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Though of eminent birth and status in their own right, the women of Crowned in a Far Country all left the countries of their birth to marry heirs to great thrones. They all shared an inbred sense of duty and a genuine desire to see it performed. None fought against what she saw as her destiny but only sought to fulfill it. Some were passionate, others less so. Some were good wives; some were caring mothers. They were all catalysts, the pivots of their worlds for a time.
Though of eminent birth and status in their own right, the women of Crowned in a Far Country all left the countries of their birth to marry heirs to great thrones. They all shared an inbred sense of duty and a genuine desire to see it performed. None fought against what she saw as her destiny but only sought to fulfill it. Some were passionate, others less so. Some were good wives; some were caring mothers. They were all catalysts, the pivots of their worlds for a time.
More than just a window into the politics and power brokering of royal marriage, Crowned in a Far Country charts the transformations of privileged princesses into women of power and historical importance.
Catherine the Great
Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst/Empress of All the Russias
Peter the Great gave the Russians bodies;
Catherine gave them souls.
— The poet Kherasov
Catherine the Great was born Sophia Friederika Augusta, Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, on April 21, 1729, in Stettin, Prussia. King Frederick William of Prussia had recently acquired from Sweden this chilly gray town at the mouth of the River Oder, planning to develop it as a port for Berlin. Sophie's father, Christian August von Anhalt-Zerbst, had command of the garrison there. A man of solid virtues — a sense of duty, order, discipline, thrift, integrity, piety and a totally practical approach to life — he was promoted to governor of the town, and the family moved into the forbidding ducal castle, a sixteenth-century building of Harz granite. Here, in this cheerless town swept by winds from the Baltic, Sophie spent her first thirteen years.
In 1742, Christian August succeeded his cousin as ruler of Anhalt-Zerbst, 150 miles southeast of Stettin, in the heart of Germany. Since the house of Anhalt did not conform to the laws of primogeniture, he was obliged to share the sovereignty with his brother. Catherine wryly observed in her memoirs, "All Anhalt princes had the right to share; they have shared so much that there is almost nothing left to share."
Anhalt-Zerbst, though an independent principality for over 500 years, possessed no more than 20,000 inhabitants. Yet, as a foreign visitor observed at the time, "They live in a land of milk and honey; indeed these were the onlypeople, considered as a state, whom before or since that time I have ever heard talk without complaining." The rich soil produced wheat, hops, potatoes, flax and tobacco. Deer and wild boar roamed the forests and the rivers were well stocked with salmon. The silk brocades produced in the principality, often flowered in gold or silver on a clear ground, were considered among the finest in Europe. Zerbst was also famous for its brewery and produced excellent beer. Christian August was devoted to the welfare of his people and greatly impressed his daughter as a ruler.
As a result of her father's new status, Sophie was now heiress in her own right to the domain of Jever in Lower Saxony. Although she was always described as coming from modest origins in comparison with the grandeur she was to come to know, Sophie's background was not without a certain style and glamour. Three or four months of the year, from her eighth to her fifteenth year, Sophie accompanied her mother to stay with the Duchess of Brunswick-Luneburg, where they attended balls, operas, hunts and dinners, met countless foreign visitors and took part in the etiquette of a well-organized court. Nor was her mother without useful family connections. The daughter of the Lutheran bishop of Lübeck, she was a member of the younger branch of the ducal house of Holstein and her brother had been chosen to marry the daughter of Peter the Great of Russia, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth. Although he had died before the marriage took place, Elizabeth never forgot her tall, handsome fiancé, and Sophie's mother never let pass any chance of fostering this relationship with the woman who, in 1740, was crowned Empress Elizabeth of All the Russias.
This was an era when every European court tried to imitate Versailles. Sophie was given a French Huguenot governess, Babet Cardel, who succeeded in inspiring her charge with a love of French language, drama and literature. Even when she was Empress of Russia, Sophie took pride in signing her letters to Diderot and Voltaire "the pupil of Babet Cardel." She remembered Babet as "patient, gentle, gay and lovable," a teacher with "a natural spiritual quality." Later, when she wanted people to forget that she was a German, she would speak to them in French.
As a girl Sophie displayed the same solid, serious virtues as her father along with the far more superficial flair and charm of her mother. Little Sophie was intelligent, lively, gay, mischievous, boisterous, relatively healthy and impudent, as well as having an instinctive love of learning and a thirst for knowledge. Although considered too thin, she always carried herself well, giving the impression of being above medium height. She possessed a natural sense of style and elegance, a mass of dark chestnut hair, sparkling blue eyes and a captivating smile with perfect teeth. Describing herself as a girl, she recalled, "I was never beautiful — but I pleased."
Few could have forecast the extraordinary future ahead. Baroness von Printzen, lady-in-waiting at the tiny court of Anhalt-Zerbst, who had been present at Sophie's birth, had watched her grow up and became her trusted friend, wrote, "I would never have guessed that she would become as famous as she did," adding that "Only through error, whimsy or flippancy could she have been called outstanding or brilliant.
"In a word," she observed candidly, "I got the impression of quite an ordinary person." But what the baroness also noticed was Sophie's ambition, noting that even as a girl she had a serious, cold and calculating mind. And as Sophie wrote of herself at this time, "I used to tell myself that to be 'something' in this world, one needs the qualities which this 'something' demands. Let us look seriously at our little inner self. Do we have these qualities or do we not? If we do not, we will develop them." Babet Cardel described her as an esprit gauche (perverse spirit), a mind ripe for an outside influence to give it direction. That influence was to be Russia.
On New Year's Day 1744, a letter arrived in Zerbst marked "Secret and Confidential." Inside was an invitation from the Tsarina Elizabeth Petrovna to Her Highness the Princess Johanna Elizabeth and her daughter to come to Russia as soon as possible. Although no reason for this request was given, Sophie's mother knew exactly what it meant. Elizabeth had never married and was looking for a bride for her nephew and heir. A second letter confirmed her judgment. It came from King Frederick in Berlin and urged her to accept the tsarina's invitation in the interests of Prussia.
Sophie's father had been completely excluded from these intrigues. As a loyal subject he offered no opposition to the plan, yet it was with genuine regret that he allowed his daughter to leave — the fate of German princesses married in Russia in the past was not the future he wished for Sophie.
The princess and her party travelled incognito in the depths of winter, and there was little to alleviate either the boredom or the discomfort of the journey. It took six weeks, and Sophie long remembered her feet swelling so much that she had to be lifted in and out of the carriage. Often they travelled at night, and when they did stop at an inn it was rarely better than peasant lodgings, with little heat and no privacy.
But as soon as they reached Russia, the nightmare was over. At Riga, their incognito discarded, they received a royal welcome. The empress had sent a squadron of cavalry to escort them, grand lords and ladies to attend them, and magnificent rooms in the castle were prepared for them. Johanna Elizabeth forgot that these honors were in fact for her daughter, and from this time Sophie's real isolation began. Neglected and ignored by the one person she knew in this strange place, the future Catherine the Great hereafter kept her own counsel and relied on her inner strength. Outwardly she must have been a most unprepossessing sight to the bejeweled and gold-braided courtiers who attended her. Pale, thin and simply dressed, she passed by almost unnoticed.
They journeyed on to St. Petersburg in an imperial sledge, "scarlet, and decked with gold, and lined inside with sable." These sledges (which had been invented by Peter the Great) were pulled by six horses, and Sophie and her mother were able to lie down full length on piles of silk and satin cushions, sable rugs pulled up to their chins. So great was the contrast with the first part of their journey that Sophie instantly fell under the spell of Russia — a devotion that was to last all her life.
Her first sight of St. Petersburg revealed a city still under construction, and the only large stone building was its formidable fortress. Everywhere she came across scaffolding, hammering and noise. Yet although Petersburg was Western in appearance, fundamentally its character was Russian, utterly different from Zerbst with its medieval town hall and Gothic churches. For the rest of her life Sophie was to prefer St. Petersburg to Russia's ancient capital, Moscow. But at Moscow the tsarina was awaiting them. There, on the eve of the Grand Duke's birthday, Sophie was to undergo her first test: to meet her future husband under the watchful eye of the Empress Elizabeth.
