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Incomparable Princess: Catherine the Great

Updated on March 11, 2016

Catherine the Great

Fyodor Rokotov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Fyodor Rokotov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mother Russia

Incomparable Princess: Catherine the Great

Anything had to be better than living at the Prussian court—that might have been what Princess Sophie Augusta Frederika felt on a daily basis. Born May 2, 1729, the German daughter of the prince of Anhalt-Zerbst and his wife, Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, Sophie wasn’t loved by her mother. Johanna was a cruel woman, known to be physically abusive, and the only interest she ever seemed to show in her daughter was her relentless quest to see Sophie as empress of their rival country, Russia.

With a person like that as a mother, it’s no wonder that Sophie jumped at the chance to meet the Russian empress Elizabeth. The whole pretext for the meeting was for the Empress to screen Sophie as a potential wife for her adopted son (also her grandson and Sophie’s second cousin) and heir Peter, but the Empress was so charmed by the intelligence and wit of this fifteen year old princess that she wasted no time in introducing her to sixteen year old Peter.

Peter, however, had no interest.

Sophie had heard rumors that the future czar of Russia was something of an idiot, and when she met him … she realized he truly was an idiot. He was extremely immature for his age, finding more fun with playing with his toy soldiers—actually playing with them—and tormenting his servants and members of the court with mean practical jokes and rude noises. On top of that, Peter was badly disfigured from smallpox, and as a result of that he had very poor self confidence which, as a result of that, also made him a very heavy drinker. Even though she was aware of all of that, Sophie decided that she would make up for his imbecilic ways by devoting herself to learning Russian, study state politics, law, philosophy, and convert to Russian Orthodox Christianity.

And besides … no one could possibly be worse than her own mother.

On August 12, 1745, Peter and Sophie were married in the Cathedral of Kazan, where she took the name Ekaterina (Catherine) Alexeyevna and was crowned Grand Duchess—making her the second most powerful woman in Russia after Empress Elizabeth. Now Catherine, she knew that her first and foremost responsibility was to produce an heir, and on her wedding night, with the nobility waiting impatiently outside the door, she tried to take Peter to bed, using all of the feminine charms she had learned in preparation for this.

In response, Peter dragged out his toy soldiers and enacted an elaborate battle scene right there on the quilts. He had absolutely zero interest in doing his duty—that is, fathering a future czar—and when an embarrassed Catherine persisted he shook her off. At a loss—and likely very worried—Catherine could do nothing but go to sleep.

Six years passed. Nearly every night passed the same way: Catherine would try everything she could to interest Peter into having sex, and every time he’d shun her. As time went on Peter began to truly resent and hate Catherine, often walking up to her while she was distracted and kicking her as hard as he could. He was utterly determined not to have anything to do with her, so as a result, six years later Catherine was still a virgin. Catherine was fearful that Empress Elizabeth—who demanded an heir—would become frustrated with Catherine and order Peter to divorce her so he could marry someone else. That would mean that Catherine was lose everything, including the country she had grown to love, and return home to her vicious mother and absent father.

Unbeknownst to Catherine (or at least according to her memoirs), Empress Elizabeth was hell-bent on getting another heir, one way or another. Seeing that Catherine often spent her time alone riding, the Empress arranged for her to meet an army officer named Sergei Saltykov, and have them go riding together. Saltykov was extremely handsome and charismatic—as well as under orders to impregnate Catherine—and soon he and Catherine began a passionate affair. The affair was successful in getting Catherine pregnant, and, while not a single person believed that numbskulled Peter was the father, not a single person said a word about it; anybody would be better than Peter to start a family, and so much better to become czar in the future. And as it turned out, their son Paul strongly resembled Peter anyway … something the Empress was probably counting on.

Catherine barely had a chance to enjoy being a mother when Empress Elizabeth arrived to take infant Paul away. The Empress publicly declared that neither Catherine nor Peter were fit parents, and she would raise the child herself. The loss of her child was a brutal blow to Catherine, but in time she came to realize that, now that her position was secure and Peter wasn’t going demand anything from her, Catherine now had time to use how she saw fit. She used that time at court, learning politics, and spent hours studying and reading. And she spent more time with men. Lots of men.

It was about this time that Peter decided that he liked women after all and began an affair with Countess Elizabeth Vorontsova, making no attempt to hide it from anyone. He flaunted the countess before the court, and soon a rumor began to spread that the future czar was going to divorce Catherine in order to marry Countess Elizabeth, which worried the nobles; they liked Catherine, and they liked her much more than they liked Peter. Of the two of them, Catherine seemed like the only one capable of running the state. It seems that Peter caught wind of this, as his antagonism towards Catherine began to steadily worsen.

