Catherine the Great
Love, Sex, and Power
By Virginia Rounding
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2007 Virginia Rounding
All rights reserved.
CATHERINE THE GREAT (1: From Feudal Anthill to the Court of Russia (1729–44))
Her demeanour was marked by such nobility and grace, that I would have admired her even if she hadn’t been to me what she is.
Princess Johanna of Holstein-Gottorp on her daughter,
the future Catherine II
The woman who became Catherine II, the Great, Empress of All the Russias, was born Sophie Frederica Auguste of Anhalt-Zerbst on 21 April Old Style, 2 May New Style, 1729, in the Baltic port of Stettin in Pomerania (now Szczecin in northwest Poland). She was the first child of her 39-year-old father Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst and her 17-year-old mother Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Sophie and Auguste were the names of one of the baby’s great-grandmothers on her father’s side, while Frederica – which may also have been chosen as a mark of respect to Prince Christian August’s patron, King Frederick William of Prussia – was the name of both one of her mother’s elder sisters and her mother’s paternal grandmother.
Anhalt-Zerbst and Holstein-Gottorp were two of the 300 or so tiny sovereign states, or principalities, of which the area roughly covered by present-day Germany consisted in the eighteenth century. The prerevolutionary Russian historian V.O. Klyuchevsky describes these endlessly dividing and subdividing states, with their ‘princes of Brunswick-Luneberg and Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel; of Saxe-Romburg, Saxe-Coburg, Saxe-Gotha, and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg-Strelitz; of Schleswig-Holstein, Holstein-Gottorp, and Gottorp-Eutin; of Anhalt-Dessau, Anhalt-Zerbst, and Zerbst-Dornburg’, as ‘an archaic feudal anthill’. Everyone in these noble families seems to have been related to everyone else, even if only through marriage and at several removes. (Many of them also seem to have had the same Christian names, in different combinations, which can be very confusing.) There were also many cross-border allegiances, the members of one princely house serving in the army or civil service of a more powerful one and being rewarded with money, position or influence. Prince Christian August’s father, who had died in 1704, was Prince Johann Ludwig of Anhalt-Zerbst, himself the son of Prince Johann of Anhalt-Zerbst and Princess Sophie Auguste of Holstein-Gottorp. Sophie’s mother’s side of the family was rather more elevated, with closer connections to the occupants of thrones; one of Princess Johanna’s great-grandfathers had been King Frederick III of Denmark. Her father was Christian August, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, who also held the office of Bishop of Lübeck until his death in 1726 (‘Bishop of Lübeck’ was a hereditary title, the bishopric being in the possession of the House of Holstein-Gottorp until the secularisation of 1803). His parents were Christian Albrecht, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, and Frederica Amalie Oldenburg, Princess of Denmark. Johanna’s mother was Albertine Markgräfin of Baden-Durlach, the daughter of Friedrich VII Magnus Markgraf of Baden-Durlach and Princess Auguste Marie of Holstein-Gottorp; she had married Christian August in 1704. Albertine was the only one of Sophie’s grandparents still to be alive at the time of her birth.
For any girl born into this ‘feudal anthill’, competition to make a good marriage and thus secure for her family a better place in the pecking order would be fierce. Sophie always felt that her parents would have preferred a boy as their firstborn, but that nevertheless her father at least was pleased by her arrival in the world. Throughout her life she retained a great respect for Prince Christian August, thinking of him as a model of integrity, honesty and erudition. One of Christian August’s cousins was Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau (known as the ‘Alte Dessauer’), who had the reputation of being an exceedingly brave soldier and who had assisted the military martinet King Frederick William in devising the 54 movements of Prussian drill, including the ceremonial march-past with unbent leg which came to be known as the goosestep. Prince Leopold was King Frederick William’s most trusted general; Christian August himself, who had also served with distinction in the Prussian army, was not far behind in the King’s esteem. At the time of Sophie’s birth he was the Governor of Stettin, having been sent by King Frederick William to command the garrison there just after his marriage in 1727. He was a serious and austere man and a committed Lutheran, who preferred the company of books to social gatherings.
His young wife Johanna, with her aquiline nose, arched eyebrows and curly fair hair, was of a different character altogether. She had been brought up at the Court of Brunswick by her godmother and aunt by marriage, Elizabeth Sophie Marie, the Duchess of Brunswick-Lüneberg, to whom the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp had been happy to relinquish one of his several daughters. Johanna had grown up on the same footing as the Duchess of Brunswick-Lüneberg’s own daughter, and it was the Duchess who arranged her marriage at the age of 15 and provided her dowry. It would be an anachronism to draw any psychological conclusion from the fact that the young Johanna married in 1727 a man old enough to be her father and who had the same Christian names as her own father, who had died in the previous year; nevertheless, it is true to say that there was something of a father-daughter relationship between Sophie’s rather ill-matched parents.
Johanna found her existence with her sober middle-aged husband in the misty grey town of Stettin at the mouth of the river Oder a far cry from the livelier atmosphere she had grown used to at the Court of Brunswick. In Stettin the Governor and his family lived in the ducal castle (now known as the Castle of the Pomeranian Princes), a sixteenth-century granite building in the main square. The city offered little scope to a young woman who hankered after an exciting social life. Neither did the advent of her first child appear to bring Johanna much joy. Her attitude towards Sophie was always ambivalent. The birth had been difficult, and Johanna appears to have felt the reward was insufficient for what she had had to endure; according to her daughter, she almost died in the process and it took her 19 weeks to recover.
The infant Sophie, who had very fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, was handed over to a wet-nurse and placed in the overall charge of ‘the widow of a certain Herr von Hohendorf’, who also acted as a companion to Johanna. Frau von Hohendorf did not retain her position for long, failing in her relations with both the child and her mother. She was given to shouting, with the result that the small girl got into the habit of ignoring any order unless it was said repeatedly and in a very loud voice. Sophie was rescued from incipient uncontrollability, however, by the advent of the Cardel sisters, part of a family of Huguenot refugees. The elder sister, Magdeleine, who had charge of her until she was about four years old, did not succeed in capturing the child’s affection, but her successor, her younger sister Elizabeth, usually known as Babet, was able to win her over and secured a lasting place in her memory and in the pantheon of people she believed to have influenced her for good. Sophie saw little of her father, though she seems to have been sure of his rather distant affection (‘[he] considered me to be an angel’), and even less of her mother, who, she remembers, ‘did not bother much about me’. She had been supplanted in her mother’s affections (if indeed she had ever been in them at all) by the much-desired son, William Christian Frederick, who had arrived 18 months after her own birth. She herself was, as she put it, ‘merely tolerated’ – and at times not even that. Babet Cardel made up for this lack of parental care, taking the little girl – who had become rather spoilt as well as neglected – in hand. She taught her to read, while visiting tutors provided elementary lessons in writing and dancing.
When Sophie was three years old, she had been taken by her parents to visit her grandmother Albertine in Hamburg. An even more exciting event took place when she was four: King Frederick William of Prussia came to visit the small Court at Stettin, and little Sophie was instructed to greet him formally by kissing the hem of his coat. She was, however, too short to reach it, a fact about which she claims to have complained audibly, blaming the King for not wearing a longer coat; the incident remained in Frederick William’s memory so that subsequently he always asked after her. Sophie suffered the usual round of childhood accidents, including having a toy cupboard fall on her and almost sticking a pair of scissors in her eye. In early childhood she was subject to outbreaks of a skin disease which would now be called impetigo. When the rash appeared on her hands she wore gloves until the scabs fell off, and when her scalp became affected she had to have her hair shaved off and wear a bonnet.
Much of the instruction the young Sophie received consisted of rote learning, which she later came to despise as both bad for the memory and a waste of time; what was the point of learning things by heart, she wondered, when you could just as easily go and look them up in a book? She was taught both French and German, and was also instructed in religion, history and geography by a Lutheran pastor called Wagner, with whom she had several tussles over such questions as whether those who had never had a chance to hear the Gospel – ‘Titus, Marcus Aurelius, and all the great men of antiquity’ – could really be damned for eternity, and the nature of the chaos which preceded creation. The picture the adult woman was keen to produce in her memoirs was of an independent-minded, intellectually courageous child who would not be cowed into accepting received opinion. She also recalls asking the pastor to explain what circumcision was, a question which even the valiant Babet Cardel refused to answer.
