From the untimely demise of the 52-year-old Peter the Great in 1725 to nearly the end of that century, the fate of the Russian empire would rest largely in the hands of five tsarinas. This book tells their stories. Peter’s widow Catherine I (1725-27), an orphan and former laundress, would gain control of the ancestral throne, a victorious army, and formidable navy in a country that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Next, Anna Ioannovna (1730-40), chosen by conniving ministers who sought an ineffectual puppet, would instead tear up the document that would have changed the course of Russian history forever only to rule Russia as her private fiefdom and hunting estate. The ill-fated Anna Leopoldovna (1740-41), groomed for the throne by her namesake aunt, would be Regent for her young son only briefly before a coup by her aunt Elizabeth would condemn Anna’s family to a life of imprisonment, desolation, and death in obscurity. The beautiful and shrewd Elizabeth (1741-61) would seize her father Peter’s throne, but, obsessed with her own fading beauty, she would squander resources in a relentless effort to stay young and keep her rivals at bay. Finally, Catherine the Great (1762-96) would overthrow (and later order the murder of) her own husband and rightful heir. Astute and intelligent, Catherine had a talent for making people like her, winning them to her cause; however, the era of her rule would be a time of tumultuous change for both Europe and her beloved Russia.
In this vivid, quick-paced account, Anisimov goes beyond simply laying out the facts of each empress’s reign, to draw realistic psychological portraits and to consider the larger fate of women in politics. Together, these five portraits represent a history of 18th-century court life and international affairs. Anisimov’s tone is commanding, authoritative, but also convivial—inviting the reader to share the captivating secrets that his efforts have uncovered.