Catherine II by I.Argunov

Catherine II by I.Argunov
Catherine II by I.Argunov

Disgusted with Peter’s behavior, Catherine found the best way for her to find refuge was to spend time with Empress Elizabeth and her son, Paul. During this time Catherine and the empress became very close, and when Empress Elizabeth died in 1762 Catherine was devastated. Maintaining her composure, Catherine wore black to funeral and acted with solemn dignity, while Peter constantly disrupted the proceedings by making ridiculous faces and shouting. Catherine was mortified, but Peter didn’t care—with Empress Elizabeth dead, he was now Czar Peter III, and he could do whatever he wanted.

Peter had grown up in Prussia, and was always more inclined towards the Prussians than to his own people. Not long after he had been crowned emperor, Peter immediately ended the Seven Years War, a long war the Russians had fought with the Prussians and the truce he drafted favored Prussia over his own country. He even made his military discard their customary uniforms and dress in Prussian blue coats, then lent several hundred troops to Prussia in order to fight and capture Austria, which then made Prussian King Frederik II extremely powerful. Whatever progressive changes Peter made were overshadowed by the fact that in the end, he despised being Russian, he willingly gave much of his power and resources to Russia’s enemies, and that his 220 new laws and reforms impoverished many noble families, leading to intense hatred of him.

Furthermore, Peter’s behavior towards Catherine was increasingly vicious, until one day he cruelly insulted her as she played cards with her current lover, Grigori Orlov and his brother who, along with two other brothers were all military officers in the Russian army and good friends with Catherine. Grigori and his brother Aleksy were horrified by Peter’s words, and Catherine became even more frightened, convinced that the spoiled brat of a czar was going to have her killed. The brothers again began to insist that they should overthrow Peter, and when one of their fellow conspirators was captured by Peter’s agents, they knew they had to act—and Catherine agreed.

Catherine the Great by Russian by Fyodor Rokotov

Catherine the Great by Russian by Fyodor Rokotov
Catherine the Great by Russian by Fyodor Rokotov

In the early morning hours of July 14, 1762, as Catherine laid wide awake in bed waiting, Aleksy clambered through her bedroom window and whispered that the time to act was now. Dressing quickly in her funerary clothes (as custom, as she was still supposed to be mourning for Empress Elizabeth), Catherine followed Aleksy out the window to the garden below, where the Orlov brothers hurried her out of the palace grounds. Mounting their horses, they rushed to the headquarters of the Ismailovsky Regiment, and Catherine addressed the soldiers, asking if they would march with her. The answer was unanimous.

Quickly donning a green Russian soldier’s uniform and hat over her clothes and riding a white horse, Catherine led the way through Moscow back to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Along the way more and more men came spilling out of the streets, cheering her on, wanting to see the detested emperor taken down. Her army surrounded the palace, and the shocked Peter surrendered without a fight. Catherine had won her coup d’etat without spilling a drop of blood.

In quick succession, Catherine was crowned Empress Catherine II on Sept. 22, 1762, and Peter was rapidly taken away, secluded in Rophe Castle, his reign having lasted only six months. Pete died there in prison, reportedly of either colic, a drunken brawl, suicide or hemorrhoids, though we can safely assume that he had been assassinated there under the orders of Catherine or Grigori Orlov. Around this time the imprisoned, dethroned Czar Ivan VI was killed as well, ostensibly to remove any challenge to Catherine’s throne despite the fact he was too insane to rule. This all understandably made Catherine’s son Paul very frightened of her, and when Catherine saw that she could not bond with the child (in other words, trust), she had him removed from the court and placed under house arrest.

Catherine dedicated herself to being empress and aiding her adopted country; she woke up early and prepared herself by washing her face with ice cubes and drinking five cups of coffee before working ten hours every day and going to bed early. Early in her reign, Catherine decided that she wanted to know how many towns were in Russia, and was stunned to discover that no one knew. Deciding to find out for herself, Catherine called for a map and was shocked when she told that there weren’t any maps of Russia at all!

Hearing that, Catherine began a complete overhaul of Russia; she ordered that the population be tallied, the towns counted and maps be drawn. She established new hospitals, improved hospital conditions, promoted vaccinations (she was the first person in Russia to receive the smallpox vaccine, doing it to prove that it was safe), improved agriculture and trade, wrote new guidelines for laws, eased religious persecution of Jews (though she remained firmly anti-Muslim), tripled the number of factories opened, reorganized the military and navy, founded Russia’s first medical school, founded the first all girls’ school (and personally paid the tuition of those who couldn’t afford it), appointed women to important government posts and commissioned the first Russian dictionary. She expanded the borders of Russia by capturing the Ukraine and Crimea (yes, she’s partially responsible for all that) and doubled the population of Russia. Catherine even regularly appeared at these battles to bolster her soldiers’ spirits, devised the strategy the Russian fleet used to surprise the Ottomans (sailing 5,000 miles around Europe to surprise them), scored seventy-eight military victories, and somehow found time to write essays, operas, memoirs and even the first children’s story book ever written in Russian. That’s a lot for thirty-four years!

