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The Empress Catharine And Prince Potemkin

It has often been said that the greatest Frenchman who ever lived was

in reality an Italian. It might with equal truth be asserted that the

greatest Russian woman who ever lived was in reality a German. But the

Emperor Napoleon and the Empress Catharine II. resemble each other in

something else. Napoleon, though Italian in blood and lineage, made

himself so French in sympathy and understanding as to be able to play

upon the imagination of all France as a great musician plays upon a

splendid instrument, with absolute sureness of touch and an ability

to extract from it every one of its varied harmonies. So the Empress

Catharine of Russia--perhaps the greatest woman who ever ruled a

nation--though born of German parents, became Russian to the core and

made herself the embodiment of Russian feeling and Russian aspiration.

At the middle of the eighteenth century Russia was governed by the

Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. In her own time, and for

a long while afterward, her real capacity was obscured by her apparent

indolence, her fondness for display, and her seeming vacillation; but

now a very high place is accorded her in the history of Russian rulers.

She softened the brutality that had reigned supreme in Russia. She

patronized the arts. Her armies twice defeated Frederick the Great and

raided his capital, Berlin. Had Elizabeth lived, she would probably have

crushed him.

In her early years this imperial woman had been betrothed to Louis XV.

of France, but the match was broken off. Subsequently she entered into

a morganatic marriage and bore a son who, of course, could not be her

heir. In 1742, therefore, she looked about for a suitable successor, and

chose her nephew, Prince Peter of Holstein-Gottorp.

Peter, then a mere youth of seventeen, was delighted with so splendid a

future, and came at once to St. Petersburg. The empress next sought

for a girl who might marry the young prince and thus become the

future Czarina. She thought first of Frederick the Great's sister; but

Frederick shrank from this alliance, though it would have been of much

advantage to him. He loved his sister--indeed, she was one of the few

persons for whom he ever really cared. So he declined the offer and

suggested instead the young Princess Sophia of the tiny duchy of


The reason for Frederick's refusal was his knowledge of the

semi-barbarous conditions that prevailed at the Russian court.

The Russian capital, at that time, was a bizarre, half-civilized,

half-oriental place, where, among the very highest-born, a thin veneer

of French elegance covered every form of brutality and savagery and

lust. It is not surprising, therefore, that Frederick the Great was

unwilling to have his sister plunged into such a life.

But when the Empress Elizabeth asked the Princess Sophia of

Anhalt-Zerbst to marry the heir to the Russian throne the young girl

willingly accepted, the more so as her mother practically commanded it.

This mother of hers was a grim, harsh German woman who had reared her

daughter in the strictest fashion, depriving her of all pleasure with a

truly puritanical severity. In the case of a different sort of girl this

training would have crushed her spirit; but the Princess Sophia,

though gentle and refined in manner, had a power of endurance which was

toughened and strengthened by the discipline she underwent.

And so in 1744, when she was but sixteen years of age, she was taken by

her mother to St. Petersburg. There she renounced the Lutheran faith and

was received into the Greek Church, changing her name to Catharine. Soon

after, with great magnificence, she was married to Prince Peter, and

from that moment began a career which was to make her the most powerful

woman in the world.

At this time a lady of the Russian court wrote down a description of

Catharine's appearance. She was fair-haired, with dark-blue eyes; and

her face, though never beautiful, was made piquant and striking by the

fact that her brows were very dark in contrast with her golden hair. Her

complexion was not clear, yet her look was a very pleasing one. She had

a certain diffidence of manner at first; but later she bore herself with

such instinctive dignity as to make her seem majestic, though in fact

she was beneath the middle size. At the time of her marriage her figure

was slight and graceful; only in after years did she become stout.

Altogether, she came to St. Petersburg an attractive, pure-minded German

maiden, with a character well disciplined, and possessing reserves of

power which had not yet been drawn upon.

Frederick the Great's forebodings, which had led him to withhold

his sister's hand, were almost immediately justified in the case of

Catharine. Her Russian husband revealed to her a mode of life which must

have tried her very soul. This youth was only seventeen--a mere boy

in age, and yet a full-grown man in the rank luxuriance of his vices.

Moreover, he had eccentricities which sometimes verged upon insanity.

Too young to be admitted to the councils of his imperial aunt, he

occupied his time in ways that were either ridiculous or vile.

Next to the sleeping-room of his wife he kept a set of kennels, with

a number of dogs, which he spent hours in drilling as if they had been

soldiers. He had a troop of rats which he also drilled. It was his

delight to summon a court martial of his dogs to try the rats for

various military offenses, and then to have the culprits executed,

leaving their bleeding carcasses upon the floor. At any hour of the day

or night Catharine, hidden in her chamber, could hear the yapping of

the curs, the squeak of rats, and the word of command given by her

half-idiot husband.

