Only in the bizarre chessboard world of 18th century European monarchy could an obscure princess from the German nation-state of Anhalt-Zerbst rise to become Empress of Russia, the vast and powerful nation that dominates the eastern part of the continent, then and now.
Catherine, writes biographer Robert K. Massie, was the equal of her illustrious predecessor Peter the Great – “his only equal – in vision, strength of purpose and achievement during the centuries that Russia was ruled by tsars, emperors and empresses.”
The story of her reign is fascinating but equally so is the unlikely tale of how it came about. Catherine – born Sophia – was plucked from relative obscurity by Empress Elizabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great.
Elizabeth was childless and had taken her nephew, Peter, also a German, as her heir. For his consort, she chose another German related to Peter’s House of Holstein – little Sophia. As a young teenager, the princess was summoned to St. Petersburg.
While Sophia, soon rebaptized in the Russian Orthodox Church as Catherine, was an eager and willing student of Russian language, religion and culture, her young husband-to-be was not. Whether he was mentally ill or just damaged from a neglected and traumatic childhood, young Peter was certainly strange. He idolized the Prussian emperor Frederick the Great, and he spent most of his waking hours conducting pretend military drills in the Prussian manner. For his “soldiers,” he employed servants and, well into adulthood, dolls.
Young Catherine was left to learn the navigation of Russian imperial court life herself, dealing with the vain and unpredictable Elizabeth as well as her immature and unprepared young fiancé. Even after the pair were married – and Catherine had grown into an attractive young woman – the marriage went unconsummated and the heir Elizabeth had essentially ordered up did not appear.
Finally Catherine was encouraged to take a lover and she bore the first of her three children – fathered by three different men, none of them her husband, according to Massie. It was a boy and the delighted Empress Elizabeth immediately seized custody.
When Elizabeth died, Catherine’s husband Peter ascended the throne. His brief reign was a disaster. He tried to remake the Orthodox Church in the Lutheran image, ordering the destruction of icons and the shaving of the priests’ beards. He tried to remake the Russian Army in the image of his beloved Prussia, putting an uncle from Holstein with no military experience in command. And he embarked on a disastrous war with Denmark, over a territorial dispute that was important to Holstein but had no bearing on Russia. Within a few months “Peter had provoked and insulted the Orthodox Church, infuriated and alienated the army and betrayed his allies,” Massie writes.
Desperate, military and political men in Russia’s top circles turned to Peter’s wife – the mother of his purported son and heir, Paul. For the start of his reign she had been out of commission – pregnant with another child by a dashing Russian officer. Peter, meanwhile, had taken a mistress he much preferred to Catherine and hoped to replace her. But after giving birth, Catherine quickly reasserted her influence and seized the reins.
When a group of soldiers appeared at her residence, she told them “that her life and that of her son had been threatened by the emperor but that it was not for her own sake, but for that of her beloved country and their holy Orthodox religion that she was compelled to throw herself on their protection.”
From there, Catherine consolidated her hold on power -- helped along the way when her allies (including her lover's brother) -- managed to kill the deposed emperor in a dinnertime struggle at his place of confinement. Her regime claimed Peter died of hemorrhoidal colic (!) but no one really believed it (even if few in Russia would dare to say so) and throughout Europe she was always considered a usurper even as she befriended Enlightenment figures including Diderot and Voltaire and created one of the world's great Western art collections, which survives today at the Hermitage.
Like Elizabeth I before her and Victoria after, Catherine's long and stable reign is a historical anamoly. A woman managing to gain, hold and exercise power and literally rule men is so incredibly unlikely that when it happens it becomes mythic. And unlike English queens, it appears Russian empresses were acknowledged to have sex lives, even outside of marriage. Empress Elizabeth and Catherine both had a series of "favorites" with all-hours access to their private chambers. Catherine eventually installed one as King of Poland (under heavy Russian control). The most famous, Gregory Potemkin, was rumored to be her husband though they never could have acknowledged it and their partnership evolved from romance to administration. Massie matter-of-factly recounts Catherine's lovers (a total of 12) but never brings up the notorious rumors about sexual relations with a horse. Untrue rumors, I should add. Even Snopes says so.
When Catherine died in 1796, her son Paul succeeded her -- but their relationship had always been a difficult one, starting from his birth when the Empress Elizabeth took him away and severely limited Catherine's access to her own son. Peter the Great had changed the law so that a Russian ruler could name his or own successor -- meaning Catherine had tactical power to keep her son under her control. When Paul finally reached the throne he changed it back to primogeniture, or the nearest male heir. "Never again would an heir have to go through what Paul had been through," Massie writes. "And never again would Russia be ruled by a woman."
After reading the biography, it was interesting to see a different perspective on the German princess in Eva Stachniak's novel The Winter Palace. The story is told from the perspective of a Polish girl, a few years older than Catherine, who becomes a ward of Empress Elizabeth when her parents die while living in St. Petersburg. Barbara is recruited as a household spy by the aging Empress, directed to befriend Catherine and report back about the actions and thoughts of the Grand Duchess. Eventually, though, she becomes a sort of double agent, serving Catherine -- and simply seeking to survive the normal intrigues of palace life and then the upheaval after Elizabeth dies, Peter is deposed and Catherine takes over. After having read the biography, I was surprised at the portrait of Peter -- I wouldn't call it sympathetic but in Massie's account, he was far worse, especially in his treatment of Catherine. And his actions upon assuming the throne, both in allying himself with the Prussia, hated by most Russians, and in making enemies of the Orthodox Church, are almost unmentioned. Barbara herself is a fairly sympathetic character though even her developing relationship with her husband is merely hinted at. And this may be a bit of a spoiler but her disillusionment toward the end of the book seems just implausible -- surely someone who had spent so many formative -- and successful -- years at court would have developed a healthy self-protective realism and cynicism about the motives and duplicity of powerful people.
I enjoyed both these books, the biography more than the novel, though I will still read the next in Stachniak's planned series about Catherine. If nothing else, it makes a nice break from the machinations of the English court.
Catherine the Great: A-
The Winter Palace: B