Though her mother occasionally hit her, out of impatience and exasperation, corporal punishment was not a routine part of Sophie’s childhood. Pastor Wagner, she claims, wanted her to be flogged for her impertinence in asking too many questions, but Babet Cardel was not authorised to carry out such punishments. Deprived of the rod, the pastor took to the infliction of mental torture instead, frightening the child with stories of hell and damnation until Babet noticed her charge crying by the window and persuaded him to desist. The sensible Babet used the approach of the carrot rather than the stick, rewarding Sophie for good work and behaviour by reading aloud to her.
The adult woman remembered herself as a boisterous child, who would pretend to go to sleep at bedtime but sit up as soon as she was left alone and turn her pillow into an imaginary horse, bouncing up and down on it until she was tired. (It has sometimes been assumed that what she was in fact doing was masturbating; admittedly children sometimes do, but they also pretend pillows are horses…) Her other night-time trick, indulged in when the family was staying at her father’s country estate in Anhalt, consisted of racing up four flights of stone stairs whenever Babet left the room to go to the privy, which was along a short passage, then running back down to throw herself under the covers before the rather stout and slow-moving woman returned.
As Sophie grew older, Johanna seemed to find the company of her little girl more acceptable. In 1736 she took the child to the Court of Brunswick for the first time to meet the woman to whom she owed her own upbringing and marriage, the Duchess Elizabeth Sophie Marie of Brunswick-Lüneberg. Still aged only seven, Sophie greatly enjoyed herself, prattling away, being spoiled and petted and, as she put it herself, ‘insufferably forward’. Johanna was in the habit of staying at this Court for several months of every year (escaping from the boredom of Stettin), and from now on Sophie always went with her. This was where she first experienced the routines and rituals of formal court life, a training which would prove invaluable to her. Around the time of this first visit, she became aware of the kind of future which might await her, and of the possibility of aiming high. In her memoirs she attributes this realisation to comments made by Dr Laurentius Bolhagen, a close friend and adviser of her father. Bolhagen was reading a gazette containing an account of the marriage of Princess Auguste of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, one of Sophie’s second cousins, to the Prince of Wales (in April 1736), and he commented to Babet Cardel: ‘Really, this Princess has been much less carefully brought up than ours; she is not beautiful either, but there she is, destined to become Queen of England! Who knows what future faces ours?’
In the same year, Sophie suffered her first serious illness; from the symptoms she describes – initially a violent cough and sharp chest pains – it was clearly a form of pneumonia. In the same year Johanna also suffered the death of a baby daughter, Auguste. Sophie spent three weeks in bed with a fever, the cough and chest pains continuing, only able to lie on her left side. Such medical treatment as was provided for her was experimental; as she herself recalled: ‘I was given many mixtures to take, but God alone knows what they were!’ When she was finally well enough to get out of bed, it was observed that she had developed a pronounced curvature of the spine. This appears rather to have frightened her parents, who were already having to cope with one disabled child, the elder of Sophie’s two brothers (her second brother, Frederick August, having been born in 1734) being able to walk only with the aid of crutches. It seems more than likely that both children were affected by rickets, a condition where skeletal deformities occur as a result of vitamin D deficiency and a lack of direct sunlight. They were keen to keep the news of Sophie’s apparent deformity within the family; if it were to become public, it would seriously damage her marriage prospects. Her parents’ horrified reaction cannot have done much for Sophie’s already fragile self-confidence. Neither can the bizarre treatment they eventually procured for her. The only local person they could find with a reputation for skill in straightening out ‘dislocations’ was the town’s executioner. After examining Sophie in the greatest secrecy, he ordered that her back and shoulders should be rubbed every day with the saliva of a servant girl, who was under strict orders not to eat anything beforehand. It is possible that the massage may have done Sophie some good, but in addition she was made to wear, night and day, an uncomfortable corset. Curiously, the executioner also gave her a black ribbon to wear round her right arm and shoulder. After about 18 months, Sophie’s spine began to grow straight again, and by the time she was II she was allowed to stop wearing the corset (though it would in any event have been quite normal for a girl of her age and time to wear at least a reinforced bodice to push back the shoulders and thus keep the back flat).
Clearly Sophie’s parents did not believe in mollycoddling their little girl. Neither did they act with much sensitivity. Around the same time that she became ill they decided she was too old for dolls and other toys, so they were all confiscated. The grown woman claims not to have suffered much from this, as she was imaginative enough to turn anything that came to hand into a toy. Arguably, this is where she first learnt how to make the best of a not particularly good situation, how to bide her time, be watchful, retreat into her inner self and prepare for the time when she would be able to act, even though this was hardly a conscious strategy at the age of seven.
In 1737 Sophie and Johanna spent the winter at the Court of Berlin, where Sophie met the wife of Crown Prince Frederick (later Frederick the Great) and his younger brother Prince Henry, the Prince Royal. Two years later mother and daughter paid a visit to Eutin, where Johanna’s elder brother and current Bishop of Lübeck, Adolf Frederick of Holstein-Gottorp, had his official residence. It was on this occasion that the 10-year-old Sophie first met her future husband, the 11-year-old Karl Peter Ulrich, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp.
Karl Peter Ulrich was the grandson of Peter the Great of Russia. His mother, Anna Petrovna Romanova, had been Peter’s daughter by his second wife, Catherine. She had died of consumption at the age of 20, only two months after the birth of her son. The boy’s father, who had died in June 1739 at the age of 39, was Karl Frederick, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, a nephew of Charles XII of Sweden. Since the death of his father, Karl Peter Ulrich had been placed in the charge of his father’s cousin and Sophie’s uncle, Adolf Frederick. He and Sophie were second cousins.
The recently bereaved boy was at this time considered to be something of a prodigy, and was good-looking, well-mannered and courteous. He was also lonely and lost. Starved of affection, and of any female company, he took to the lively and attractive Johanna at once and seemed rather jealous of Sophie. Though Sophie herself took little notice of him, the children’s relatives were already inclined to look upon them as a future couple. It was anticipated that the young Duke would one day become King of Sweden. And naturally Sophie was not averse to the idea that she might one day be a Queen. She had after all been brought up in the assumption that she would marry into some ruling family or other, and the higher her position could be, the better. But though her prospects were reasonable as far as her family connections were concerned, she had doubts about her personal attributes. She did not consider herself to be beautiful (neither Babet nor her parents were given to undue praise or flattery) and realised early on that she would have to learn to make herself attractive in other ways if she was to succeed in the art of pleasing. As yet the prospect of marriage was not a pressing concern. Back in Stettin she continued the routine of lessons with tutors and Babet, and was in no particular hurry to grow up. Various possible suitors were occasionally discussed by her family, among them Prince Henry of Prussia, but she was considered too young for this to be a serious prospect.
In 1742, when Sophie turned 13, several major family events occurred. Prince Christian August suffered a stroke which affected his left side, though he quickly made a reasonable recovery. A greater disaster was the death of Sophie’s 12-year-old brother, William. Johanna was inconsolable, her grief only partially assuaged by the birth a few months later of another daughter, who was given the name Elizabeth in honour of the Empress of Russia, who stood as godmother to the child.
The Empress Elizabeth, who had seized the throne of Russia in a coup in 1741, had longstanding connections with the Holstein-Gottorps. Not only had her sister, Anna Petrovna, been married to Duke Karl Frederick, but she had herself been engaged to marry Johanna’s elder brother, Prince Karl August. This marriage never took place, however, as Karl August died in Russia of smallpox in May 1727, at the age of only 20. Elizabeth, ever a sentimental woman, preserved a romantic memory of her young fiancé, and Johanna had taken care to cultivate the family connection by writing to congratulate her soon after she seized power, wishing her a long reign. The Empress reciprocated to the naming of the new baby after her by sending Johanna a small copy of her own portrait, framed in diamonds.
