Chapter 1, Birth


This is the modern day replica of the Ice Palace, built to look exactly like the original and now serving as an attraction

The account of Prince Alexander’s conception is a fairly accurate reproduction of a true historical event. I first stumbled upon it in an article Ice Renaissance by Elif Batuman, published in The New Yorker in 2006. The article described the original Ice Palace as well as its “second life” in our time as a popular attraction.


An Oil painting by Valery Yakobi.
A typical day of a nobleman-jester at Empress Anna Ioannovna’s court. The Empress is is poor health, lying in her bed. Can the nobles who play cards at the foot of the bed wholeheartedly enjoy the spectacle? Don’t they know they may be next? O tempora! O mores! Sometimes, they never change.

The jester wedding had indeed happened and the bride and groom were exactly as described. The hapless groom was a nobleman by birth, belonging to an old aristocratic family whose sir name I have slightly altered in the book. Prince, or KNYAZ, in Russian, was the family’s hereditary title (the Russian title “Prince” is analogous to the “Duke” in European aristocracy and does not refer to an heir to the throne. The latter is called the Grand Prince, or the Grand Duke). Our Prince had apparently been punished for converting into Catholicism in order to marry and Italian girl twenty years his junior. He returned to Russia with his Italian wife and kept her existence a secret for, perhaps, several years. Sooner or later the Empress learned about the “ungodly” union and annulled the marriage. The Italian fell off the face of the earth (deported or “disappeared”), and the Prince found himself in a very humiliating position. A 19th century Russian painter Valery Yakobi depicted him taking part in horseplay (as a “horse”) in front of the Empress (above, right).

The wedding was the Empress’s idea of educational entertainment. An engraving from the period (below on the right) depicts the bride and groom as being transported to the Ice Palace in a cage atop of an elephant. Yes, there was one, a gift from the Persian Shah.


The wedding procession, with the bride and groom driven in a cage mounted on an elephant (top image). Below is the floor plan of the Ice Palace.


In the wedding chamber, about to be left alone for the night. (An oil painting by Yakobi.)







Another painting by Yakobi shows the newlyweds just before being left in their wedding chamber to consummate the marriage on an ice slab. The dancing woman in front of them is the Empress herself.
It is a historical fact that the two unfortunates managed to conceive a male child on their wedding night and that the marriage was short-lived. From there on, the book no longer strictly adheres to the family’s facts, insofar as they are known, and takes an imaginary though entirely plausible — typical of the day and age — path.

Of course those were rude times; in the neighboring state of Prussia, Frederick William I though more frugal, was quite as coarse and cruel in his humor, and even in France and England manners were far from mild. Nevertheless from a point of view of grossness and cruelty, self-indulgence and barbaric luxuriousness, Russia was preeminent.

The Life of Catherine the Great of Russia, E.A. Brayley Hodgetts, Ney York, Brentano’s, 1914.
(digitized by Google)
Go on to Chapter 2