When Sophie and her mother reached Moscow, the city was bedecked for the birthday celebrations of the Grand Duke, with Chinese lanterns and illuminations lighting up the golden domes of a thousand churches. This was a world where luxury and squalor existed side by side, whose values and standards were totally alien from those of the strict Lutheran society in which she had been brought up. Gossip and scandal, gambling, immorality and excesses of every kind — all covered by a veneer of piety — constituted the normal behavior of society. But Sophie had tired already of her Lutheran upbringing. She kept a German Bible, marked in red ink where as a child she had learned verses by heart. She had firmly decided that Martin Luther was a boor who (as she put it) "did not teach anybody anything."
Before the German princesses had time to change, Elizabeth's nephew the Grand Duke was announced, eager to see his future bride. If the fourteen-year-old girl was taken aback by the sight of this spotty, malformed youth, she gave no outward sign. As she wrote later, "I cared very little for the Grand Duke, but I cared a lot about becoming an Empress." And perhaps she thought that in this strange, barbaric land he would guide her through the labyrinth of the scheming, unfamiliar court.
Peter Feodorovich may have disappointed Sophie, but the Tsarina Elizabeth did not. Peter the Great's daughter was larger than life in every respect. Beautiful, passionate, fervently religious yet licentious too, Elizabeth was adored as a mother figure by the Russian people. She received the princesses from Zerbst with her famous dazzling smile and all her charm, treating them as relatives and spoiling them with gifts and honors.
Sustained by her ambitions to become as Russian as Elizabeth despite her German blood, Sophie set about learning not only the Russian language and the teachings of the Russian Orthodox faith but even the traditional dances of this strange land. Within two weeks she was seriously ill. Russian palaces were as primitive as conditions elsewhere throughout Russian society and in spite of huge fires, icy drafts whistled through mostly uncarpeted rooms. Sitting up in the middle of the night learning Russian in her freezing bedroom, Sophie contracted pleurisy. Her saviour as it turned out was not her mother — who had embarked on a round of mindless social entertainments and political intrigues — but the tsarina herself. Impressed with the young girl's dedication, Elizabeth nursed Sophie during the dangerous month of her near-fatal illness. Yet even when she lay at death's door, Sophie was shrewd enough to ask for an Orthodox priest rather than a Lutheran pastor.
She did not appear at court again until her fifteenth birthday. During her illness she had grown taller, thinner and certainly no prettier, but this only increased the tsarina's protective attachment to her. Elizabeth was determined her nephew should marry the German princess to ensure an heir to the Russian throne and secure the Romanov dynasty.
On June 28, 1744, Sophie was publicly received into the Orthodox faith and became the Grand Duchess Yecatarina Alexievna. Elizabeth personally dressed the child in a red and silver gown, an exact copy of her own. In carefully studied Russian, Catherine forswore her former Lutheranism, and the simplicity of her manner and bearing overcame any remaining opposition to her. The following day she was officially betrothed to the Grand Duke Peter.
Catherine was now a major figure in probably the most licentious court in Europe. Here every Tuesday transvestite balls were held, known as the "Metamorphoses" — Elizabeth adored fancy dress and with her fine legs and height she looked wonderful clothed as a man. Catherine would attend as her page — an enchanting frail figure in marked contrast to the large ladies of the court forced into men's clothes, and the eminent courtiers and generals in their hooped skirts. This was a court "where there was no conversation...[and] intricate intrigues were mistaken for shrewdness. Science and art were never touched on, as everybody was ignorant of those subjects; one could lay a wager that half the court could hardly read and I would be surprised if more than a third could write." Catherine became addicted to gambling and tried to win allies by giving lavish presents, but despite the large income she received from the empress, soon she was deeply in debt.
In the late summer of that year Elizabeth made a religious pilgrimage to Kiev, taking with her Catherine, the Grand Duke and Catherine's mother, along with the most entertaining members of the court. "From morning to night," Catherine recalled, "we did nothing but laugh, play and make merry." Nonetheless she was also deeply impressed by the great tsarina, dressed as a humble peasant woman, walking barefoot and carrying a cross in pilgrimage despite the crowds and the heat. Here she learned something of the importance of the Orthodox faith in the hearts and minds of her future subjects. She saw for the first time some of the many different peoples and races of the vast empire, and the bustle and significance of a seaport where so many cultures crossed. Nor could she fail to notice the squalor and misery that made up the sordid, poverty-stricken lives of those from whom ultimately the splendor and wealth of her own life at court derived.
On the way back to Moscow, Peter contracted smallpox. The disease left him hideously disfigured and also seems to have affected his already feeble brain. Despite this and the envious rumors circulating about Catherine, preparations for the wedding went ahead. The tsarina's enthusiasm for all things French now knew no bounds. French carpenters, decorators, cooks, modistes and tailors were all enticed to Russia at vast salaries to prepare for the great event. Elizabeth aimed to copy and outdo the recent wedding of the dauphin, and her ambassadors were instructed to study and report on the ceremonial and rules of precedence current at the courts of Europe.
On August 21, 1745, Peter and Catherine were married. Then followed nine days of festivities, a constant succession of balls, masquerades, state dinners, Italian operas, French plays and fireworks. Catherine was sixteen, her husband a year older. To her sadness, her father was not invited and, apart from her mother and a rather uncouth maternal uncle, no one else represented her family.
The little archduchess wore a dress of "silver moiré, embroidered in silver on all the hems, and of a terrific weight." The empress gave her leave to wear as many jewels as she wanted, "both hers and mine," and on her head she placed a small but heavy crown. Her hair had been curled for the wedding after a terrific argument between the hairdresser and the empress — which the hairdresser won. The religious ceremony began at ten in the morning and was not over until four o'clock that afternoon. Despite the weight of the dress, the jewels and the crown, which gave her a blinding headache, the bride was gracious, if somewhat joyless, during that interminable day of ceremonial. In the evening there was a ball. Finally, at half past one and amid much pomp, the young couple were led to bed.
Catherine's mother has left us a description of the scarlet and silver marriage bedroom, "so fine and majestic, that you cannot see it without being transfixed with admiration." Here for the first time Catherine found herself alone, waiting for the boy-husband who was to make her life a misery for the next eighteen years. One month later the Princess of Zerbst, her role as her daughter's chaperone over, was sent home.
Peter's doctors had tried to postpone the marriage as the puny Grand Duke had barely reached puberty. Despite his swaggering boasts to his bride of mistresses and liaisons, with her he was completely impotent, and for almost the next ten years Catherine remained a virgin.
It was said his impotence could have been cured by a small operation which he was too cowardly to undergo, but perhaps his inability to consummate the marriage had psychological origins. He certainly seems to have had more sexual success with experienced lower-class women.
What emerges from Catherine's memoirs is a picture of a husband who was a loutish boor, a drunkard who smelt of tobacco and alcohol, happier in the guardroom than the salon. His teachers had themselves usually been drunk and he had learned nothing from them; nor had he any experience of parental love. His mother, the elder daughter of Peter the Great, died when her son was only three months old. His father, the Duke of Holstein, neglected the boy and died when Peter was eleven. Refusing to adapt to Russian ways, Peter had remained a Lutheran and, in all essentials, a German. His character was immature, boastful, capricious and cruel. He was also the Empress Elizabeth's only male relative and her heir.
Initially he and Catherine were drawn to each other: two children linked by a common language and background. From the moment they met, Peter seems to have acknowledged her innate superiority and would run to her to solve his problems, nicknaming her "Madame la Ressource."