When wearied of this diversion Peter would summon a troop of favorites,

both men and women, and with them he would drink deep of beer and

vodka, since from his early childhood he had been both a drunkard and a

debauchee. The whoops and howls and vile songs of his creatures could

be heard by Catharine; and sometimes he would stagger into her rooms,

accompanied by his drunken minions. With a sort of psychopathic

perversity he would insist on giving Catharine the most minute and

repulsive narratives of his amours, until she shrank from him with

horror at his depravity and came to loathe the sight of his bloated

face, with its little, twinkling, porcine eyes, his upturned nose

and distended nostrils, and his loose-hung, lascivious mouth. She was

scarcely less repelled when a wholly different mood would seize upon him

and he would declare himself her slave, attending her at court functions

in the garb of a servant and professing an unbounded devotion for his


Catharine's early training and her womanly nature led her for a long

time to submit to the caprices of her husband. In his saner moments she

would plead with him and strive to interest him in something better

than his dogs and rats and venal mistresses; but Peter was incorrigible.

Though he had moments of sense and even of good feeling, these never

lasted, and after them he would plunge headlong into the most frantic

excesses that his half-crazed imagination could devise.

It is not strange that in course of time Catharine's strong good sense

showed her that she could do nothing with this creature. She therefore

gradually became estranged from him and set herself to the task of doing

those things which Peter was incapable of carrying out.

She saw that ever since the first awakening of Russia under Peter the

Great none of its rulers had been genuinely Russian, but had tried to

force upon the Russian people various forms of western civilization

which were alien to the national spirit. Peter the Great had striven

to make his people Dutch. Elizabeth had tried to make them French.

Catharine, with a sure instinct, resolved that they should remain

Russian, borrowing what they needed from other peoples, but stirred

always by the Slavic spirit and swayed by a patriotism that was their

own. To this end she set herself to become Russian. She acquired the

Russian language patiently and accurately. She adopted the Russian

costume, appearing, except on state occasions, in a simple gown of

green, covering her fair hair, however, with a cap powdered with

diamonds. Furthermore, she made friends of such native Russians as were

gifted with talent, winning their favor, and, through them, the favor of

the common people.

It would have been strange, however, had Catharine, the woman,

escaped the tainting influences that surrounded her on every side. The

infidelities of Peter gradually made her feel that she owed him nothing

as his wife. Among the nobles there were men whose force of character

and of mind attracted her inevitably. Chastity was a thing of which the

average Russian had no conception; and therefore it is not strange that

Catharine, with her intense and sensitive nature, should have turned to

some of these for the love which she had sought in vain from the half

imbecile to whom she had been married.

Much has been written of this side of her earlier and later life; yet,

though it is impossible to deny that she had favorites, one should judge

very gently the conduct of a girl so young and thrust into a life whence

all the virtues seemed to be excluded. She bore several children before

her thirtieth year, and it is very certain that a grave doubt exists as

to their paternity. Among the nobles of the court were two whose courage

and virility specially attracted her. The one with whom her name has

been most often coupled was Gregory Orloff. He and his brother, Alexis

Orloff, were Russians of the older type--powerful in frame, suave in

manner except when roused, yet with a tigerish ferocity slumbering

underneath. Their power fascinated Catharine, and it was currently

declared that Gregory Orloff was her lover.

When she was in her thirty-second year her husband was proclaimed Czar,

after the death of the Empress Elizabeth. At first in some ways his

elevation seemed to sober him; but this period of sanity, like those

which had come to him before, lasted only a few weeks. Historians have

given him much credit for two great reforms that are connected with his

name; and yet the manner in which they were actually brought about is

rather ludicrous. He had shut himself up with his favorite revelers, and

had remained for several days drinking and carousing until he scarcely

knew enough to speak. At this moment a young officer named Gudovitch,

who was really loyal to the newly created Czar, burst into the

banquet-hall, booted and spurred and his eyes aflame with indignation.

Standing before Peter, his voice rang out with the tone of a battle

trumpet, so that the sounds of revelry were hushed.

"Peter Feodorovitch," he cried, "do you prefer these swine to those who

really wish to serve you? Is it in this way that you imitate the glories

of your ancestor, that illustrious Peter whom you have sworn to take

as your model? It will not be long before your people's love will be

changed to hatred. Rise up, my Czar! Shake off this lethargy and sloth.

Prove that you are worthy of the faith which I and others have given you

so loyally!"

With these words Gudovitch thrust into Peter's trembling hand two

proclamations, one abolishing the secret bureau of police, which had

become an instrument of tyrannous oppression, and the other restoring to

the nobility many rights of which they had been deprived.

The earnestness and intensity of Gudovitch temporarily cleared the brain

of the drunken Czar. He seized the papers, and, without reading them,

hastened at once to his great council, where he declared that they

expressed his wishes. Great was the rejoicing in St. Petersburg, and

great was the praise bestowed on Peter; yet, in fact, he had acted only

as any drunkard might act under the compulsion of a stronger will than


As before, his brief period of good sense was succeeded by another of

the wildest folly. It was not merely that he reversed the wise policy of

his aunt, but that he reverted to his early fondness for everything that

was German. His bodyguard was made up of German troops--thus exciting

the jealousy of the Russian soldiers. He introduced German fashions. He

boasted that his father had been an officer in the Prussian army. His

crazy admiration for Frederick the Great reached the utmost verge of


As to Catharine, he turned on her with something like ferocity. He

declared in public that his eldest son, the Czarevitch Paul, was

really fathered by Catharine's lovers. At a state banquet he turned

to Catharine and hurled at her a name which no woman could possibly

forgive--and least of all a woman such as Catharine, with her high

spirit and imperial pride. He thrust his mistresses upon her; and

at last he ordered her, with her own hand, to decorate the Countess

Vorontzoff, who was known to be his maitresse en titre.

It was not these gross insults, however, so much as a concern for her

personal safety that led Catharine to take measures for her own defense.

She was accustomed to Peter's ordinary eccentricities. On the ground

of his unfaithfulness to her she now had hardly any right to make

complaint. But she might reasonably fear lest he was becoming mad. If he

questioned the paternity of their eldest son he might take measures to

imprison Catharine or even to destroy her. Therefore she conferred with

the Orloffs and other gentlemen, and their conference rapidly developed

into a conspiracy.

The soldiery, as a whole, was loyal to the empress. It hated Peter's

Holstein guards. What she planned was probably the deposition of Peter.

She would have liked to place him under guard in some distant palace.

But while the matter was still under discussion she was awakened early

one morning by Alexis Orloff. He grasped her arm with scant ceremony.

"We must act at once," said he. "We have been betrayed!"

Catharine was not a woman to waste time. She went immediately to the

barracks in St. Petersburg, mounted upon a charger, and, calling out

the Russian guards, appealed to them for their support. To a man they

clashed their weapons and roared forth a thunderous cheer. Immediately

afterward the priests anointed her as regent in the name of her son; but

as she left the church she was saluted by the people, as well as by the

soldiers, as empress in her own right.

It was a bold stroke, and it succeeded down to the last detail. The

wretched Peter, who was drilling his German guards at a distance from

the capital, heard of the revolt, found that his sailors at Kronstadt

would not acknowledge him, and then finally submitted. He was taken to

Ropsha and confined within a single room. To him came the Orloffs, quite

of their own accord. Gregory Orloff endeavored to force a corrosive

poison into Peter's mouth. Peter, who was powerful of build and now

quite desperate, hurled himself upon his enemies. Alexis Orloff seized

him by the throat with a tremendous clutch and strangled him till the

blood gushed from his ears. In a few moments the unfortunate man was


Catharine was shocked by the intelligence, but she had no choice save

to accept the result of excessive zeal. She issued a note to the foreign

ambassadors informing them that Peter had died of a violent colic. When

his body was laid out for burial the extravasated blood is said to have

oozed out even through his hands, staining the gloves that had been

placed upon them. No one believed the story of the colic; and some six

years later Alexis Orloff told the truth with the utmost composure. The

whole incident was characteristically Russian.

It is not within the limits of our space to describe the reign of

Catharine the Great--the exploits of her armies, the acuteness of her

statecraft, the vast additions which she made to the Russian Empire, and

the impulse which she gave to science and art and literature. Yet these

things ought to be remembered first of all when one thinks of the woman

whom Voltaire once styled "the Semiramis of the North." Because she was

so powerful, because no one could gainsay her, she led in private a

life which has been almost more exploited than her great imperial

achievements. And yet, though she had lovers whose names have been

carefully recorded, even she fulfilled the law of womanhood--which is to

love deeply and intensely only once.

One should not place all her lovers in the same category. As a girl, and

when repelled by the imbecility of Peter, she gave herself to Gregory

Orloff. She admired his strength, his daring, and his unscrupulousness.

But to a woman of her fine intelligence he came to seem almost more

brute than man. She could not turn to him for any of those delicate

attentions which a woman loves so much, nor for that larger sympathy

which wins the heart as well as captivates the senses. A writer of the

time has said that Orloff would hasten with equal readiness from the

arms of Catharine to the embraces of any flat-nosed Finn or filthy

Calmuck or to the lowest creature whom he might encounter in the


It happened that at the time of Catharine's appeal to the imperial

guards there came to her notice another man who--as he proved in a

trifling and yet most significant manner--had those traits which Orloff

lacked. Catharine had mounted, man--fashion, a cavalry horse, and, with

a helmet on her head, had reined up her steed before the barracks. At

that moment One of the minor nobles, who was also favorable to her,

observed that her helmet had no plume. In a moment his horse was at her

side. Bowing low over his saddle, he took his own plume from his helmet

and fastened it to hers. This man was Prince Gregory Potemkin, and this

slight act gives a clue to the influence which he afterward exercised

over his imperial mistress!

