Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Biographer Robert K. Massie gives us a Catherine the Great who is ever interesting and intelligent – but not necessarily admirable.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.”