La Princesse de Babylone
by ARIANA ROBERTS
“I would be ready to like my new husband had he been capable of affection or willing to show any. But in the very first days of our marriage,” wrote Catherine II of Peter, “I came to a sad conclusion about him. I said, If you allow yourself to love that man, you will be the unhappiest creature on the earth.” Alone in St. Petersburg, abandoned to the bed on which she had given birth, Catherine devoured Histoire de l’empire de Russie sous Pierre le Grand; Madame Vladislavova reportedly found her turning pages at dawn.
Where the Grand Duke’s attempts at elucidating Russian history were dismissed (“[Peter] is as discreet as a cannonball,” she decided), Voltaire’s burnished account struck a chord with the affection-starved future empress. “I wanted to be Russian in order that the Russians should love me,” Catherine wrote. “I just finished reading the Essai sur l’Histoire Générale, and I wish I knew every page by heart.”
So began a correspondence Voltaire flippantly wrote “sustained” him during the last 15 years of his life. Catherine’s earliest letters to the then-71-year-old writer have a gushy fangirl quality, informing him (through Genevan secretary François Pictet) that she endorsed his books in Russia and committed many of them to memory. Pictet reported Catherine was producing Zaïre, Alzire, and L’Orphelin de la Chine “not with actors, but with Lords and Ladies of the court” — the 18th century equivalent of a panty-waving Gleetard covering “Edge of Glory” for her YouTube account. Catherine’s second letter praised Philosophie de l’histoire:
It is nothing to give a little to one's neighbour when one has a superfluity; but it is immortality to be the champion of the human race, the defender of oppressed innocence. You have combated the massed enemies of mankind — superstition, fanaticism, ignorance, intrigue, evil judges, and the abuse of power. But I die of regret not to see deserts changed into proud cities, and 2000 leagues of territory civilised by heroines. World history can show nothing comparable.
It is unlikely Voltaire was fooled by such subterfuge. Operating under the assumption that the empress engineered her husband’s murder, he composed a terse reply, stating, “The truth comes from the North as toys come from the South.” Sir James Campbell wrote, “Voltaire remained affected and spurious; he had, in fact, been spoiled by the too flattering attentions of almost every crowned head in Europe; and after his vanity had been fostered to the highest pitch of extravagance, it was not to be supposed that he could be cured of his preposterous pretensions” by Catherine’s self-serving correspondence. Apparently ignorant of this, Catherine was greatly encouraged by his response. Campbell recounts:
At Geneva I was invited to assist at the presentation of the Prince Dolgouroukie, who came to Voltaire at the head of a deputation from the Empress Catherine the Second, than whom, perhaps, no one has ever been more anxious as to what should be said of her by the world. The presents were produced in succession. The first was an ivory box, the value of which consisted in its being the work of the empress’s own hands. The next was her imperial majesty’s portrait, brilliantly set in diamonds, of very great value; I could not resist the idea that the eyes of the philosopher sparkled with delight at the splendid setting of the picture, rather than the picture itself. Then followed a collection of books in the Russian language, which Voltaire admitted that he did not understand; but admired, and very justly, as rare specimens of typography, and as being bound in a style of magnificence befitting an imperial gift. The last of the presents was a robe, the lining of which was of the fur of the black fox, from the Corile Isles. It was certainly of immense value, and such only as the empress of Russia could give. The prince, on producing it, begged to be shown into a darkened room, where on drawing his hand across the fur, it produced so much electrical fire, that it was possible to read by it.
Catherine reminded Voltaire that her crest was a bee flying from plant to plant, gathering honey for the hive, on which l’Utile was inscribed. Such winsomeness deserved a reward, and Voltaire responded in kind:
If your crest is a bee, you have a terrible hive, the biggest in the world. You fill the world with your name and your gifts. For me the most precious are the medallions with your likeness…. I count another blessing: those who are honored by your bounty are my friends. I am grateful for your generosity to Diderot, d’Alembert and the Calas family. Every writer in Europe ought to be at your feet.
