Catherine the Great

by Paul Witcover

At the opening of The Eight, in the Basque Pyrenees, when events in faraway Paris prompt Reverend Mother Helene de Roque to close Montglane Abbey and use the departing nuns and novices to smuggle out the pieces of the long-hidden Montglane Service, she confides to Mireille and Valentine that she, too, will be embarking on a journey: to visit a friend she has not seen in over forty years. A friend who lives in Russia.

That friend is Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, better known to history as Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia from July 9, 1762 until her death on November 17, 1796. When Helene arrives in St. Petersburg in the autumn of 1791 and meets her old schoolmate “Figchen,” she finds a formidable woman whose quest for love and power amidst the casual brutalities and often-violent intrigues of the Russian court has shaped her into a charismatic yet fearsome figure, an enigmatic bundle of contradictions with the power of life and death at her fingertips, a mighty friend—but a potentially dangerous enemy—sometimes both at once.

This Catherine is a 62-year-old woman mourning the death, just two weeks earlier, of her former lover and closest confidant, Count Potëmkin, even as she delights in the beauty of her latest favorite, Plato Zubov. She is an enlightened ruler, friend of Voltaire and Diderot, champion of education, exploration, science, and the arts. And she is a monarch as absolute as any European ruler since Louis XIV, a monarch frightened and appalled by the example of revolutionary France and determined to use the power of the Montglane Service that her friend controls, in order to secure her own throne and extend her dominion.

But in real life, how did this daughter of a minor Prussian nobleman, raised as a Lutheran, climb to the pinnacle of authority in a foreign country that followed the Eastern Orthodox faith with a zeal bordering on fanaticism? How did this admirer of Enlightenment philosophy become an inflexible autocrat who expanded the rights of the Russian nobility and further curtailed the already paltry freedoms of the serfs? And what about the salacious story, familiar to generations of sniggering students, that she met her end while engaged in amorous relations with a horse?

The latter question is easily disposed of. Though her sexual liaisons were many—this was no Virgin Queen!—Catherine died in her bed following an attack of apoplexy . . . quite alone.

The answers to the other questions lie in the fiendishly complicated high-stakes chess game of eighteenth-century European dynastic politics and territorial ambition described so vividly and dramatically throughout the pages of THE EIGHT—a game in which Catherine the Great—like Alice in THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, or like her counterpoint, Cat Velis, in THE EIGHT—starts out as a lowly pawn but ultimately, through shrewdness, boldness, and luck, gains promotion to the most powerful piece on the board: the queen. And what a queen!

Sophie Friederike Auguste was born on May 2, 1729, in the provincial German city of Stettin. Her father, Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst, governed the city in the name of the Prussian monarch, Frederick William I. Her mother, Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, came from a family whose connections far outshone the more modest pedigree of her husband. Johanna’s brother Karl August had been betrothed to Princess Elizabeth Petrovna of Russia, the daughter of Peter the Great, who would one day be Empress of Russia herself. Though he died before the marriage could be performed, Elizabeth remembered Karl August and his family fondly. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s sister, Anna, married Duke Karl Frederick of Holstein-Gottorp, who, as nephew of King Charles XII of Sweden, was an heir to the Swedish throne. Anna gave birth to a son, Peter Ulrich, in 1728, and she died shortly afterward. In 1739, Peter’s father also died, leaving the young boy Peter as heir to the Swedish throne. As the grandson of Peter the Great, young Peter also had a strong claim to the Russian throne. But being heir to a throne and actually securing it are two different things.

Enter Elizabeth Petrovna. In 1741, Elizabeth, who detested what she saw as corrupt Prussian influence on the Russian court, seized the throne for herself, overthrowing Empress Anna Leopoldovna, regent for the infant Ivan VI. Elizabeth exiled Anna, the Empress Regent, and imprisoned young Ivan; the unfortunate boy spent the remainder of his life shuttled from one prison to another, and was finally murdered in 1764 to protect the dynastic ambitions of the woman who would by then occupy the throne: Catherine the Great.

But that is to get ahead of the story. Once Elizabeth Petrovna had secured the crown, she summoned her fourteen-year-old German nephew Peter Ulrich to St. Petersburg, and, since she herself was unmarried and barren, she proclaimed him the royal heir. She renamed him Peter Fedorovich, and gave him the title of Grand Duke. The next step was to find him a bride.

