the first Military Cadet Corps in Russia), for children of noblemen was founded, in 1732 salaries to Russian officers were increased twofold, in 1736 the term of military service was reduced to 25 years and nobles were given the right to exempt one son from service in order to manage the family estate.

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The policy of expanding serfdom continued: by a decree of 1736, all workers of industrial enterprises were declared property of their owners. Anna's reign was also marked by the extensive development of economy and trade and, in particular, by the rise of Russian industry, including metallurgy.

Russia became the world leader in iron production. From the second half of the 1730s the gradual transfer of state enterprises to private hands began, for example, the Berg Regulation of 1739 which stimulated entrepreneurship in the mining industry. It was also during Anna’s sovereignty that the Imperial Academy of Sciences established itself within Russian society and internationally.

Anna's wars

The chief military events of the reign were the War of Polish Succession (1733 – 1735) and the Second Crimean War. The former was caused by the reappearance of Stanislaus Leszczynski as a candidate for the Polish throne after the death of Augustus II (February 1, 1733). It was against Russia’s interests to accept a candidate supported by France, Sweden and Turkey, all three powers being at that time opposed to Russia. Accordingly, the Russian Empire united with Austria to support the late king's son, Augustus of Saxony, later enthroned as Augustus III.

Much more important was the Russian-Turkish war of 1735 – 1739, which cost about 100 thousand men and millions of roubles; the Russian army twice invaded Crimea (1736, 1738) destroying it and seizing the Turkish fortresses of Ochakov and Khotin. However, unskilful actions by Münnich, who commanded the army, compelled Russia to sign the Belgrade Peace Treaty, according to which Russia had to return to Turkey all seized lands with the exception of the city of Azov and a small district at the mouth of the Don River.

Still, the illusion of Ottoman invincibility was dissipated and Russian soldiers learned that 100,000 Turks were no match, in a fair field, for half that number of grenadiers and hussars; moreover, the Crimean Tatar hordes had been nearly exterminated and Russia's successes had immensely increased its international prestige. “This court begins to have a great deal to say in the affairs of Europe,” remarked British Minister Claudius Rondeau in 1740. The war marked the beginning of Russia’s drive southward which was later brought to fruition by Catherine II.

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Development of arts and culture

Under Anna Ioannovna, the systematic development of the city St. Petersburg took place, including cobbling and the building of stone structures. Numerous buildings dating back to Anna’s reign can be found in the city: the Kunstkammer (1734), the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, the Twelve Colleges Building, the Church of Simeon and Anna, and many others. A prominent architect of the time, Peter Yeropkin, created the planning structure for the centre of St. Petersburg (this, however, did not save him from a cruel execution for his part in the Artemiy Volynsky plot).

Anna also supported Russia's emerging interest in ballet. The first public performance of the Russian ballet took place in 1735 and was staged for Anna by Jean-Baptiste Lande, the dance master of the Military Academy. Noting the Russians' love and talent for dance, Lande founded three years later Her Majesty's Dancing School with 12 children of palace servants as students (the institution has existed ever since and is currently known as the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet). Soon after, ballet presentations became fashionable. Opera was also introduced in Russia during Anna's reign, when Italian composer Francesco Araja was invited to direct the new opera company in St. Petersburg. In 1735 ‘The Power of Love and Hate’ by Araja was staged at the new 1000-seat Imperial Theatre.

Tsar Bell

A notable event during the rule of Anna Ioannovna was the creation of the largest bell in the world, the Great Uspensky Bell, or the Tsar Bell, cast by Russian craftsmen Motorins (father and son), which today stands at the foot of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in the Moscow Kremlin. In 1730, Anna Ioannovna wished to re-cast the old Great Uspensky Bell which had been destroyed in a fire in 1701, and to increase its weight to 10,000 pounds (almost 170 tonnes).

The proposition was put forth to Parisian craftsmen but they declined believing it impossible to cast a bell of this size. Ivan and Mikhail Motorins agreed to try, and casting work began on Ivanovskaya Square in the Kremlin. The first attempt was unsuccessful, and Ivan Motorin died ‘of sadness,’ according to official records. However, his son Mikhail brilliantly completed the work, and on the night of 25 November 1735, 202 tonnes of bronze were successfully poured into the bell mould in just 36 minutes.

The bell remained in the casting pit for decoration work, but during the fire of 1737, a piece of the bell weighing 11.5 tonnes broke off because of uneven cooling from poured water. The Tsar Bell remained in the casting pit for 100 years until it was put on a pedestal by architect A. Monferrand in 1836.

Court entertainment

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Anna’s court in St. Petersburg represented a mix of old-Moscow customs and elements of new European culture, introduced to Russia by Peter I. Foreigners gasped at the splendour of Anna's court and her passion for luxury. The Empress spent a lot of time in idle entertainments among jesters, dwarves, cripples, God's fools, fortune-tellers, dark-skinned slaves, and so on. She enjoyed watching comedies performed by Italian and German actors.

She particularly liked fight scenes and arranged wrestling contests among court jesters. Among the Empress's other passions were card games, in which enormous sums were won and lost. One of Anna’s jesters, the Italian fiddler and juggler Pietro-Myra Pedrillo, amassed a large fortune before returning to his hometown of Naples. Wild animals were let loose in the Peterhof Park to satisfy Anna's lust for hunting. Loaded rifles stood in all palace rooms so that the Empress could shoot at birds flying past the windows. Each year she killed several hundred animals.

Castles on ice

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Anna Ioannovna's love of holding weddings for her subjects led to her being dubbed the ‘national matchmaker’ by one Russian historian. The most famous marriage arranged by the Empress was that of her jester Prince Michael Golitsyn-Kvasnik to an elderly Kalmyk woman named Avdotia Buzheninova on February 6, 1740. It was celebrated in the Ice House – a special palace built from ice on the frozen Neva River under the supervision of architect Peter Eropkin. The wedding was accompanied by a unique ethnographical parade of exotic people brought from Siberia.

The event was part of the official celebrations devoted to the peace treaty between Russia and Turkey and, coincidentally, the 10th anniversary of Anna’s enthronement. The groom was presented as a ‘khan’ (the joke was aimed at the defeated Khan of Crimea, the closest ally of Turkey).

Anna probably delighted in humiliating the old nobility to whom Golitsyn belonged (earlier he had incurred her displeasure by marrying a Catholic). Some eyewitnesses described the wedding as a rude and tasteless mockery as the newlyweds were made to spend their wedding night naked in the Ice House (the winter of 1739–40 was exceptionally harsh with temperatures falling to -450C).

Death and succession

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By the spring of 1740 Anna Ioannovna's health had seriously deteriorated. Anna spent her last days endeavouring to make her line of the Romanov dynasty preeminent against the superior claims of her cousin Elizaveta Petrovna. Without any offspring of her own, Anna named her infant grand nephew (the grandson of her deceased sister Catherine and son of her niece, Anna Leopoldovna), Ivan Antonovich of Braunschweig (born in August 1740), as heir with Biron as his regent. The Empress died as a result of kidney failure on 17 October, 1740 at the age of 47.

Anna’s succession strategy failed, however, as Biron was replaced as regent just months after Anna’s death by Anna Leopoldovna. Ivan Antonovich (Ivan VI) remained on the throne for less than two years; his mother was deposed in another coup d’etat by Elizaveta Petrovna resulting in Ivan VI and all his family’s life imprisonment.

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