Thursday, February 20, 2014

A German fräulein who became quintessentially Russian: and an Empress to boot

“How delightful to discover that Robert K. Massie, 82 years old, hasn’t lost his mojo” opened the New York Times review of Massie's latest foray into Russian history/biography (which took him eight years to polish). Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman reads like a great novel: I  gobbled it up in three or four sessions of nighttime binging.
He understands plot — fate — as a function of character, and the narrative perspective he establishes and maintains, a vision tightly aligned with that of his subject, convinces a reader he’s not so much looking at Catherine the Great as he is out of her eyes…. She wanted power and she wanted what she “couldn’t live for a day without” — love — and she’d get them both, in spades, but not from the husband who awaited her…. For the reader who has followed her career as intimately as Massie allows, many times thrilled by the sang-froid of an extraordinary woman secure in her gifts and her authority, Catherine’s ruthless abrogation of any threat to the power she claimed is at least as delicious as it is deplorable. Whatever it takes, we want her to remain forever where she placed herself — in history’s pantheon.—Kathryn Harrison, New York Times
Portrait of Grand Duchess Ekatrina Alekseyevna, later Catherine II, c. 1745 by Georg Christoph Grooth, Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia. At 16 she was already thoroughly Russianized, although she continued to read and speak French fluently.
Catherine and her new husband, who would become Emperor Peter III. His psyche was irretrievably damaged by an abusive tutor. (Portrait of Catherine the Great (1729–96) and Prince Petr Fedorovich (1728–62), 1740–45  by Georg Christoph Grooth (1716–49), © Odessa Fine Arts Museum, Ukraine)
Catherine preparing to march on Peterhof, where she would force her disturbed husband Peter III to abdicate. (Equestrian Portrait of Catherine II the Great of Russia by Vigilius Erichsen, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Chartres)
The imperial coronation crown designed for Catherine, which was used in all six of the ensuing Romanov coronations. "The ceremony lasted four hours. Catherine listened as the archbishop of Novgorod described the revolution of June 28 as the work of God and said to her that 'the Lord has placed the crown on your head.' Next, Catherine personally arrayed herself with the symbols of imperial power. She removed her ermine cloak and draped another cloak of imperial purple over her shoulders. Traditionally, a Russian sovereign crowned himself or herself. Catherine lifted the huge nine-pound imperial crown ...and settled this ultimate symbol of sovereignty on her brow. Shaped like a bishop’s miter, it was crusted with a cross of diamonds surmounting an enormous 389-carat ruby. Below, set in an arch supporting the cross and in the band surrounding the wearer’s head, were forty-four diamonds, each an inch across, surrounded by a solid mass of smaller diamonds. Thirty-eight rose pearls circled over the crown on either side of the central arch. When this glittering masterpiece was in place, she picked up the orb with her left hand, the scepter with her right, and calmly looked out at the cathedral audience."
During her reign, Catherine’s hoard of paintings expanded to almost 4,000. She became the greatest collector and patron of art in the history of Europe. This work by Rembrandt painted in 1635 was one of the last acquisitions in the collection of Robert Walpole (1676-1745). In 1779, Catherine purchased the Walpole Collection to fill out the art collection of the Imperial Hermitage in St Petersburg. A public subscription campaign in England to buy it back failed. Her comment to a confidante: “The Walpole paintings are longer to be had for the simple reason that your humble servant has already got her claws on them and will no more let them go than a cat would a mouse.”
Catherine regularly worked 15 hours a day. She spent two years researching how to revamp Russia's legal code and brought together representatives from every strata of society in a doomed effort to forge a coherent consensus. She did outlaw torture by fiat but was unable to free the serfs or legislate for their rights. This is Catherine's epitaph for herself:
Born in Stettin on April 21, 1729. In the year 1744, she went to Russia to marry Peter III. At the age of fourteen, she made the threefold resolution to please her husband, Elizabeth, and the nation. She neglected nothing in trying to achieve this. Eighteen years of boredom and loneliness gave her the opportunity to read many books. When she came to the throne of Russia she wished to do what was good for her country and tried to bring happiness, liberty, and prosperity to her subjects. She forgave easily and hated no one. She was good-natured, easy-going, tolerant, understanding, and of a happy disposition. She had a republican spirit and a kind heart.She was sociable by nature. She made many friends. She took pleasure in her work. She loved the arts.
Read excerpts from Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman below.