Prince Christian August’s stroke, William’s death and the birth of little Elizabeth were succeeded by a change of residence. In November 1742 Christian August became joint ruler with his elder brother of Anhalt-Zerbst, a small sovereign principality with a population of only 20,000. In order to take up his new position (his brother being joint ruler in name only), Christian August resigned from the Prussian army with the rank of Field Marshal and moved the 150 miles with his family to the medieval town of Zerbst, which, surrounded by walls, towers and a moat, provided a pleasant contrast with Stettin. Their new residence was a small baroque palace, built in the 1680s.
Another person whose life changed dramatically in November 1742 was the young Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, Karl Peter Ulrich. Summoned to Russia by his childless aunt, the Empress Elizabeth, he was named as her heir, received into the Orthodox Church, and granted the name and title of His Imperial Highness the Grand Duke Peter Fyodorovich. Such an alteration in his circumstances made him an infinitely more desirable husband for any young Princess while doing nothing to ameliorate his own sense of disorientation and loneliness. Becoming heir to the Russian throne entailed renouncing his rights to the throne of Sweden and, with the Empress Elizabeth’s support, Johanna’s brother Adolf Frederick was now elected Crown Prince of Sweden. Consequently, by the end of 1743, everyone connected with Sophie had risen considerably higher in the feudal anthill, and it did not pass unnoticed within the Anhalt-Zerbst ruling household that the boy whose name had almost in jest been coupled with Sophie’s several years earlier was now destined for a very great future indeed. A copy of Sophie’s portrait as painted by Balthasar Denner was delivered to the Empress Elizabeth by another of Johanna’s brothers, Prince Frederick August, to ensure that the Empress should not forget her late fiancé’s niece.
A curious interlude now took place which nearly put paid to these great ambitions. It suggests a lack of supervision, and possibly even some connivance, on Johanna’s part, as well as a degree of ambivalence towards the ambitions she nursed for her daughter. Johanna, though desirous of promoting her family’s interests, could never quite forgive Sophie for being able to exercise aspirations higher than her own; for having the potential to enter a world more powerful, more dazzling, more exciting than the one she had had to settle for herself. The interlude revolved around Johanna’s youngest brother, Prince Georg Ludwig of Holstein-Gottorp, who was in the service of the King of Prussia and enjoyed spending time with his sister and her family. Georg Ludwig was 10 years older than Sophie. He would come to visit her in her room when her mother was out or otherwise occupied. Sophie was at first too innocent to have any idea of the nature of the attraction; Georg Ludwig was just a favourite uncle who liked spending time with her. Babet Cardel, however, was no fool. She disapproved of the visits and complained that they were interfering with Sophie’s lessons. Prince Georg Ludwig left Zerbst shortly after Babet had expressed her concerns, but when he and Sophie met again in Hamburg, en route for the annual visit to Brunswick, Babet was not in the party, and the Prince was able to spend as much time as he liked in Sophie’s company. In Brunswick, however, he was more circumspect, taking little notice of Sophie in public and talking to her only in the evenings, in her mother’s room. Sophie – at least according to her mature recollections – persisted in regarding him only as a good friend and relative, and did not quite get the message when he bemoaned the fact that he was her uncle. When she asked him why this made him unhappy, he begged her to promise to marry him, a plea that amazed Sophie but simultaneously opened her eyes to the nature of this man’s feelings for her. At first embarrassed, she gradually grew accustomed to the outpourings of passion in which he now felt free to indulge, and found herself becoming attracted to him, to the extent that she actually agreed to marry him, provided her parents gave their consent. (Such a close family relationship would also have required the consent of the Lutheran Church before any marriage could take place.)
Later Sophie realised what must have been obvious at the time to any percipient onlooker – that her mother knew perfectly well what was going on and had sanctioned her brother’s behaviour. Once the girl had agreed in principle to Prince Georg Ludwig’s proposal, he allowed himself to pursue her physically as well as emotionally, seizing on any opportunity he could find to kiss her. At other times he would sigh and moan, forget to eat and drink, and play the role of the romantic, hopeless lover, afraid that another suitor would seize his prize before he could obtain her parents’ consent. But he did not appear to take any actual steps to secure that consent. Perhaps Johanna was advising him to bide his time, knowing Sophie’s father would not prove tractable. When Sophie and Johanna returned to Zerbst, Prince Georg Ludwig left Brunswick too, and events soon conspired to put an end to this episode.
On New Year’s Day 1744, Johanna received a letter from St Petersburg, written by Brummer, the Grand Duke Peter’s Marshal, in which she and her daughter Sophie were invited by order of Elizabeth, Empress of All the Russias, to the Russian Court. Sophie had stolen a quick glance at the letter as her mother opened it, sufficient for her to realise its import. Nothing was said to her about it for three days. Her mother had been paying more attention to her of late, partly because a Swedish diplomat, Count von Gyllenburg, who had met them both in the autumn of 1743, had tried to point out to her that her daughter was more worthy of notice than she thought (he had had some cultured conversation with Sophie, discussing ideas and books), and also because her brother Georg Ludwig’s attitude towards Sophie had changed the way she saw the girl herself. In fact, she was actually beginning to consider her daughter as a future sister-in-law – someone who would be a friend and who would no longer constitute a threat to her own self-importance. The letter from Russia tore Johanna in two. On the one hand, how could she resist the excitement of a journey to what was known to be a very glamorous Court, and the honour she herself would receive as an intimate of the Empress? But on the other, how could she stomach the barely acknowledged admission that it was her daughter who was the principal object of interest to the Empress, and that the wife of the heir to the Russian throne would be of more importance than his mother-in-law? Furthermore, if, as seems very likely, she had already given a promise to her brother that she would do what she could to secure Sophie as his bride, she now found herself in a quandary. Sophie, well aware of her mother’s ambivalence, and having grown up considerably over the last few months, decided to take matters into her own hands. Accordingly, she confronted her mother with her knowledge about what was in the letter, declared the whole household was talking of nothing else, and said that the invitation should not be ignored, as her whole future was at stake. Johanna, taken aback by this direct approach, floundered and protested that its political instability made Russia a dangerous place, and also for the first time mentioned Sophie’s uncle as someone who had a material interest in her future. Sophie blushed at this reference, but her own mind was clearly made up, and she replied that Prince Georg Ludwig could only desire her happiness. And so Johanna took the easy option of saying ‘Ask your father.’
Christian August had been specifically excluded from the invitation to Russia. (There was nothing unusual about this. When she was Empress, Sophie would follow the same procedure, inviting mothers to bring prospective brides for inspection by herself, her son and grandsons. It was important that such visits should not look too official in case the plans did not come to fruition.) Johanna would be provided with the necessary money for the journey, was instructed to preserve close secrecy about it and to travel incognito, under the name of the Countess of Rheinbeck, as far as Riga (which marked the frontier between Polish Lithuania and the Russian Empire). At Riga she was to announce herself; she and Sophie would then be provided with an escort. Once inside the Empire, they were to give as the pretext for their visit the desire to thank the Empress in person for all the favours she had granted Johanna’s family. The pretence that this was merely a friendly visit from distant relatives to their benefactress was for public consumption, both at home and abroad (not that anybody believed it).
In her memoirs Sophie claimed that it was she who persuaded Christian August to accept the invitation issued to his wife and daughter, on the dubious grounds that the journey did not actually commit them to anything, and that if on arrival in Russia they did not like it very much, they could turn round and come back home again. Christian August had considerable qualms about allowing his Lutheran daughter to go as a prospective royal bride to a country where Orthodoxy was the state religion, even though part of him must have been expecting the summons. Both parents, however, were aware that the ruler of a small German principality could not with impunity turn down an invitation – which amounted almost to an order – from the Empress of Russia.
Quelling his doubts with the help of written instructions to his daughter as to her future behaviour, Christian August allowed the journey to proceed. Pretending, for public consumption, to have been summoned to Berlin, he left Zerbst together with his wife and daughter. Babet Cardel was left behind in Zerbst. She and Sophie had not been getting on very well for the preceding few days, as Sophie had refused to tell her what was afoot. But when the moment came to say goodbye, the pair clung together weeping, both realising that they would not be seeing one another again, despite Sophie trying to keep up the pretence that they were only going to Berlin.