Catherine loved animals, especially dogs, and when Peter gave her a small English poodle, she and her ladies would spend hours combing his hair and dressing him in new clothes. Catherine allowed him to sit at table like all the other guests, and noted how he "ate very neatly from his plate" and then would "turn his head and ask for a drink, yapping at the footman who stood behind him." Some years later she became devoted to an English whippet called Tom Anderson and known as Sir Tom. He was allowed to sleep in her bedroom on a blanket she had knitted especially for him, and when he fathered a litter of puppies they were all permitted to accompany Catherine to the court theater. When Sir Tom died, she was heartbroken and ordered an Egyptian-style pyramid to be placed over his grave.
Peter's attitude to animals was callously different. To hear the howls of the dogs that he unmercifully thrashed distressed Catherine deeply. Nor was it easy to tolerate him training a pack of hounds in their bedroom. She was horrified when he solemnly court-martialed and hanged a rat for daring to eat one of his paste toy sentries. His childish love of toys was a further burden to her, for he would play with dolls till two or three in the morning, sometimes making her laugh, but more often irritating her as the whole bed was covered with heavy toys.
Careful and calculating, Catherine survived it all. Her greatest gift was the art of dissimulation, which she perfected during these miserable years of her marriage. All Russians, she decided, had "a fundamental dislike of foreigners," and were ready to spot their "weaknesses, faults and quaintness." Shrewdly she determined to give them no insight into her own sufferings.
At the age of fifteen she had drawn up three resolutions:
1. to please the Grand Duke;
2. to please the tsarina;
3. to please the nation.
"I wanted to be Russian," she wrote, "in order that the Russians should love me." The task required resolution and courage. "For eighteen years," she confessed, "I led a life which would have rendered ten women mad, and twenty others in my place would have died of a broken heart." Ten years after her marriage an observer commented that she was esteemed and loved in Russia to a high degree.
These early years of marriage forged Catherine's character. She emerged hard, disciplined and controlled, having learned to curb her temper and her pride. When her father died two years after her marriage, Catherine was only allowed one week's crying and six weeks' mourning, as he had not been a king! Although her husband made her life a misery and a degradation, she retained an overwhelming desire to love and be loved. In spite of being an egotist, she was easy to live with and easy to serve. She was indulgent toward her servants and never inordinately severe with them, so it was not surprising that they adored her.
In appearance the tsarina was all that Catherine longed to be: tall, beautiful and with perfect features — even though her excessive love of food was destroying her fine figure. Her smile was as famous as her sweet expression and her dark blue eyes. Her bearing, her manner, her gestures, her hair, hands and feet were all said to be perfect. She had an incisive intelligence and could spot falsehood immediately, and for her time she was even considered merciful. On her accession, Elizabeth had sworn that no one would be condemned to death during her reign, and she kept her promise. Her reign marked the start of a cultural renaissance in Russia. Advances were made in every field and it was she who unwittingly laid the foundations for the brilliant achievements of the young German princess who was to succeed her.
Catherine learned a great deal from her aunt. Years later she was able to recall in detail what Elizabeth had worn on any occasion and the dazzling jewelry with which she had covered her head, neck and bosom. Although Elizabeth left behind thousands of sumptuous dresses when she died, she was careful not to wear expensive dresses when travelling and wore simple clothes at home. Catherine copied this simplicity, dressing quite plainly and without jewelry even when attending the masques her husband gave at Oranienbaum, their country house, built by Peter the Great. "This won the favor of the Empress," she wrote, "who did not approve of the Oranienbaum feasts, at which the meals turned into real orgies." To Catherine, some of Elizabeth's whims for elaborate fancy dress went too far, like the occasion when the ladies of the court were all made to dress up as shepherdesses in pink and white, wearing hats "in the English style" and carrying crooks.
Elizabeth was generous to her young protégée. Soon after Catherine's arrival, she sent her 15,000 rubles and a large case of dress material (she expected her court to wear rich fabrics, which added to Catherine's burden of debts). The whole court followed Elizabeth's example and would change their clothes at least twice a day. At fifteen, Catherine found dressing up "not unpleasant." In an effort to organize her domestic affairs and bestow favors on certain of her women she liked, Catherine devised a system of privileged duties: her favorite had the key to her jewels; another looked after her lace; another her clothes; and another her ribbons. A Fräulein Schenk, who seems to be the only one of her suite from Zerbst allowed to remain, kept her linen. There was a dwarf who took care of powder and combs and another who had charge of the rouge, hairpins and mouches (black facial beauty patches).
Elizabeth also took care to protect this young German newcomer, to the chagrin and jealousy of many of her courtiers, who circulated stories with the aim of turning the empress against Catherine. Her protégée had become a smart young lady of fashion, and as she matured, such maliciousness grew more dangerous. Portraits of Catherine at twenty-one show a slight yet elegant figure, with dark, thick curly hair and wide-open blue eyes. Her face was too long to be considered beautiful, but she had great charm, gaiety and wit, plus a certain undercurrent of recklessness which made her company exciting. Her manners were easy and unaffected and she somehow managed to win over to her side even those set to spy on her. It is hard to believe that all her actions and relationships were contrived and the product of careful planning, as she was so natural and spontaneous in her attachments and reactions to those she met.
Rivalry between the tsarina and the ladies of her court was not encouraged. A few years after her wedding, Catherine recalled that on a great feast day she wore a beautiful white dress, embroidered in gold "with a large Spanish stitch." It provoked the tsarina's displeasure. "It is possible," Catherine noted complacently, "that the Empress found my dress more effective than her own." The same thing happened a few years later when Catherine wore a dress of mauve and silver, which the tsarina professed to dislike. On the Grand Duke's birthday, when Catherine wore an especially beautiful dress of blue velvet embroidered with gold, Elizabeth sent her chamberlain to remind her niece of the regulations forbidding the wearing of certain materials. This time Catherine fought back. She laughed in the chamberlain's face, telling him that she never wore anything Her Majesty did not like and pointing out that her quality did not reside in either her beauty or her clothing.
In spite of the tsarina's wishes, members of the court did vie to outshine each other in their appearance. On one occasion Catherine heard to what lengths of extravagance everyone was going for a particular masquerade and, fearing that she could not afford to compete, deliberately put on a bodice and skirt of "rough white cloth." She wore a tiny hoop and smoothed back her hair, tying it "with a white ribbon in the shape of a fox's tail." She placed a single rose in her long, thick hair, together with a rosebud and leaves, and another in her corsage. Around her neck, at her cuffs and as her apron, she used white gauze. When she crossed the crowded gallery, she caused a sensation. The tsarina, seeing her, exclaimed, "Good God, what simplicity!" Marvelling that Catherine had on not even a single beauty patch, she took a small box of mouches from her pocket and applied one to Catherine's cheek.
At court balls to which the public were not admitted, Catherine made a point of dressing very simply as the empress disliked to see anyone overdressed on these occasions. "But when the ladies were ordered to come dressed as men, I wore superb clothes, all embroidered or of an elaborate style; this did not arouse criticism — on the contrary, I do not know why, it pleased the Empress."
Elizabeth longed above all for Catherine to produce an heir, and this meant that she interfered in what would normally be regarded as the trivialities of her niece's life. Catherine's extraordinary energy found a much-needed outlet in sport and dancing. Her only real escape and pleasure, as well as exercise, was riding, especially to hounds. This she preferred to do astride the horse, but the tsarina insisted that Catherine always ride sidesaddle, since she thought that riding astride interfered with conception. Typically, Catherine devised an answer. "I invented for myself saddles on which I could sit as I wanted. They had the English crook and one could swing one's leg to sit astride; the pommel, furthermore, could be screwed off and one of the stirrups raised or lowered as one required. If the grooms were asked how I rode, they could truthfully say, 'In a lady's saddle, according to the Empress's wish.' I switched my leg only when I was sure I was not going to be observed." She cunningly designed a riding habit with a split skirt that would fall to either side of the saddle, whether sitting side or astride. These outfits were always made of silk camlet, but as this would invariably shrink in the rain or fade in the sun, they needed constant renewing.
