To understand the situation Anna Leopoldovna’s daughters, or rather yet all four of her children, ended up in, we must begin at the beginning. In this case, the beginning is Ivan V of Russia. He had been born in 1666 and was the elder half-brother of Peter the Great. Ivan suffered from physical and mental problems, and his brother Peter was his co-monarch from the beginning of his reign. However, these problems did not deter him from marrying Praskovia Saltykova and fathering five daughters. By the end of his life, still only 27 years old, he was described as almost blind, senile and paralysed. After his death, he was succeeded by his brother, Peter, who was favoured by a council of Russian nobles. Peter the Great had two wives, with whom he had fourteen children, but only three of them survived to adulthood. His eldest and only surviving son died in prison, for conspiring a rebellion against his father. He left behind a daughter and a son. Peter the Great also had two surviving daughters.
When Peter the Great died in 1725, he was succeeded first succeeded by his second wife, whom he had crowned as co-ruler in 1724. She died just two years later and was succeeded by her step-grandson, Peter II, who was still a minor. In late December 1729, he fell dangerously ill with smallpox. He died on 30 January 1730. His sister Natalia had died at the age of 14 in 1728. The line of Peter the Great’s son was now extinct. The possible heirs to the throne were now all female. This included the two daughters of Peter the Great, Anna (born 1708) and Elizabeth (born 1709) and the three surviving daughters of Ivan V, Catherine (born 1691), Anna (born 1693) and Praskovya (born 1694). Though perhaps the daughters of Ivan V appeared to have the better claim as the daughters of an elder brother, Russia looked to see which one was the nearest of kin of the most recent monarch and the daughters of Peter the Great were nearer as they were the aunts of Peter II. However, they had been born out of wedlock and were only legitimized upon their parents’ marriage.
The Russian Supreme Privy Council settled on Anna, the second daughter of Ivan V in preference to her elder sister Catherine. Anna was the safest choice, as she had no foreign husband and had experience in government. Catherine was separated from her husband, but had a daughter, Anna Leopoldovna, with him. Anna ruled Russia until her death ten years later. Meanwhile, Anne Leopoldovna, born as Elisabeth Katharina Christine of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, had converted to Russian Orthodoxy in order to make her more acceptable as a successor and in 1739 she had married Duke Anthony Ulrich of Brunswick, with whom she had a son in 1740. It was this son that Anna nominated as her successor in 1740. He succeeded her, with Ernest Biron, Duke of Courland as his regent. Anna Leopoldovna managed to remove him as regent and installed herself, taking on the title of “Grand Duchess”. Anna soon would have to face a more powerful opponent.
Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great, enjoyed much popularity from the Russian Guards Regiments and they repaid her kindness by helping her seize power on the night of 25 November 1741. The infant Ivan VI and his parents were arrested. Anna had just given birth to her second child, a daughter named Catherine. It was a daring but bloodless coup. They were first imprisoned in the fortress of Dünamünde near Riga and then exiled to Kholmogory on the Northern Dvina river. While imprisoned Anna gave birth to three more children, Elizabeth (1743), Peter (1745) and Alexei (1746). Anna died shortly after giving birth to Alexei. She was still only 27 years old. Her son Ivan VI spent his life as a prisoner, and he was killed in 1764 during an attempt to free him. In 1762 Anthony Ulrich was offered the chance to leave Russia, but he refused to leave without his children. He died in 1774. Imprisonment was hard for them, they lacked many necessities, and communications were cut off.
Anna Leopoldovna’s remaining children Catherine, Elizabeth, Peter and Alexei were eventually released into the custody of their aunt, the Danish Dowager Queen Juliana Maria of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel.
The eldest daughter, Catherine, became deaf after being dropped in the chaos during Elizabeth’s coup. She was sickly from birth and suffered from bouts of seizures. Elizabeth was described as plump and energetic with a dominant personality, though physically weak. Peter was described as lopsided, bow-legged and consumptive. Alexei too suffered from seizures. They settled in Jutland for the rest of their lives, though reportedly they were never visited by their aunt. Catherine was the last to die in 1807.