The 18th century in the history of the Russian Empire is quite a peculiar period, especially considering that most of its sovereigns were females: Catherine I, ruling from 1725 to 1727; Anna I from 1730 to 1740; Elizaveta Petrovna from 1741 to 1762; Catherine II or the Great from 1762 al 1796. sixty-seven years in total.
The French-Russian writer Henry Troyat wrote an essay, named “Terribles Tsarines”, dedicated to these women, suggestive personalities under many points of view. Intrigues, scandals, conspiracies, murders as well as many other terrible events that took place in a massive nation and particularly unstable politically speaking.
Below: “Terribles Tsarines” by Henri Troyat available on Amazon
Due to the huge amount of stories that could be debated here, it is necessary looking for one significant example which can allow the analysis of the time and the mindset of these people. The episode chosen comes not from the same author, yet from Serena Vitale, an academic and translator, in her book titled “La casa di Ghiaccio” (The Ice Palace), where she describes 20 short Russian tales taken from the reports of the 18th ans 19th centuries, so abundant of outstanding facts.
Below: La casa di ghiaccio” by Serena Vitale, available on Amazon
It is useful to bear in mind that the Tsarist Russia was a totalitarian regime, nothing more nothing less of what the Soviet Union would have been later on.
The social pyramid was organised in a rigid manner. The farmers, called “souls” were considered as property of the landowners and they could not voluntarily walk away from the village. Instead they could be sold from one to another landowner and in these situations a scam could occur. This is the case of Pavel Čičikov in “The dead souls” novel written by Nikolaj Gogol in 1842 which marked the Russian literature of the 1800’s. Čičikov buys from other landowners some dead farmers at the turn of one census and the following one. The idea is to mortgage them so to get a loan and living the good life. The serftom, which in Europe terminated in the Middle Ages, In Russia kept on existing until the 1862 and only after the payment of the farmers to their owners as a compensation for the emancipation.
Most of the usable and arable lands were divided in estates belonging to the boyars, aristocratic families who had become ministers and Tsar’s counselors as well as were used to plot against the Tsars. Until the kingdom of Ivan IV, known as the Terrible, between 1547 and 1584, when he restricted to a large extent the boyards power in court with a bloody long battle against them.
Not even the modernisation forced to the Russia by the Tsar Peter I the Great, ruling between 1682 al 1725, had changed the situation. It had in fact worsened up since the boyars were now openly hostile towards the tsars and all their provisions aiming at limiting their privilege.
Below: painting of Peter the Great by Paul Delaroche
Peter the Great was highly influenced by the European culture of Ivan the Terrible, however he still was the tyrannical emperor who believed to own the rights of life and death of all his subjects. Since his son and hair Alexei refused to obey, he asked to his father to be excluded from the succession so that he could go and live abroad with his non noble woman he loved. Peter though convinced him to come back with false reassurance and, in 1718, he ordered to whip him to death after extorting with torture a false confession of plot.
Alexis’ mother, Eudoxia, previously repudiated, was imprisoned in a convent; all the Tsar’s friends ended up butchered or impaled
To the bloody Peter the Great succeeded the wife Catherine I. At the death of her, a committee of rulers led to Prince Dolgorukov (a boyar) was supposed to guide Alexis son until his adulthood, Peter II. What the fate decided though was a different succession and Peter II and his older sister Natalia never overcame adolescence. The young man died of smallpox in 1730 when he was only 15.
Below: Painting of Catherine I of Russia, made by Jean Marc Nattier
The closest relatives to Peter I more deserving to follow to the throne were the daughters of Peter the Great’s brother, Ivan V, for four years associated with Peter on the throne yet of weak influence due to his unstable mental and physical condition. Although that, the man was married and had given life to 5 daughters: two of them were already dead by the 1730 and other two did not enjoy good health despite the young age (they were supposed to die within the following 3 years). The only one in good shape was Anna, widow of Frederick William, Duke of Courland. To the delight of the boyars she appeared as even more deceiveable, so it all led to her coronation.
The boyars though seriously miscalculated the situation as Anna, as soon as she reached the throne, started the battle against their influence even more harshly that how her predecessors did, by distancing them from the government and by restoring the secret services to keep them under control. She surrounded herself by collaborators from the Baltic area where she had lived up until then. The help of her lover, the Latvian of German origin Ernst Johann Biron was especially useful, because of his iron fist. The Anna kingdom became very soon a particularly tough time for the boyars.