When Catharine grew weary of the Orloffs, and when she had enriched them

with lands and treasures, she turned to Potemkin; and from then until

the day of his death he was more to her than any other man had ever

been. With others she might flirt and might go even further than

flirtation; but she allowed no other favorite to share her confidence,

to give advice, or to direct her policies.

To other men she made munificent gifts, either because they pleased her

for the moment or because they served her on one occasion or another;

but to Potemkin she opened wide the whole treasury of her vast realm.

There was no limit to what she would do for him. When he first knew

her he was a man of very moderate fortune. Within two years after their

intimate acquaintance had begun she had given him nine million rubles,

while afterward he accepted almost limitless estates in Poland and in

every province of Greater Russia.

He was a man of sumptuous tastes, and yet he cared but little for mere

wealth. What he had, he used to please or gratify or surprise the

woman whom he loved. He built himself a great palace in St. Petersburg,

usually known as the Taurian Palace, and there he gave the most

sumptuous entertainments, reversing the story of Antony and Cleopatra.

In a superb library there stood one case containing volumes bound with

unusual richness. When the empress, attracted by the bindings, drew

forth a book she found to her surprise that its pages were English

bank-notes. The pages of another proved to be Dutch bank-notes, and, of

another, notes on the Bank of Venice. Of the remaining volumes some were

of solid gold, while others had pages of fine leather in which were set

emeralds and rubies and diamonds and other gems. The story reads like a

bit of fiction from the Arabian Nights. Yet, after all, this was only a

small affair compared with other undertakings with which Potemkin sought

to please her.

Thus, after Taurida and the Crimea had been added to the empire

by Potemkin's agency, Catharine set out with him to view her new

possessions. A great fleet of magnificently decorated galleys bore her

down the river Dnieper. The country through which she passed had been

a year before an unoccupied waste. Now, by Potemkin's extraordinary

efforts, the empress found it dotted thick with towns and cities which

had been erected for the occasion, filled with a busy population which

swarmed along the riverside to greet the sovereign with applause. It

was only a chain of fantom towns and cities, made of painted wood and

canvas; but while Catharine was there they were very real, seeming

to have solid buildings, magnificent arches, bustling industries, and

beautiful stretches of fertile country. No human being ever wrought on

so great a scale so marvelous a miracle of stage-management.

Potemkin was, in fact, the one man who could appeal with unfailing

success to so versatile and powerful a spirit as Catharine's. He was

handsome of person, graceful of manner, and with an intellect which

matched her own. He never tried to force her inclination, and, on the

other hand, he never strove to thwart it. To him, as to no other man,

she could turn at any moment and feel that, no matter what her mood, he

could understand her fully. And this, according to Balzac, is the thing

that woman yearns for most--a kindred spirit that can understand without

the slightest need of explanation.

Thus it was that Gregory Potemkin held a place in the soul of this great

woman such as no one else attained. He might be absent, heading armies

or ruling provinces, and on his return he would be greeted with even

greater fondness than before. And it was this rather than his victories

over Turk and other oriental enemies that made Catharine trust him


When he died, he died as the supreme master of her foreign policy and at

a time when her word was powerful throughout all Europe. Death came upon

him after he had fought against it with singular tenacity of purpose.

Catharine had given him a magnificent triumph, and he had entertained

her in his Taurian Palace with a splendor such as even Russia had never

known before. Then he fell ill, though with high spirit he would not

yield to illness. He ate rich meats and drank rich wines and bore

himself as gallantly as ever. Yet all at once death came upon him while

he was traveling in the south of Russia. His carriage was stopped, a

rug was spread beneath a tree by the roadside, and there he died, in the

country which he had added to the realms of Russia.

The great empress who loved him mourned him deeply during the five years

of life that still remained to her. The names of other men for whom she

had imagined that she cared were nothing to her. But this one man lived

in her heart in death as he had done in life.

Many have written of Catharine as a great ruler, a wise diplomat, a

creature of heroic mold. Others have depicted her as a royal wanton and

have gathered together a mass of vicious tales, the gossip of the palace

kitchens, of the clubs, and of the barrack-rooms. But perhaps one finds

the chief interest of her story to lie in this--that besides being

empress and diplomat and a lover of pleasure she was, beyond all else,

at heart a woman.

Next: Marie Antoinette And Count Fersen

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