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
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
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
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.