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The Six Empresses of Russia

Last year I wrote a blog on Catherine the Great and one of the themes I touched upon was the fact that she was not he first empresses of Russia. I wanted to re-visit this fact and hence this blog took form.


Before Catherine “the great” (who is actually Catherine II), there was not one but THREE other female Empresses. These were Catherine I, Anna and Elizabeth.


After Catherine II there would be just one more female Empresses, Alexandra, the wife of Nicholas II who ruled while her husband was away at the front during World War One, (this blog doesn't talk about Alexandra but will mainly focus on the 70-year rule of four women).

Hence Russia has seen FIVE female monarchical rulers.


The First Female Russian Ruler

Five? Okay, to be fair there have actually been SIX female rulers of Russian but the first has largely been forgotten by history. The one often left off the list is Irina Godunova was the wife of Tsar Feodor I and the sister of Tsar Boris Godunov. The reason she is often forgotten is likely because she ruled for just nine days.


Irina Godunov Engraving, c. 1557-1603 (Source: UK Royal Collection Trust)

Her husband ruled Russia from 1584-1598 and the couple had no children. Upon his death, with the male line of the dynasty now extinct she decided to reign in her own right, the first woman in Russian history to do so.


Clearly, no one in Russia knew what to make of this and for nine days the situation was one of uncertainty. She was never crowned during the nine days and as chaos continued to reign the decision was made (whether truly by her or those around her) to hand power to her brother.


Irina then retreated to a monastery where she spent the rest of her days. Despite this her brother ensured that her name was noted first until her death about five years later.


The next time a female would reign over Russia would not be for around another two hundred years and all five women would rule within just a 71 year period intermittently.


The First Catherine, Empress of Russia (1725 - 1727)

Little concise history seems to be known about Catherine before she became Empress but what we do know is that she was born in 1684 as Marta Helena Skowronska, into a farming family (very far from the life of luxury she’d come to know). Both of her parents died from the plague when she was young leaving behind five children so she was sent to live with a relative where she worked as a servant and was not educated.


Empress Catherine I, c. 1717 by Jean-Marc Nattier (Source: UK Royal Collection Trust)

She married a Swedish soldier and while most stories about this period of her life are unsubstantiated, it is known that she entered the household of Prince Alexander Menshikov, Peter the Great’s BFF. This was how she met the emperor and became his mistress, giving birth to a son named Peter in 1704. This child and the couple’s next, Paul (born the following year) would sadly die in infancy.


In 1707, now named Catherine after she converted to the Orthodox church from Catholicism, she gave birth to a daughter Catherine. It is thought that sometime after this she was officially married to Peter in a secret ceremony. Sadly again, this child did not live beyond infancy.


In all the couple would have 12 children, just two who would live to adulthood – both girls, Anna and Elizabeth.


With no direct male heirs of age, when her husband Peter died in 1725, Catherine, with the support of her old friend Menshikov, managed to take control of the crown ruling as Catherine I, Empress of Russia – the first female to be officially coronated ruler of Russia.

After just two years on the throne though Catherine died of tuberculosis on 17 May 1727. She named young Peter, her husband’s Grandson from his first marriage, as her successor.


The Issue of Succession (1727 - 1730)

Peter II, as he came to be known was the son of Peter the Great’s eldest child, Alexei. Notably he did not get on with his Father, Peter the Great and died before his Father hence this was why Alexei was not in line for the crown when Catherine came to power or why young Peter also wasn’t considered.


Peter II was not even 12 years of age when he finally came to the throne upon the death of Catherine I. He would never reach his next decade of life after contracting smallpox in late 1729 and dying, aged just 14 in 1730. As he had no heirs and was the last male in the Romanov dynasty his death created a leadership void that saw five women vying for the crown. Two of these women were the daughters of Peter the Great and Catherine, Anna and Elizabeth while the other three candidates were daughters of Peter the Great’s half-brother Ivan V, Catherine, Anna and Elizabeth. (Yes both sets of daughters had the same names)!


Ivan V had ruled Russia jointly with his half-brother Peter the Great however Ivan has been remembered by history as having physical and mental disabilities that would prevent him from ruling in his own right. For this reason, though he was Peter’s older brother, Peter I was in a sort of regent role during Ivan’s reign. After his death in 1696, Peter would rule alone & go on to become known as “the great”.


So, who had the greatest claim to the Russian throne after the death of Peter II?

Ivan V's Daughter's: Catherine, Anna & Elizabeth

Peter I's Daughters: Anna & Elizabeth

The Elder of the Brothers & thus traditionally the rightful heir

The girls were the closest living relatives to the most recently deceased Emperor as they were Peter II's Aunts

The Mother of his daughters vying for the throne was renowned for her virtue and noble birth - qualities desirable for the mother of an heir.

The girls mother, though having ruled as Empress herself (Catherine I), was once a servant and from a lowly background. Her children were born out of wedlock.


Their Mother ruled as Russian Empress both while married to their Father & in her own right.

Despite the pluses in the favour of Peter's daughter's, it was the Russian Supreme Privy Council who would ultimately make the decision and in what could have been a surprise decision at the time, they selected Ivan’s second daughter Anna as Peter II’s successor.

It is thought that Anna was selected ahead of the other candidates, including her elder sister Catherine, because she was a childless widow who did not bring with her the influence of a foreign power in the form of a husband. That’s not to say she was a mindless stooge; Anna had some experience with Government matters as she had been overseeing the affairs of the Duchy of Courland for almost twenty years after her husband’s death.


Anna as Empress (1730 - 1740)

Known for being strong-willed, autocratic and a keen hunter Anna continued to expand the lavish architecture of St. Petersburg and supported the development of the study of the sciences in an effort to see Russia reach the levels of academics seen in the west. She was also a keen supporter of the arts and for the first time the academic realm began to be influenced by the arts, especially architecture and journalism. She also established the foundations for what would become the world-famous Russian Ballet.


Empress Anna, c. 1730 by Louis Caravaque the official Russian court painter (Source: The Hermitage)

During her reign some 20,000 Russians were investigated by her secret office of investigation and charged with political crimes. Some then suffered painful punishments that resulted in death. It wasn’t Anna alone who oversaw these acts. Ernst Biron, a Baltic German, who was a Duke from Courland yielded great power during her reign as her lover. He influenced her foreign policies and would make rulings without running them past her. To many this period is known as the rule of Biron, not the rule of Anna.


In an attempt to secure the line of succession for her father’ s legacy, Anna appointed her great-nephew Ivan VI (grandson of her elder sister Catherine) as her heir with Biron to act as regent should her health decline to the point where she was no longer able to rule.

The inevitable came on 17 October 1740, when Anna died of kidney stones, aged just 47. At this time Ivan VI was only two months old. Within days of Anna’s death, the role of Biron as regent was put into question by Ivan’s parents and much of the Russian nobility who resented him for his acts during Anna’s reign. Just three weeks after his lover’s death, Biron was arrested and banished to Siberia with Ivan’s mother (Anna’s niece and also named Anna), named regent.


Issues of Succession Again (1740 - 1741)

Little baby Ivan would never see a throne for himself. His mother Anna was very unpopular which did not help his situation, nor did an increase in taxes and economic woes. By contrast, Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth was well-liked and garnered much support from the military and imperial elite. Thus, after just 13 months the family of Ivan were overthrown with Elizabeth handed the crown.


Ivan would spend his entire life a prisoner however when he was around 20 years old, in 1762, when Peter III (his distant cousin) came to the throne following the death of Empress Elizabeth (keep reading) he had a brief glimpse of hope with Peter visiting him. Just months later though, when Peter himself was deposed by his wife Catherine (again keep reading) Ivan was put under an even tighter watch. When it seemed that those opposing Catherine might use him as a possible usurper he was killed, aged just 23.


Elizabeth as Empress (1741 - 1762)

Empress Elizabeth is remembered as one of the most popular Russian monarchs. She continued the educational revolution of those who had come before her as more strides were made to rise to the level of Western powers. In doing so she made education free to all social classes and her reign saw the establishment of Russia’s first university. She commissioned the Winter Palace however she would die before its completion. Elizabeth also outlawed capital punishment.


Empress Elizabeth by Carle Vanloo, 1760 (Source: The Hermitage)

Empress Elizabeth is remembered as one of the most popular Russian monarchs. She continued the educational revolution of those who had come before her as more strides were made to rise to the level of Western powers. In doing so she made education free to all social classes and her reign saw the establishment of Russia’s first university. She commissioned the Winter Palace however she would die before its completion. Elizabeth also outlawed capital punishment.


Elizabeth would have faced great loss throughout the years prior to her coming to the throne with her father’s death in 1725, followed by the death of her mother and death of her sister Anna within days of each other in 1727. Thus, while she grieved these losses she was thrust into a battle for the throne. While history states that her elder sister Anna was a contender, mathematically this just isn’t possible as she died as a result of childbirth during this time.


Like the most recent Empress before her, Elizabeth was unmarried and needed to appoint an heir. Her focus was on continuing the Romanov line, so her nephew Peter was selected. Peter was the son of her other elder sister Anna, who herself never lived to see her sister become Empress as she died after contracting an infection during the birth of Peter.


This young boy would go on to be married to a Polish-born girl who would herself become one of the most famous monarchs in history – Catherine the Great.



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Further Reading:

  • Robert K. Massie, “Catherine the Great: Portrait of A Woman”, (New York: Random House, 2012)

  • Natalia Pushkareva, "Women in Russian History: From the Tenth to the Twentieth Century", (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997).

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