Catherine was once asked to accompany the wife of a Saxon minister who was also a renowned "Amazon." She wore a riding habit of "rich sky blue material with silver braid and crystal buttons, which looked exactly like diamonds," as well as a black hat edged with a string of diamonds, and her horsemanship as well as her exquisite appearance far outshone her rival's, which greatly pleased the empress.
Riding also eased her intense physical frustration. At Oranienbaum she and Peter went hunting, she recalled, "every blessed day." Some days she spent thirteen out of twenty-four hours in the saddle. She recognized that "the amount of exercise I took lessened the hypochondria to which I was inclined every month around a certain period," and admitted that what passionately interested her was not hunting but riding: "the more violent the exercise, the more I enjoyed it." This was a development of a technique by which she had comforted herself in younger days. Even as a child Catherine had used up excess energy by riding her pillows in her bed in the dark. As soon as she was alone at night, instead of sleeping, "I climbed astride my pillows and galloped in my bed until I was quite worn out. I was never caught out, nor did anyone know that I travelled post-haste on my pillows."
On summer mornings at Oranienbaum, Catherine would often rise at three, dress in men's clothes, and, accompanied by an old huntsman and just a fisherman rowing the boat, she would shoot duck in the reeds that fringe the sea on both sides of the Oranienbaum Canal. Exhilarated and hungry, she would then return for a late breakfast, ride to hounds all afternoon and dance the night away. This excessive exercise routine helped to ease her tension as well as making her tough and physically fit.
Catherine soon found herself walking a tightrope between her husband's noisy, boring activities and the jealousy and unfounded (as she would have us believe) suspicions of the Tsarina Elizabeth. Her intellectual needs found solace in the works of the Enlightenment — for although Peter liked reading, he preferred novels and tales of highwaymen. Suffering from boredom especially during the long winters, as well as every kind of frustration at a court where immorality seemed to be condoned by its leading member, Catherine comforted herself by voracious reading. "I fell back on the books I brought with me," and by accident she came across the letters of Mme de Sévigné and "devoured them." Then she discovered the works of Voltaire. Such books, she observed, "greatly raised my standard of reading."
Catherine had a mentor, Count Gyllenborg, a member of the Swedish embassy, who had been impressed with Catherine's intelligence as a young girl in Hamburg. He warned her of the precariousness of her position — and of her need for self-knowledge, self-discipline and the nourishing of her mind and spirit. He advised her to study Tacitus and Plutarch as well as Voltaire, Baronius, Brantôme, certain French romances, and the life of Henri of France (who, like Catherine, had changed his religion to gain access to a throne, and who remained one of her heroes). Above all he recommended Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws, which became her bedside book.
In the early years of Catherine's marriage, the tsarina — in spite of her own profligate ways — had the young bride carefully chaperoned at all times. When it became obvious even to Elizabeth that Catherine's childlessness was not her own fault, this strict supervision was relaxed in the hope that she might beget an heir elsewhere. With the discreet encouragement of Elizabeth's entourage, Catherine fell madly in love with Serge Saltykov, a newly appointed young chamberlain from an ancient and most distinguished family.
At twenty-three Catherine had become known as an allumeuse, a flirt who offered her victims no hope of satisfaction. Now that her guardians seemed to be going out of their way to encourage her trysts with Saltykov, this coldness in her changed. For the first time in her life Catherine allowed herself to respond to the advances of this handsome, spoilt young libertine. The following year she had two miscarriages. Then, in September 1754, Catherine gave birth to her son, the Grand Duke Paul. Although it is often said that he was Saltykov's son, Paul grew to resemble the Grand Duke Peter alarmingly — both physically and mentally.
In the previous year Peter had been persuaded by Saltykov to undergo an operation which cured him of his sexual infirmity. According to Catherine's own memoirs, Madame Groot, "the pretty widow of a painter" (who had painted Catherine's portrait), was then persuaded to initiate him. Thereafter Catherine had to submit to his awkward and coarse lovemaking, a duty made more difficult by her natural repugnance for Peter and her passion for Saltykov.
But Russia had an heir. Her duty done, the child was promptly taken from her. After the difficult birth she was left completely alone, with no one to care for her or even change her sheets. In the excitement over the baby she was simply forgotten.
To add to her misery, Saltykov had grown tired of Catherine's demanding and aggressive lovemaking and accepted a mission abroad. Not surprisingly, she felt abandoned and depressed. Forty days passed before Catherine was allowed to see her son, who was being smothered with love by Elizabeth. She found the child handsome; but, unlike Elizabeth, Catherine was not a natural mother. Starved of any physical relationship for so many years, surrounded by licentiousness on all sides, she threw herself into indulging her newly discovered passions — and that did not include motherhood.
Catherine needed money. Elizabeth had given her the traditional gifts as well as money after the birth of her son, but she remained deeply in debt. At this point the British ambassador in St. Petersburg, Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams, anxious to maintain the British influence in a Russia dangerously close to the court at Versailles, saw in Catherine a useful potential ally and took her onto his diplomatic payroll. She gained both cash — her first payment was £10,000 — and in Hanbury-Williams an invaluable friend. This subtle and unscrupulous man gave Catherine her first lessons in diplomacy. Sir Charles soon had a very high regard for his new pupil, partly because Catherine was a master of the art of flattery.
The ambassador, himself more than a little infatuated with the ravishing Grand Duchess, also recognized in her a need even more pressing than that of money: her longing to be loved. In his suite was a Polish aristocrat, Stanislaus Poniatowski — young, charming, good-looking, widely travelled, and used to cultivated and cosmopolitan society. Poniatowski was also weak and romantic, though foremost in his mind was always the interest of his powerful maternal family, the Czartoryski. At twenty-two he was four years younger than Catherine. Obviously taken with her at their first meeting, he still took several months to muster the audacity to approach the Grand Duchess. His political aim was to establish the rule of a Polish king in his own country, a task impossible without Russian help, and to seduce the fascinating Grand Duchess might well replace such dreams with the reality of a lifetime in Siberia. So it was left to Catherine to entice him into her bed.
Poniatowski's description of her at the time of their affair leaves a clear impression of Catherine's appeal: "She had black hair, a radiant expression and a high color, large, prominent and expressive blue eyes, long dark eyelashes, a pointed nose, a kissable mouth, perfect hands and arms, a slender figure, tall rather than small. She moved quickly, yet with great nobility; she possessed an agreeable voice and a gay, good-tempered laugh, passing with ease from the most madcap childish games to arithmetic tables, undaunted either by the labours involved or by the texts themselves." This was the woman he would adore for many years and who would give him a kingdom — only to take it from him bit by bit, leaving him a broken man.
At this time Louis XV had a secret agent at the Russian court. The Chevalier d'Eon was a creature of ambiguous sexuality, for he later forswore his manhood and lived out his last years as a woman. He loathed Catherine and intriguingly described her as romantic, ardent and passionate: "Her eyes are brilliant, their look is fascinating and glassy — the expression of a wild beast." On her lofty forehead he professed to read a long and terrifying future. "She is prepossessing and affable," he noted, "but when she comes close by me I instinctively recoil, for she frightens me."
In the late 1750s the lovers became careless. Poniatowski was caught by the Grand Duke's spies as he left Catherine's apartments, disguised in a blond wig, posing as her hairdresser. Peter humiliated him by making the incident public to the whole court. By now the Grand Duke himself had taken a mistress and when Poniatowski was requested to leave the country, Catherine begged her to intervene. Delighted to have the aloof and disdainful Grand Duchess as her supplicant, she prevailed on Peter to delay Poniatowski's departure by several weeks.
On another occasion, Catherine and Poniatowski's affair was almost exposed by her small dog. After dinner, she offered to show her guests her rooms. As she approached her bedroom, the guests were alarmed by the furious yapping of Catherine's little dog, but when he saw Poniatowski he immediately stopped and ran up to him, jumping up and down with delight. Poniatowski's familiarity with the guardian of Catherine's bedroom was not lost on one of the guests, who later assured him that he was the "soul of discretion," but also advised him to always give any woman he loved a small dog, as he would then be able to tell if there was someone else in his lady's favor. "My friend, there can be nothing more treacherous than a small dog...."
