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The birth of Ivan Antonovich on August 23, 1740 was glorious news to the Russian royal family. As the firstborn son of Prince Anthony Ulrich of Brunswick-Lunenberg and Duchess Anna Leopoldovna of Mecklenberg, he was literally the answer to the prayers of his great-aunt Anna, who happened to be the Empress of Russia at the time. In need of an heir, it was the ailing Empress who formally adopted Ivan and declared him to be her successor despite Ivan only being an infant. Anna's death just a few months later meant that little Ivan was quickly crowned as the Emperor Ivan VI of Russia with various nobles fighting to become the little Emperor's regent. Eventually his mother Anna Leopoldovna became regent despite her unpopularity with the military. This would be her entire family''s undoing.
Along with Anna's clashes with the military, the political instability caused by an infant on the throne led to various political intrigues and, finally, a coup d'etat by the former Empress' cousin Elizabeth who soon declared herself as Russia's new Empress in 1741. Except of course, for the problem of little Ivan, an infant who could barely walk. As her solution to this problem, Elizabeth had Ivan and his parents imprisoned to prevent them from becoming the focal point of plots to remove her from the throne. According to legend, the new Empress took the infant in her arms right after the coup and told him, "You are not guilty of anything, little one." She would later order all records or reminders of his brief reign, including all printed currency bearing his image, to be destroyed. From that point on, Elizabeth would be Russia's legitimate ruler.
While Elizabeth had originally intended for Ivan and his family to go into exile, she quickly reconsidered on realizing that their connections would make them a permanent danger to her reign. Though she was Peter the Great's daughter, Ivan had a better claim to the throne and, worse yet, was related by blood to half the royal families in Europe. And she could hardly trust Ivan's parents to simply accept political exile so she needed to be more ruthless. Ivan's family found themselves on a bizarre shuttle between different secret locations in Russia while Elizabeth and her courtiers figured out what to do with them. They were eventually placed in a grim prison near Riga (now part of Latvia). After a year or so of this ordeal, during which Ivan's mother gave birth to another child, four-year-old Ivan was eventually separated from the rest of his family. They would never see him again.
Ivan was taken by closed coach and assigned a new name, "Grigorii", by which everyone was expected to refer to him in future. While his guards weren't happy with the cruel orders they were given, Elizabeth was adamant that the boy Emperor would not be used against her. He was taken to a prison in Kholmogory where he would be kept for the next twelve years, with no other human contact except for one jailer, and deprived of even basic medical care. He had serious bouts of illness in 1748, including smallpox and measles, which were so severe that the commandant asked to have him given last rites. during which he was left to recover on his own with no doctor to treat him, Ivan managed to recover on his own.
Not that Ivan's family fared any better. His parents were confined the same prison that Ivan was but kept completely separate from him. Neither Ivan or his parents had any idea that they were being kept in the same building and all requests to be reunited were brutally refused. Anna would give birth to another son before dying after only two years of imprisonment. After an autopsy, her body was pickled in alcohol and sent to St. Petersburg where she was buried with minimal honours. Her husband was eventually offered the opportunity to leave Russia as long as he agreed to leave his children behind. He refused.
As for Ivan, he had no idea what was happening with his family and would never see another woman again except for Elizabeth or later, the Empress Catherine. Kept in a windowless room, he was only allowed out of his cell wearing a blindfold and only in the presence of his one guard. Though later historians would describe him as mentally and physically handicapped, this doesn't seem to have been the case - at least at first. One witness described him as having "a very white face, an aquiline nose, he had large eyes and stuttered. His mind had been damaged. He aroused compassion, and was poorly dressed."
In early 1756, Ivan was abruptly transferred to Schlusselberg Prison, one of the most isolated spots in the world and a place used for centuries to house Russian political prisoners. It would later become a model for the camps of the Soviet Gulag system. Exactly why Ivan was transferred isn't clear but rumours that Prussian intelligence was working to free Ivan and his remaining family likely caused Elizabeth to overreact in securing her young prisoner.
Whatever the reason, Ivan spent eight years at Schlusselberg in a special barracks under the watch of a special team of guards. Despite Elizabeth's best efforts (or perhaps because of them), Ivan's imprisonment became common knowledge throughout Russia. In the popular imagination, "poor Ivanushka" became a symbol for everything that was wrong in Elizabeth's reign and she was seen as cruel no matter how enlightened her rule over Russia was otherwise.
Even if Elizabeth had been inclined to treat him more humanely, there was still the question of Ivan's mental state after his long imprisonment. As two of his guards would later write, "his articulation was confused to such a degree that even those who constantly saw and heard him could understand him with difficulty. In order to pronounce at least partially intelligible words he had to hold his chin with his hand and raise it upwards.” The guards added that "His mental abilities were disrupted, he had not the slightest memory, no ideas of any kind, neither of joy nor of sorrow, and no special inclinations.” In other words, he had become a textbook case of environmental retardation."
Ivan would continue to vex Elizabeth for the rest of her reign. With her death in 1761, the issue of what to do about "poor Ivanushka" was passed on to her successor, her nephew Peter who would rule as Peter III. As for what happened with Peter and Ivan, we will turn to that next week.
To be continued
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