Despite her own wish to marry, Sophia’s chances of an excellent match appeared only marginal. Each year produced a new crop of eligible adolescent European princesses, most of whom offered far more of substance to reigning royal and noble families than a union with the insignificant house of tiny Zerbst. Nor was Sophia a child with remarkable physical attractions. At ten, she had a plain face with a thin, pointed chin, which Babet Cardel had advised her to keep carefully tucked in. Sophia understood the problem of her appearance. Later, she wrote:
I do not know whether as a child I was really ugly, but I remember well that I was often told that I was and that I must therefore strive to show inward virtues and intelligence. Up to the age of fourteen or fifteen, I was firmly convinced of my ugliness and was therefore more concerned with acquiring inward accomplishments and was less mindful of my outward appearance. I have seen a portrait of myself painted when I was ten years old and that is certainly very ugly. If it really resembled me, they told me nothing false. 
And so it was that, despite mediocre prospects and a plain appearance, Sophia trailed around north Germany after her mother. During these journeys, she added new subjects to her education. Listening to adults gossiping, she learned the genealogy of most of the royal families of Europe. One visit was of particular interest. In 1739, Johanna’s brother, Adolphus Frederick, the Prince-Bishop of Lübeck, was appointed guardian of the newly orphaned young Duke of Holstein, eleven-year-old Charles Peter Ulrich. This was an extraordinarily well-connected boy, presumably destined for an exalted future. He was the only living grandson of Peter the Great of Russia, and he also stood first in line to become heir to the throne of Sweden. A year older than Sophia, he was also her second cousin on her mother’s side. Once he became her brother’s ward, Johanna lost no time in gathering up Sophia and paying the prince-bishop a visit. In her Memoirs, Sophia-Catherine described Peter Ulrich as “agreeable and well-bred, although his liking for drink was already noticeable.” This description of the eleven-year-old orphan was far from complete. In reality, Peter Ulrich was small, delicate, and sickly, with protuberant eyes, no jaw, and thin, blond hair falling to his shoulders. Emotionally as well as physically, he was underdeveloped. He was shy and lonely, he lived surrounded by tutors and drillmasters, he had no contact with anyone his own age, he read nothing, and he was greedy at meals. But Johanna, like every other mother of an eligible daughter, watched every movement he made, and her heart soared when she saw her own ten-year-old Sophia talking to him. Afterward, Sophia saw her mother and her aunts whispering. Even at her age, she knew that they were discussing the possibility of a match between herself and this strange boy. She did not mind; already she had begun letting her own imagination wander: I knew that one day he would become king of Sweden, and although I was still a child, the title of queen fell sweetly on my ears. From that time on, the people around me teased me about him and gradually I grew accustomed to thinking that I was destined to be his wife. Meanwhile, Sophia’s appearance was improving. At thirteen, she was slender, her hair was a silky, dark chestnut, she had a high forehead, brilliant dark blue eyes, and a curved rosebud mouth. Her pointed chin had become less prominent. Her other qualities had begun to attract attention; she was intelligent and had a ready wit. Not everyone thought her insignificant. A Swedish diplomat, Count Henning Gyllenborg, who met Sophia at her grandmother’s house in Hamburg, was impressed by her intelligence and told Johanna in Sophia’s presence, “Madame, you do not know the child. I assure you she has more mind and character than you give her credit for. I beg you therefore to pay more attention to your daughter for she deserves it in every respect.” Johanna was unimpressed, but Sophia never forgot these words. She was discovering the way to make people like her, and, once she had learned the skill, she practiced it brilliantly. It was not a matter of behaving seductively. Sophia—and, later, Catherine—was never a coquette; it was not sexual interest she wished to arouse but warm, sympathetic understanding of the kind Count Gyllenborg had given her. To produce these reactions in other people, she used means so conventional and modest that they appear almost sublime. She realized that people preferred to talk rather than to listen and to talk about themselves rather than anything else.