Catherine's devotion to Poniatowski led her to intrigue with the empress's powerful old chancellor Bestuzhev, and six months later she achieved her goal: her lover returned to Russia as Poland's official representative. When Catherine later gave birth to Poniatowski's daughter, the tsarina generously accepted the child as a Romanov, naming her Anne after Peter's mother. Once again, the child was taken from Catherine.
To conceal her amorous escapades Catherine had a small recess arranged behind her bed, "the prettiest alcove one could imagine," in which she could receive her guests in secret. There she installed a sofa, some chairs and tables and a looking glass. With the curtains of her bed drawn, nothing could be seen, and when anyone asked what the large screen in her room concealed, they were told, "the commode." Here she held intimate little parties with her friends and her lover Poniatowski. When the empress's pompous confidant Count Shuvalov came to spy on her, he could in all honesty swear that he had found Catherine in bed "all alone, while only a curtain separated my merry little crowd." After the visitor had gone, Catherine would order a huge meal, enough for six (for, she explained, childbirth had made her ravenous). "When the supper was ready and brought to my room, I had it set by my bed and dismissed the servants. My friends came out and threw themselves like wild beasts upon the food. Their gaiety had increased their appetite. I must admit that evening was one of the maddest and merriest that I had spent in my life...."
It was obvious to Catherine that should her husband become emperor, his mistress and her enemies would see to her disgrace and she would end her days in a convent. Her only hope lay in persuading the chancellor Bestuzhev that Russia's best interests lay in her sharing her husband's throne and participating in the running of the country. For Bestuzhev, the prospect of the Grand Duke Peter with his Prussian sentiments ruling his beloved Russia appalled him. Secretly Catherine had no intention of sharing a throne with Peter, or of acting as regent for her son — she had already resolved "either to perish or to reign." Her first step must be to substitute her son for her husband as the future emperor; then at least she would be safe as regent. But Bestuzhev's plots regarding the succession were discovered and he was arrested; Poniatowski was once more expelled and Catherine found herself under grave suspicion and, worse, ignored by the empress. In desperation, she burned all her papers and maintained an outward appearance of calm and gaiety. Domestic co-existence with her husband had become impossible — he openly despised and humiliated her and refused to let her see her children. When the tension concerning her fate became unbearable, she threw herself on Elizabeth's mercy. It was a brave gamble, and after two momentous interviews during which she shrewdly played on Elizabeth's warm and motherly nature, begging to be allowed to return home to Zerbst rather than cause her displeasure, Catherine was forgiven and officially back in favor.
With her Polish lover banished, the whole court knew that the young, beautiful and passionate Grand Duchess was once again "available," and many well-connected aspiring suitors came forward; but Catherine's sharp political intelligence rejected even the most handsome. She chose instead an unknown but dashing young guards officer who had the unhappy commission of acting as escort to King Frederick of Prussia's favorite adjutant, a privileged prisoner of war. Peter, with his pro-Prussian sympathies, made no secret of his admiration for the prisoner and entertained him regularly in his apartments, the handsome guard remaining outside. Gregory Orlov was a brave and volatile patriot who disapproved of his Grand Duke so clearly fraternizing with the enemy. He and his three brothers were as famous for their wild behavior off the battlefield as for their great courage on it. Catherine was immediately impressed by this tall, handsome officer and she found ample opportunity to invite him to join her intimate circle. In choosing to love Gregory Orlov Catherine did well, as he was strong, handsome, virile and uncomplicated. He loved his country, had no ambition for himself, and he and his brothers had a great following in the army. As this was not a time for the Grand Duchess, and possible future regent, to be seen openly betraying her husband, she did all she could to keep their relationship totally secret.
Catherine was more than ever aware of the precariousness of her position. The Empress Elizabeth's health was deteriorating rapidly and her generals were not eager to engage in new battles against Frederick of Prussia in view of her heir's openly pro-German sympathies. The Grand Duke Peter was also scandalizing society by publicly insulting Catherine as well as privately tormenting her, and by bestowing almost royal privileges on his mistress. But just as Peter was alienating himself from the government, the army and the clergy, Catherine was cultivating the company of wise older ladies, discussing with them Russian history, culture and folklore, and deliberately avoiding court entertainments. This was not only to remind society of her husband's callous behavior toward her, but also to give the impression of serious-mindedness at a time when the empress was dying and her soldiers were fighting a war.
It was at this critical time, for which she had been waiting and scheming for years, that Catherine found herself pregnant. News that the Grand Duchess was expecting the child of a guards officer on the eve of her husband's accession would hardly help with her own ambitions. Elizabeth died on January 5, 1762. The Grand Duke became Tsar Peter III, almost immediately withdrew Russia from the war and made an alliance with the Prussians. In April, Catherine contrived to have her child in secret. Her faithful valet offered to set fire to his house, and during the excitement and commotion which Peter and his mistress hastened to watch, Catherine gave birth to a son, Count Alexis Bobrinsky. Not everyone at court was unaware of the reasons for Catherine's self-imposed withdrawal from society, and several diplomats commented on her quick recovery from her "sprain." When the French ambassador went so far as to compliment her on her sparkling looks, she replied with a mysterious smile, "You cannot imagine, sir, what it costs a woman to be beautiful."
Meanwhile Catherine's position grew more uncertain. Her husband was threatening to declare his son Paul a bastard, send Catherine to a convent and marry his ill-favored mistress. In June, when he insulted her in public, Catherine began to make her final plans. With the help of the Orlov brothers she had carefully wooed and won the army and the powerful bureaucrats in the government. On June 28, Catherine toured the Semeonovsky barracks on the eve of the army's departure to fight Denmark for Peter's Holstein territories. It was a war the soldiers did not want and which did not concern Russia, and, disaffected by the humiliating peace with Prussia, they were on the verge of mutiny. With little hesitation they threw in their lot with Catherine. On July 9, at the head of two elite regiments, the Preobrajensky and the Horse Guards, Catherine marched into St. Petersburg. With the crowds swelling the unruly procession, she entered the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan and was anointed Catherine II, Autocrat of All the Russias.
Although in her memoirs she tried to imply that the events of that day were a spontaneous result of the people's will, in fact she did not overlook the smallest detail. In the morning she put on a plain black dress to demonstrate her respect for the dead tsarina, and allowed her hair to hang loose on her shoulders. She looked young, fragile, heroic, and the effect was not lost on the people or the soldiers. Later, astride a white charger, wearing the uniform of a grenadier of her elite guards regiment, a sable turban surrounded by golden oak leaves resting on her long dark hair, Catherine led her army to meet her husband. The Orlovs had no difficulty in taking him prisoner and, whimpering, the pathetic figure of Tsar Peter III abdicated in favor of a little German usurper. He was incarcerated in the grim fortress of Schüsselberg, with the Orlovs as his guards. Eight days later he was dead, officially of apoplexy. In fact he had been killed and it was made to appear the result of a drunken brawl.
Catherine was neither cruel nor vindictive, but as long as Peter lived he was a threat to her position. She had not ordered his death, yet there is no doubt that it made her far more secure on the throne. Peter had neglected to have himself crowned at once, a grave error of judgment in view of the religious and traditional attitudes of the people and the clergy, and not a mistake Catherine would make. Two months after her accession she made her state entry into Moscow. Wearing the finest jewels from the imperial treasury and a train made from 4,000 ermine skins, she was crowned in the heart of the Kremlin. The ceremony took place in the fifteenth-century Uspensky Cathedral, a building steeped in history and tradition, with its high altar adorned with the medieval cross brought by Sophia Paleologue from the ruins of Constantinople. Catherine had the courage to alter the coronation ceremony by placing the crown on her own head. She also took communion and passed through the gates of the iconostasis, an area in Russian churches that women are forbidden to enter.
