Anna Ivanovna’s Ice Palace

The worst-ever empress of Russia really, really hated love. 

Adapted from It Ended Badly: 13 of the Worst Breakups in History by Jennifer Wright. Out now from Henry Holt and Company.

I suspect if you ask people what the worst possible outcome of a heartbreak could be, most would say, “I will never love again.” And that would be terrible! It’s unlikely that would happen, but it would certainly be very sad.

However, that is not the worst outcome. You could become a crazed supervillain who goes about systematically destroying other people’s relationships, trying to make sure everyone’s experiences of the pitfalls of love mirror your own. This will also probably not happen. Very few people have the time or power to seriously and maliciously influence others’ romantic circumstances.

Portrait of Empress Anna of Russia (1693-1740), 1730.
Portrait of Empress Anna of Russia, 1730.

Painting by Louis Caravaque/Wikimedia Commons

But you know who had a ridiculous amount of time on her hands, almost limitless power, and an unhappy romantic history? The 18th-century Russian Empress Anna Ivanovna.

Born in 1693, Anna was the daughter of Czar Ivan V, who is often referred to as “Ivan the Ignorant.” This descriptor makes him sound more competent than he was. Ivan was apparently mentally deficient to such an extent that he would remain in a nearly vegetative state for hours on end. He could walk only with the support of courtiers and was capable only of performing ceremonial functions as czar, while Peter the Great, Anna’s uncle and co-czar, performed most of the real court.

Anna had something of an odd childhood. Her mother wasn’t a happy woman and sternly believed in maintaining the old Russian ways. That meant little education for girls; Anna was barely literate. And she wasn’t pretty. The author Thomas Carlyle once cruelly described her cheeks as “Westphalian ham.” She is said to have had terrible manners and a grim demeanor. Her notable lack of pleasing attributes did not keep her from being married off. In 1710 she married Frederick William, the Duke of Courland (part of today’s Latvia).

And Anna was so excited about this! Before their wedding she wrote a letter to him, which declared:

I cannot but assure Your Highness that nothing could delight me more than to hear of your declaration of love for me. For my part, I assure Your Highness that I share your feelings. At our next happy meeting, to which I look forward eagerly, I shall, God willing, avail myself of the opportunity of expressing them to you personally.

The wedding was beautiful. Anna wore a cape embroidered with gold and a bejeweled tiara, and the ceremony ended with a display of fireworks.

Two days after the couple’s marriage, Anna’s uncle, Czar Peter the Great, staged a wedding of two dwarfs as a companion celebration to Anna’s. It was an incredibly elaborate affair. According to Lindsey Hughes in Peter the Great: A Biography:

At the feast … the dwarfs sat at miniature tables in the centre of the room, while full-sized guests watched them from tables at the sides. They roared with laughter as dwarfs, especially the older, uglier ones whose hunchbacks, huge bellies and short crooked legs made it difficult for them to dance, fell down drunk or engaged in brawls.

I assume the dwarf wedding was intended as a cruel parody of Anna’s—a horrible commentary on how ugly and ill-mannered Anna was. And that’s kind of true. But according to Hughes, it was a bigger, more elaborate joke, where Peter was expressing his contempt not only for Anna but for the entire Russian court. “Like all Peter’s mock spectacles,” Hughes writes, “the dwarf wedding also operated on a more symbolic level. Its juxtaposition with the wedding of Anna and the duke and its imitation of certain elements suggested that the full-sized guests were watching caricatures of themselves, miniature ‘lords and ladies’ clad, like them, in unfamiliar Western dress.”

Between his marriage to Anna and attending the weird dwarf wedding, Frederick William, the Duke of Courland, drank a lot. He even engaged in a drinking contest with Peter the Great. Trying to keep up, Frederick drank so much that he fell ill immediately after the marriage and died two months later.

Anna was a widow. And desperate to remarry. She wrote her family more than 300 letters, most of them expressing her fervent desire for a husband. Peter the Great rejected every suitor until Anna seemed to sour on the concept altogether. Bitterness—a very understandable sentiment—overtook her. She wanted to punish people who were happy in love.

