- Five Empresses: Court Life in Eighteenth-Century Russia
Evgenii Anisimov knows how to tell a good story, and the five empresses who ruled Russia for two thirds of the eighteenth century provide him with plenty of fascinating stories to tell. The book feels like an old fashioned biography aimed at the general public but with plenty of footnotes and just enough analysis to cross over into the scholarly crowd, at least for non-Slavicists. Still, this is a highly personalized form of biography in the sense that it concentrates on a series of individuals and their relationships with other individuals, and not, for example, on their embeddedness in larger forces, or on the ways in which important evidence about the subjects is missing or contradictory. [End Page 497]
The first of the five empresses was the second wife of Peter the Great. The Cinderella from Livland, as Anisimov dubs her, ascended the throne upon Peter's death in large part because she had earlier helped to promote the execution of the crown-prince, her step-son, on allegations of treason. Her name had changed from Martha to Catherine when she converted to Russian Orthodoxy. Although Catherine soon betrayed Peter with a younger man, who was promptly executed, and although Peter changed his will to remove her from the succession, Catherine's supporters summoned the palace guards to proclaim her empress just hours after Peter's death agony had ended. But Peter I's foreign wife, Catherine I, ruled for only two years before death claimed her in 1727.
Catherine was succeeded by her step-grandson, the son of the former crown prince. The boy-tsar Peter II in turn died a few years later, producing a new crisis of succession. In fact, much of Anisimov's group biography is dedicated to the amazing stories of how each of the five women came to the throne, none without controversy. After all, none but the last of the five had a legitimate son who could readily succeed her, and only the first, Catherine, had surviving daughters. Given the dearth of male offspring, a clique of powerful aristocrats chose one of Peter the Great's nieces to succeed Peter II; they believed they could control the obscure Anna, since she had long before been widowed after a brief and undistinguished marriage, then neglected for years, relatively impoverished, and isolated from any means of developing a power base on her own in Russia. But Anna Ioanovna, the second of the five empresses, quickly emancipated herself from her would-be managers, and turned much power for the ten years of her often cruel reign (1730–1740) over to her lover Count Biron instead. When Anna died, a cascade of coups followed.
Anna had no legitimate children, although Anisimov speculates that she and the married Biron may have had a son. Officially, she had selected a proxy generator of heirs, her young niece. Anna's subjects had been directed to accept the yet unmarried niece's future children as successors to the throne. At Anna's death this niece's first child, Ivan, was only a few months old, giving Biron the opportunity to seize control as regent. But a few weeks later, before Anna had even been buried, one of the German generals who had gained enormous authority during Anna's reign overthrew Biron and put baby Ivan VI on the throne, planning of course to hold the real power himself. His plan misfired. Ivan's 22-year-old mother, confusingly also named Anna (Anisimov calls her Anna Leopol'dovna after her German father), became regent, and prepared to be crowned. Before that could happen however, she and her son were deposed and replaced. Thus the third of Anisimov's five women was not actually an empress during her brief year in [End Page 498] power. Still, an absorbing chapter is devoted to her detention within Russia, and especially to her unfortunate children. Given the right of Russian tsars to name their own...