From the beginning, Catherine was concerned with her image. A German usurper, she had taken the throne from the lawful ruler, her husband and Peter the Great's grandson. His unpopularity had been a direct result of his German sympathies both abroad and at home, and his insensitivity to the Russian character. No wonder the little German princess who set herself up as Autocrat of All the Russias, matouchka to her people and who pardoned her husband's killers, felt insecure. Nor is it surprising that Catherine did all she could to suppress the memory of her own German background.
Peter the Great had begun the Westernization of Russia. He had imported technicians, tools and techniques to build a great city and port on the marshlands. Catherine continued this process by patronizing European literature in spite of her gestures toward the indigenous culture of her own empire and, above all, by adopting the style and the luminaries of the contemporary European Enlightenment.
Catherine's love of French culture and literature turned the stream of her early interest into a flood. This intelligent, articulate woman now sought to change the fundamental Russian concept of rule by hereditary right and religious sanction into the French ideal of authority based on philosophical principles. The Russian nobility welcomed her Francomania and used the French language and culture to establish a united identity. Catherine could now be a personal patron of those contemporary French writers whose works she had so avidly consumed.
She flattered and courted Montesquieu, Voltaire and Diderot (whose entire library she bought, while politely rejecting most of his liberal ideas as impractical for her country). Voltaire was by then nearly seventy, while Catherine was thirty-four. He had already written a history of Peter the Great, and she appointed him official historian of the Russian Empire. The most famous man in Europe referred to her as the Semiramis of the North — privately, he called her la belle cateau (the handsome wench). The Russian aristocracy bought all his works — in the original and in translation — and no house of any standing was complete without a "Voltaire chair" of the sort in which he was always depicted sitting.
Voltaire was indeed flattered by Catherine's attention, and the opportunity of influencing so large a population equalled his pleasure at receiving her lavish gifts. Whether or not she really understood French literature and philosophy is open to conjecture. Initially she seemed willing to re-create Russia as a land of justice and education based on the models of her French mentors. She even dreamed of emancipating the serfs, and a commission set up at her command in 1767 included members of every social class (except the serfs). Its aim was to set out a completely new constitution. When it finally reported, its findings were completely ignored, and Catherine realized that her power ultimately depended on the serf owners, the nobles, and not the poor. In the end she even imposed serfdom on the Ukrainians. Montesquieu and Voltaire turned out to be dreamers, not practical philosophers, whose ideas could not really be applied to her own sprawling territories.
An active and prolific writer, she saw herself in direct competition with Frederick the Great as philosopher-king and writer-monarch. Unlike Frederick, she did her own writing and used the language of her subjects, whereas Frederick, hating the German language and culture, wrote in French. She herself described her writing as "a mania," and in her lifetime covered reams of paper in her own hand. Although most of her writing was in Russian (she lived in Russia for over fifty years), her foreign correspondence was mostly in French. She rarely corresponded in German, although she knew this language best. Fluent in the Russian spoken word, she often misspelt even simple words and made errors in written grammar.
Voltaire was the architect of her legend in the West and, as such, an essential part of her overall strategy. Early in her reign she undertook the writing of an enormous work of instructions for the Russian people, called her Nakaz. These consist of somewhat arbitrary maxims, inspired not only by her hero Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws, but also by Beccaria's Of Crimes and Punishments, Bielefeld's Treatise on Jurisprudence and Turgot's Treatise on the Growth and Distribution of Wealth. Catherine's Nakaz was hailed throughout the rest of Europe as the work of a remarkable and enlightened ruler. The authorities in France found it so radical that the work was immediately banned. Its effect in Russia was virtually nil.
This was partly because Catherine did not truly believe in it herself. For instance, the Nakaz urged rulers to avoid any punishment so brutally final as the death penalty. Elsewhere, however, Catherine noted that wise rulers needed to "make sure such kindness neither weakens your authority nor diminishes your people's respect."
Her attitude to freedom of expression and censorship was also ambiguous. When Catherine arrived in Russia, fewer than thirty volumes (other than church books) were published each year and foreign works were almost impossible to obtain. She founded a society to translate foreign works into Russian. These fell mostly into three categories: the classics — Homer, Plato, Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Cicero; the Enlightenment — Montesquieu, Beccaria, the Encyclopédie and eventually Voltaire's Portable Philosophic Dictionary; and, lastly, works of modern literature — such as Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse, Goethe's Werther, and the poetry of John Milton, James Thomson and Edward Young.
Catherine personally imported into Russia 3,000 copies of Voltaire's Dictionary, and these sold within one week. During the 1760s she allowed her subjects considerable freedom of expression, both spoken and written. In later, more dangerous years, Catherine's attitudes hardened. Her legacy is therefore not simply or easily defined. Alongside her determination that undue freedom should not endanger the position she had fought so hard to win went a genuine stimulus to creative thought. Her anonymously published journal, All Sorts, for instance, inspired by The Spectator of Addison and Steele, made an enormous impression on the Russian satirical journals of the eighteenth century.
She was not simply trying to Europeanize her empire (even though the opening words of her Nakaz, which startled contemporary ears, were: "Russia is a European country"); she tried to foster its own literary culture as well. Catherine founded the Russian Academy of Letters and appointed Princess Dashkova as its president. As the Russian language lacked grammatical rules and even any precise definition of the meaning of words, the Academy's first task was to produce a dictionary and a grammar. Both Catherine and the princess contributed to the work and, though much criticized, it constitutes the first attempt at classifying concepts in the Russian language. Princess Dashkova's memoirs tell us that Catherine believed that "Russian, which blended the strength, richness and virility of German with the softness of Italian, would one day become the universal language." Yet while the empress generously patronized great names, Russian talent invariably went unnoticed by her.
Perhaps Catherine's greatest impact on the Russian way of life was the severing of official culture from its religious roots. The city, not the monastery, became the center of Russian culture. It was an ambiguous achievement, partly brought about by her financial needs, for when she became empress the state coffers were so depleted that Catherine reduced the clergy to state-paid functionaries by simply taking over their land and serfs. It was perhaps a continuation of the ecclesiastical policies of her predecessor, that other Westernizer, Peter the Great; but it was undoubtedly a major break with the age-long traditions of the land she had come to rule.
Although she was genuinely interested in literature, painting and architecture, the new empress was above all aware of how they related to her all-important public image. The arts enhanced the sovereign. Like Peter the Great and his daughter Elizabeth, Catherine believed that the Russian monarchy should not only be magnificent, it should also be seen to be magnificent. When it came to commissioning great buildings she was not only insatiable but also quite sincerely convinced that her building mania was not self-indulgence. It was, she believed, a direct reflection of the authority of the crown. The grander her buildings, the less insecure the empress felt.
Her taste in architecture altered three times during her reign. At first there remained traces of the rococo beloved by Elizabeth, but during the second decade of her reign she greatly encouraged the innovations of three architects she had chosen to work for her: the German Velten, the Italian Rinaldi and the Russian Bazhenov. Although the Baroque style lingered on in several of the elevations and ground plans of their work, Russian architecture also moved distinctly closer to classicism. Classicism totally dominated the third and last phase of Catherine's influence on Russian architecture. Once again, three architects were her principal servants: the Scotsman Cameron,* the Italian Quarenghi and the Russian Starov.
Charles Cameron was commissioned by Catherine to redecorate her summer country palace of Tsarsköe Selo in the neoclassical style. He brought to Russia a sense of color that became an inherent part of the new classicism, and his muted tones replaced the bright primary colors so loved by Elizabeth. Once Catherine had tested him on a series of guest rooms, he completely remodelled her own apartments. The result was a charming, elegant suite decorated in mauve, gold and white, with Wedgwood medallions in the marble chimneypiece. Next he rebuilt her Agate Pavilion in the grounds of Tsarsköe Selo with sixty workmen recruited from Scotland. Decorated largely in agate, it also incorporated steambaths and a marble gallery ninety yards long. She enlarged the park, as she liked to walk up to ten miles a day and, like a good German, measured the distance with a pedometer. She erected monuments and columns to her victorious generals and copied the bridge at Wilton, the classical eighteenth-century house of the Earls of Pembroke, in gray Siberian marble. Cameron then built her a chinoiserie village in the park to house oppressed serfs, where modern farming methods were taught to the children of priests and selected peasants with machinery imported from Suffolk. Peter the Great had laid out the park in the formal Dutch seventeenth-century style, with straight paths, espaliers and fish canals. Catherine imported John Bush from Hackney to change to the "English" style of rolling lawns, shady walks and unclipped trees. Bush's daughter married Charles Cameron. Joseph Cameron, their son, eventually succeeded his father as Catherine's architect.
