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I could have warned her when she arrived in Russia, this petty German princess from Zerbst, a town no bigger than St. Petersburg’s Summer Garden, this frail girl who would become Catherine.
This court is a new world to you, I could have said to her, a slippery ground. Do not be deceived by tender looks and flattering words, promises of splendor and triumph. This place is where hopes shrivel and die. This is where dreams turn to ashes.
She has charmed you already, our Empress. With her simplicity, the gentle touch of her hand, the tears she dried from her eyes at her first sight of you. With the vivacity of her speech and gestures, her brisk impatience with etiquette. How kind and frank Empress Elizabeth Petrovna is, you have said. Others have, too. Many others. But frankness can be a mask, a disguise, as her predecessor has learned far too late.
Three years ago our bewitching Empress was but a maiden princess at the court of Ivan VI, the baby Emperor, and his Regent Mother. There had been a fiancé lost to smallpox, there had been other prospects derailed by political intrigues until everyone believed that, at thirty-two and without a husband, the youngest daughter of Peter the Great had missed her chance at the throne. They all thought Elizabeth Petrovna flippant and flighty then, entangled in the intricacies of her dancing steps and the cut of her ball dresses—all but a handful who kept their eyes opened wide, who gambled on the power of her father’s blood.
The French call her “Elizabeth the Merciful.” For the day before she stole the throne of Russia from Ivan VI, she swore on the icon of St. Nicholas the Maker of Miracles that no one under her rule would ever be put to death. True to her word, on the day of the coup, she stopped the Palace Guards from slashing Ivan’s infant throat. She plucked the wailing baby Emperor from his crib and kissed his rosy cheeks before she handed him back to his mother and packed them both off to live in prison.
She likes when we repeat that no head has been cut off since the day she took power but forbids us to mention the tongues and ears. Or the backs torn to meaty shreds by the knout. Or the prisoners nailed to a board and thrown into a freezing river. Mercy, too, knows how to deceive.
Here in the Russian court, I could have warned the pretty newcomer from Zerbst, life is a game and every player is cheating. Everyone watches everyone else. There is no room in this palace where you can be truly alone. Behind these walls there are corridors, a whole maze of them. For those who know, secret passages allow access where none is suspected. Panels open, bookcases move, sounds travel through hidden pipes. Every word you say may be repeated and used against you. Every friend you trust may betray you.
Your trunks will be searched. Double bottoms and hollowed books will not hold their secrets for long. Your letters will be copied before they are sent on their way. When your servant complains that an intimate piece of your clothing is missing, it may be because your scent is preserved in a corked bottle for the time when a hound is sent to sniff out your presence.
Keep your hands on your pockets. Learn the art of deception. When you are questioned, even in jest, even in passing, you have mere seconds to hide your thoughts, to split your soul and conceal what you do not want known. The eyes and ears of an inquisitor have no equals.
Listen to me.
The one you do not suspect is the most dangerous of spies.
As soon as she seized the throne of Russia, Empress Elizabeth made no secret of her resolve to rule alone, without a royal husband. Since she would have no children to succeed her, she sent for her sister’s orphaned son, Karl Peter Ulrich, the Duke of Holstein. When the young Duke was brought to her, lanky and bone-thin, his eyes bloodshot with exhaustion after the long journey, she pressed him to her heaving bosom. “The blood of the Romanovs,” she announced, as he stiffened in her arms. “The grandson of Peter the Great.” She presided over his conversion to the Orthodox faith, renamed him Peter Fyodorovich, and made him the Crown Prince. He was fourteen years old. She didn’t ask him if he wished to live with her. She didn’t ask him if he wanted to rule Russia one day. Now, right after his fifteenth birthday, she didn’t ask him if he wanted a bride.
Princess Sophie Fredrika Auguste Anhalt-Zerbst. It was her portrait that arrived first, and I recall the grand moment of its unveiling. Portraits of this kind are not meant to render a likeness, but to entice.
“Her?” I heard Chancellor Bestuzhev say when the Empress mentioned Sophie for the first time. “But why her?” The Chancellor mentioned the need of crafty ties, and hedging one’s bets. Europe required a careful balance of power, he cautioned. The Prussians were growing too strong as it was. “Your Highness should consider a Saxon princess.”
The Empress stifled a yawn.
“I’ve not decided anything yet,” Elizabeth told him. Her nephew Peter was sitting at her feet, his long white fingers turning the turquoise ring around, as if he were tightening a screw.
In the weeks that followed I heard Sophie’s father referred to as a prince of quite exceptional imbecility, a Prussian general not able to control his foolhardy wife for whom the shabby Court of Brunswick had become the measure of all grandeur. The Anhalt-Zerbsts were well connected but poor, shamelessly clamoring for Empress Elizabeth’s attention, reminding her that she once almost married one of them, this tenuous link to Russia their only real hope of attaining significance.