One of the reasons for travelling via Berlin was so that Frederick II (the Great, who had become King of Prussia in 1740) could give Johanna instructions as to how she might best serve his interests at the Russian Court. (The pay-off was an agreement that Frederick would use his influence to install Johanna’s eldest sister as head of the Prussian-owned religious foundation at Quedlinburg.) Frederick was well aware of the real nature of the journey. He was a supporter of the projected marriage, hoping it might serve to increase Prussian influence in Russia. He desired, not unnaturally, to see Sophie for himself, but Johanna was implacably opposed to this idea – she seems to have felt it was too soon for her daughter to be stealing the limelight from her – and came up with all the excuses she could think of (Sophie had no court dress, Sophie was ill) to avoid having her daughter make an appearance. The King, however, insisted, and eventually Johanna had to capitulate. Sophie was given the signal honour (no doubt to Johanna’s chagrin) of being seated next to Frederick at dinner while he quizzed her; she acquitted herself well and appeared to gain the King’s approval.
On leaving Berlin, Christian August took the route to Stettin, while Johanna and Sophie travelled on towards Russia. This was another difficult leave-taking, as father and daughter said goodbye for what they must have suspected was the last time. For a considerable number of years to come, affection was to be in short supply for Sophie, and she would miss her dependable, upright father more than she ever admitted.
Sophie found the long journey from Berlin to St Petersburg, via Mitau and Riga, in the depths of winter very trying; her feet swelled up, and she had to be carried in and out of the carriage at each stop. The initial party was not particularly large; in addition to Sophie and Johanna, it consisted of Johanna’s chamberlain, her lady-companion Fräulein von Kayn, four chambermaids, a valet, several footmen or lackeys, and a cook.
The arrangements which had to be put in hand to manage such a journey and to prepare for the travellers’ arrival at various points along the way were complex. On arrival in Mitau (now Jelgava in Latvia, and then the capital of Courland), Johanna was informed that the Colonel in command of the detachment on guard duty at the castle wished to make her acquaintance. She agreed to receive him (in her memoirs Sophie volunteers the extra piece of information that Johanna put her in a separate room, out of the way) and the Colonel informed her that he had sent a courier to Riga (where the Empress’s carriages had already been waiting for a week) with news of her progress and wanted to know whether she had any orders to give. On their departure from Mitau at ten o’clock the following morning, the Colonel not only provided the party with a six-man military escort, but insisted on accompanying them himself, with a couple of officers. In an inn between Mitau and Riga they found a representative of the Russian Court waiting for them – Marshal Prince Naryshkin, Grand Master of the Hunt and a court chamberlain. Naryshkin handed over letters and compliments from the Empress and took charge of the arrangements for the rest of the journey.
When they were within a mile of Riga they were met (Johanna, who kept a record of the journey for the benefit of the rest of her family and ensured throughout that she was the heroine of the story, predictably describes this as ‘I was received…’) by the Vice-Governor of the town, Prince Vladimir Dolgoruky, with all the officers of the garrison who were not currently on duty, along with various town dignitaries and representatives of the nobility. (One cannot help being put in mind of Gogol’s The Government Inspector as everyone turns out to greet these important people, whoever they may be…) Prince Naryshkin introduced the assembled dignitaries to Johanna, and then she and Sophie were invited to climb aboard the coach which had been sent from Petersburg to collect them.
And so the first of the many great processions of Sophie’s life set off. It consisted of a quartermaster sergeant on horseback, a sergeant with a detachment of cuirassiers from one of Grand Duke Peter’s corps, Prince Naryshkin and the Colonel who had escorted the Princesses from Mitau, Prince Dolgoruky and the Commandant of Riga, another quartermaster sergeant, two officers from a Finnish regiment, the coach containing Johanna, Sophie and Fräulein von Kayn, the ‘travel coaches’ containing clothing and other necessities, and then the carriages carrying representatives of the nobility and of various government departments. The convoy crossed the frozen river Dvina; as the coach carrying Johanna and Sophie crossed over the great bridge just outside Riga, a cannon was fired from the ramparts. There was a large guard stationed at the gates, commanded by two officers. The Princesses entered the town of narrow streets and steep-roofed houses to trumpet fanfares and drum rolls. Here, in addition to the travellers ceasing to be the Countess of Rheinbeck and her daughter and re-assuming their real identities, the calendar moved back 11 days to the Old Style.
At the entrance to the street where they were to stay, there was another detachment of guards, and a further hundred (according to Johanna) lined up outside the house itself. Johanna and Sophie were to be accommodated in the house of a wealthy merchant and member of the nobility, rather than in the imperial mansion or castle, as neither of those could be adequately heated for their brief stay. Crowds lined the streets, and the carriages towards the back of the convoy decided to take an alternative route, rejoining the Princesses at the entrance to the house. Forty more soldiers were stationed inside the entrance, two cuirassiers were on guard at the door of the antechamber, two more at the door of the dining room. The house was clean and pleasantly furnished; Johanna reports approvingly that the furniture was English and ‘of the sort one finds in Hamburg’.
Yet more introductions were made and compliments exchanged; this took place in the dining room, the only room large enough to accommodate all the people who wanted to meet Johanna. (Presumably they also wanted to meet Sophie, but one would not know this from Johanna’s account.) Naryshkin and Dolgoruky then accompanied the Princesses to the apartments prepared for them, where they were greeted by the people the Empress had sent to act as their servants. Here they were also presented with new clothing for the rest of the journey, each receiving a luxurious sable pelisse (or cloak) covered with cloth of gold, palatines (wide-shaped stoles or tippets) of the same fur, and a fur blanket covered with a rich chintz with a gold background. This blanket was to cover themselves with in the sleigh in which they would be making the next part of the journey. They then had coffee and conversation (which would have been mainly in French, the common language, though Naryshkin also knew German) with Naryshkin and Dolgoruky, and Johanna dispatched a courier to the Empress to inform her of their arrival in Riga and also to thank her for the generosity of her welcome. Supper followed, at which toasts were drunk to the Empress and to His Imperial Highness the Grand Duke.
Johanna provides a list of the people sent by the Empress to attend her and Sophie and service all their needs in Riga and for the rest of the journey. It reads like ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’:
- A detachment of cuirassiers, with a lieutenant, from the Grand Duke’s Holstein regiment.
- The chamberlain Prince Naryshkin.
- A Master of the Horse.
- An officer of the Izmailovsky Guards who fulfilled the functions of a manservant.
- A steward.
- A preserve-maker.
- I don’t know how many cooks and kitchen helps.
- A sommelier and his assistant.
- A man to make the coffee.
- Eight footmen.
- Two grenadier guards of the Izmailovsky Regiment.
- Two quartermaster sergeants.
- I don’t know how many sleighs and stable hands.
The Princesses stayed for another full day in Riga, the Empress’s Master of the Horse explaining through an interpreter that this delay could not be avoided. This meant there was time for yet more introductions and in the afternoon all the important ladies of the town came to visit them. Every time the Princesses went in for a meal a fanfare was played by trumpets, drums, flutes and oboes. Johanna disingenuously remarks: ‘It never occurred to me that all this was for poor little me, for whom in some other places they hardly beat the drum and in others sound nothing at all.’
An hour or so before the Princesses’ departure from Riga, all the dignitaries who had greeted them turned up again to see them off, and Johanna found her hand being kissed repeatedly. Then the party got into their sleighs. The sleigh in which Johanna and Sophie were to travel was an extraordinary contraption. Designed by Peter the Great, and normally used by the Empress herself, it was a sort of articulated bedroom and antechamber on runners, pulled by 10 horses. The outside was scarlet ornamented with silver brocade and the inside was furlined. It contained feather beds, silk mattresses and blankets, damask cushions and a satin cover, on top of which the travellers were to lie. There were plenty more cushions for placing under their heads and then they were covered up with the fur blanket, so that it was just like being in bed. (Sophie had to be taught the manoeuvre of getting in and out of this vehicle.) Heated stones were provided to keep the travellers’ feet warm, and a wax candle lantern hung from the roof. The space between the sleeping compartment and the coachman was used both for storage and for the gentlemen of the party to occupy during the daytime and for the maids to sleep in at night. Fräulein von Kayn had a separate, less luxurious, sleeping sleigh for herself. Bringing up the rear of the great array of sleighs was one coach on wheels, in case Johanna and Sophie found they could not cope with what was for them a novel form of transport.