“In return for these princely gifts,” Campbell wrote, “Voltaire contributed to foster, at the same time that he gratified, the empress’s passion, by writing a great deal in the empress’s praise.” Bound by their love of filthy lucre, Voltaire resolved to die “a Catherinist.” “My heart is like the lover,” he wrote. “It turns always towards the North.”
In 1974, a volume of their correspondence was published; Voltaire’s portrait floats above the empress on the cover, his lips parted in a crinkly smile, twinkling eyes belying the self-assuredness of the writer. Catherine’s smile is demure, the persistent expression she adopted shortly after arriving at Tsarskoye Selo: “Always look serene and display much attentiveness, affability, and politeness all around… try to be as charming as possible to everyone and study every opportunity to win the affection of those whom I suspect of being in the slightest degree ill-disposed towards me.” It’s a less-than-subtle comment on the intellectual disparity between the two luminaries, one Catherine felt keenly.
That the empress considered herself the academic equal of Voltaire’s contemporaries is no secret. Both Diderot and d’Alembert frequented her court, where she freely discoursed on art, politics, and religion; her letters to them reflect spontaneity absent from correspondence with Voltaire. In fact, Catherine took special care with letters to “Teacher,” writing out of sequence, polishing small fragments until they flowed. Some drafts were never sent. Others differ significantly from the letters in Voltaire’s collection, suggesting she had an editor revise them beforehand.
The selectiveness with which she fed him information is diabolical. In 1774, Voltaire laments a month-long lapse in correspondence; Catherine was busy slaughtering innocent Poles. She couches the situation carefully: “Monsieur Pugachev is a master brigand… no one since Tamerlane has done more harm than he. If it were only I whom he had offended, I should pardon him, but this is a case involving the Empire, which has its laws.” Thusly equipped, Voltaire defended Catherine’s brutality, writing, “Polish intolerance is so odious it deserves a box on the ears. The Empress does good from Kamchatka to Africa, occupied as she is from eve till dawn beating the Turks, giving them peace. She has sent 40,000 Russians to preach tolerance, with bayonets at the end of their muskets; she has set armies on the march, in order to force people to tolerate each other.”
While Catherine’s letters were contrived, Voltaire’s were posted sans editing. Strip them of their salutations, and one might not realize he was addressing an empress, so casual is his mix of prose and verse, metaphors and puns. “A little bird whispers to me that in abating Turkish pride with one hand you will pacify Poland with the other,” he writes.
The arbitrary cruelty hinted at in Candide is at full bloom here: “I am not a murderer, but I think I could become one to serve you.” To him, whole countries are merely “ce gâteau de roi,” frosted specially for “Semiramis du Nord.”
The two writers could not have been more remote in style. Throughout the letters, Voltaire’s greatest strength is in his sensuous descriptions — of the pleasures of life, Catherine’s achievements, his own experiences — whereas Catherine cuts everything to the bone. Her admiration of “roi Voltaire” was undeniable, but she had trouble expressing it on paper, a weakness the philosopher did not share: “Do you know where there is earthly paradise? I know: it is everywhere that there is Catherine II. You are not the aurora borealis, you are the brightest star of the North, and there never has been any other luminary so beneficial.”
Voltaire's letters from 1771-1773 exhibit what Campbell deems “nauseous and fulsome” adulation. “Diderot and I are lay missionaries who preach the cult of Saint Catherine, and we can boast that our church is almost universal,” Voltaire wrote. “You have become my overriding passion… I throw myself at your feet and kiss them with much more respect than the Pope’s.” Veneration is coupled with undying praise of Catherine’s abilities, e.g., “Your project is the most astonishing ever formed: that of Hannibal was nothing to it,” and “Before you no one wrote like you; it is very unlikely that anyone will ever be your equal. After reading you one wishes to re-read and has no taste for other books.”
There’s a mocking Galahadism in Voltaire’s correspondence, but the mocking doesn’t necessarily imply this knight was insincere. He threw considerable energy into crafting the image of Catherine the Great as a tolerant, enlightened ruler, abandoning his tendency towards self-preservation to defend “d’où vient toute la lumière” even as Europe reproached her oppressiveness. His letters have a distinctly protective air, often expressing concern over her finances and frequent affairs; Voltaire could have turned the empress’ love of flattery to his advantage, yet it appears he ignored the opportunity to promote the ideas of the French Enlightenment.
