The Ice Palace of Anna Ioannovna

Mar 28, 2023 0 comments

The winter of 1739-40 was incredibly harsh all over Europe and especially brutal in Russia. Temperatures plummeted to forty degrees below zero and the mighty Neva River completely froze over, as it did every winter. But this year the Tsarina Anna Ioannovna had ordered blocks of ice to be cut from the frozen Neva and a magnificent ice palace be built on the riverbank.

Wedding of the Court Jester in the Ice House by Valery Jacobi, 1878

The palace was 60 feet wide and 30 feet tall and constructed out of blocks of ice each weighing 120 kg. These huge blocks were stacked one upon the other and sprayed with water which instantly froze and fastened the blocks firmly together. The walls were three feet thick, and had windows, doors and an outdoor staircase, along with a balustrade and vestibule. The rooms were well stocked with furniture such as dressing tables, sofas, armchair, a large bed and a cup board with wine glasses and dishes, all carved out of ice. Even the wood in the fireplace was made of ice. In the master bedroom, ice curtains hung from the windows and soft fluffy pillows were replaced with hard icy blocks. The corners of the room were decorated with statues of Cupid. Decorative ice dolphins blew fire from its mouth, and a huge statue of elephant sprayed water from its trunk like a fountain.

The ice palace was part of the festivities organized by the Tsarina in celebration of Russia's victory over the Ottoman Empire. Also central to the festivities and the ice palace itself was a mock wedding that Empress Anna had organized to further humiliate her disgraced noble-turned-jester Prince Mikhail Golitsyn, who had fallen out of favor with the Tsarina by marrying a Catholic Italian girl while on a foreign trip. Empress Anna, who was Eastern Orthodox, saw the marriage as an affront and immediately banished the wife, stripped Prince Golitsyn of his land and title and made him her new court jester. He spent his days crouching in a basket next to Anna’s desk and pouring her cups of kvas, a drink made from fermented bread. Sometimes, the basket he sat in was filled with eggs, which he would pretend to lay to entertain guests.

The Ice Palace in St. Petersburg as reported in a German illustrated popular magazine (1740).

Empress Anna also arranged a new wife for her fool—an ugly girl of the lowest ethnic class, a Kalmyk descent maidservant named Avdotya. After the wedding at the church, the bride and groom dressed in colorful attire were placed in a large cage and strapped to the back of the elephant, then paraded through the streets of Saint Petersburg. The wedding procession was accompanied by over 400 people from different tribes, some of whom rode camels, others on sledges pulled by reindeer, pigs, dogs, and even goats and cats. The procession ended at the ice palace, where the unhappy couple were thrust inside an icy nuptial chamber and were ordered to consummate their marriage before they froze to death. The cruel Tsarina had the doors barricaded and guards posted on the outside to prevent the couple from escaping. Fortunately, Avdotya was able to trade her pearl necklace with one of the guards for a sheepskin coat, and the couple managed to survive the night. The next morning, the two newly weds emerged from the ice palace with, in the words of historian Henri Troyat, “nothing worse than a runny nose and some frostbite.”

Empress Anna Ioannovna.

“Through the fool’s wedding and the ice palace, the Tsarina Anna was successful in presenting herself as a powerful and enlightened monarch who did not need to shy away from comparison with other European rulers,” wrote art historian and professor Julia Herzberg.

However, like all projects of vanity, the ice palace too melted away once the spring sun cast its warmth. The Tsarina herself died before the next winter could set in, and her successor, Anna Leopoldovna, freed Mikhail and Avdotya from their servitude as jesters. The couple remained married until Avdotya died in 1742 giving birth to their second child.

# Julia Herzberg, The Domestication of Ice and Cold: The Ice Palace in Saint Petersburg 1740, RCC Perspectives
# The Empress who locked her fool inside a palace made of ice, Russia Beyond


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