Happy Birthday to Catherine the Great!

Extract from The Jezebel Effect:

 

Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, was neither Russian nor born into a royal family. She came into the world on April 21, 1729 [May 2 in the Western calendar] as the first child of a minor Prussian noble and was christened Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst. Her father, Christian August, was the third son of the ruler of the Prussian principality know as Anhault-Zerbst. Her mother, Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, was a younger daughter of another principality ruler …

Empress_Catherine_The_Great_circa_1845_(George_Christoph_Grooth)

Peter the Great’s daughter Elizabeth had become Empress of Russia in 1741 after deposing the infant Tsar Ivan VI. Elizabeth had once been engaged to Johanna’s older brother, who had died of smallpox before they could wed. Seizing the opportunity afforded by the empress’s fond memories of her dead fiancée, Johanna wrote to congratulate Elizabeth when she came to power. After an exchange of portraits and much kowtowing on Johanna’s part, she was invited to bring her daughter Sophie to the Russian court to meet the heir to the throne, Elizabeth’s nephew the Grand Duke Peter von Holstein-Gottorp in 1744.

Sophie had already been introduce to Peter, who was her maternal second cousin, four years prior while he was still living in Prussia … Whatever would happen between them later, Sophie and Peter were initially allies. Although Peter told his bride-to-be that he was only marrying her to please the empress and that he loved another girl, he also assured her that he liked her and that he was glad to have someone to talk to in German. Catherine herself would later affirm that her fiancée did everything he could to help her adjust to the new life into which she had been thrust …

 

Sophie had to convert to the Orthodox Russian Church before she could marry the heir to the throne. This, happily, did not prove to be a difficulty for her … The day after her conversion the formal betrothal of the grand duke Peter and the newly renamed Catherine took place … Empress Elizabeth [now] had more control over Catherine’s life than even her parents had ever had. Elizabeth could disinherit Peter and/or send Catherine packing in ignominy on a whim. For the next twenty years Catherine would have to work harder to please the empress than she would anyone else, including her husband Peter …

The date of Catherine and Peter’s marriage was set for the following summer, but the bride was anything other than excited about her impending nuptials. The thought of her wedding made her “melancholy” and she wrote that she “often burst into tears without really knowing why” … Elizabeth was warned by court physicians that Peter, although 17 years old, was too physically immature and unhealthy to be married, but the empress was determined to have the couple wed that summer no matter what. As a sexual enthusiast herself, Elizabeth assumed that — the doctors’ warnings of immaturity or not — once Peter was put to bed with his pretty bride then nature would take its course and more heirs would be added to the Russian court. The empress failed to take into account her nephew’s nervousness and delayed puberty, as well as the fact that the bride was utterly and completely clueless about any possible seduction techniques she could use to encourage the groom …

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Trapped in a sexless marriage with a man she was increasingly growing estranged from, Catherine was emotionally, physically, and psychologically vulnerable for an affair. Sure enough, in the late summer of 1752 she was seduced by an experience and handsome womanizer named Sergei Saltykov … most of Europe assumed that Saltykov was the man responsible for the grand duchess’s first three pregnancies. Although Catherine miscarried twice, on September 20, 1754 she gave birth to a son, the future Paul I of Russia. Peter never repudiated his wife or rejected his heir … Empress Elizabeth seized the newborn, not even giving Catherine a chance to hold him once, and took complete charge of his care and upbringing. Catherine was able to see her son only on rare occasions. By the spring of 1755 she had only seen her baby three times; she couldn’t even ask about him lest it be “interpreted as casting doubt on the care the empress was taking of him” …

Catherine’s marriage had gone from bad to hellish. Peter, who had fallen in love with Elizaveta Romanovna Vorontsova, had started treating Catherine horribly …Empress Elizabeth died on January 5, 1762. Peter was now the emperor of Russia, and Catherine’s position was tenuous … Encouraged by his uncouth mistress, Peter had been treating Catherine worse daily … At the end of the month, Peter drove the nail into his own political coffin by publically humiliating Catherine and then drunkenly ordering her arrest. Peter hosted a state dinner and called his empress “dura!” (fool) in front of everyone present. Catherine burst into tears from embarrassment and begged a nearby count to tell her something funny so she could recover. That same night a rumor swept through the courtiers that Peter had ordered Catherine’s arrest, and had only been dissuaded from that course of action by his field marshal Prince Georg Ludwig of Holstein-Gottorp, who happened to be the empress’s uncle …

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On June 28, 1762 (18 years to the day after her conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church) Catherine … rushed to St. Petersburg, where she went straight to the barracks of the Izmailovskii Guards. Colonel Kyril Razumovsky knelt before her, and then administered an oath of allegiance to Catherine II to his fellow guardsmen. The Semyonovsky guards quickly joined her cause as well. The troops escorted her as she rode to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan on the Nevsky Prospekt, where the archbishop of Novgorod proclaimed her the ruler of Russia. Catherine then marched with crowds of her adherents to the Winter Palace …