THE LETTER FROM RUSSIA was a surprise, but its message was one Johanna had been dreaming of and hoping for. Even as the ambitious mother was trooping her daughter through the petty courts of north Germany, she had been reaching out to make use of a more exalted connection. There was a family history involving Johanna’s relatives in the house of Holstein with the Romanov dynasty of Imperial Russia. In December 1741, when Sophia was twelve, Elizabeth, the younger daughter of Peter the Great, had seized the Russian throne in a midnight coup d’état. The new empress had several strong ties to the house of Holstein. The first was through Elizabeth’s beloved older sister, Anne, Peter the Great’s eldest daughter, who had married Johanna’s cousin Charles Frederick, Duke of Holstein. This marriage had produced the sad little Peter Ulrich; three months after her child was born, Anne was dead. Elizabeth had an even closer personal bond with the house of Holstein. At seventeen, she had been betrothed to Johanna’s older brother, Charles Augustus. In 1726, this Holstein prince had traveled to St. Petersburg to be married, but a few weeks before the wedding, the prospective bridegroom had caught smallpox in the Russian capital and died there. Elizabeth was left with a grief she never entirely overcame, and thereafter she regarded the house of Holstein as almost a part of her own family. Now, when the news arrived that this same Elizabeth had suddenly ascended the Russian throne, Johanna immediately wrote to congratulate the new empress, who, at one time, had been about to become her sister-in-law. Elizabeth’s reply was amiable and affectionate. The relationship continued to prosper. Johanna had in her possession a portrait of Elizabeth’s dead sister, Anne, which the empress wanted. When Elizabeth wrote to her “dear niece” and asked whether the picture might be returned to Russia, Johanna was overjoyed to do this favor. Soon after, a secretary from the Russian embassy in Berlin arrived in Stettin bringing Johanna a miniature portrait of Elizabeth set in a magnificent frame of diamonds worth eighteen thousand rubles.
 * * *
In many ways, Catherine also remained a child. She loved what she called “romping” with the young women of her small court; together they still played games of blindman’s buff. Underneath, however, she was approaching her marriage with apprehension. As my wedding day came nearer, I became more melancholy, and very often I would weep without quite knowing why. My heart predicted little happiness; ambition alone sustained me. In my inmost soul there was something that never for a single moment allowed me to doubt that, sooner or later, I would become the sovereign Empress of Russia in my own right. Catherine’s premarital nervousness did not come from fear of the nocturnal intimacies that marriage would demand. She knew nothing about these things. Indeed, on the eve of her marriage, she was so innocent that she did not know how the two sexes physically differed. Nor had she any idea what mysterious acts were performed when a woman lay down with a man. Who did what? How? She questioned her young ladies, but they were as innocent as she. One June night, she staged an impromptu slumber party in her bedroom, covering the floor with mattresses, including her own. Before going to sleep, the eight flustered and excited young women discussed what men were like and how their bodies were formed. No one had any specific information; indeed, their talk was so ill-informed, incoherent, and unhelpful that Catherine said that in the morning she would ask her mother. She did so, but Johanna—herself married at fifteen—refused to answer. Instead, she “severely scolded” her daughter for indecent curiosity.
* * * 
The apartment consisted of four large, elegantly furnished rooms. Three were hung with cloth of silver; the bedroom walls were covered with scarlet velvet, trimmed with silver. An enormous bed, covered with red velvet embroidered with gold and surmounted by a crown embossed with silver, dominated the middle of the room. Here, the bride and groom separated and the men, including the new bridegroom, withdrew. The women remained to help the bride undress. The empress removed Catherine’s crown, the Princess of Hesse helped to free her from her heavy dress, a lady-in-waiting presented her with a new, pink nightgown from Paris. The bride was placed in bed, but then, just as the last person was leaving the room, she called out. “I begged the Princess of Hesse to stay with me a little while, but she refused,” Catherine said. The room was empty. Wearing her pink nightgown, she waited alone in the enormous bed. Her eyes were fixed on the door through which her new husband would come. Minutes passed and the door remained closed. She continued to wait. Two hours went by. “I remained alone not knowing what I ought to do. Should I get up again? Should I remain in bed? I had no idea.” She did nothing. Toward midnight, her new principal lady-in-waiting, Madame Krause, came in and “cheerfully” announced that the grand duke had just ordered supper for himself and was waiting to be served. Catherine continued to wait. Eventually, Peter arrived, reeking of alcohol and tobacco. Lying down in bed beside her, he laughed nervously and said, “How it would amuse my servants to see us in bed together.” Then he fell asleep and slept through the night. Catherine remained awake, wondering what to do. The next day, Madame Krause questioned Catherine about her wedding night. Catherine did not answer. She knew that something was wrong, but she did not know what. In the nights that followed, she continued to lie untouched at the side of her sleeping husband, and Madame Krause’s morning questions continued to go unanswered. “And,” she writes in her Memoirs, “matters remained in this state without the slightest change during the following nine years.” ***
Gregory Orlov, Catherine’s third lover, who was with her for 11 years and helped to put her on the throne.
