The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.
Wednesday, June 28, 2017
Catherine the Great of Russia was a great stateswoman, and a great seductress, her greatness emphasized by the modesty of her beginnings.
Born Sofia Frederika Augusta in 1729 to the decaying German Prince of Anhalt-Serbst, she was fortunate enough to be chosen as a bride for Empress Elizabeth’s nephew Peter, the heir to the Russian throne. Catherine arrived at the glittering court in St. Petersburg in 1743 with two spare dresses, accompanied by her mother. After converting to Orthodoxy, she became Yekaterina Alexeyevna, and the next year was married.
Married life brought little joy for Catherine. Her halfwit husband’s main passions were military parades and toy soldiers, and, when not involved in these, he drank, played cards or chattered to his lackeys. And if this behavior was forgivable, his short temper and unpredictability were not.
Unlike her husband, the gifted 15-year-old Catherine, after rejection by her husband, spent her time alone reading, and became one of the most educated women in Europe. And while her husband demonstratively ignored Russian customs and religious rites, smirking in church and teasing the priests during services, Catherine observed both devoutly, thus earning the respect of Elizabeth and of the court.
In 1761, Catherine’s husband came to the throne as Peter III, but this bode her no good. Peter insulted her in public, and threatened her with imprisonment in a monastery, after which, he said, he intended to marry his unattractive, pockmarked favorite Yelizaveta Vorontsova.
If anything, these slights fueled Catherine’s ambitions, which appeared long before Empress Elizabeth’s death and Peter’s ascension to the throne. “Either I die, or I begin to rule,” was her categorical assessment.
In fact, no one helped Catherine achieve her aim more than Peter, who immediately on accession formed a union with former enemy Prussia and sent inexperienced guards regiments against former ally Denmark to take back his own Duchy, Holstein. This action was alien to Russian interests, and aroused general dissatisfaction among the guards. Catherine and her fellow conspirators, headed by the Orlov brothers, exploited this deftly.
Catherine easily gained the throne. Her husband gave up without the slightest resistance, was taken off to a country estate at Ropsha and put under close guard by officers under Alexei Orlov. Now, though, she had to hold on to power. Not an easy task, considering she had no right to it whatsoever.
Three men had claims on the throne: Peter, Ivan VI (great-grandson of Peter the Great’s half-brother Ivan V, who had been languishing in a monastery since Elizabeth’s coup overthrew him as an infant in 1741), and her own son Paul. Many of the aristocracy expected to see Paul on the throne with Catherine as regent, but the ambitious Empress rejected this proposal. It remained for her to ‘arrange’ a tragic fate for the two overthrown tsars.
Peter III’s turn was first. A week after the coup, the Empress informed her subjects that he had died of ‘hemorrhoidal colic.’ In fact, he was killed by the drunken officers guarding him.
Two years later, Ivan VI died. The instructions given to his guards had been to prevent anyone from taking him alive. In case of danger, they were to kill him. So, when a Captain Mirovich, attempting to free him, broke into the casemate where he was being held, the tsar’s corpse was found lying on the floor in a pool of blood.
In the first years of her rule, Catherine had another problem — convincing her subjects that Peter III’s rule was destructive, and that the only means of correcting things had been to overthrow him. The trouble was that the decrees signed by Peter during his half year reign were fully in the interests of the ruling class, and Catherine was forced quietly to agree to them.
One was the Manifesto of Freedom for the Nobility, which abolished compulsory service in the barracks and civil service and allowed free travel abroad. Another was a decree on liquidation of the Secret Investigations in the civil service, which pursued all opponents of the regime. Catherine also confirmed a decree depriving industrialists of the right to buy serfs for their enterprises. Only one was annulled — a decree on handing over monastery and church lands to the state — in a tactical move to win the support of the clergy. However, in just two years, when the clergy no longer posed a threat, she did begin the secularization of church property.
