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 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)|
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.
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|Gregory Orlov, Catherine’s third lover, who was with her for 11 years and helped to put her on the throne.|
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