Catherine II of Russia (1729-1796) was one of history's most unlikely rulers. After marrying into Russia's Romanov family, she found herself part of a coup to unseat her husband and place her on the throne. The achievements of her reign, which lasted for 34 years, have often been overshadowed by her personal life, one of the most scandalous of her—or any—era. However, behind the rumor and gossip lay one of the most astute and skillful rulers in Russia's long, turbulent history. Here are some facts you may not know about Catherine the Great.
1. Catherine the Great’s name wasn’t Catherine, and she wasn’t even Russian.
The woman whom history would remember as Catherine the Great, Russia’s longest-ruling female leader, was actually the eldest daughter of an impoverished Prussian prince. Born in 1729, Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst enjoyed numerous marital prospects due to her mother’s well-regarded bloodlines. In 1744, 15-year-old Sophie was invited to Russia by Czarina Elizabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great who had assumed the Russian throne in a coup just three years earlier. The unmarried and childless Elizabeth had chosen her nephew Peter as heir and was now in search of his bride. Sophie, well trained by her ambitious mother and eager to please, made an immediate impact on Elizabeth, if not her intended husband. The marriage took place on August 21, 1745, with the bride (a new convert to Orthodox Christianity) now bearing the name Ekaterina, or Catherine.
2. Catherine’s eldest son—and heir—may have been illegitimate.
Catherine and her new husband had a rocky marriage from the start. Though the young Prussian princess had been imported to produce an heir, eight years passed without a child. Some historians believe Peter was unable to consummate the marriage, while others think he was infertile. Desperately unhappy in their married lives, Peter and Catherine both began extramarital affairs, she with Sergei Saltykov, a Russian military officer. When Catherine gave birth to a son, Paul, in 1754, gossips murmured that Saltykov—not Peter—had fathered him. Catherine herself gave credence to this rumor in her memoirs, going so far as to say that Empress Elizabeth had been complicit in permitting Catherine and Saltykov’s relationship. While historians today believe that Catherine’s claims were simply an attempt to discredit Peter and that he was indeed Paul’s father, there is little debate over the paternity of Catherine’s three additional children: It’s believed that none of them were fathered by Peter.
3. Catherine came to power in a bloodless coup that later turned deadly.
Elizabeth died in January 1762, and her nephew succeeded to the throne as Peter III, with Catherine as his consort. Eager to put his own stamp on the nation, he quickly ended Russia’s war with Prussia, an act that proved deeply unpopular to Russia’s military class. A program of liberal domestic reforms aimed at improving the lives of the poor also alienated members of the lower nobility. These unhappy factions turned to Catherine, who was also fearful of Peter’s intentions. As tensions mounted, a plan to overthrow Peter took root. When the conspiracy was uncovered in July 1762, Catherine moved quickly, gaining the support of the country’s most powerful military regiment and arranging for her husband’s arrest. On July 9, just six months after becoming czar, Peter abdicated, and Catherine was proclaimed sole ruler. However, what had began as a bloodless coup soon turned deadly. On July 17 Peter was murdered by Alexei Orlov, the brother of Catherine’s current lover Gregory. Though there is no proof that Catherine knew of the murder before it happened, it cast a pall over her reign from the start.
4. Catherine faced down more than a dozen uprisings during her reign.
Of the various uprisings that threatened Catherine’s rule, the most dangerous came in 1773, when a group of armed Cossacks and peasants led by Emelyan Pugachev rebelled against the harsh socioeconomic conditions of Russia’s lowest class, the serfs. As with many of the uprisings Catherine faced, Pugachev’s Rebellion called into question the validity of her reign. Pugachev, a former army officer, claimed that he was actually the deposed (and believed dead) Peter III, and therefore the rightful heir to the Russian throne. Within a year, Pugachev had drawn thousands of supporters and captured a large amount of territory, including the city of Kazan. Initially unconcerned about the rebellion, Catherine soon responded with massive force. Faced with the might of the Russian army, Pugachev’s supporters eventually deserted him, and he was captured and publicly executed in January 1775.
