This is the first in a two-part series.
by ELLEN COPPERFIELD
As a girl she had it in her mind that she would be married to her uncle George — such liasions were common among aristocratic families in Germany. Instead the girl who would become Catherine the Great was sent, along with her idiotic mother, to a foreign land where they could not speak the language.
There is a pernicious American myth that a woman will never be president, as if no one of the female gender has ever held a similar office in one of the most powerful nations on earth. What is a president compared to an empress? There is no part of the world in which women have not held power in due course, whether through the vagaries of succession or because they wrested it for themselves.
Empress Elizabeth of Russia had a charge: her nephew Peter, the heir to her throne, who could not speak Russian either. He was an awkward 15 year old boy, paralyzed by the idea he would have to succeed his domineering aunt. In order to humanize her heir, Elizabeth brought him a wife, the girl named Sophia who would become Catherine.
In those first months in her new country, Catherine almost died of pneumonia. The bloodletting her physicians demanded did not help matters. It is also possible she was not quite as near death as was popularly imagined, for her illness endeared the Protestant girl to the Russian people in a way nothing else could. They heard that she had become ill while learning their language, and nothing could have made the German invader more sympathetic. Catherine was so pale during her first day at court (her fifteenth birthday), the empress sent her a pot of rouge.
After converting to the Orthodox faith and becoming engaged to Peter, she became the favorite of the empress, who sent her a variety of gifts. Good fortune had put in this position, but she also learned an important lesson from it: lies were the currency of court.
In her memoirs Catherine would write, "I was afraid of not being liked and did everything in my power to win those with whom I was to spend my life." When she could not deal with the goings on around her, she buried herself in books. Her natural intelligence was so impressive to a visiting Swedish diplomat that he blurted out, "What a pity you will marry!"
She was disgusted by Peter, whose bout with smallpox turned him from a geeky teen into a disfigured manchild. On their wedding night he drunkenly fell asleep before touching her. She later wrote, "In the very first days of our marriage, I came to a sad conclusion about him. I said to myself, 'If you allow yourself to love that man, you will be the unhappiest creature on earth.'"
As quickly as she had been in favor, she fell out of it. The Empress was a capricious woman who regarded Catherine as both rival and womb. She took great care to ensure the girl did not outshine her. Elizabeth had grown a bit corpulent; she continued to dye her blonde hair black for some reason. She insisted on never wearing the same dress twice, and as a consequence, owned over 15,000 gowns. As she aged into her early forties, her looks began to abandon her. She made all her maids cut their hair absurdly short on a regular basis.
Until Catherine should become pregnant, she was on the wrong side of her master. The only times she was not miserable were at her country estate. She would wake at 3 a.m. and shoot ducks on the side of a canal until taking her first meal at ten. She loved riding horses, even designing her own saddle. Her husband, for his part, found his fun in torturing dogs and staging mock military drills in full regalia with his servants. When she could, she read a book a week.
Catherine attracted the attention of many other men besides her clueless husband, and became pregnant several times. Her third pregnancy made her first success, and the baby was named Paul. She did not see her son for over a week, since he lay in Elizabeth's arms, and she would never be able to treat the boy as if he were really hers.
The Empress took great pains to prevent Paul's mother from being a part of his life. The baby's father, over whom Catherine felt a dangerous possessiveness, was sent away. He was all too happy to be rid of her and the child, using his reputation as the father of the heir to seduce a variety of less complicated women. In Catherine was awakened a burning resolve to triumph that had never existed before.
Catherine's next lover, a virginal Polish diplomat named Pontiatowski, would father her second child. Her daughter Anna died at fifteen months. (In the meantime, Peter was busy enough himself; he even described his affairs with other women as a means of torturing her.) Peter spent most of his time dressing up in a retinue of tight-fitting military uniforms and telling tall tales about fights against outlaws that occurred when he was six or seven. No one dared contradict him.
As the Empress became more and more ill, Catherine held her plans close to the vest. She began a strategic and intensely pleasurable affair with a war hero, the 24 year old Gregory Orlov, who would deliver the Russian army to her side; she focused on making sure every anecdote that came out to the public painted her as she was: the long suffering wife of an insane boy. On Christmas Day in 1761, the Empress asked everyone in her sick room for forgiveness and finally died, ushering in the reign of Peter III.
Over time Peter had grown to resent his benefactor Elizabeth. He cracked jokes at her funeral, and quickly made an escape to his own apartments where he could drink and drink. Peter had no regard for the Orthodox church, quickly secularizing their holdings and making a bevy of enemies in the process. The changes he made to the military turned the faction against him, the worst of which was sending them to die in an ill-timed war against Denmark of all places. A pregnant and physically frail Catherine had no choice but to wait to make her move.
When she did, it was almost too easy. Many were waiting to carry her to throne; she had the support of every Russian institution that mattered. They were used to having a woman govern them, and they had no respect for Catherine's prissy husband. After making his wife weep at a state dinner, Peter had wanted to order Catherine imprisoned in the Schusselburg Fortress. Catherine's very loving uncle George, now the commander of the Russian army, intervened.
Now cornered at Peterhof, Peter saw the writing on the wall. He penned a letter in which he apologized for his behavior towards Catherine, and asked her to share the throne. His next letter was not so ambitious, and desired only that he should retire at an estate in Holstein: "I, Peter, of my own free will will hereby solemnly declare, not only to the whole Russian empire, but also to the whole world, that I forever renounce the throne of Russia to the end of my days. Nor will I ever seek to recover the same at any time or by anybody's assistance and I swear this before God." He had been the most powerful man on the continent for only six months.
Peter's death was reported as aggravation of a condition in his colon. In reality, he was choked to death with a scarf by members of the Empress' guard, including the younger brother of her lover, after a nice dinner. Catherine never explicitly desired or ordered the death of her husband, but she could not exactly have been unhappy at his passing. The greatest threat to her reign had been eliminated. In the end it had not been an entirely bloodless coup.
All of Europe believed Catherine poisoned her husband, and nothing could convince them otherwise. It was the easiest thing they could do to look down on a woman to believe she had killed her betrothed. The reality was it that if Peter had not ended up dead, Catherine would have. What happened, intended or not, was nothing more than an act of self-defense.
Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. She last wrote in these pages about her ongoing relationship. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
"Forever" - Mike Andrews (mp3)
"Low on Memory" - Mike Andrews (mp3)