The convoy set off mid-morning, and again Johanna provides a full list of the order:
- A squadron from His Imperial Highness’s regiment;
- my sleigh, in the front of which I had the chamberlain Prince Naryshkin, Her Imperial Majesty’s equerry, an officer of the Izmailovsky Guards and Monsieur Lathorff; behind me were two of Her Majesty’s lackeys and two Preobrazhensky Guards;
- a detachment of the regiment that always precedes governors;
- a sleigh containing the Vice-Governor and his Commandant;
- ‘la Kayn’s’ sleigh;
- the sleighs of the chamberlain and gentlemen-in-waiting;
- the sleighs of the magistrate, deputies, members of the nobility, and of those officers who were not riding on horseback around my sleigh.
About a mile out of the town, the main party said goodbye to those in the seventh category of Johanna’s list. The Vice-Governor and the Commandant, as well as a few officers, travelled on with the Princesses’ party until suppertime, however, and then the party proper sped on through the night, stopping next day for dinner at Dorpat in Livonia (modern-day Lithuania), where they were again received with full military honours.
Late on Friday night, they arrived at Narva, a few miles inland from the Gulf of Finland (in present-day Estonia). The streets down which they were to travel had been illuminated, but they were too late and tired to see much. They set off again the following midday, travelled through the night and arrived at St Petersburg at one o’clock in the afternoon of 3 February, during the brief hours of winter daylight in this most northern of cities, to salvoes of cannon fire.
It would be a mistake to imagine St Petersburg in 1744 as quite the glorious city it later became. It was still under construction – many of the buildings were log cabins – though the Italian architect Domenico Trezzini had already contributed the Peter and Paul Cathedral, a Summer Palace, the Twelve Colleges and the Exchange. The needle spires of the Admiralty and the Peter and Paul Cathedral already existed but were not yet gilded. Much of the town was made of wood, and fires were regular occurrences, as were floods. Alongside the Neva river, to the west of the Admiralty, houses had been constructed in wood and stone for members of the Russian aristocracy and important foreigners. Elizabeth’s Winter Palace was on the site occupied by the present-day one, though it was smaller (and much draughtier), but the area behind it, which would eventually become Palace Square, was a field. In fact much of St Petersburg was still wild, with wolves and bears to be found in parts of it. Nevertheless, this city on the Gulf of Finland, its population twice that of Berlin, would still have presented an impressive aspect to the Princesses of Anhalt-Zerbst.
St Petersburg was not, however, their final destination as the Court was currently residing at the old capital of Moscow. The intention was that, after a brief respite in Petersburg, the Princesses should travel on to Moscow in order to arrive by 10 February, Grand Duke Peter’s sixteenth birthday. The Empress had arranged for various of her court ladies to accompany the Princesses to Moscow, and four of these now received them at the foot of the staircase of the Winter Palace, along with the Vice-Governor, Prince Repnin, and ‘thousands’ (as Johanna puts it) of other gentlemen of varying degrees of importance. From the description Johanna now gives, one could be forgiven for thinking that her daughter had fallen out of the sleigh somewhere en route:
The Prince gave me his hand; I was to stay in the Grand Duke’s apartments. As I got out of the sleigh, I was greeted by the firing of cannon from the Admiralty glacis. On arrival in my apartments, hundreds of people were presented to me. My tongue was dry with cold. Nevertheless I had to exchange an infinite number of compliments. I dined alone with the ladies and gentlemen provided for me by the Empress; I was served like a queen. The ladies came to see me in the evening…The following day, which was yesterday, I received the compliments of priests and monks. There were a lot of people there all day long. I was almost fainting by the time I returned to my inner apartments.
After dinner Naryshkin organised an entertainment for the visitors: he had a troupe of 14 elephants, given to the Empress Elizabeth by Nadir Shah of Persia, brought into the courtyard of the Winter Palace, where they performed various circus tricks.
The Princesses spent just over two days in St Petersburg, during which time a half-hearted plot was attempted by certain courtiers who did not support the proposed match to delay them and prevent them arriving in Moscow in time for the Grand Duke’s birthday, which would have discredited them in the Empress’s eyes. Johanna was alerted to this plot by an old acquaintance of hers, the Marquis de la Chétardie. She insisted on pressing on for Moscow as soon as possible and they duly departed on the night of 5–6 February.
The party this time consisted of between 20 and 30 sleighs; relays of horses were waiting for them at each staging post, where they were also provided with morning coffee, dinner or supper and ‘all imaginable conveniences’. During this leg of the journey Johanna suffered a minor mishap, occasioned by the back of the long sleeping sleigh hitting the corner of a house as it went round a bend during the night. Her account of the incident is characteristically dramatic:
The shock that the sleigh received caused a big iron bar, which supported the cover and was used for holding it back when you wanted to be in the open air, to fall into the interior; this bar dragged with it a smaller one, which held up a curtain for drawing against the sun; both bars fell right on top of my head. The blow woke me up; in my struggle to get out from under my pelisse both bars fell on my chest and arm and, either from fear or pain, I couldn’t get my breath. At first all I could do was tug at my daughter, who was also asleep, to wake her up. Nothing had fallen on her. While she was calling out to tell the driver to stop, I had time to sort myself out. I thought I was injured, but I wasn’t, the pelisse having protected me from the full force of the blow; otherwise I would definitely have suffered a broken head, breastbone and arm. They got me out of the sleigh, rubbed me with eau de vie and I got away with a few bruises.
Her daughter’s account of the accident is rather more measured: ‘As we left Petersburg, the sleigh in which my mother was travelling bumped into a house at a turning and an iron hook attached to the carriage fell on her head and shoulder. She protested she had received grave injuries though nothing could be seen, not even a bruise. This accident delayed our journey for several hours.’ Johanna in fact sustained fewer injuries than others of the party. One of the grenadier guards was thrown against the house, smashing his nose and chin, while ‘One of the coachmen of the corps who were steering us was thrown head over heels off his seat; he fell on top of the quartermaster sergeant, the pages and the footmen who were in the front part of the sleigh and it was fortunate that he didn’t crush anyone.’
Despite the accident, the convoy made good time, and by four o’clock in the afternoon of 9 February they were within 25 miles of Moscow. At this point a courier arrived to give Johanna instructions about the manner of their entry into the city; they were to proceed with haste, as Her Imperial Majesty was in a state of nervous anticipation. The Princesses had a quick change of clothing (Sophie remembered that she wore a tight-fitting dress of rose and silver moiré, a heavy watered grosgrain silk) and a hurried meal, though Johanna was too nervous to swallow anything and, sending couriers before them, off they sped, this time with 16 horses to pull their sleigh, covering the distance in three hours. A couple of miles away from the city they were met by a gentleman of Her Imperial Majesty’s bedchamber, who conveyed the compliments of both the Empress and the Grand Duke, neither of whom, he said, could wait to see them.
The chamberlain and gentlemen of the Court took their seats in the front of the sleigh, its cover folded back, for the arrival at the Annenhof Palace* where the Court was in residence. Passing through the grand entrance, the sleigh ran past the windows of the Empress’s apartments; the Empress came out into a small passage from where she could catch a first glimpse of her visitors without being seen herself. On getting out of the sleigh, Johanna and Sophie were greeted by Marshal Brummer, accompanied by various chamberlains, gentlemen and Guards officers. They were then escorted to their apartments, where they removed their outerwear. As Johanna was untying her headdress, Grand Duke Peter appeared and presented to her the Field Marshal Prince of Hesse-Homburg, who was the Empress’s aide-de-camp. Now the moment arrived for the Princesses to meet the Empress, who summoned them to her apartments. ‘And so we set off,’ recounted Johanna. ‘Everyone’s curiosity and the way they stared at the German women from top to toe and from toe to top was inconceivable. Her Majesty came forward a few steps in what is known as her first antechamber which adjoins the bedroom and is where she sees everyone. I pulled off my gloves, and she kissed me with what I can only describe as tenderness.’ Johanna then kissed the Empress’s hand and made a formal speech of thanks for ‘the benefits which she has showered on my family’ and asking for continued protection ‘for me, the rest of my family and my child whom Her Majesty has deigned to allow to accompany me to her Court’. Sophie herself was immediately impressed by the 34-year-old Elizabeth’s beauty and the majesty of her bearing: ‘She was a large woman who, in spite of being very stout, was not in the least disfigured by her size nor was she embarrassed in her movements; her head, too, was very beautiful.’ She was wearing a very large hoop of the sort she wore for special occasions, under a dress of silver moiré ornamented with gold braid; in her hair she wore a black feather and an array of diamonds.