5. Being Catherine the Great’s lover came with huge rewards.
Catherine was famously loyal to her lovers, both during their relationship and after it ended. Always parting on good terms, she bestowed upon them titles, land, palaces and even people—gifting one former paramour with more than 1,000 serfs, or indentured servants. But perhaps nobody reaped the bounties of her favor more than Stanislaw Poniatowski, one of her earliest lovers and the father of one of her children. A member of the Polish nobility, Poniatowski first became involved with Catherine (who was not yet on the throne) when he served in the British embassy to St. Petersburg. Even after a scandal partly caused by their relationship forced him from the Russian court, they remained close. In 1763, long after their relationship had ended and a year after she had come to power, Catherine successfully threw her support (both military and financial) behind Poniatowski in his effort to become king of Poland. However, once installed on the throne, the new king, who Catherine and others believed would be a mere puppet to Russian interests, began a series of reforms meant to strengthen his country’s independence. What was once a strong bond between the two former lovers soon soured, with Catherine forcing Poniatowski to abdicate and Russia leading the effort to break up and dissolve the newly formed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
6. Catherine saw herself as an enlightened ruler.
Catherine’s reign was marked by vast territorial expansion, which greatly added to Russia’s coffers but did little to alleviate the suffering of her people. Even her attempts at governmental reforms were often bogged down by Russia’s vast bureaucracy. However, Catherine considered herself to be one of Europe’s most enlightened rulers, and many historians agree. She wrote numerous books, pamphlets and educational materials aimed at improving Russia’s education system. She was also a champion of the arts, keeping up a lifelong correspondence with Voltaire and other prominent minds of the era, creating one of the world’s most impressive art collections in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace (now home to the famed Hermitage Museum) and even trying her hand at composing opera.
7. Contrary to popular myth, Catherine died a fairly mundane, uneventful death.
Given the empress’ shocking reputation, it’s perhaps not surprising that gossip followed her wherever she went, even to the grave. After her death on November 17, 1796, her enemies at court began spreading various rumors about Catherine’s final days. Some claimed that the all-powerful ruler had died while on the toilet. Others took their lurid storytelling even further, perpetuating a myth that has endured for centuries: that Catherine, whose lustful life was an open secret, had died while engaging in a sex act with an animal, usually believed to be a horse. Of course, there is no truth to this rumor. Though her enemies would have hoped for a scandalous end, the simple truth is that Catherine suffered a stroke and died quietly in her bed the following day.
8. Catherine’s eldest son met the same grisly fate as his father.
Catherine had a famously stormy relationship with her eldest son, Paul. The boy had been removed from his mother’s care shortly after his birth and raised largely by the former czarina, Elizabeth, and a series of tutors. After she assumed the throne, Catherine, fearful of retribution for Peter III’s deposing and death, kept Paul far away from affairs of state, further alienating the boy. Relations between the two grew so bad that Paul was at times convinced his mother was actively plotting his death. While Catherine had no such plans, she did fear that Paul would be an incompetent ruler and looked for alternate options for the succession. Much like Elizabeth before her, Catherine took control of the upbringing and education of Paul’s sons, and rumors abounded that she intended to name them her heirs, bypassing Paul. In fact, it is believed that Catherine intended to make this official in late 1796 but died before she was able to do so. Worried that his mother’s will included provisions to this effect, Paul confiscated the document before it could be made public. Alexander, Paul’s eldest son, was aware of his grandmother’s plans but bowed to pressure and did not stand in his father’s way. Paul became czar but soon proved to be just as erratic and unpopular as Catherine had feared. Five years into his reign, he was assassinated, and his 23-year-old son assumed power as Alexander I.
Robert K. Massie, whose "Peter the Great" won a Pulitzer Prize 30 years ago, is about as comfortable a biographer as I know.