As Catherine the Great herself reminisces during a poignant scene in THE EIGHT, in 1741 she–Catherine, or Princess Sophie, rather—was thirteen years old. Her upbringing had been typical of her class, with a French governess and various tutors. Her father, a strict Lutheran, had overseen her religious education. A hint of her future temperament occurred when, at the age of four, she was introduced to Frederick I and refused to make proper obeisance by kissing the hem of his robe. But since then she had learned to rein in her rebellious nature with staunch discipline—helped along by beatings from her mother. Little could she have dreamed that in distant Russia her name was being whispered into the ear of the empress.

But so it was. Frederick II, a.k.a. Frederick the Great, had succeeded his father as ruler of Prussia and was looking for a way to draw Russia out of the orbit of the Austrian Empire. Marrying the daughter of one of his noblemen to Grand Duke Peter seemed the perfect move. Though Empress Elizabeth was anti-Prussian, memories of her dead fiancé prompted her to heed the whisperings of Jean Armand de L’Estocq, a French physician and court favorite in the pay of Frederick, and summon Sophie to Russia. The year was 1744.

In St. Petersburg, the young princess made a favorable impression on the empress Elizabeth Petrovna, whom young Sophie may have seen as something of a role model. Sophie’s opinion of Grand Duke Peter was quite different. This sickly, backward, loutish boy hid his insecurities behind a mask of cruelty and disdain for the nation he was in line to rule, making no secret of his own role model, Frederick the Great. But while Frederick was a military genius, war-tested on many a battlefield, the young Grand Duke–even after young Peter was married (and much to his wife Catherine’s frustration)–he preferred to stay in bed alone and play war games with his extensive collection of toy soldiers. Still–though Sophie found her prospective husband less than attractive physically and far beneath her intellectually–she did not let that stop her. Later, in her memoirs, she would assert that that it had been her intention from the very first to sit one day on the throne of Russia.

Her behavior at the time does nothing to contradict this bold assertion. Sophie embraced the Orthodox faith, converting on June 28, 1744, and taking the name Catherine Alekseyevna. The following day, she was betrothed to Peter, but the wedding was postponed when the groom contracted smallpox, a disease that left him pockmarked and more repulsive to Sophie—now and henceforth, Catherine—than ever. During his illness and recovery, Catherine devoted herself to learning the customs and language of her new country and cultivating allies among the nobility. The contrast between her embrace of all things Russian and Peter’s flagrant contempt was plain for all to see. Finally, the two were married on August 25, 1745.

The marriage was neither happy nor, for nine years, successful by the only measure of success that mattered for a royal match—producing a child, preferably a male heir. Indeed, the marriage may never have been consummated at all, for though Catherine did give birth to a son, Paul, on September 20, 1754, rumors swirled—and she herself later claimed—that her husband, who had required an operation to become capable of performing the conjugal act, was not the father. And in truth Catherine had already begun her lifelong habit of taking lovers. But despite the rumors, the infant Paul was accepted as Peter’s heir by Empress Elizabeth, herself no slouch in the lover department.

In 1756, with the eruption of the Seven Years’ War, the antagonism between Russia and Prussia moved from the field of diplomacy to the battlefields of Europe. Yet even then, Peter’s enthusiasm for Prussia was undimmed, leading some to question where his loyalties lay. This question was answered in short order following the death of Empress Elizabeth on January 5, 1762. While the rest of the country mourned—and Catherine was conspicuous in attending the body of the deceased sovereign as it lay in state—her husband, now Emperor Peter III, disturbed the solemn obloquies with juvenile outbursts and jests. To add injury to insult, with Prussia on the ropes in the seventh year of war, Peter precipitously ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops from Berlin and entered into a peace treaty with his hero Frederick on May 5 that was more than merely generous to the all-but-defeated adversary. Further, by destabilizing the alliance against Frederick of Prussia, the settlement actually permitted Frederick the Great to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Not content with alienating his own army, Peter initiated reforms in the Orthodox Church that seemed calculated to give offense to followers of the traditional Russian faith; some even feared that he intended to establish the Lutheran faith in its place. In July of 1762, Peter left St. Petersburg for his country estate at Oranienbaum in the company of his mistress, Elizabeth Vorontzova, a homely, boorish woman whom he had created czarina in all but name. Speculation was rife that he was preparing to divorce Catherine and marry Elizabeth.

Left behind in St. Petersburg, Catherine seized the moment much as the late Empress Elizabeth had done. With the help of her lover, Gregory Orlov, and the troops of St. Petersburg, she proclaimed herself empress and ordered her husband arrested. The feckless Peter had no allies left and was forced to abdicate on July 14. Three days later, he was dead, assassinated by Orlov’s younger brother, Alexei. Catherine always claimed to have had no part in this murder, and to regret it, but the crime did remove a potential rallying point against her.

Though Catherine was an outsider of Prussian ancestry, her elevation was acceptable to Russia’s powerful nobility for two reasons. First, their hatred of her Prussian-loving husband, which trumped every other concern. And second, the idea that Catherine was merely serving as regent until her son, Grand Duke Paul, great-grandson of Peter the Great, became old enough to assume power. But Catherine soon made it clear that she had no intention of yielding the throne to anyone as long as there was a breath of life left in her body.

Finally, she found herself grasping the power to put into practice the political ideas she had been exposed to via her close study of and intimate correspondence with the philosophes of France and the rest of Europe. She embarked at once in resuming Peter the Great’s program of westernizing Russia, by summoning a legislative commission to carry out her program of liberal reforms of the antiquated Russian legal code, while she herself was encouraging industrial development, launching comprehensive census projects, and beefing up the civil service. It was during this time–in what might be called the spring awakening of her reign–that the imprisoned previous heir to the throne, Ivan VI, was murdered under longstanding orders of Elizabeth’s that Catherine had subsequently endorsed; thus, within the first two years of her rule, two regicides could be tallied to her account.

This dark history reared its head in 1773 when a Cossack leader named Emelyan Ivanovich Pugachev led the largest peasant revolt in Russian history, which Catherine put down only with great difficulty in 1775. Pugachev’s quarrel with Catherine had its roots in her decision to buy the loyalty of the Russian nobility by expanding their property rights and binding the serfs more tightly to the land. But his cause was not hurt by his claim to be Peter III, not dead after all but escaped and returned to deliver justice to his people.

Pugachev’s rebellion had two far-reaching effects. First, it brought an end to the most sweeping and liberal of Catherine’s reforms. From now on, she would govern with a sterner hand, and while she would continue to champion the arts and sciences, and look to reform education, her political views became decidedly conservative. In THE EIGHT, by the time the Reverend Mother Helene de Roque has her reunion with “Figchen” in 1791, Catherine the Great herself viewed the French Revolution as Pugachev all over again, another attempt by the rabble to reverse “the order of nature.”

The second effect was to bring to prominence the man who would be Catherine’s closest advisor and greatest love: Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin. In THE EIGHT, we arrive at the Russian court just as Catherine has learned of the death of this catalytic, powerhouse figure. Catherine’s affair with this shrewd, ambitious courtier began with the Pugachev revolt and did not long outlast it; most historians believe that aspect of their relationship was over by 1776, but not before, it is widely believed, although unproven, the two entered into a secret marriage. Whether married to Catherine or not, Potemkin continued to exert a powerful influence on her for the remainder of his life . . . not only in her policies but in her boudoir, personally choosing his own successors to her favors. But that said, Catherine understood very well the difference between allowing Potemkin or other favorites a voice in her decisions and abrogating those decisions; she believed that she could rule most successfully without any permanent male baggage.

Together, Potemkin and Catherine worked tirelessly–and effectively–to expand the Russian empire. Her ambitions spanned the world—but first she had to discover it. In THE FIRE, we see Catherine the Great at this feverish moment, at the pinnacle of her ambitions for world expansion. Catherine dispatched scientists and trade missions throughout Siberia and beyond, to the Aleutians, Alaska, and western North America as far south as California. “Trade is one thing,” she wrote. “Possession another.” She named her grandsons Alexander and Constantine in hopes that one would rule the lands conquered by Alexander the Great throughout the East, while the other would reign over those western lands, like Turkey, which had long been under the control of Islam. Those these ambitious plans never bore the fruit that Catherine envisioned, by the time of her death, Russia’s borders had been expanded by over three hundred percent.

Catherine’s grandiose hopes for her grandsons were not to be realized. After her death, her son Paul ascended to the throne as Emperor Paul I and wasted no time rehabilitating his murdered father’s memory and reversing many of his mother’s policies. Still, history has proven a shrewder judge of greatness, and Catherine is remembered as one of Russia’s most successful and visionary rulers. The term “enlightened despot” has the ring of an oxymoron to modern ears, but if ever that term suited a monarch, it was Catherine the Great.