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trained Russian architect Peter Eropkin, was erected directly on the frozen Neva. Blocks of ice, “cemented” with water, immediately fused together, so that the finished structure—nine hundred and eighty square feet in area and twenty-one feet tall—appeared to be cut from a sing le piece of transparent bluish stone.
With the exception of a few real playing cards frozen to an ice table, everything in the palace was ice. The doorframes and window frames had been dyed to resemble green marble. There was a dressing table with an ice “mirror” and a canopy bed with pillows, blankets, slippers, and nightcaps. On shelves and tables were cups, saucers, plates, cutlery, wineglasses, and figurines; several pocket watches and table clocks had visible mechanisms: cogs and gears cut from ice. At night, ice candles in ice candlesticks and ice logs in an ice fireplace were doused with oil and illuminated. They flared briefly, but didn’t melt. Next to the palace, a tiny log cabin made of ice housed a working Russian bathhouse.
Today, Empress Anna Ioannovna is remembered primarily for her love of jesters, dwarfs, and Germans. In 1710, at the age of seventeen, she was married to Duke Friedrich Wilhelm, the German ruler of Courland, a small duchy situated between two of Russia’s rivals, Poland and Prussia. (Peter the Great had arranged the marriage in order to secure a Russian presence there.) The historian EvgenyAnisimov, in his definitive biography of Empress Anna, describes the wedding banquet, during which Peter cut open two pies with his dagger. A splendidly dressed dwarf jumped out of each pie and together they danced a minuet on the table. The next day, the Tsar treated his guests to a second wedding, that of his favorite dwarf. The banquet was attended by forty-two dwarf from all corners of the empire. Some foreign guests saw a certain symmetry in the double wedding: one between two miniature people and the other between two pawns in the great game of European politics.
On the way to Courland, the teenage Duke died, of alcohol poisoning: on his last night in Petersburg, he had eng aged—rashly, one feels—in a drinking contest with Peter the Great. To the dismay of Anna and her in-laws, Peter forbade the young widow from returning to Russia, lest her departure disturb the European balance of power. In more than three hundred letters addressed to her family, Anna repeatedly expressed her wish to remarry, but, for political reasons, her uncle rejected all of her potential suitors.
Peter died in 1725, and his fourteen- year-old grandson and successor, Peter II, died in 1730. To her surprise, Anna Ioannovna, now thirty-seven, became empress. She returned to Russia that February, accompanied by her longtime lover, Duke Ernst Johann Biron. The new Empress cut an imposing figure. “When she walked among the cavaliers,” one courtier recalled, “she was a head taller than them all, and was extraordinarily fat.” She and Biron were inseparable, and dined together nearly every day, usually in the company of Biron’s wife and three children. Anna’s reign came to be known as Bironovshchina: the era of Biron.
Anna loved to be entertained. As a child, she had been impressed by the volubility of her mother’s friends, and now she ordered her chamberlain to track them down in their homes and bring them to court. For those no longer living, or too old to travel, replacements were sought. “Send me someone who looks like Tatiana Novokreshchenova,” she instructed. “She should be about forty years old, and should be talkative, like Novokreshchenova was.” One courtier wrote of her first meeting with Anna, “She seized me by the shoulder so hard that I was in pain … and asked: ‘How fat am I? Am I as fat as Avdotya Ivanovna?’ “— a countess known for her repertoire of gossipy anecdotes. The terrified courtier replied, “It is impossible to compare Your Majesty with her, she is twice as fat.” Pleased with this answer, Anna ordered her new friend, “Speak!,” and made her talk for several hours.
Unlike other Russian rulers, Anna
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