He never seems flustered or tied down to academic details. He’s got his sympathies in place and a story to tell. His simple and straightforward thesis? “[Catherine] and Peter the Great tower in ability and achievement over the other fourteen tsars and empresses of the 300-year Romanov dynasty.” Elizabeth I of England, meanwhile, was “the only woman to equal [Catherine] on a European throne.”
While Massie is smitten with Catherine (1729-1796), who “beneath her title and her diamonds ... was only a little German girl brought to Russia for the sole purpose of providing the son of the house with an heir,” the reader, sympathetic or not with some of the grown-up empress’s pragmatic inaction and actions, will always be fascinated. That she wrested the crown of all Russia from her husband, Peter III, and with the help of her lover placed it on her own head, and then tried to keep it from her son’s head and place it on her grandson’s, is forgivable – or at least, understandable – in the context of the Sopranos-style skullduggery and double-crosses and murders that characterize royal history.
Maybe all idealized politicians, from Peter the Great to Lincoln to Lenin to Obama, disappoint when we realize that they’re playing the dirty game of politics. And then we humbly resign ourselves to witnessing the exciting and fateful contests.
Massie is so familiar with the figures of the Russian court that he (and consequently we) never feel lost. Among the personalities he presents, the Empress Elizabeth, Peter the Great’s daughter, is especially engaging. She had been placed on the throne through a coup that imprisoned the “rightful” tsar, the infant Ivan VI, and for the next 20 years indulged herself in privilege, a couple of wars, and fitful slackness (she habitually put off governmental business). She proved a positively queenly ruler, but was childless, so she coerced one of Peter’s grandsons, Peter III, to leave his beloved German state of Holstein and come to Russia and marry and impregnate the German princess Sophia (renamed Catherine by Elizabeth). Contrary to the amusing and kitschy Josef von Sternberg movie of Catherine’s life, "The Scarlett Empress," starring Marlene Dietrich, Peter III was not a half-wit. Peculiar, yes, but he had plenty of marbles and being Lutheran and culturally German, his distaste for Russian customs and religion are understandable.
From girlhood to power-player, Catherine is ever interesting and intelligent; she’s usually likable though not necessarily admirable. The basis of the first half of Massie’s biography is Catherine’s own memoir. She wrote lucidly and remarkably candidly about her miserable life as the wife of Peter III, who it seems never once slept with her: “Never did two minds resemble each other less. We had nothing in common in our tastes or ways of thinking.... I was constantly left to myself and suspicions surrounded me on all sides.”
Bookworms, however, always have some consolation, as Catherine would observe in her self-penned epitaph: “Eighteen years of boredom and loneliness gave her the opportunity to read many books.” Peter, an adolescent himself when he arrived in Russia and perhaps the victim of a penile condition that made sex painful, preferred playing toy-soldiers in bed: “The absurdity of what they were doing, often until two in the morning, sometimes made Catherine laugh, but usually she simply endured.” Eventually, with impatient foster-grandma Elizabeth’s knowledge or indifference, Catherine took a court chamberlain as a lover and became pregnant with Paul, who was legally regarded as Peter the Great’s great-grandson.
Once Catherine gave birth, she was treated as if she had lost her use and was only rarely allowed to see her son: “For ten years [Elizabeth] had been keeping [Catherine and Peter] at the expense of the state. Thus, the child, required for reasons of state, created by her command, was now, in effect, the property of the state – that is, of the empress.”
It’s important to remember that Catherine herself had no legal or blood-relation claim on the throne – but when has fact ever hindered political ambition? Upon Elizabeth’s death, Peter III made one botch after another, the main one being that he never stopped thinking of himself as German and the disciple of Frederick the Great of Prussia, with whom the Russians were at war. Peter III immediately tried to refashion the army in the Prussian military image and boldly challenged the privileges and abuses of the Orthodox church.