The Italian architect Giacomo Quarenghi was employed extensively by Catherine after his arrival in Russia in 1780. He made an intensive study of antiquity and modern architecture, especially the works of Palladio, and through him Catherine acquired a more serious and less sentimental understanding of classical art. Until the end of the century he was the most influential architect in Russia.
Catherine loved flowers. "Anglomania rules my plantomania," she wrote to Voltaire, and at Tsarsköe Selo she planted flowers from all over the known world, keeping herself informed about new species and subscribing to the limited edition of the Earl of Bute's beautifully illustrated Botanical Tables. Her roses did well, but when her bulbs wilted after flowering for only a single day, they were simply replaced overnight by new ones in pots. The most innovative garden of its day was one she created for her lover Potemkin, Prince of Tauris, around Starov's Taurian Palace. The whole garden was heated by an immense system of hot water pipes and flues, so that in the midst of a freezing St. Petersburg winter the prince could walk in a Mediterranean garden. Following the English tradition, Catherine's gardens had endless lawns, woods and groves. It was not long before her subjects followed her lead and abandoned the geometric formality of the French style inspired by Versailles for the natural English parks.
The Empress Elizabeth had established the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, but Catherine gave it a firmer basis, following the guidelines of the French Academy. She sent Russian artists to study in France, where many gained prominence. As young Russian artists began to interest themselves in Western techniques, she gave them special permission to enter the women's bathhouses and sketch from life. The most outstanding Russian painter of her reign was Levitski, and there were many others who were competent and pleasing, though not brilliant.
Catherine also took a personal interest in the affairs of the imperial porcelain factory, established by Elizabeth in 1744 and famous for its production of delightful tiny snuffboxes. Designs generally followed the shapes and decorations of Sèvres and Meissen as well as classical motifs. Frederick the Great had presented Catherine with a huge Berlin centerpiece, and this inspired the production of Russian peasant figures, which the empress particularly liked. She invited artists from other rival European factories to Russia, and Falconet, the modeler from Sèvres, joined her team. The factory's greatest success came toward the end of the century under the direction of Prince Youssopoff. Fine classical works in the Russian Empire style were made, especially white biscuit classical figures and huge vases covered in gilding. But her most famous porcelain commission was a 760-piece dinner service for fifty from Josiah Wedgwood. It was decorated with 1,282 views of the most remarkable buildings, ruins , parks, gardens and other natural curiosities of Britain. It was designed for her Chesme Palace, which she called the Froggery from its Finnish name, and each piece had a green painted frog in place of the imperial crest. It took three years to complete and cost £3,000.
But of all her efforts as a patron of the arts, there is one work for which the Empress Catherine is best remembered. It is the huge bronze equestrian statue of Peter the Great. Having seen his modeling at her porcelain factory, Catherine had the vision to appoint Falconet to carry out the commission. The sculptor took twelve years to complete this magnificent statue of Peter the Great reining in his horse, poised on the edge of a large rock and looking out across the River Neva, an outstretched arm pointing at the city he had created out of the marshes; his horse meanwhile impatiently stamps on the serpent of his difficulties, now overcome. On the base she placed an inscription in gold letters forever linking her name with Peter the Great.
Although Peter enriched his country architecturally, he did little for any other branch of the arts. Catherine commissioned Yuri Velten to add a building to the Hermitage to house her priceless collection of paintings and objets d'art, which grew vast throughout her long reign. If she heard of a collection which might be acquired, she sent her agents to outbid her competitors. But if her taste was eclectic and quantity often outweighed quality in her acquisitions, she did create a fashion for collecting. Elizabeth had acquired some paintings, mainly German, Dutch and Flemish, but little of first quality, and many a European duke or princeling had more important collections than imperial Russia. Catherine began to collect with typical intensity and, at first, a reckless disregard for cost. She had natural good taste, but most of her purchases were made unseen, and she had to rely on her agent's reports. Nonetheless, by instinct and good luck as well as her businesswoman's shrewdness, she made some remarkable coups. When the collection of the comte de Baudouin came on the market, Catherine bought the best — nine Rembrandts, six Van Dycks and a superb Claude Lorrain. She would watch excitedly as crates filled with her acquisitions from Europe were unpacked on arrival in St. Petersburg. By the end of the 1770s she had acquired some 400 old masters. Catherine was lucky again in buying the Walpole Collection from the Earl of Orford,* as a result of which questions were asked in Parliament as to the propriety of such a famed collection leaving England. The eccentric earl had a passion for hare-coursing, and with some of Catherine's money he bred a greyhound which ran forty-seven times unbeaten. He named her Czarina, and every purebred greyhound in the world today is descended from her.
From a few dozen works at its beginning, by the end of Catherine's reign the imperial collection contained almost 4,000 first-rate paintings, testimony to Catherine's dream of civilizing Russia and inspiring her subjects to follow her lead.
The Empress Elizabeth sowed the seeds of many of Catherine's cultural triumphs, and, despite Catherine's later dislike and envy of her aunt, she made a great impression on the young German princess and influenced her in a number of ways. And whereas Catherine did not follow her irregular way of life, she well exceeded even Elizabeth's mammoth sexual appetites, to the astonishment of her contemporaries. The Earl of Buckinghamshire, appointed British ambassador in the year of Catherine's coronation, wrote: "That her present favorite  is the fourth [Orlov was in fact the third] person she has distinguished is as certain as that she was persuaded to receive the first by the Empress Elizabeth, who thought her nephew incapable of begetting children; and possibly anyone who is acquainted with the abandoned scenes which passed at the Court will wonder that a young, lively woman, who had long seen debauchery sanctified by usage and the highest example, should want any persuasion at all." Catherine said that she could not "live a day without love," but contrary to her reputation, the actual number of her known lovers is relatively modest. She swore to Potemkin that she had had only four before him: "the first from compulsion, the fourth from despair."
According to Catherine's memoirs, she was a complete innocent when she arrived in Russia: "I am certain most of us [ladies and maids] were extremely innocent; for myself I can testify that though I was more than sixteen years old, I had no idea what the difference [between the sexes] was.... I put this question to my mother and was severely scolded." She was generous and remarkably magnanimous to her favorites during their relationships, as well as at the end. They were petted and paraded, but although they were called "aides-de-camp" their only role was to be permanently "on duty," totally faithful (though some were not), and to be her escort at all official and private occasions.
Gregory Orlov, who had helped her to the throne, was created a prince and richly rewarded. Simple and rough, he was not ambitious for himself and wanted to marry her for love. She turned him into a cultivated man of the world, but eventually he was pensioned off and died raving mad. He was succeeded by a nonentity, and then she fell in love with the man who had the greatest influence on her life, Gregory Potemkin. It was often rumored that she had married him, and when they ceased to be lovers they remained close friends. Prince Potemkin fascinated her — a showman, a consummate actor, "failed mystic" and debauchee, a contradictory personality who dominated whatever stage he was on as well as dominating the empress herself. Catherine fell deeply and unequivocally in love with him. He inspired her highest achievements and won her greatest battles. He shared her dreams and made them come true with a style and bravura that matched her own. When he tired of her he turned, among others, to his fifteen-year-old niece. But he continued to satisfy Catherine's sexual needs by choosing all her subsequent lovers — except the last. He was dedicated to his country and his empress, and when he died eighteen years later, Catherine was inconsolable. "Who can I rely on now?" she cried.