The Empress, after thanking Johanna for her speech, turned an attentive and appraising gaze on Sophie. She kissed her and then led them both into her bedroom (this was not as intimate as it sounds – business was frequently transacted in bedrooms) where armchairs had been placed for them but no one sat down. Johanna says that this was because the conversation was so animated that no one thought of sitting, while Sophie tersely remembers that as the Empress did not sit down, neither could anybody else. At some point during the conversation Elizabeth left the room for a few minutes. The Princesses imagined that she had gone out to give some orders, but Johanna came to believe that the reason was sentimental: ‘I have found out subsequently that, after having seen my face closely, she had found that I looked so like my late brother, that she had been unable to hold back her tears and that that was why she had gone out.’
After half an hour or so, the Empress decided that Johanna and Sophie must be tired after their journey and dismissed them. She did not eat with them that evening or on subsequent days as it was Lent and the devout Elizabeth was abstaining from the meat with which the Princesses would be served. The Grand Duke, however, was dispensed from these Lenten observances and he quite often took his meals with the Princesses, either in their apartments or in his. For this first supper Sophie sat on the Grand Duke’s left, with Count Münnich, the Master of the Empress’s Household, on her other side; she was struck by the fact that the Count had a habit of speaking very slowly with his eyes closed. She claimed to remember Grand Duke Peter as having a long pale face, a straight nose and a firm chin, being rather small for his age and having a great deal of nervous energy. During the meal the Empress approached the door unobserved, to see the first impressions created and received by her guests.
The next day, the Empress and the Grand Duke both sent their compliments by way of a gentleman-in-waiting. As soon as the Princesses were dressed, the gentlemen who were to attend on them were presented to them. These included two chamberlains and two gentlemen-in-waiting, four pages and ‘I don’t know how many others, altogether a very numerous court.’ Various other gentlemen were introduced to them and then, at about 11 o’clock in the morning, the Prince of Hesse-Homburg arrived with an invitation to join the Empress in her apartments. ‘That day,’ wrote Johanna, ‘there was a gala in honour of the Grand Duke. The antechambers were swarming with people; one could hardly move through them. I was wearing a heavy outfit, I was stiff from the fatigue of the journey, so that by the time I reached Her Majesty’s apartments my legs were giving way under me.’ On this occasion the Empress bestowed on both Johanna and Sophie the Order of St Catherine. After the ribbons and stars had been attached, they all departed to see the Grand Duke. The Empress, whose head, neck and bosom were bedecked with jewels and who was wearing a brown robe embroidered with silver, soon left them to go to church.
The Princesses quickly settled into the routine of the Court, living a relatively quiet life as it was Lent, dressing for dinner at midday and meeting various courtiers over coffee in the early afternoon. The rest of the afternoon would be spent in solitary occupations, and during the evenings they would visit Grand Duke Peter in his apartments, or he would come to theirs (always, in both cases, in the company of ladies- and gentlemen-in-waiting). Much of the Empress’s time was taken up with her devotions, Elizabeth being a very religious, and often superstitious, woman.
Sophie now had to absorb a great deal of information very rapidly if she was to survive and prosper at the Russian Court. Principally she had to work out who was who, and whose favour it was vital to cultivate. One of the most powerful men was Elizabeth’s Vice-Chancellor, Count Alexei Bestuzhev-Ryumin (he was often referred to simply as Bestuzhev). Sophie was later to describe him as ‘infinitely more feared than loved…a great intriguer, suspicious, firm and intrepid in his principles, occasionally tyrannical, an implacable enemy, but the true friend of his friends’. He was not a supporter of Sophie as a prospective bride for Peter; he would have preferred a girl from an Austrian or English royal family. Lined up against Bestuzhev were those courtiers who supported the interests of France, Sweden and Prussia. They were led by the Marquis de la Chétardie and by Count Lestocq, Elizabeth’s surgeon and a prime mover in the coup which had brought her to power. Also among those whom Sophie had to learn to cultivate was Grand Duke Peter himself. He did not appear to be a particularly happy young man. Having been brought up by a series of male tutors, he now felt lonely and bullied at Elizabeth’s Court, unsure about the change of religion which had been foisted on him, with little enthusiasm for Russia or for the prospect of ruling it. To begin with, Sophie’s advent must have seemed a welcome diversion, for here was a companion of near his own age, someone else rooted up from a background similar to his, someone whom – initially – he could hope to impress with his knowledge of the Russian Court. One can sense his relief at no longer being the only young person constantly in the limelight, not understanding how things worked or even what people were saying. Maybe he felt slightly protective toward Sophie; at the outset. Unfortunately, she rapidly outstripped him; her quickness of mind, her innate political sense – perhaps even the fact that she was a girl and used to absorbing a lot of information in silence and working out how to make the best use of it – as well as her ambition and determination, meant she fitted in at Court far more easily than Peter had ever done. Instead of being able to be a wise consort to his young wife-to-be, Peter found it was the other way round, and he did not, on the whole, welcome this – he had, after all, been there longer than she had, he was older (slightly) than her, and he was a boy.
Though Sophie was more adaptable than Peter, the immense change she had to go through took its toll on her physically. Quite apart from being in a foreign country whose native language was completely unknown to her, with foreign customs, she had had to emerge from the relatively relaxed and private life of an obscure German Court to one of complete visibility, where every action, word and expression counted, and would be interpreted and reported back to those in authority. Her eventual marriage to Grand Duke Peter was by no means a foregone conclusion. For those first weeks and months at the Russian Court Sophie was on trial and, if she did not want to be sent home in embarrassment and ignominy, she could not afford to put a foot wrong. She received little real guidance and could not even be sure that her mother was on her side. She was, however, provided with teachers to help her integrate as quickly as possible into Russian court life: Father Semyon Theodorsky, Abbot of the Ipatyev Monastery and later Bishop of Pskov, to prepare her to be received into the Orthodox Church (he had performed the same role for Grand Duke Peter); Vasily Adadurov to teach her Russian; and Monsieur Landé to give her dancing lessons. She was so keen to learn Russian quickly that she would get up during the night to learn her vocabulary, a practice which she believed (or at least decided the readers of her memoirs should believe) contributed to her going down with pleurisy.
Johanna, who was at first disposed to ignore her daughter’s shivering, then became convinced she might have smallpox and for that reason resisted the doctors’ recommendations that Sophie should be bled (bloodletting being one of the few remedies carried out for anything at that time). Johanna considered that being bled had contributed to her own brother’s death from smallpox, and feared the same thing would happen to her daughter. So, while the doctors and Johanna argued and sent reports to the Empress, who was away on pilgrimage at the monastery of Holy Trinity-St Sergius, poor Sophie lay there with a high fever, groaning from the pain in her side. It was not until the fifth day of her illness that the Empress returned to find Sophie unconscious and immediately assumed control. Accompanied by Count Lestocq and another surgeon, she insisted that Sophie be bled, and the remedy (the surgeon opening a vein in her foot) appeared to bring instant relief. She was bled a total of 16 times over the next month, despite Johanna’s protests; she, however, eventually had to concede that her daughter was not, after all, suffering from smallpox.