Catherine, meanwhile, had in the eyes of the Russian court been doing almost everything right. She had learned Russian and, though an Enlightenment freethinker, had converted to Russian Orthodoxy and become Russian enough so that after only six months of her husband’s rule the people and the church supported a coup by the army, led by the warrior family of Orlovs (Catherine would have a son by one of them), and forced Peter to abdicate. Frederick the Great, shaking his head in disgust at Peter’s behavior, remarked, “He allowed himself to be dethroned like a child being sent to bed.”
Peter begged his wife to let him and his girlfriend return to Holstein; instead, Catherine kept him locked up until one of the Orlov brothers “accidentally” killed him. Catherine got herself crowned Empress, despite the fact that her son had been designated the heir-apparent by Empress Elizabeth. Once Ivan VI was also murdered in a failed rescue attempt, Catherine felt relatively secure, notwithstanding her nervousness about her son’s eagerness to rule. (Yes, more crime-family flashbacks.)
After becoming empress, Catherine was too busy working to spare much time for her serial lovers, whom she disposed of as nicely and comfortably as a fond aunt would. Her three children were fathered by three impressive beloveds. Only later, when she was older and less attractive and had less need to be secretive, did she raise eyebrows by her happy flings with army officers. Massie refutes the rumors of Catherine’s wanton sexuality. (She was only indulgent, he argues – perhaps like Elizabeth Taylor).
Catherine had big ambitions for Russia’s enlightenment but – to the disappointment of those expecting her to be heroic – she turned out to be a shrewd and practical politician. “It is not as easy as you think,” she told an aide. “In the first place, my orders would not be carried out unless they were the kind of orders which could be carried out... I examine the circumstances, I take advice, I consult the enlightened part of the people, and in this way I find out what sort of effect my laws will have.”
Though “intellectually opposed” to serfdom, she sold out any kind of reform for half of Russia’s population. When the illiterate peasant Pugachev inspired a bloody uprising by the serfs in the Urals, she clamped down in a fashion that would have made dictators ever since proud: “There would be no further talk of eliminating serfdom. Landowners were encouraged to treat their serfs and peasants humanely, but the empress now was convinced that enlightenment could not be bestowed on a nation of illiterates until the people had been prepared with education.” She did not fund any education initiatives.
She also cynically placed her second lover, Stanislaus Poniatowski, on the throne of Poland, whose territory over the next few decades she cut up like a roast chicken for Prussia, Austria, and herself. “Afterward Catherine repeated that she had annexed ‘not a single Pole,’ and that she had simply taken back ancient Russian and Lithuanian lands with Orthodox inhabitants who were ‘now reunited with the Russian motherland.’ ” So, thanks to Catherine, for the next 126 years “the people and culture of Poland did not possess a nation.” No love lost there or to the south, where her ambitions for access to the Mediterranean led to war with Turkey.
She probably secretly married the savvy and irascible Gregory Potemkin, whom she called “one of the greatest, most bizarre, and most entertaining eccentrics of the iron age.” The hot-tempered and capable Potemkin became and, even after their love affair extinguished itself, remained her right-hand man: he helped her extend Russia’s vast boundaries, which in the grand scheme of world history has benefited and gratified Russia and no one else.
Catherine was brilliant and always fascinating and may have been educationally enlightened (though her French philosopher friends Diderot and Voltaire watched sadly as during her 34-year reign she tightened her authoritarian grip and implemented stupefying censorship). She was certainly cultured (her art collection became the basis for the marvelous Hermitage Museum), but she saw fit to keep herself in power by any means possible, even at her son’s expense, not to mention at the expense of the freedom of millions of serfs. She kept Paul out of the way and sitting on his hands until she died of natural causes in 1796, at which time Paul the First asserted a new law of primogeniture that ensured there would never again be a woman on Russia’s throne.
In spite of her queenly power-plays, her selfishness, her self-justifications, her criminality, she was a major player in the 18th century and, if we have to take what we get, she at least wasn’t as bad as any of the tsars before or after her. In the absence of real democracy in 21st-century Russia, it’s probably about time for a female counterweight to Putin.
Bob Blaisdell edited "The Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Documents and Selected Federalist Papers."
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