All Catherine's lovers after Orlov were "tested" by her friend and confidante, Countess Prescovia Bruce. A Russian aristocrat married to the descendant of a Scottish admiral, as Catherine's éprouveuse she was her most discreet and trusted friend. After the candidate had been examined by Catherine's English doctor, John Rogerson, Countess Bruce would interview him for intelligence and qualities of character. She would then instruct the prospective favorite as to his more intimate "duties" and behavior with the empress. (She even dared to deceive her mistress by falling in love herself with one of them.) Next to her bedroom Catherine had two tiny rooms, each with the walls completely covered with exquisite miniatures set in gold. In one room these depicted lascivious amorous scenes, and in the other, men she had known or loved.
But the woman who ascended the throne of Russia in 1762 was no longer the fragile beauty who had fascinated the world's ambassadors as Grand Duchess. The British ambassador the Earl of Buckinghamshire wrote: "It is easy to discover the remains of a fine woman, but she is now no longer an object of desire." As for her clothes, he continued, "She has the air of paying no attention to what she wears, yet she is always too well drest for a woman who is entirely indifferent to her appearance." Catherine grew quite stout and, to the fury of her court, who slavishly followed French fashions, she adopted and prescribed as formal court dress the old-style boyar lady's loose flowing gown to camouflage her figure.
A description of her daily routine has survived: she habitually rose at five in the morning and worked at her papers, wearing
a white heavy silk dressing gown or capote, and on her head a crêpe mob cap, also white, tilted slightly to the left. The empress worked at affairs of state until twelve. After that in the inner closet her hairdresser Kozoloy did her hair in a very old-fashioned style with small curls behind the ears. It was not a high style and very simple. Then she went out into the other closet where we were all waiting to see her, and by this time her company would be joined by four elderly maids who came to help the empress make her toilet. One of them handed her ice, with which she wiped her face, perhaps to show that she disdained facial cosmetics. Another put on her head a crêpe headdress and the two Zveryovuy sisters handed her pins to fasten it. Her toilet lasted not more than ten minutes, and during it the empress chatted with one of those present...then she would bow to the people there and retire into the bedroom with her ladies, with whose help and that of her personal maid...she dressed. On ordinary days she wore a silk dress, Moldavian style (characterized by wide pleated sleeves and, behind them, a second pair of sleeves which were drawn behind the back and knotted). The outer part of the dress was usually mauve or dark grey, without orders, and the underpart white.
But on official occasions, Catherine dressed with a show of majesty that would have rivalled the Empress Elizabeth. Early in her reign she had severely reprimanded a courtier for wearing a coat embroidered all over in gold thread; but by 1777, "everyone wore cloth of gold with embroidery even on ordinary days, and were now almost ashamed to have embroidery only on the edge of their garments."
In her early days at court, Catherine had followed the current fussy hair fashion, with a "kiss-me-quick" or "beau-catcher" curl glued to the dimple on the cheek. Flowers, real, artificial or bejeweled, would stand up three or four inches from the nape of the neck, "while smaller flowers were fastened in the loops [of ribbons] and hung down the neck and even as far as the waist; in all, over twenty feet of ribbon were used." Catherine later wrote that although the court and the town followed that fashion, launched by Princess Anne of Brunswick, "nothing, in fact, could have been uglier." In later life her hair was always dressed simply and neatly, and most agreed that "no head ever became a crown better than hers."
It has been said that the symbols of Catherine's imperial state were as magnificent as her claim to the throne was tenuous. Certainly the crown which she commissioned the French jeweler Posier to make for the coronation is one of the most beautiful and precious ever made. Like Peter the Great's, it is a miter crown, containing nearly 5,000 diamonds, some quite large. The edges of the miter are outlined by huge, perfectly matched pearls and a magnificent balas ruby of 414.3 metric carats is set in the center. The crown was not ready for the coronation, but was later used as the imperial crown of Russia until 1917. She also commissioned a new orb from Posier for her coronation. Despite the speed with which he was obliged to make it, this piece is magnificent — a globe of burnished gold decorated with bands of Brazilian diamonds. In the center is a large Indian diamond of 46.92 metric carats, a Ceylonese sapphire of 200 carats is set à jour on top of the globe, and on top of that, a cross of large diamonds. This orb was used in Russian coronations until 1896. Later in her reign Catherine commissioned a new imperial scepter with the Orlov diamond set in the center. This stone of 194.75 carats was said to have been stolen by a French soldier from a temple in Mysore, where it had been one of the eyes of a statue of Brahma. The soldier sold it to an English captain for £3,500. Eventually Prince Orlov bought it for £90,000 and gave it to Catherine.
When Orlov gave her the great diamond, Catherine, an immensely generous woman, gave him among many other wonderful gifts an exquisitely carved 19.4 carat emerald engraved with her profile and surrounded with diamonds. Considering the brittle nature of the stone, this was a great achievement. But the gift most often chosen by the empress for her friends and favorites was a snuff box. St. Petersburg was full of jewelers and goldsmiths, and one of the most celebrated was Pauzie. He created exquisitely enamelled gold and jeweled snuff boxes, one of which Catherine presented to Prince Orlov after his great victory at Chesme Bay. There were gold boxes for every occasion, even for Catherine herself to use for her own special snuff grown at home at Tsarsköe Selo. When she saw the delicious, elaborately decorated boudoir Charles Cameron made for her there, with its mirrors, semiprecious stones and glass columns, she called the little room her "snuff box." There is one circular box in her collection, covered in a delicate diamond trellis, which has a miniature portrait of Catherine's favorite greyhound Lizzie on the lid. But more often than not her presentation boxes had a portrait of herself on the lid surrounded by diamonds.
Credited with amassing 40 percent of the Russian state jewels, Catherine so enlarged the collection of Peter the Great and Elizabeth that it became known as the most magnificent collection of personal jewelry in the world. She paid particular attention to Russian sources of precious stones, and her collection contained aquamarines, her celebrated alexandrites, chrysolites, the famous amethysts from the Urals and Siberia, "gleaming by night like red fire," and many others. During her reign there was a particular fashion for diamond bows and clusters instead of the flower motifs so popular in Elizabeth's time. But all who arrived at the court in Russia were astonished at the size and quantity of diamonds and jewelry worn by the empress and her ladies. They often had large brilliants sewn onto their dresses, and even wide borders of them around the hems. Ladies of the court loved to wear diamond bracelets in flower or ribbon patterns — always in pairs — magnificent diamond necklaces and "girandole" earrings. Other than at the French court, there were no luxuries or extravagances, no amusements, arts or social entertainments to equal those of the court in Russia.
In 1789 she took her last lover, a young officer of the Horse Guards named Plato Zubov. She called him "the most innocent soul in the world" (evidently, as her biographer Vincent Cronin commented, confusing youthful freshness with moral innocence). Zubov remained Catherine's lover for the last seven years of her life. On the morning of November 5, 1796, her footman found her lying comatose on the floor, her face mottled by a stroke. The Orthodox Metropolitan performed the last rites, and she died the following evening.
To a courtier of the new tsar it seemed that in death "the pleasantness and greatness returned to her features and she seemed again to be an empress, full in the glory of her reign." Catherine's dearest friend Potemkin once gave this advice to a diplomat with an urgent mission: "Flatter her for which she ought to be, not for what she is." How well he knew that beneath the grandeur and triumphs of the empress lay the insecurity of a provincial German princess.
Copyright © 1986 by HRH Princess Michael of Kent
Catherine the Great 1729-1796
Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst/Empress of All the Russias
Marie Antoinette 1755-1793
Archduchess of Austria/Queen of France
Maria Carolina 1752-1814
Archduchess of Austria/Queen of Naples and the Two Sicilies
Archduchess of Austria/Empress of Brazil
Grandee of Spain/Empress of France
Princess Royal of Great Britain/Empress of Prussia
Alexandra 1844-1925 and Minnie 1847-1928Princess Alexandra of Denmark/Queen of Great Britain
Princess Dagmar of Denmark/Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia