As established in a previous list, the Russian Empire was one of the longest-running empires in human history, and while it is often overlooked, it featured its fair share of shocking events. But something we neglected to mention is how utterly insane the Tsars of the Russian Empire were. The Russian Empire also predated the US in its implementation of prohibition law during World War I, and the reasons for this may surprise you.
From Ivan the Terrible’s bad habit of roasting people alive to Peter the Great’s uncomfortable obsession with little people, merely calling the Russian Empire’s rulers eccentric is not sufficient in communicating the extent of their particular brand of crazy.
Here are 10 more shocking facts about the Russian Empire.
10. Death by Giant Skillet
Ivan the Terrible took Russia from a medieval state and transformed it into an empire. Many things about the Russian Empire’s first Tsar are unknown, as all he left behind was his reputation. Ivan became the Grand Prince of Moscow at the age of three, but thanks to the political intrigue happening around him, he spent most of his childhood imprisoned.
If you’re thinking that raising a child in prison is probably a bad idea and would have a dire impact on that child’s psyche, you’re right. While Ivan was an avid reader, he also enjoyed torturing animals to pass the time and executed his first rival at the ripe and tender age of 13.
Ivan was quite fond of torturing his enemies, and while he did utilize traditional methods like burning people alive and roasting them on spits, perhaps the strangest method he utilized was roasting them alive in a giant iron skillet.
9. An Affinity for Little People
Peter the Great loved him some little people. So much in fact that he kept a permanent cortege of them in his court and often used them for his own amusement. Peter loved to have them at parties, weddings, feasts, most often having them strip naked and leap out of a giant pie for everyone’s viewing pleasure.
He also had them dress up and perform theatrical performances.
But perhaps the weirdest thing Peter had his little people do for him was a mock wedding that took place at the same time as his niece Anna was in the middle of her own wedding ceremony to Frederick William, the Duke of Courland. By all rights a massive event itself, with fireworks, a feast, and plenty of entertainment for the attendants.
For this mock wedding, Peter ordered that all of the dwarves in Moscow be rounded up—putting them in cages and forcing them to dress as courtiers. The procession in Peter’s mock wedding included 72 dwarves, including the court’s official dwarf jester, Iakim Volkov.
8. Off with Their… Hair?
Empress Elizabeth of Russia ruled the empire for 21 years and she remains one of the most popular monarchs in the history of the Russian Empire, partly because during her reign, she never once ordered an execution. She also modernized roads, convinced Mikhail Lomonosov to found the University of Moscow, encouraged Ivan Shuvalov’s foundation of the Imperial Academy of Arts, and commissioned plenty of baroque architectural projects from her favored architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli.
But that doesn’t mean that she wasn’t absolutely batty in other ways. For one, she was extremely spoiled and demanded that her courtiers only wear the finest clothes. It was a rule that no servant of the court was to wear the same dress twice, conscripting her men to stamp dresses with ink to ensure this was carried out.
She always demanded that no one in the court be allowed to overshadow her beauty. Taking this to the maximum, Empress Elizabeth was once forced to shave off all of her hair, and rather than don a wig like a normal person, she instead ordered all the women in her court to also shave their heads.
7. The Russian Empire Restricted Alcohol Purchases to Restaurants
When you think of Russians, you probably think of barrel-chested soldiers downing bottles of vodka while on duty, but while it is true that Russians love them some vodka and beer, the Russian Empire actually preceded the US in enacting a prohibition law.
Since Ivan the Terrible, the Russian Empire had enjoyed vast tax profits coming from the sale of alcohol to its citizenry. Peter the Great also made a deal with Russian citizens that had drunk themselves all the way to the poor house to remain out of debtor’s prison so long as they served the army for 25 years. He also decreed that any wife who demanded that their husbands leave their favorite tavern before they were ready to be whipped.
However, by the time World War I rolled around, the Russian Empire, in its twilight years, instituted a prohibition law that allowed for the sale of alcohol only in restaurants. This was an effort to keep the army from having to deal with drunken soldiers during the war.
6. Spoiled Beer Led to the Russian Imperial Stout
During a diplomatic trip to England sent at the behest of Peter the Great, a chance tasting of some English stout by 25-year-old diplomat Peter Mikhailov would cause him to fall in love with the coffee tinted beer. Mikhailov was so impressed with the beer, he asked for several cases to be sent to the court in Russia. Little did the British brewmasters of the Barclay Brewery know that Mikhailov was actually the Emperor himself in disguise. Sadly (and we say this as lovers of stouts ourselves) the beer spoiled by the time it reached the Russian Empire.
But the English were not to be deterred, and in their second attempt increased the content of alcohol and hops to the point that the substance inside each bottle had the color and consistency of black ink.
And Russia fell in love with the beverage, thus beginning the reign of the Russian Imperial Stout as one of the most popular beers in the land. Even Catherine the Great couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Because of the high alcohol content of most Imperial Stouts, some bottles could remain drinkable for as long as seven years before spoiling.
5. Empress Anna Was Absolutely Cuckoo
Empress Anna Ivanova was particularly unhinged. She was regarded as extremely ugly and her cousin Peter the Great (yes, the same one who staged a mock wedding with 72 dwarves at her wedding) refused every suitor who came knocking. The night of Anna’s wedding, her husband drank himself ill, and though he survived the night, he ended up dying two months after the ceremony. Because of this, the Empress grew to absolutely detest love and marriage.
The Empress delighted in ruining relationships around her. She tortured Prince Mikhail especially, losing her mind after finding out that he had committed the extreme crime of falling in love and marrying an Italian Catholic woman. The Prince’s wife died shortly after their nuptials, but the Empress wouldn’t be satisfied there and turned the Prince into the court jester. The Prince was forced to act like a chicken and sit on eggs for hours on end and would even be forced to pretend to lay them when guests were around.
Her torture of the poor Prince would not end there. The Empress commissioned the building of a giant palace made of ice. Though it was temporary, the Ice Palace is somewhat fondly remembered as being an architectural marvel. But Empress Anna intended it as a torture chamber for the Prince, staging a wedding for the Prince to one of her maids. The maid was not intended as a reward and was regarded as being quite old and in poor health. The Empress had intended for the two of them to die that night, forcing them to stay in the Ice Palace naked, but they survived. Though Russian legend suggested that the two survived because of their overpowering love, the truth is that the maid most likely bribed one of the guards for a coat and died two days after the event.
The Empress also loved to force her noblemen to act like fools and sit in giant nests. She even went so far as to cover them all in feathers, all for her own entertainment.
4. Peter the Great Practiced Dentistry on his Subjects
In his youth, Peter the Great made a two-year pilgrimage to Holland and various other western countries. He came back to the Russian Empire with more than a few ideas on how to improve the lives of his citizens, such as his decree that all skates should be fixed to shoes with rivets instead of ropes and belts. He also brought back tulips and instituted a garden office.
He also had a collection of teeth pulled from his own subjects. Yes, Peter was very interested in the sciences, and this new concept of dentistry fascinated him to such a degree that Peter couldn’t help but order his servants and courtiers to be subjects in his practice, often pulling healthy teeth from the mouths of his “patients.”
3. Secret Police and Nicholas I
Nicholas I was an extremely paranoid man. Following the revolt of December 14, 1825, it was clear to the Emperor that the successful revolutions from abroad had emboldened the people of Russia, threatening the autocratic rule which had been the standard since Ivan the Terrible.
This paranoia inspired him to ensure that his reign would be impervious to the threat of revolting citizenry. And so, he created a secret police force that would spy on not only his courtiers but also his own citizens.
The secret police of Russia banished political criminals to remote regions and operated state prisons for people that they deemed to be “state criminals.” Nicholas I’s secret police were also responsible for carrying out acts of censorship and led to the arrest of many Narodniki (Populists), who had moved into the countryside to improve their own station.
Ironically, Nicholas I’s paranoia and his secret police inspired the very political terrorists that he feared to rise and revolt.
2. Empress Elizabeth of Russia Forced People to Cross-dress
As we established before, Empress Elizabeth was a bit unhinged. But apparently, she also had great legs, and was tired of not being able to show them off.
Crossdressing balls were popular in Europe, where men and women would don the attire of the opposite sex and wear masks during the whole affair. Empress Elizabeth took this to a whole new level, forcing members of her court to dress in drag and attend balls without the comfort of the anonymity offered by masks.
Most of her subjects hated these events. The only person who seemed to benefit from them was Elizabeth herself, who her courtiers regarded as being the best-dressed person at these Metamorphoses balls, often commenting that she never looked more complete than when she appeared as a man.
1. Bulletproof Vests and the Romanov Executions
During their escape attempt, the royal family attempted to smuggle out a collection of diamonds by sewing them into their underwear. This effectively made their bloomers bulletproof. While it is most likely true that the diamonds aided the Romanovs (including Grand Duchess Anastasia) by protecting them from the initial spray of bullets, it only staved off the inevitable and most historians seem to agree that they only inspired their killers to implore much more extreme methods in their executions.
Because of this fact, it’s often been rumored that Anastasia escaped her execution, leading to countless imposters claiming to be the Grand Duchess (and inspiring a certain fairy tale). This is most definitely not true, as each of those who claimed to be the Duchess proved to be total imposters.