Even during the course of this severe illness, Sophie did not lose sight of the need to maintain the right image. So, for instance, while Johanna wanted a Lutheran pastor summoned to her daughter’s side, Sophie asked instead for Semyon Theodorsky, who duly came and talked to her. It may have been that she had become used to the priest and valued his company and prayers, but whether or not her request was calculated, it raised her status in the eyes of the Court and of the Empress. This was, as was everything at Court, a public illness; Sophie was not left alone to languish – there were always people in her room, observing, listening, and she was already wise enough to know this. She also used her convalescence to listen and learn, pretending to be asleep while in fact eavesdropping on the conversations going on among the ladies-in-waiting. Johanna showed less wisdom, and her behaviour during the course of the illness did not endear her to anybody. It was considered that she had shown insufficient sympathy towards her daughter. Grand Duke Peter did show concern for Sophie, and, as she began to recover, got into the habit of spending the evening with her and Johanna.
On 21 April, Sophie’s fifteenth birthday, she officially reappeared in public for the first time after her illness. As she recalled many years later, it was a difficult day: ‘I do not think that my appearance made an edifying impression on the company. I had become as thin as a skeleton, I had grown taller, but my face and features were drawn, my hair was falling out, and I was mortally pale. I appeared to myself ugly as a scarecrow and did not feel at my ease.’ The Empress sent her some rouge (made of red lead mixed with carmine or vermilion) and told her to apply it; fortunately this cadaverous appearance was only temporary.
Sophie had passed the initial tests of acceptability to the Empress and the Grand Duke, and on 3 May she wrote to her father to ask formally for his consent to her betrothal. Behind the stylised language (she assures him that her wishes will always be in conformity to his and that no one will be able to make her fail in her duty) lies her consciousness of what the real issue is as far as her father is concerned: the requirement that she convert from the Lutheran to the Orthodox (or Greek) Church. But Sophie is determined that her father’s scruples – or indeed her own – should not be allowed to stand in the way of her ambitions. She repeats what she has written to him before, that she can find no difference between the Greek and Lutheran religions, and so has decided that it is right for her to convert.
She had not, however, arrived at this decision without a struggle. Her father’s views and beliefs held great sway over her; she had been brought up to kneel and say her prayers morning and night, and she took her religion seriously enough for her conversion to be more than a mere formality. Semyon Theodorsky, a highly educated priest who had studied at the University of Halle, greatly eased the process for her, so that she was able to write quite early on to her father that they must have been mistaken in fearing Orthodoxy so much; the outward ceremonies might be very different, she tells him, but that is because the Church has had to take into account the ‘brutality of the people’ – in other words, uncivilised Russians need a lot of outward show if they are to be persuaded to take religion seriously at all. To convince oneself that there is no substantial difference between Lutheranism and Orthodoxy nevertheless requires some mental gymnastics. Apart from the theological and doctrinal differences between the Western and Eastern Churches centring on the ‘filioque’ clause of the Creed, there is the emphasis the Orthodox Church places on the performance of the liturgy and on outward signs of inner devotion. Sophie’s sober father would have felt profoundly uneasy and out of place during an Orthodox celebration of the liturgy, with the jewel-encrusted icons, the royal doors in the centre of the iconostasis behind which only the priests can penetrate, the people constantly crossing themselves, bowing, lighting candles and kissing the icons, and bearded priests in rich vestments chanting prayers and readings in Church Slavonic, an archaic language already removed from that spoken by the people. It is interesting that even when compiling her memoirs many years later, Sophie still felt it necessary to justify – both to others and to herself – her decision to convert. Recalling her childhood and her earliest teacher in religion, Pastor Wagner, she writes: ‘One day I asked this Lutheran priest, for that was what my teacher was, which of the Christian Churches was the most ancient. He told me that it was the Greek Church and that it was also the one closest to the teachings of the Apostles, he was convinced of that. From then onwards I have always had a great respect for the Greek Church and curiosity to learn about its doctrines and ceremonies.’
When Sophie wrote to her father, she was still weak from her illness, but over the next few weeks her health improved. So did the weather, and Grand Duke Peter took to outdoor pursuits – walking and shooting – with his entourage. When Sophie recalled this period of her life in her memoirs, she was at her most dismissive about her future husband, disingenuously asserting that she was only marrying him because her mother had told her to, but admitting that she was already attracted by ‘the Crown of Russia’. Peter, she declared, talked only of soldiers and toys.
Having survived both serious illness and qualms of conscience, Sophie now had to contend with her mother’s lack of political sense, which nearly brought their whole Russian enterprise to a disastrous conclusion. Conscious of being Frederick II’s unofficial emissary, Johanna had been building up quite a circle of acquaintances at the Russian Court, including her old friend the Marquis de la Chétardie, who had previously been the French ambassador but was now at the Court as a private individual. He and Johanna had been making disparaging remarks to one another about the Empress, on his part because he was disgruntled and disappointed at having lost his former influence over her, and on Johanna’s as a clumsy attempt to undermine the influence of the anti-Prussian Bestuzhev. De la Chétardie had reported some of what Johanna had said to the French Court; his correspondence had inevitably – been intercepted by Bestuzhev himself who had, with some glee, shown it to the Empress. This was the reason for Elizabeth appearing unannounced and furious in the Princesses’ apartments one day in early June and delivering a reprimand to Johanna which reduced her to tears. There were certainly some at Court who hoped this débâcle would end with both Princesses being dispatched back to Zerbst and another bride found for Peter; as for Peter himself, Sophie suspected it might be a matter of indifference. As he had to marry someone, that someone might as well be Sophie, but he would be unlikely to jeopardise his own standing with the Empress by supporting Sophie if she fell into disfavour. On this occasion, however, Johanna’s tearful repentance seemed enough to satisfy the Empress, who was also by now aware of the different characters and behaviour of mother and daughter. The political consequences of the intrigue included the Marquis de la Chétardie being escorted to the frontier and ordered out of the country, and Bestuzhev being appointed Grand Chancellor. The Empress also signed a treaty with Saxony reinforcing the Austro-Russian alliance while undermining Prussian interests. So much for Johanna’s championing the cause of King Frederick.
Meanwhile, Prince Christian August did as was requested of him and gave his official blessing to the Empress’s plans for his daughter. All those immediately concerned seemed delighted, even Peter, and the Empress pressed ahead with the preparations, naming 28 June as the date for Sophie’s admittance into the Orthodox Church, with the betrothal ceremony the day after, the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul, and consequently the Grand Duke’s name-day.*
Sophie’s preparation for these ceremonies was arduous, and the stamina required on the days themselves considerable. Her lessons with Semyon Theodorsky became more intensive, and on the two days before her conversion she did not appear in public. On the last day she fasted, which meant eating only fish cooked in oil. On the morning of the 28th she first of all went to confession (a pre-requisite for the Orthodox before receiving communion) and was then dressed in the Empress’s apartments. Elizabeth had had made for her a scarlet and silver adrienne (a variant of the popular ‘sack-dress’, worn over stays with a small train and hoop), matching her own dress of rose-coloured silk with silver braid on all the seams. Sophie wore only a white ribbon in her unpowdered hair; her jewels were few and were those given to her by the Empress during her illness. Even Johanna thought her daughter who, with her long, pointed chin and thin face, was no natural beauty, looked beautiful on this occasion.
The service took place in the chapel of the Golovin Palace, also known as the Annenhof Summer Palace, on the outskirts of Moscow. (The word ‘chapel’ can sound misleading; the chapels of the imperial palaces were ornate churches, their only difference from other churches being that they were inside a palace rather than being separate buildings.) Johanna, a close observer as usual, provides a detailed description of the order of the procession from the Empress’s apartments to the chapel:
The Court walked ahead, the Grand Master and the marshal of the Court immediately in front of Her Majesty. Her Imperial Majesty alone, flanked by the chamberlains and gentlemen of the bedchamber on duty that day; I came next, led by the Grand Duke, who was flanked by his grand marshal and his chamberlain of the day Monsieur Naryshkin, with the gentleman of the bedchamber Prince Trubetskoy next to me; my daughter followed us all on her own, accompanied by our other chamberlain and gentleman of the bedchamber; she was followed by the Princess of Homburg, the Princess Golitsyn, grand mistress of Her Majesty’s household, the ladies of the portrait,* the maids of honour, the princesses and private ladies. The antechambers were packed; one could hardly move through them.