The empress Anna was a rather ignorant woman, of a coarse taste, turned evil by the poor condition her relatives had left her in after the death of her husband in 1711. It seemed as if she hated most of people, apart from her loyal Baltic associates. So she oppressed the boyars as she used to do with the humble people, scared that they would rise against the crown. She used to eat in an excessive way and had an incredible strength that would allow her to undergo strains that even a man would struggle with (she used to love to hunt). Throughout the years she became obese and later she had a fatal kidney failure that made her die at 47 years old.
Below: the tsarine Anna I of Russia in a painting made by Louis Caravaque
When she could not exterminate pheasants, boars, deers and hares, she was used to passing her time with ladies-in-waiting more shallow than her who would gossip about boyars private life while the jesters were supposed to quarrel amongst each other up until getting physically hurt for real. In 1733, as an evil prank to the influential family of the Golicyn, Anna hired as a new jester Michail, one of the Golicyn’s relatives. The man got in trouble because of his marriage with a foreign Italian girl and his abjuration of the Orthodox religion in favour of the Catholic one. These two actions, in the Russia of that period, were extremely forbidden if not granted by the Tsars, whom by the way were rarely granting such things.
The family, to protect him and spare him from who knows what terrible torture, chose the way of the mental illness, passing him off as a dim witted one. But since Anna had a passion for fools that she used to find extremely funny, she wanted him to her court as a jester as soon as she met him.
Below: games between courtiers at the court of Anna. Painting by Valery Jacobi, 1872
Michail Golicyn, by looking at how little he has left behind, must have been a spendthrift but certainly not a fool. He had studied at the Sorbonne in France, he had carried out a honourable military service and he had just let it go after his 40’s, probably wounded by the loss of his first wife. The man seemed unlucky with his love affairs as even the second wife, the Italian woman who got him into trouble, was short-lived.
With the stage name of Kvasnik, Michail Golicyn became the jester of the court of Anna for 7 long years; during that time he had to stand to be mocked by everyone and be thrown at repeated glasses of Kvas, a light beer popular in Eastern Europe that the jester had to wait on the tables for official events.
Anna had a Kalmyk serve, population of the Eastern Russia close to the Mongolian culture, named Avdotja Ivanovna, considered as the ugliest woman of all Russia. One day, in 1739, Avdotja was complaining with the tsarina for never having known the love of a man, one of her biggest dreams. The following day, the tsarina summoned Michail Golicyn and ordered him to marry Avdotja. Michail, without even moving an eyelid, accepted aware that he had no other alternative.
It appears that Avdotja wasn’t even as bad as people used to declare. What instead seemed to be truth is that the girl was only dirty and shabby, nothing too unusual for the people of poor origin. It is said that once cleaned up after a series of baths and saunas it seemed that, afterall, Michail Golicyn was not as unlucky as it seemed at first.
But the tsarina wanted to turn that event into a wedding which would have made the entire world laugh. For this reason, helped by a particularly rigid winter, Anna ordered to build an Ice Palace so that the newly weds could go and live there for the first days as a couple.
The artisans and artists called by the tsarina did not spare anything to the construction. Back then the capital was Saint Petersburg so the castle was erected next to the Neva river. The final result seemed majestic: behind a wall of ice there was a frozen yard, made out of ice trees inhabited by ice birds. On either sides of the gate there were two ice dolphins intent to hunt and from their mouth a jet of water would come out in the daytime and tongues of fire at night.
On the side of the castle there were two ice pyramid-shaped annexes and the yard where the service staff was there too. Gardners, grooms, and even an elephant that could trumpet as well everything, obviously, made out of ice. Inside the house there were two rooms whose windows, five each room, were covered by obscene prints. In the bedroom there was a frozen fireplace where logs of ice, spread with petroleum, would burn vividly; in front of it there was a ice canopy bed. The other room, perfectly furnished, was a dining room. There was nothing missing, even a sauna had been placed there, once again, frozen.
The two spouses, after the ceremony celebrated on the 6th of February 1740, were escorted to the house and laid on the bed. To make sure that the two would not escape, the tsarina arranged some guards around the ice palace.
Contrarily from expectations, when they finally left at dawn, Michail and Avdotja were completely fine. Nine months afterwards the woman gave birth to their son Aleksej and later to Andrej. It is said that the marriage continued happily and even more so when the tsarina died and the two were free to move to Moscow. After a few years though Avdotja died too and Michail got married for his fourth time with a woman very much younger than him, who gave him three daughters. The man eventually died in 1778 when he was 90.
The ice palace started to melt down one month after the wedding, in March. When the tsarina died in October the memory of her great ice palace was, by then, long gone.