When a footman parted the red velvet curtain, we saw a portrait of a slim and graceful figure standing by the mantel, a girl of fourteen, summoned from her studies. We saw the pale-green bodice of her gown, the dainty hands folded on her stomach. Whatever rumors may have reached us, Princess Sophie was not a cripple. No childhood illness had deformed her spine. There was an air of lightness around her; she seemed on the verge of breaking into a cheerful dance. Her chin was pointed, her lips small but shapely. Not quite pretty but fresh and playful, like a kitten watching a ball of yarn unfurl. The painter made sure we would not miss the exquisite pallor of her complexion, the softness of her eyes, the blue flecks of her pupils so striking a contrast to her raven-black hair. Nor could we overlook her ardent will to please.
Murmurs, hesitant and vague, filled the room. Courtiers’ words mumbled and slurred so praise could still be retracted, blame turned into a veiled compliment. The art of deception, I thought, the eyespots on a butterfly’s wing flickering for a lifesaving second. Grasshoppers that change their color with the seasons to match the fading leaves.
The grand gentlemen and ladies of the court were still looking at the portrait, but I knew there was something far more important to watch. The face of the Empress of Russia taking her first measure of this princess child who, if she willed it, would become her nephew’s bride. The face I had learned to read.
There was a sigh, a slight twitch of Elizabeth Petrovna’s lower lip. A moment of pensiveness, the same that descended upon her before the time of prayers. A tear slowly rolling down her rouged cheek.
My eyes returned to the portrait, and I knew what the Empress had perceived. In the painted features there was a slight but unmistakable hint of manliness, a distant echo of another, older face. The fiancé long dead. A memory that lingered and still moved her to tears.
“Lord be merciful. . . .”
When I heard the Empress of All the Russias whisper the prayer for the departed souls, I knew the Anhalt-Zerbsts had scored their first victory.
The chorus of voices rose, still hesitant, still unsure. No courtier wanted to risk Elizabeth’s wrath. Like me, they had seen objects flung at anyone near her, a powder box exploding in a cloud of white dust, a silver statue of Amor and Psyche making a jagged dent in the floor. Like me, they had seen the quivering stump inside a mouth from which the tongue had been cut.
“Her dress is green,” the Grand Duke Peter said. In German he drew out the vowels in an almost musical manner. It was only in Russian that he sounded awkward and harsh.
All eyes turned to him.
The Duke himself was dressed in a green velvet suit, embroidered with gold. At that time his face was not yet marred by smallpox. It was lean and pale but not unpleasant. The day before I had seen him stare at his hand, examining each finger as if it held some mystery worth pondering.
“What do you think, Peter?” Elizabeth asked the Grand Duke. I watched her smooth the sleeve of her dress, the rich burgundy brocade gown, play with the pearls that adorned it. “Does she look anything like this picture, Peter?”
“This is a good likeness,” the Grand Duke said. “This is how I remember my cousin Sophie.”
“Your second cousin, Peter.”
“My second cousin,” he agreed. “She is not a cripple.”
“Who said she was a cripple?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Who told you she was a cripple, Peter?”
“I don’t remember. My Blackamoor heard it. But it’s not true. Sophie is very strong. In Eutin, she outran me every time we raced in the garden.”
“Such display of vigor might not be such a good sign, Your Highness,” Chancellor Bestuzhev remarked.
I looked at him. At the gray powdered curls of his wig, the bushy eyebrows, the soft lines of his smooth face. His velvet jacket was new, I noted, smartly cut, becoming. It was the color of dry blood. A miniature portrait of the Empress was pinned to his chest. More than once, I had seen the Chancellor leave Elizabeth’s bedroom at dawn, his clothes rumpled, buttons undone, embers flickering in his black eyes.
A slippery eel? An old fox?
Had he missed what I had just seen? Was he still hoping the Empress had not set her mind on Sophie?
“Why not, my dear count?” Her Majesty frowned.
“Strong legs? A pointed chin? Women like that tend to be bossy. I’ve formed this opinion based on significant personal experience, Your Highness,” Chancellor Bestuzhev continued, with a gracious bow. A slight titter traveled through the back of the room. The Chancellor’s wife, known for her frequent storms of rage, had been endowed with a pointed chin.
Like an actor contemplating his next triumph, Bestuzhev added, “Experience I’d be pleased to tell Your Highness about at another, more opportune, time.”
The Empress turned away from him.
“I’ve decided to invite Princess Sophie here,” she said. “With her mother. Nothing official. The Anhalt-Zerbsts have received enough favors from me to show their gratitude.”
I could see shoulders dropping in relief. Courtiers hurried to express their agreement, to offer reasons why they thought the Empress had made an excellent choice.
She was very cheerful that day. The embroidered trim of her gown shimmered as she moved, and I remember wondering who would get it, for the Empress never wore the same dress twice.
The portrait of the little German Princess with an eager smile was moved aside. Stretching on the daybed the footmen had fetched for her, Empress Elizabeth ordered Count Razumovsky to sing. There was no impatience on her face when he plucked the strings of his favorite bandura to tune it. She didn’t even scold the Grand Duke when he stuck his thumb in his mouth, probing his gums. A week before, he had lost another rotting tooth.