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The Miserable Life of Tsar Ivan VI

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Two months after his birth in August 1740, Ivan Antonovich was declared Russian Emperor after the death of his great aunt Empress Anna. The intrigues of the Russian court meant that Ivan’s reign was short and was followed by two decades of incarceration.

This is thought to be a portrait of Ivan VI.

This is thought to be a portrait of Ivan VI.

Russian Succession

Royal turmoil characterized Russia in the 17th century, and you almost need a schematic to keep up with the twists and turns. It boils down to two branches of the same family at war with one another.

Various factions engaged in bloody coups that left Peter the Great and his half-brother Ivan V as joint tsars. Ivan died in 1696 and Peter became sole emperor.

Peter sired many children but most of them died in infancy. His oldest son was convicted of treason and executed. Peter died in 1725 but he did not nominate an heir.

After a couple of short-lived rulers, Anna, the daughter of Ivan V, succeeded to the throne. Upon her death in 1740, the infant Ivan VI became emperor, with his parents acting as regents.

But, Peter the Great’s branch of the family was lurking in the background. On the night of November 25, 1741, Elizabeth, Peter’s daughter, made her move.

Empress Elizabeth who imprisoned Ivan VI.

Empress Elizabeth who imprisoned Ivan VI.

Arrest in the Winter Palace

Accompanied by soldiers, Elizabeth entered the bedrooms of Ivan’s parents and placed them under arrest. Then, they lifted the infant out of his cradle and arrested him. Some versions of the story have Elizabeth holding Ivan and saying “Poor little dear, you are innocent. Your parents alone are guilty.” If so, her expressed affection for the child did not last long.

The lad and his parents, Grand Duchess Anna Leopoldovna and Duke Anthony Ulrich of Brunswick along with Ivan, were packed away in a fortress in what is now Latvia.

At the age of four, Ivan was separated from his parents and locked up in the far northern town of Kholmogory. For the next dozen years he was isolated from everybody except his jailer.

In about 1756, he was transferred to the fortress at Shlisselburg on an island near St. Petersburg and kept in under closer lock and key. Even the commandant of the prison did not know the identity of his inmate; he was simply referred to as “a certain prisoner.”

Ivan VI Ceased to Exist

As he languished in prison, we can only imagine what was happening to his mind, although there are stories that he believed he was under the curse of evil witchcraft spells.

Outside the jail, he was removed from history. For Empress Elizabeth the existence of an heir to Russia’s thrown with a stronger claim than hers presented a threat. So, she decided to make him disappear in a process called damnatio memoriae.

The Latin phrase describes the purging of individuals from public memory.

In Ivan VI’s case, all coins bearing his image were collected and destroyed. Likewise documents, papers, and books with his name in them were tracked down and burned. It was forbidden even to mention his name.

More Russian Palace Intrigue

In 1762, Empress Elizabeth died, with Ivan having outlived his tormentor. Once again it was time for another game of royal musical chairs in St. Petersburg, with Peter III and his wife Catherine winning the prize.

The new tsar sympathized with the young man’s situation and Ivan might have hoped for improved conditions. But, it was not to be. The union between Catherine and Peter does not seem to have been blessed with love. Within weeks of his accession to the throne, Catherine tossed him out and some of her followers strangled him.

Things took a turn for the worse for poor Ivan. Catherine (who later acquired the nickname “the Great”) had him put in manacles. She issued secret orders that should the ex-tsar attempt to escape his guards were to kill him immediately.

Catherine the Great.

Catherine the Great.

The End for Tsar Ivan VI

This is where we meet Vasily Morovich. He was a lieutenant who was assigned to the Shlisselburg Fortress. He began to understand that, although his name was never used, “a certain prisoner” was in fact the deposed tsar. Morovich felt sympathy for the imprisoned monarch and started to cook up a plan to rescue him.

In the middle of the night in July 1764 called on the men under his command to release Ivan. However, one guard loyal to Catherine followed her secret orders and murdered Ivan. Morovich and his followers were executed soon thereafter.

Ivan’s parents died in custody; his mother in 1746 at the age of 27, his father in 1774, aged 59. Ivan’s siblings were released from prison in 1780 and handed over to the supervision of an aunt in Denmark; they remained under house arrest for the rest of their lives.

The corpse of Ivan VI.

The corpse of Ivan VI.

Bonus Factoids

Tsarina Elizabeth was very popular with the Russian people mainly, it is said, because she had nobody executed during her reign.

Several other Russian Emperors came to a sticky end. Peter III was murdered after just six months on the throne in 1762. Paul I was choked with a scarf after being beaten by a group of aristocrats in 1801. Alexander II was killed by a left-wing revolutionary in a suicide bombing attack in 1881. Nicolas II and his entire family were shot by Communists in a cellar in 1918.

Sources

  • “Peter the Great.” Biography.com, April 27, 2017.
  • “Russia’s ‘Man in the Iron Mask’: Why Was a Royal Baby Sent to Die in Prison?” Russia Beyond, January 14, 2018.
  • “Assassination of Ivan VI, Emperor of All Russia (1764).” Susan Flantzer, unofficialroyalty.com, February 9, 2020.
  • “Ivan VI of Russia: The Baby Emperor.” Kateryna Martynova, Daily Art Magazine, June 3, 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on August 15, 2020:

Quite a shocking tale. What a miserable life poor Ivan suffered, as did a number of the others involved. Who’d want to be a Russian Tsar?

MG Singh emge from Singapore on August 15, 2020:

Its a fascinating account After reading one feels that the Tsars just relished in killing each other and forgot about good governess and that maybe the reason Lenin came and brought in the October revolution.

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on August 14, 2020:

Those are some psychotic Czars. So strange they'd treat a child that way. Pretty delusional behavior. Fascinating story.

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