SHE SAT ON THE THRONE of Peter the Great and ruled an empire, the largest on earth. Her signature, inscribed on a decree, was law and, if she chose, could mean life or death for any one of her twenty million subjects. She was intelligent, well read, and a shrewd judge of character. During the coup, she had shown determination and courage; once on the throne, she displayed an open mind, willingness to forgive, and a political morality founded on rationality and practical efficiency. She softened imperial presence with a sense of humor and a quick tongue; indeed, with Catherine more than any other monarch of her day, there was always a wide latitude for humor. There was also a line not be crossed, even by close friends. She had come to the throne with the support of the army, the church, most of the nobility, and the people of St. Petersburg, all of whom assisted her because her personality and character offered stark contrasts to the domineering ineptitude of her husband. The coup itself created few enemies, and in the first weeks of her reign, she faced no opposition.
Nevertheless, a multitude of problems awaited her. She had not reached the throne in a traditional Russian way. Most earlier tsars had succeeded by hereditary right and had been accepted and treated as representatives of the divinity. But the last tsar who ruled in this godlike manner was Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich, the father of Peter the Great, and Alexis died in 1676. Peter, as part of his effort to Westernize Russia, had transformed this image, creating for the autocrat a new, secular role as “first servant of the state.” Peter had also altered the right of succession, decreeing that the throne would no longer pass down a fixed hereditary male line but that each sovereign would be free to name his successor. Even by these new rules, however, Catherine failed to qualify. Neither Empress Elizabeth, who had brought her to Russia, nor Peter III, who succeeded Elizabeth, had named her heir to the Russian throne. If the old laws of hereditary succession had been observed, Peter III’s heir would have been Catherine’s seven-year-old son, Paul. Or, as some Russians continued to whisper, the real tsar was the imprisoned Ivan VI, removed from the throne as an infant and locked in a cell for most of his life. Catherine had come to power supported by no right or precedent; she was, in the baldest definition, a usurper. For the first decade of her reign, this cloud hung over her, leaving her vulnerable to challenge, conspiracy, and, finally, to rebellion. In the first summer of her reign, this turmoil lay in the future, but Catherine was aware that it might come. She began her reign, therefore, with the traditional rules reversed. Earlier sovereigns, choosing to favor a subject, could do this by delivering a flow of privileges. Catherine was in the opposite position; it was she who was the supplicant for favor. Writing to Stanislaus Poniatowski, she said wryly, “The least soldier of the guards, when he sees me, thinks that ‘this is the work of his own hands.’ I am compelled to do a thousand strange things. If I yield, they will adore me; if not, then I do not know what will happen.”
 * * *
While Voltaire lived, Frederick of Prussia told him, “After your death, there will be no one to replace you”; when the philosopher was gone, the king said, “For my part, I am consoled by having lived in the age of Voltaire.” Later, Goethe added, “He governed the whole civilized world.” Catherine’s lament was more specific: it was not his wisdom she mourned; it was his gaiety. “Since Voltaire died,” she wrote to her friend Friedrich Melchior Grimm, “it seems to me that honor no longer attaches to good humor. He was the divinity of gaiety. Procure for me an edition, or rather, a complete copy of his works, to renew within me and confirm my natural love of laughter.” After Voltaire’s death, the empress told Grimm that she intended to build a replica of the Château de Ferney in the park at Tsarskoe Selo. This “New Ferney” would become the repository of Voltaire’s library, purchased by Catherine from Mme Denis for 135,000 pounds. The books went to Russia, but the architectural project was abandoned, and the library of over six thousand volumes, annotated by Voltaire page by page in the margins, was placed in a hall of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. In the center of this space, the place of honor, was an exact copy of Houdon’s remarkable statue of Voltaire seated. It is there today.


  1. Her relationship with her husband, Peter III. was fascinating. Peter is reported to have been intolerable--playing with toy soldiers in bed, thrashing his hounds, or scratching an unbearable fiddle. He seemed to be impotent with Catherine for the first 8 years of the marriage, then Catherine took lovers, and Peter tormented her with unfavorable comparison to his mistress.
    Yet they had children. Were they his? He doubted it. When he acceded to the throne, his fondness for Frederick the Great offended the Court and may have led to his being assassinated. Was Catherine complicit?
    Any treatment of her life is bound to be a riveting read!

    1. Her children were all by her major lovers (she had 3 of them but 12 in toto). She had him imprisoned, but didn't order him to be killed by any means. Lots more lurid/fascinating detail, as you can imagine!