Five Empresses: Court Life in Eighteenth-Century Russia

Five Empresses: Court Life in Eighteenth-Century Russia

Five Empresses: Court Life in Eighteenth-Century Russia

Five Empresses: Court Life in Eighteenth-Century Russia


From the untimely demise of the 52-year-old Peter the Great in 1725 to nearly the end of that century, the fate of the Russian empire would rest largely in the hands of five tsarinas. This book tells their stories. Peters widow Catherine I (1725-27), an orphan and former laundress, would gain control of the ancestral throne, a victorious army, and formidable navy in a country that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Next, Anna Ioannovna (1730-40), chosen by conniving ministers who sought an ineffectual puppet, would instead tear up the document that would have changed the course of Russian history forever only to rule Russia as her private fiefdom and hunting estate. The ill-fated Anna Leopoldovna (1740-41), groomed for the throne by her namesake aunt, would be Regent for her young son only briefly before a coup by her aunt Elizabeth would condemn Annas family to a life of imprisonment, desolation, and death in obscurity. The beautiful and shrewd Elizabeth (1741-61) would seize her father Peters throne, but, obsessed with her own fading beauty, she would squander resources in a relentless effort to stay young and keep her rivals at bay. Finally, Catherine the Great (1762-96) would overthrow (and later order the murder of) her own husband and rightful heir. Astute and intelligent, Catherine had a talent for making people like her, winning them to her cause; however, the era of her rule would be a time of tumultuous change for both Europe and her beloved Russia.

In this vivid, quick-paced account, Anisimov goes beyond simply laying out the facts of each empresss reign, to draw realistic psychological portraits and to consider the larger fate of women in politics. Together, these five portraits represent a history of 18th-century court life and international affairs. Anisimov's tone is commanding, authoritative, but also convivial--inviting the reader to share the captivating secrets that his efforts have uncovered.


Emperor Peter the Great died in the early morning of January 28, 1725, in his small bedroom-study on the second floor of the Winter Palace. His death did not come easy. Excruciating pain wracked his body; the best efforts of experienced doctors brought no relief, and death was to him a deliverance from unbearable suffering.

But the first Russian emperor, like almost anyone else, did not want to die. More than once he had looked death straight in the eye on battlefields and stormy seas; yet now he was clinging desperately to life and, according to one contemporary, “grew very fainthearted and even displayed a petty fear of death.” He prayed fervently and frenziedly, confessing and taking communion several times. Attending priests did not leave his bedside; he wept and clutched their hands. It seemed as if he were using the Orthodox priests’ brocade chasubles, gleaming in the faint candlelight, as a screen against death, which stared at him steadily from the darkness of night.

The tsar, always merciless toward any violators of his strict laws, gave the order to release criminals from jails and to forgive government officials their debts and fines, an act that, according to Russian custom, was supposed to save his soul. Until the very end he had hope in God’s mercy as well as in his own vitality, for he was only fifty-two years old and there were so many ideas and plans for the future ahead …

The teary-eyed empress Catherine Alekseevna, a stout, comely woman, did not leave the bedside of the dying tsar in the crowded study (big as a giant, the tsar was fond of small cozy rooms with low ceilings). She tried to . . .

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