Other groups needed less convincing. Guards, court officials and the General Staff were already alienated by Peter’s absurd foreign policy and were particularly concerned about the uncertainty of their futures under such an unstable and despotic ruler.
Having dealt with her husband’s legacy, Catherine set about on her own, independent policy of enlightened despotism, as advocated by Voltaire and other French philosophers who believed in perfecting society from above. But, while Western European monarchs were already testing these policies, the philosophers were particularly interested in Russia. For Russians were much less educated than Western citizens, and Catherine was the most studious of their disciples -- the most ready to follow their advice.
Thanks to her strong and lasting link with the philosophers, Catherine became extremely popular in the West and acquired a firm reputation as an enlightened monarch. The historian Nikolai Karamzin said of her letters: “Europe reads her correspondence in astonishment, and not at [her Western correspondents] but at herself. What wealth of ideas and knowledge, what perception, what subtlety of intellect, feelings and expressions.”
Her main enlightened act was the convocation of the Legislative Commission, which was given two tasks: the replacement of the obsolete 1649 Code [put in place by Peter the Great’s father, Alexei] with a new code of criminal and civil rights, and identification of ‘the needs and sensitive disadvantages of the people.’
But the Code never appeared — the Commission was dissolved in 1768 on the pretext of war with Turkey. It made a mark on the country’s history all the same: the Empress’ Instructions, albeit against her will, served to spread the ideas of the enlighteners and reformers inside government and without.
Catherine personally disapproved of serfdom, but did not think it possible to give serfs freedom until enlightenment had borne fruit. Paradoxically, it was under enlightened monarchy that serfs in Russia had the least rights: landlords were allowed to exile insubordinate peasants to hard labor in Siberia. The newspapers were full of ads offering peasants for sale, or in exchange for horses and pedigree dogs. Under Catherine, serfdom was introduced to Ukraine.
The paradox is not difficult to explain— even the power of an absolute monarch was not unlimited, and the fear of palace coups forced the Empress to compromise her own views and act in the interests of the pro-serfdom lobby.
But serf despair welled up into a huge revolt in 1773-5, spreading from Voronezh to the Urals. Led by Don Cossack Yemelyan Pugachov, who claimed to be Peter III, they burned estates, robbed nobles and civil servants and hanged them without trial.
The revolt exposed local government weaknesses, and, after crushing the riots, Catherine set about reforming local governing bodies. The number of provinces was increased from 23 to 50, and the Empress put her powerful placemen in charge of two or three each. In provincial administrations, such offices as the Department of Public Charity, overseeing schools, hospitals, shelters and almshouses, appeared.
These reforms satisfied the nobles, giving full power in the districts to local landed gentry, who gathered once every three years to elect officials, and broadened the participation of nobles in provincial administrations. Their privileged position was confirmed in a Charter in 1785.
No ruler in Russia’s history has been more pro-nobility than Catherine the Great. Wealthy nobles with hundreds or even thousands of serfs wallowed in luxury. They squandered their fortunes on travel abroad, built luxurious palaces and kept hundreds of servants, ready at the click of a finger to carry out their master’s wishes.
Meanwhile, Catherine’s 34-year rule also made its mark in trade and industry, communications, education, literature and art.
Between the middle and the end of the century, the number of factories in Russia doubled. There was particular progress in metallurgy, where the smelting of cast iron increased from two million pudy (36,000 tons) in 1750 to 10 million in 1800. High quality Urals iron was in great demand in Europe.
Plays by Russian authors were performed in theaters (previously most had been foreign), the number of newspapers and magazines increased and St. Petersburg, Moscow and the provinces all became more culturally vibrant.
There were significant successes in foreign policy as well, including in two wars with Turkey and one with Sweden. In all three, Russia was on the defensive. And all ended in victory. At the treaty of Kuchuk-Kainardji, which concluded the first war with Turkey in 1774, Russia acquired a route to the Black Sea and huge fertile lands, previously uninhabited because of raids by Crimean Tatars.