Dressed as an officer of the Preobrazhensky Guard, Catherine and her followers rode to Oranienbaum. When Peter III heard that Catherine was marching toward him with a large number of soldiers, he sent away everyone but Vorontsova (who would not abandon him) and wrote Catherine a letter of apology promising to share power with her. When he didn’t get a prompt response, Peter wrote again to Catherine offering to abdicate if she would let him and Vorontsova flee to Holstein. Catherine sent him a message that she needed him to give her his abdication in writing before she would let him go. Either credulous enough to think Catherine would let him go or just desperate, Peter wrote his abdication …

coup of Catherine the great

Like other rulers in history, such as Henry VII in England, she had taken a very shaky claim to the crown and put herself on the throne via a mixture of will-power, military might, and political maneuvering. It wasn’t a very nice thing to do to her husband, but people don’t survive at the epicenter of power by being nice … [Peter was murdered without Catherine’s knowledge while her captive] … Catherine, hoping to quell accusations and censure, proclaimed that Peter had died of hemorrhoid colic. Very, very few people in Europe believed her story …

She was one of the strongest and most capable rulers Russia, and the world, has ever known. She dragged Russia into its place as a modern European state. She rationalized and reformed Russian law and government. She instituted the Charters of the Nobility and the Townspeople in 1785. The Charters were significant. Although “restricted to the upper and middle classes, the Charters were the first fruit of Enlightenment though about the rights and duties of the citizen to be enacted into Russian law” (Bushkovitch, 2011).

She was profoundly concerned with child health and life expectancy among her subjects. She wrote, “If you go to a village and ask a peasant how many children he has he will say ten, twelve, and sometimes even twenty. If you ask how many of them are alive, he will say, one, two, three, rarely four. This mortality should be fought against” (Massie, 2011). To combat this problem Catherine exponentially increased the number of schools and hospitals in her country, and introduced institutional orphanages in Moscow and St. Petersburg. She founded Russia’s first College of Medicine in 1763 and attempted to lure European doctors to the country by offering them lavish salaries and benefits. Furthermore, Catherine embraced the new technology of vaccination.

The empress made Russia one of the first countries in the world to inoculate its populace. To prove its safety she allowed Dr. Thomas Dimsdale to inoculate her with the smallpox vaccine in 1764. The whole of Russia waited to see what would happen, and after “two weeks of fearful waiting … Catherine did not succumb to the dreadful disease … special prayers of thanksgiving were offered in Russian churches” (Gorbatov, 2006). Catherine’s courageous efforts to popularize inoculations against smallpox saved countless lives.

She was also an able military strategist. Her armies trounced the Ottoman Empire twice, subjugated the Cossacks, and took the Ukraine as well as huge swathes of Poland. Catherine’s able minister, Potemkin, negotiated so well with Turkey that Russia was able annex the Crimea without firing a shot. There, with Catherine’s blessings, Potemkin created prosperous villages and fortified cities. Although these would be mocked by his enemies as “Potemkin Villages” painted on cardboard, the settlements were very real (Massie, 2011). Russian land acquisitions gave the country easy access to the Black Sea; Catherine financed Potemkin’s yen for a naval force, thereby enabling Slavic domination of the area for decades. Russian ships did well in the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea as well, beating the Swedish navy like a drum. During the Russian-Swedish war, Catherine “showed the steel nerves that had brought her to the throne … Hearing the guns of the Swedish fleet from her palace windows, she continued to work without giving them any notice” (Bushkovitch, 2011).

 

The empress was the “greatest collector and patron of art in the history of Europe” (Massie, 2011). She built the Hermitage Museum and multiple other public works, founded libraries, started academic journals, and won the respect of Voltaire himself. Among the works she acquired were “approximately 4,000 Old Masters, which included 225 painting offered to Catherine after Frederick the Great [of Prussia] could not afford to buy them and the eight Rembrandts, six Van Dycks, three Rubens, and one Raphael in the Pierre Crozat collection. Catherine also bought coins and medals, objets de vertu, applied art and porcelain, of which one of the most spectacular examples was the 944-piece Green Frog Service, 1773-1774 by Josiah Wedgwood, featuring British scenes” (Perrie et al., 2006). The empress not only supported the arts, she made them. Catherine found time to write neoclassical comedies and French dramas, all while fulfilling her role as the autocrat of Russia.

Yet what is this remarkable woman most remembered for? Her lovers.

And her mythical, infamous dalliance with her own horse.

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