All the same, there were problems; Catherine’s two objects in her reign was to make Russia wealthy by expanding its borders, and to keep her position secure. While she accomplished the expansion of Russia, in order to keep the nobles’ favor Catherine declared that they were exempt from taxes and now had greater power of the serfs. That thrilled the nobles, but it also meant that the taxes landed hard on the serfs, poor peasant farmers who worked for the nobility and were little better than slaves. The serfs were outraged that now they had to pay the nobles’ taxes as well as their own, as well as having to suffer even further abuse from the nobility, and in 1773 they revolted. Their leader, Yemelyan Pugachev, claimed to be the dethroned emperor Peter III, and told the Cossack people that Catherine had ordered an attempt on his life but he had escaped and had lived amongst them all as a serf, planning his rebellion. Since none of the serfs had ever seen the real Peter III, they largely all believed him and willingly followed him into war. Catherine was incensed that not only would anyone try to stand up against her, but that they dared to do so using the name of her imbecile ex-husband, and she threw her forces against the unprepared farmers. Two years later, thousands of Cossack peasants were dead, and Pugachev was captured, executed, dismembered and burned.

Throughout this all Catherine was never alone. Catherine and Grigori never married, but Catherine did give birth to his son Aleksy later in 1762. After one of her friends caught Grigori cheating on the empress with another woman in 1772, an outraged Catherine had him permanently thrown out of the palace. She soon began a relationship with Grigori Potemkin, a military officer and war hero, whom she first met before the coup in 1762, when he offered up his sash for her to wear her sword on. Potemkin had been fighting in Crimea when Catherine wrote to him, asking for help with the Cossack rebels and with her own son, who seemed to be gathering forces of his own. Potemkin, having been in love with Catherine for years, more than happily rushed back to Moscow to meet with her, leading to a relationship that lasted until 1782, when Potemkin became ill and died. He seems to have been the best match for Catherine in all ways, and though they never married, she loved him and respected his opinions so much that he ruled as unofficial emperor beside her.

It’s no secret that Catherine had a very active love life, taking between an estimated twelve to twenty different men to her room and bearing three children with three different fathers (she had a daughter named Anna with Polish nobleman Stanislaw Poniatowski, but the child died in infancy). She never married any of them, and each relationship lasted about two to twelve years, after which Catherine presented them with a palace as a consolation prize of sorts. She preferred younger men, and thoroughly enjoyed tutoring them in politics.

Catherine loved art and allegedly had a special affinity for erotic types of art as well; according to one story, during World War 2, a group of Nazi soldiers broke into one of her palaces and were flabbergasted to see the amount of erotica she had put on display in one room. Naturally, the art vanished, nothing has apparently resurfaced and no one is certain which palace the collection might have been contained in. She has been called “the Messalina of the North,” after Roman emperor Claudius’s debauched wife, but Catherine wasn’t anything like that at all, and it’s sad that for all the good she did—single-handedly dragging Russia out of the Middle Ages and making it a phenomenal world power in thirty-four years—all anyone ever really seems obsessed about it her sex life … particularly whether or not she died while having sex with a horse.

Newsflash: she didn’t.

Let me state it very clearly here: Empress Catherine did not die by being crushed to death by a horse while engaging in some sick event, and shame on you if you ever for one moment thought that was true. That was a rumor created by her enemies—her male enemies, from across Europe—who wanted to defame her because she was a woman who defied convention by ruling by herself, who was unbelievably successful and unashamed of her sexuality in a time where a Russian man could legally cut his wife’s nose off if she did anything to anger him.

That’s the kind of woman-hating behavior Catherine the Great and other women like her faced daily. She might not have been in any danger of having her nose cut off, but these were the men under her rule.

What did happen to Catherine? On November 17, 1769, the extraordinary empress suffered a stroke while bathing and died the next day at the age of 67. A British ambassador at her court remarked, “Last night … this incomparable princess finished her brilliant career.”

With Catherine gone, everyone assumed that one of her beloved grandchildren would take the throne as czar, but instead her son Paul took the throne himself and immediately began to cancel many of her policies and laws.

Maybe he really was Peter III’s son after all.

Catherine the Great works referenced:

Bad Girls, Jan Stradling 2008

Lives of Extraordinary Women, Kathleen Krull et al 2000

The Usborne Book of Famous Women, Phillipa Wingate, 1997

Catherine the Great; Portrait of a Woman, Robert K. Massie

Warrior Women, Robin Cross & Rosalind Miles 2011


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