Waiting for them at the church was a semicircle of archbishops, with the Archbishop of Novgorod in the centre. A velvet cushion was placed before them for Sophie to kneel on; behind it was a carpet where the Empress was to stand. The Grand Duke and Johanna stood behind the Empress, with everyone else moving into whatever place they could find. (Everyone, apart from the old and infirm, stands throughout Orthodox services.) Sophie knelt to receive the Archbishop’s blessing, then stood, bowed to the Empress, and read out loud in Russian, in a clear voice and without stumbling, the confession of faith, which ran to 50 quarto pages. At the end she recited the Creed from memory. It was, according to the sentimental Johanna, a highly emotional occasion: ‘I was already so overcome in advance, that I burst into tears before she had got to the end of the first word. Her Imperial Majesty had her face covered so no one could see it. Everyone who was there was praying with us; the old men were sobbing; all the young people there had tears in their eyes.’ Sophie acquitted herself superlatively: ‘Her demeanour ever since she had come in and throughout the whole ceremony was marked by such nobility and grace, that I would have admired her even if she hadn’t been to me what she is.’
After the confession of faith, the Abbess of the Novodevichy Convent came forward to act as witness of the anointing. She stood to Sophie’s left while the Archbishop placed salt on her tongue and anointed her forehead, eyes, neck, throat, and the front and back of her hands with oil. He then recited some prayers and gave the blessing, after which Sophie kissed his hand. The imperial party, including Sophie, now left the body of the church and retired into a long gallery which adjoined it, where they remained while the liturgy of the Mass was sung, until the consecration. At that point the Empress led Sophie back into the church and, at the moment when the sacrament was distributed, brought her forward to receive communion from Father Semyon Theodorsky. She also assisted her in making all the correct gestures. More litanies and psalms were sung and then prayers were said for the Orthodox believer Ekaterina (Catherine) Alexeyevna. Sophie was now officially Catherine (and that is how she will be referred to from now on).
Afterwards, back in the Empress’s apartments, Elizabeth presented Catherine with a diamond clasp for her bodice and a necklace worth 150,000 roubles. There then followed two hours during which Catherine and her mother had their hands kissed by all the ladies of the Court as well as by members of the Holy Synod, the Senate and the nobility. By now Catherine was so exhausted that she was excused dinner and went off to have a rest.
Later that day, everyone visited the Grand Duke’s apartments to congratulate him on the eve of his name-day. Catherine presented him with a hunting knife and cane head, mounted in gold and ornamented with diamonds and emeralds, these gifts having been provided for her by the Empress, for as yet she had no money of her own. The Empress also provided the rings which Catherine and Peter were to exchange the following day; Johanna described these rings as ‘real little monsters’. The whole party then had to change and, after supper, travel incognito (i.e. without ceremony rather than in disguise) to the Kremlin (about two and a half miles away from the Golovin Palace) where the next day’s ceremony was to take place in the Cathedral of the Assumption (or Uspensky Sobor), built in the 1470s by Ivan the Great as the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church. The long cortege moved slowly through the heat and dust of the summer night. At midnight the bells of the Kremlin rang out to announce the feast day, the bells of all the other churches in Moscow clanging in response.
The day of the betrothal began with prayers said in Catherine’s apartments, and then Count Lestocq arrived, bearing a portrait of the Empress framed in diamonds and another of the Grand Duke mounted in a bracelet, also decorated with diamonds, for Catherine to wear. More hand-kissing followed, this time by ambassadors and foreign ministers as well as by military men. The party then collected in the Empress’s apartments and set off in procession for the cathedral, in a similar order to that of the preceding day except that this time Catherine was on Johanna’s right and the Empress, who was wearing her crown and imperial mantle, had a silver canopy held over her by eight major-generals. The procession descended the flight of stairs leading from the Krasnoye Kryltso (Beautiful Porch) and crossed Cathedral Square, the Guards regiments lining the way.
The Empress was received at the door of the cathedral by the clergy. The Archbishop, cross in hand, then led the procession into the middle of the church where there was a large dais, carpeted in velvet, on which was placed the patriarchal throne. Peter and Catherine bowed low to the Empress and then took up their places before the dais. The Empress stood near the ambo (or lectern), Johanna parallel with her, and everybody else behind. The two rings were taken by the Archbishops of Moscow and Novgorod and carried, in the company of several bishops, archimandrites and deacons, through the royal doors and placed on the altar, where they remained while a bishop read out the Empress’s ukaz (or decree), proclaiming the forthcoming marriage of the Grand Duke to this young Princess, who from this moment would bear the titles of Grand Duchess of All the Russias and Her Imperial Highness. The Archbishop then brought back the rings, which were placed on top of the Gospel book and presented to the Empress, who blessed them in her capacity as head of the Orthodox Church. She then herself placed the rings on the fingers of the young couple, who kissed her hand. After a blessing by the Archbishop, the Empress embraced both Peter and Catherine. As Johanna explained, ‘This whole ceremony took place before the Mass, in order that the Grand Duchess could be inserted in the prayers which precede it.’
In the Uspensky Cathedral there was no opportunity for the imperial party to disappear out of sight during the liturgy. Instead the Empress took her place in the high gallery belonging to the Tsars, while the Grand Duke occupied one facing it, traditionally reserved for heirs apparent. A temporary gallery had been constructed for Catherine and Johanna alongside that of the Empress. Johanna cannot have been alone in finding it all an exhausting experience: ‘During the exchange of rings all the bells had been rung and the cannons fired; this was repeated during the singing of Psalm 100. Mass was followed by a sermon, given by a metropolitan. The whole ceremony took four hours, during which one could not sit down for a quarter of an hour.’ The physical ordeal continued after the service: ‘After coming out from [the cathedral] everyone went to their own apartments and there received the compliments of the whole empire. To say that I could not feel my back from all the bowing that I had to do in embracing this throng of ladies, and that my right hand had a real mark the size of a German florin from all the kisses I received is not at all an exaggeration; everyone here saw it.’ More gifts were exchanged, the Grand Duke giving Catherine a diamond-encrusted watch and fan, while he presented to Johanna another watch decorated with rubies and diamonds, and a snuff box. Catherine gave Johanna a large string of pearls, and Johanna gave Catherine her own ruby ornaments.
Dinner was then served in the Kremlin’s Faceted Palace; the seating arrangements had caused considerable diplomatic wrangling. According to Johanna, the Empress had originally intended that Johanna should join her and the young couple beneath the throne but that an enemy of hers (probably Count Bestuzhev, though she does not name him) had stirred up the foreign ambassadors to object to this preferential treatment and to declare that they too wanted to be at the dinner but that they could not possibly allow this Princess of a minor German principality to claim precedence over them. The Empress solved the problem by spreading everybody out over several halls. She, Peter and Catherine dined alone in the throne room, while Johanna was served at a separate table in an apartment above it, from where she could see and be seen by the imperial trio. The diplomatic corps was seated in another apartment. There were five toasts drunk during the meal: to the Empress, the Grand Duke, the Grand Duchess, the clergy and the loyal subjects; the first three were accompanied by cannon fire.
After the meal everyone dispersed for a couple of hours’ rest, and at nine o’clock in the evening the ball commenced in the throne room. The Grand Duke and Duchess opened the ball, Peter taking the Empress as his partner and Catherine the Danish ambassador. The ball lasted for about four hours, a select group consisting of the Empress, Peter, Catherine, Johanna, the Prince and Princess of Hesse-Homburg, and the ambassadors of England, Holstein and Denmark dancing on the carpet at the foot of the throne, and the rest of the assembly on the other side of the room. It became very hot and crowded in this unusually constructed room, in which the vaulted roof was (and still is) supported by one large pillar in the centre. During the ball the Kremlin and its surroundings were illuminated and there was much firing of cannons. This exhausting day, the first in the life of Catherine, Grand Duchess of All the Russias, finally came to an end with a private supper at two o’clock in the morning.
CATHERINE THE GREAT Copyright © 2006 by Virginia Rounding (Continues...)
Excerpted from Catherine the Great by Virginia Rounding. Copyright © 2007 Virginia Rounding. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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