Famous Affinities of History
By Lyndon Orr

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Public Domain Books

Marie Antoinette a la Rose (detail)
by Elizabeth Vigee Lebrun

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 Anhalt-Zerbst.

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 bride.

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 his.

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 sycophancy.

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 dead.

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 streets.

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 absolutely.

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.


The Empress Catharine and Prince Potemkin  •  Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen  •  The Story of Aaron Burr  •  George IV. and Mrs. Fitzherbert  •  Charlotte Corday and Adam Lux  •  Napoleon and Marie Walewska  •  The Story of Pauline Bonaparte  •  The Story of the Empress Marie Louise and Count Neipperg