St. Petersburg, Russia: January 1740 One: In a creamy damask gown, trimmed with gold lace and ornaments, with accents of sulphurous yellow, a heavy gold cross breathing on her full bosom, the Tsarina held court. Graceful, imperial, and fat, thought Golitsyn of Anna Ivanovna. Only last week, in the royal hall, settled in a basket, he had flapped his arms, resigned to clucking— a chicken for the royal amusement And yesterday, mounted on a dwarf, he had jousted with another unfortunate, balanced on the back of a court clown, until all four were flailing, grabbing, gouging each other’s eyes, bloody. Prince Golitsyn drew in a long breath, listened politely as the Spanish ambassador addressed the Empress in Russian with an accent that inhaled the final letters of each word. Orange trees, myrtles, and palms lined walks on either side of the Grand Hall while, behind potted screens of trees and flowers, courtiers and ladies fanned themselves and whispered. Gobelin tapesties depicted scenes from a primitive world, lush, filled with tigers, monkeys, Indian geese, and cranes. Along the walk, caged nightingales sang as the scent of perfumes circled and re-circled the expansive room. Servants in yellow-and-black livery served fruity wines and vodka in abundance, though drunkenness was never allowed. In one corner, dancers in brightly colored domino— orange, green, blue— ruffs at the neck, with tiny hats sporting gold and silver cockades, danced a quadrille played by an Italian orchestra. Near the Tsarina a pair of enormous leopards, in embossed silver and flat-chased work, their collars encrusted with emeralds, their faceted eyes brilliant in the reflected light, watched fiercely. Enchanting as any mid-summer’s dream, Golitsyn sighed. Only the porcelain stoves and the windows staring glassy-eyed at the frozen Neva below betrayed the atmosphere of summer solstice—the black earth invisible beneath the snowy landscape, the sun pale, winter’s blue-white chill transformed by magic and rubles. Two: Prince Golitsyn shivered, respectfully welcomed the address of the Tsaritsa. She was seemingly gracious, double-chinned, her skin swarthy, her features coarse. Dark hair fell across her shoulders, her eyes sparkled with pleasure, wine, and conversation. The prince listened as she spoke. He knew Anna, her history: niece to the imperious Peter the Great, and a childhood that could scarcely avoid beheadings, hangings, cruelty that left heads on pikes, bodies dangling from beams or gallows; marriage at seventeen to the Duke of Courland, a miserable wretch, who died a week after the wedding; nineteen years, alone, unhappy, seemingly banished from Russia to Mitau in a remote German duchy; then, ascendance to the throne of all the Russias after the deaths of Peter, his wife, Catherine, and the boy Tsar, Peter, the Second; the scale of excess, the magnificence: the 10,000 dresses, the palaces, the silver, the glittering jewels; the exotic animals that roamed the gardens, fair target for the Tsarina who took aim from palace windows at the unsuspecting beasts; the dwarfs, the hunchbacks, the giants, the fools who pleased Anna’s less obvious deformity of spirit. the 2000 dissenters each year exiled to Siberia; the secret police who exposed and executed traitors; and, of course, the Tsarina’s unpopular alliance to Ernst Biron, a brusque German with no fondness for Russians, a man Anna shared with his wife. Golitsyn focused on the eyes of the Tsaritsa, noticed again her left eye slightly flecked in lighter violet. Then the announcement. Anna had arranged a marriage and festivities; he was to be the groom to an unknown wife. The music temporarily ceased; outside Golitsyn heard the honking of a goose. Three: Skybend….all in grays. Birds froze, fell out of the sky. Cathedral bells splintered the icy air. Golitsyn was to marry Avdotya, a Kalmuck serving woman. Nicknamed “Buzhenina” for the Tsarina’s favorite dish, roast pork with spiced vinegar and onions, she was pink, plump, thoroughly peasant. Golitsyn’s first marriage, disapproved of, had made him an object of vengeance, court buffoon. Now he was riding in an iron cage, swaying atop an elephant as it lumbered along to the wedding reception. No more precarious than any day at court, he mused. Bride and groom were barely visible under fur coats, muffs, and hats. Behind them followed costumed natives, Tartars and Lapps, Finns and Cossacks, Bashkirs and Kalmucks on horses, camels; members of the court rode next in sleighs drawn by a menagerie of reindeer, rams, bears, wolves, and pigs. At midnight another procession. The ice palace was lighted with torches. Hundreds of candles shown from within, radiating their soft brilliance through transparent walls. A tribute to Palladio, the edifice stood eighty feet long, thirty-three high, and twenty-three deep; surrounding the house, a balustrade topped with balls of ice, and cornices, columns. Six niches in the façade held statues, while over the entrance, four-winged putti flew; ice dolphins, an elephant, cannons, and marvelous fountains adorned the exterior. Trees and plants, sculpted from winter’s resources, bloomed amid their surroundings. Inside….all crystal ice….bottles, boxes, candlesticks, an elaborately carved ice mirror, benches, shelves, dishes, goblets, tea sets, a clock whose inner works of moving, interlocking wheels were clearly visible, a deck of playing cards, their suits realistically painted, and an ice bed for the newly wedded couple. The Tsarina dressed in brown, with only pearls for decoration, standing beside Biron, laughed a dark laugh. Golitsyn suddenly remembered words he had heard from Timothy Arkhipovich, long ago a tutor and houseguest at Izmailov, Anna’s childhood home: “We Russians need no bread; we devour each other and are satisfied.”
Ann Power is a retired faculty member from The University of Alabama where she worked as a coordinator for the Bibliographic Instruction Program, University Libraries. She enjoys writing historical sketches as well as poems based in the kingdoms of magical realism. Her work has appeared in The Pacific Review (CSU San Bernardino), The Puckerbrush Review, Limestone, Spillway, Gargoyle Magazine, The Birmingham Poetry Review, The American Poetry Journal, Dappled Things, and Caveat Lector.