The second Russo-Turkish war led in 1791 to an extension of Russia’s southern frontiers to the Dniester river and Turkish acceptance of the 1783 Russian annexation of the Crimea.
Then, in the thick of the war in 1788, Sweden attacked Russia. King Gustav III, before setting off, told his court ladies that he “hoped to give them breakfast at Peterhof.” But this boast was not backed by military success, and the Swedes failed to win back the Baltic provinces they lost to Peter the Great.
Catherine participated in two other important acts of foreign policy: in 1780 she initiated the Declaration of Armed Neutrality, helping the American colonies in their struggle for independence, and checking Britain who, sure of going unpunished, had tried to take control of America’s sea routes and thus isolate her from the rest of the world.
The second —the partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793 and 1795 — brought Russia territorial gains and led to the former’s liquidation as a sovereign state.
These partitions were mainly a result of the weakness of the Polish monarchy, a backward economy and a lack of forces capable of defending sovereignty. In these conditions, stronger neighbors marauded, taking significant portions of territory from Poland. But while Austria and Prussia took Poland’s native lands, Russia got territories populated by peoples close in language, customs and religion to her own (once part of Kievan Rus, they only fell under the rule of Lithuania and Poland in the 14th century). Therefore Russia expanded to the upper Dniester, Bug and Niemen rivers, taking over most of today’s Ukraine and Belarus.
One other external event changed policy significantly at home. It was the French Revolution. This seminal event opened the Empress’ eyes to the dangers of the enlighteners, whose criticisms of feudalism had prepared the ground for social upheaval. The idols she had worshipped were cast down from their pedestals. The execution of Louis XVI put an end to enlightened despotism and the Empress headed the reactionary forces in Europe opposed to revolutionary France. Only her death in 1796 ended preparations for invasion.
Catherine was one of those monarchs who ruled as well as reigned. She personally made laws, directed the activity of higher organs of power, effectively headed the diplomatic service and even gave advice to her generals on the field of battle. Her daily timetable is a testament to how hard she worked:
“... I get up at six and read and write completely alone in my office till eight thirty,” she wrote to a foreign correspondent. “At about nine, my secretaries come in, and I stay with them till eleven... Then I go through to the drawing-room and have lunch from one to two. After lunch I sew and force myself to read till four, when those who didn’t manage to speak to me in the morning come, and I stay with them till six, after which I go out either to walk, or to play, or to gossip, or to see a play. I sup between nine and ten, then go to bed.”
She kept to this timetable even in old age. She followed the rule: “Idleness leads to boredom, which often begets bad moods and waywardness.” Admittedly, her schedule was more relaxed in later years, but idleness depressed her: she had to be doing something all the time — writing, reading, negotiating, talking or engaging in amorous pursuits.
Perhaps it was this strict observance of routine, moderation in food and drink, lengthy walks and massaging her face with ice that made the Empress feel quite lively even in old age.
When she turned 40, she wrote: “I was agile as a bird, walking and horseriding... I can walk 10 versty (7 miles) at a time. There’s no one as mobile as I in this locality.”
Her contemporaries left many descriptions of the Empress’ looks. The earliest came from one of her first favorites, the future Polish king, Stanislaw Poniatowski: “She was 25 years old. As she recovered from the birth of her first child, she blossomed in a way that only a woman of natural beauty could dream of. She had black hair, marvelous white skin, great bulging blue eyes, eloquent long black eyelashes, pointed nose, pouting mouth, arms and shoulders perfect in form, medium height, tending to the tall, an unusually light gait which at the same time was executed with the greatest noblesse, a pleasant pitch of voice, a laugh, so mirthful, and a disposition, allowing her to pass effortlessly from the most frivolous childish games to the cipher table.”