Think of the times following a breakup when you audibly groaned when you saw a couple making out on a street corner. No one epitomizes this mindset more than Anna Ivanovna. In fact, her bizarre reaction to her romantic disappointment is without question what she is most remembered for.

With Frederick William’s death, Anna became ruler of Courland. And then, most surprising, in 1730 she became empress and autocrat of all the Russias. I don’t think she ever recovered from the grotesque dwarf spectacle of her own wedding or the fact that she was never allowed to marry again. And she certainly had no reason to think well of the institution, considering that her parents’ marriage seemed to be made solely for political reasons. So when Prince Mikhail, from one of the most noble houses in Russia, married a Catholic Italian woman, it was as if he was making out on a street corner in front of her forever. Anna may have hated love and marriage in general, but she despised Catholics. And they were really happy, Prince Mikhail and his Catholic bride. Anna went ape-shit.

Prince Mikhail’s wife died shortly after their marriage, to his great sorrow, so you would think that would be the end of it. However, Anna didn’t seem to believe that this was sufficient punishment for falling in love in the first place. She turned Mikhail into a court jester. He had to pretend to be a chicken. He had to sit on a nest of eggs in Anna’s reception room and pretend to lay them when visitors came to see her.

You would think that this would be the end of the story, but Anna wanted to punish Mikhail further. Seemingly, she intended to show him—and everyone—the folly of love and marriage—especially to Catholics—and wanted a “total victory over all infidels.” So in 1739 she ordered the construction of a massive ice palace 80 feet long and 33 feet high, where all the blocks were “glued” together with water. Inside was a furnished bridal suite. Made of ice! The bed, the pillows, even the clocks! Outside there were ice trees in which ice birds nested. There was even an ice statue of an elephant that spouted water from its trunk. The elephant could also bellow in a realistic manner because a man sat inside it blowing a horn. (The number of terrible jobs in old Russia are absolutely endless, and the revolution was completely understandable.)

The giant ice palace might have been a fun—if useless and temporary—national point of pride. It might be remembered for its whimsy if Anna hadn’t attempted to use it to stage a deadly wedding. Because it wasn’t just an ice palace. It was also intended to serve as a torture chamber.

Bitter Anna decided to marry Prince Mikhail to one of her maids, a Kalmyk woman called Avdotya Ivanovna. The maid was apparently very old and ugly, so this union was clearly not intended as a reward for the prince or as a prize for the maid. On the day of their wedding, the couple were dressed as clowns and made to ride an elephant to be presented to a laughing crowd. They were tailed by a group of people deemed ethnically undesirable and the physically handicapped. In many ways, the farcical (by the standards of the time, good God, it would not be considered funny now, I hope) nature of the wedding was similar to what Anna must have seen and felt when Peter the Great staged the mock dwarf wedding after her marriage.

Ice House, 1878.
Ice House, 1878.

Painting by Valery Ivanovich Jacobi/Wikimedia Commons

Immediately after the wedding the couple was forced to spend their wedding night inside the ice palace. Naked. During one of the coldest winters in Russian history. The expectation was that they would freeze to death, horribly. But they did not! They emerged the next morning. Because their love was a glorious fire that burned not just in their hearts but physically in the ice palace.

No. Not really. I embellished. Supposedly they survived because the bride traded her pearls for a coat from one of the guards. They also spent the night running around wildly and apparently breaking anything they could find.

The popular legend is that the couple went on to enjoy a happy marriage and have twins, conceived that terrible night on the ice mattress. Historians now say that’s unlikely, and records point to the fact that the woman, already in weak health, died a few days after the ice palace experience. She likely contracted pneumonia.

As for Anna Ivanovna, she died the following October of kidney troubles. She left no heirs, and to this day, people often describe her as the worst ruler in Russian history.

Adapted from It Ended Badly: 13 of the Worst Breakups in History by Jennifer Wright, published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2015 by Jennifer Wright. All rights reserved.