Flashes of genuine interest appear primarily after she writes, “I have said I will make Russia known. People will see that she is indefatigable, that she possesses eminent merit, all the qualities which make heroes; that she does not lack resources, is not to be ignored and must be treated with respect, as befits a powerful empire.” Voltaire must have realized — though Catherine did not — that at some point they stopped talking about Russia and started talking about the empress herself.
In his last letter, Voltaire wrote, “I wish someone would propose a prize for the best plan of sending the Turks back to the country whence they came, but I think this is the secret of the first personage of the human race named Catherine II. I prostrate myself at her feet and exclaim on my death-bed, Allah, Allah, Catherine rezoul, Allah.” When he died, a portrait of Catherine was found in his room; the Empress mourned bitterly, chastising a mutual friend, “Why did you not personally take possession of his body, in my name? You should have sent it to me, and, morbleau! I can promise you he would have had the most splendid tomb possible.” Years later, she wrote of his death, “I had a feeling of discouragement with everything and grave contempt for all things of this earth.”
Now might be the time to tell you these two never met. They tossed the idea around in early correspondence— “Peter the Great’s goal of making Constantinople the capital of the Russian Empire may take shape. In that case I beg permission to pass a few days there at your Court,” Voltaire wrote — but neither decided to call the other’s bluff. Eventually, they had a good game going:
Voltaire, September 1769: I do not see what is to prevent me from starting for St. Petersburg next April. If I die en route, I should put on my little tomb: ‘Here lies the admirer of the august Catherine, who had the honor to die while journeying to present his profound respects.’
Catherine, October 1769: Nothing is more flattering to me than your project, but I should be ungrateful if I allowed my satisfaction to stifle my anxiety about such a long and painful journey. I know you are in delicate health. I admire your courage, but I should be inconsolable if it were to suffer from the effort. Neither myself nor Europe would forgive me.
Voltaire, June 1771: I should take the liberty to pay court to this astonishing bee if my crushing maladies permitted this poor drone to leave his cell…if God give me health I shall certainly come and place myself at your feet next summer for a few days or a few hours. If Peter the Great had chosen Kiev or some other more southerly spot, I should now be at your feet, despite my age… if you wish to work miracles, try to make your country less cold. In view of all you have done, it would be pure malice not to effect this change… If your Majesty makes peace, I beseech you to keep Taganrog, which you say boasts such a fine climate, so that I can end my days there without always seeing the snows of Jura.
”For God’s sake, advise the octogenarian to remain in Paris!” Catherine wrote a mutual acquaintance, only weeks before Voltaire’s death. “What should he do here? He would die, here or at the wayside, of cold, weariness, and bad roads. Tell him cateau n’est bonne qu’à être vue de loin [is best known at a distance].” Mme du Deffand echoed the empress, advising Voltaire, “Only see your Catherine through the telescope of your imaginations.” From afar, he could ignore her flaws and moral lapses; alternately, Catherine would not be disappointed when fleshly Voltaire failed to live up to her expectations, as happened with Diderot.
This relational quirk leads modern researchers to conclude that their correspondence did not reflect genuine friendship, as if proximity was a determining factor for amity. True, their connection baffles analysts — their lifestyles and personalities were vastly different, and they failed to discuss anything weighty for too long. Still, Catherine and Voltaire connected in a way that can only be described as love.
Perhaps they found solace in the fact that they were both uprooted at an early age; both forsook their given names, preferring instead to construct the identities for which they were famed. At any rate, there are special joys in illusion, and Voltaire provided something Catherine’s numerous lovers did not — here was a man she would not eclipse, devoted to her, yet allowing her plenty of freedom.
Since meeting would have certainly caused almost unbearable regret, they celebrated their love in immortal verse without ruining it in person. I say “certainly” because at some point, I stopped talking about Catherine and Voltaire and started talking about myself. Trust me when I tell you some of the deepest and most enduring thrills of her lifetime were shared with a man whom she never met.
Ariana Roberts is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Cleveland. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about her trip to NK.
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