The French diplomat Segure, who arrived in St. Petersburg in 1785, described the Empress as she approached sixty. According to him, she was still attractive: “Her high brow, slightly thrown back head, proud expression and noblesse of her whole ... seemed to raise her small figure. She had an aquiline nose, charming mouth, blue eyes and black eyebrows, an extraordinarily welcoming expression and attractive smile.” She hid her plumpness with finery — a wide dress with flowing sleeves.
Her contemporaries noted such positive traits of character as the ability to listen to and win over her interlocutors. Her ‘female intuition’ enabled her quickly to find a person’s weak points and she used this successfully.
“The sight of Louis XIV made people tremble; the sight of Catherine cheered everyone up,” wrote one of Catherine’s secretaries. Another secretary, the poet Gavrila Derzhavin, noted the Empress’ perception and ability to smooth over conflicts. Towards the end of one meeting, she became irritable and saw fit to shout at him. In response, Derzhavin decided to adopt a purely official manner, but the Empress was able to win him over all the same.
“On one occasion,” Derzhavin remembered, “I couldn’t stop myself from jumping off my stool and saying in a frenzy: ‘My Goodness! Who can stand up to this woman? Your Majesty, you are not a person. Today I swore to myself that after yesterday I would say nothing to you, but you do with me whatever you want against my will.’ She laughed and said: “Can it really be true?”
In her private life, however, Catherine gave the impression of a completely different person with ordinary human weaknesses. Instead of high intellect, European education and statesmanlike wisdom, she displayed a banal depravity.
Favorites are virtually indispensable to monarchy. They existed before and after Catherine, but the debauchery at the court of Russia’s enlightened monarch has never been surpassed.
Among Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting was a so-called probolshchitsa, whose task was to test the virility of the Empress’ potential lovers. And this probolshchitsa was certainly kept busy — in the 34 years of her reign, Catherine was known to have at least 19 favorites, of which 12 made a distinct impression.
The two most enduring were Grigory Orlov (11 years) and Platon Zubov (7 years).
Orlov’s success can be explained by Catherine’s fear of Grigory and his brothers, who were bold and decisive and served her well during the 1762 coup. Having put her on the throne so easily, she recognized, they could just as easily make it vacant for another pretender. As for Zubov, he struck lucky at the age of 22 and obviously pleased the Empress, who by then was in her sixties.
A look at Catherine’s correspondence with her favorites gives the impression she only had tender feelings for one, Alexander Lanskoi, whose premature death she mourned for several months. She called him a knight, but he used stimulants to increase his sexual prowess and burnt himself out at the age of 27.
However, there was nothing unusual about Catherine’s frivolous behavior. In her time, faithfulness in marriage was not considered a virtue, and was even subject to mockery. Society women generally had one or two beaux, and their husbands a maitresse.
Catherine had a mysterious possessive power which attracted men. She wrote about this herself in her Memories: “People said I was as wonderful as the day and strikingly good-looking; to tell the truth, I never considered myself to be extraordinarily beautiful, but men found me attractive, and I reckon this was my strength.” This admission was confirmed by the diplomat Lord Cathcart, who reported to London in 1768: “The Empress has an unusual ability to attract men, which she uses with obvious pleasure.”
The Empress’ behavior was of course her own business, and it would not be necessary to mention it, were it not for one circumstance: she had a habit of being over-generous with her favorites, giving them money, jewelry and serfs. According to estimates which are far from complete, favorites cost the state 92.5 mn rubles. Considering that Russia’s yearly budget expenditure averaged around 41 mn rubles, this is a huge amount. This kind of extravagance has never been surpassed in Russian history.
Yet, in light of the growth in Russia’s prestige on the world stage in Catherine’s reign, this expenditure would seem to be a forgivable mistake. The great seductress always played a subordinate role to the great stateswoman.
A longer version of this article originally appeared in the November 1996 issue of Russian Life.
Free Weekly Russia File newsletter. Exclusive discounts.