Catherine the Great- A biography by Ian Grey
Ian Grey explores the story of Catherina the Great, the empress of Russia who ruled from 1762- 1796, the longest reign of a female Russian leader. He makes her look less victimised than other literature does, instead, as an ambitious woman, who made decisions understanding their consequences very well.
Could sheer determination and egotism make you the ruler of a nation?
What did it cost and what was the prize the nation had to pay to satisfy the whims of a Monarch, one of foreign origin, who usurped the throne from her husband.
Sophie was born in 1729, the daughter of a Prussian prince. Her childhood was an unhappy one, being subjected to the temper outbursts of her mother and her partiality towards her younger brother. She learned early on to fend for herself and maybe inherited her mother’s achievement drive.
She was married at a young age to the Russian prince, Peter III, who had the inheritance to the throne. There was no love between them from the beginning, and later the relationship turned to one of mutual hatred and disrespect. Catherine entered the marriage knowing very well what she could expect and the fact that her husband would one day rule Russia. She established her space early on, worked on increasing her popularity in the palace and among the common man. She took on a Russian name, learned the Russian language and converted to the popular Orthodox Catholic Church.
When she did not have a child from her marriage, she fell into the disgrace of Queen Elizabeth, who was the empress then. She suffered, with interference by the queen in her personal life, alienation of friends and severe limitations in privacy. She was accused of being a spy and then kept away from royal circles. Her husband joined his aunt, ridiculed and disgraced her in public. She found sympathy however among the common people and the courtiers.
After the death of Queen Elizabeth, Peter III was declared the Emperor. Peter 3 was regarded as inept and soon his policies caused an upheaval among the influential higher officials. With the help of Grigory Orlov, a military officer, who was also her lover, Catherine took over the throne when Peter III was away on a trip and had him imprisoned. He was later murdered and speculations were that she had instituted it, or had done nothing to prevent it. She imprisoned also her nephew who had a right to the throne, in inhuman conditions, and later instituted his death as well.
Some regard Catherine as a socially enlightened ruler; she exchanged correspondence with the French philosopher Voltaire. She was a patron of the arts; the Hermitage Museum opened during her reign, beginning as part of her personal collection. Under her influence, Russians adopted western European philosophies and culture.
For a female Empress to rule in a patriarchal society must have seemed impossible, but above and beyond that, Catherine encouraged female artists. Reforms that gave women freedom was started by Peter I, but during Catherina’s reign, women writers and poets rose in Russia. Catherina herself wrote a couple of popular plays and started a magazine which was in good circulation until her death.
Another talked of topic during her reign was her love life. Catherine and Peter III hated each other. She took the comfort of her lovers during every period of her unhappy life. Before she ascended the throne, she had 2 lovers, one of who was the father of her first child. Her romantic relationship with Grigory Orlov, a Russian officer of the guards, helped her claim the throne. Later it was prince Grigory Potemkin. She wrote to him:
“The trouble is that my heart is loath to remain even one hour without love. It is said that human vices are often concealed under the cloak of kindness, and it is possible that such a disposition of the heart is more of a vice than a virtue, but I ought not to write this to you, for you might stop loving me or refuse to go to the army fearing I should forget you…” (From the book “The Russian Chronicles,” 1998, Quadrillion Publishing, edited by Joseph Ryan)
Another one of her lovers, Stanislaw Poniatowski, was placed on the Polish throne, after the death of the Polish king.
Catherine was also a successful military ruler; her troops conquered a great deal of new territory. She gained influence over Poland through the relationship with the Polish throne. In 1768 Turkey declared war on Russia which ended favorably for Russia. She also gained territories on the Black Sea coast and the Sea of Azov area.
While Catherine enjoyed great military success, internally Russia had a precarious social structure. Much of the population lived as serfs, in essence a form of a slave. Poor farmers would sell themselves and their families to landlords to pay loans that they had taken. Their living conditions were horrible; Further, there were no rules regarding how they should be treated resulting in many acts of unspeakable cruelty. This would contribute to a full-fledged revolt led by someone laying claim to the throne which was initially suppressed with harsh military action. Although Catherine is said to have personally opposed the institution, she tolerated it. In 1767, her government even published a decree condemning serfs who protested about their conditions. She did this so that she would not lose the support and favor of the nobility.
Catherine died quietly in her bed on Nov. 17, 1796, at the age of 67 after suffering a stroke. There were evil rumors about the conditions of her death spread long after.
Catherine was succeeded by Paul I, who was supposedly her son with Peter III (Paul’s true father may have been Sergei Saltykov, one of Catherine’s lovers). In any event, Paul did not last long on the throne; he was assassinated in 1801.
During Catherina’s reign, the gap in wealth between the nobility and common man increased. Social conditions worsened and eventually, the royal family lost support. Nicholas II was executed in 1918, ending the Russian royal family.
The resulting civil war would see the rise of the world’s first communist state, one that would eventually become a global superpower.
Catherina had no claim to the throne.
Yet she reigned with authority.
The cost she paid?
At no point during her reign did she feel happy, contented, loved or secure.
All her actions seemed to have been focused on obtaining any of these needs.
Do you envy her?
You can get the book on Amazon here.