Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power

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9780312378639: Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power

From the acclaimed author of Grandes Horizontales comes a book that the Washington Post calls "a vivid portrait of a sensual and intellectual woman."

Dutiful daughter, passionate lover, doting grandmother, tireless legislator, generous patron of artists and philosophers---Empress Catherine II was all these things, and more. Her reign, the longest in Russian imperial history, lasted from 1762 until her death in 1796; during these years she realized Peter the Great's ambition to establish Russia as a major European power and to transform its new capital, St. Petersburg, into a city to rival Paris and London.

Yet Catherine was not Russian by birth and had no legitimate claim to the Russian throne; she seized it and held on to it, through wars, rebellions, and plagues, by the force of her personality and an unshakable belief in her own destiny. Using Catherine's own correspondence, as well as contemporary accounts by courtiers, ambassadors, and foreign visitors, Virginia Rounding penetrates the character of this powerful, fascinating, and surprisingly sympathetic eighteenth-century figure.

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About the Author:

Virginia Rounding is a translator and writer who lives in London. Author of the critically acclaimed Grandes Horizontales, she studied Russian at the University of London and visits St. Petersburg regularly.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CATHERINE THE GREAT (1: From Feudal Anthill to the Court of Russia (1729–44))

Her demeanour was marked by such nobility and grace, that I would have admired her even if she hadn’t been to me what she is.

Princess Johanna of Holstein-Gottorp on her daughter,
the future Catherine II

The woman who became Catherine II, the Great, Empress of All the Russias, was born Sophie Frederica Auguste of Anhalt-Zerbst on 21 April Old Style, 2 May New Style, 1729, in the Baltic port of Stettin in Pomerania (now Szczecin in northwest Poland). She was the first child of her 39-year-old father Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst and her 17-year-old mother Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Sophie and Auguste were the names of one of the baby’s great-grandmothers on her father’s side, while Frederica – which may also have been chosen as a mark of respect to Prince Christian August’s patron, King Frederick William of Prussia – was the name of both one of her mother’s elder sisters and her mother’s paternal grandmother.

Anhalt-Zerbst and Holstein-Gottorp were two of the 300 or so tiny sovereign states, or principalities, of which the area roughly covered by present-day Germany consisted in the eighteenth century. The prerevolutionary Russian historian V.O. Klyuchevsky describes these endlessly dividing and subdividing states, with their ‘princes of Brunswick-Luneberg and Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel; of Saxe-Romburg, Saxe-Coburg, Saxe-Gotha, and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg-Strelitz; of Schleswig-Holstein, Holstein-Gottorp, and Gottorp-Eutin; of Anhalt-Dessau, Anhalt-Zerbst, and Zerbst-Dornburg’, as ‘an archaic feudal anthill’. Everyone in these noble families seems to have been related to everyone else, even if only through marriage and at several removes. (Many of them also seem to have had the same Christian names, in different combinations, which can be very confusing.) There were also many cross-border allegiances, the members of one princely house serving in the army or civil service of a more powerful one and being rewarded with money, position or influence. Prince Christian August’s father, who had died in 1704, was Prince Johann Ludwig of Anhalt-Zerbst, himself the son of Prince Johann of Anhalt-Zerbst and Princess Sophie Auguste of Holstein-Gottorp. Sophie’s mother’s side of the family was rather more elevated, with closer connections to the occupants of thrones; one of Princess Johanna’s great-grandfathers had been King Frederick III of Denmark. Her father was Christian August, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, who also held the office of Bishop of Lübeck until his death in 1726 (‘Bishop of Lübeck’ was a hereditary title, the bishopric being in the possession of the House of Holstein-Gottorp until the secularisation of 1803). His parents were Christian Albrecht, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, and Frederica Amalie Oldenburg, Princess of Denmark. Johanna’s mother was Albertine Markgräfin of Baden-Durlach, the daughter of Friedrich VII Magnus Markgraf of Baden-Durlach and Princess Auguste Marie of Holstein-Gottorp; she had married Christian August in 1704. Albertine was the only one of Sophie’s grandparents still to be alive at the time of her birth.

For any girl born into this ‘feudal anthill’, competition to make a good marriage and thus secure for her family a better place in the pecking order would be fierce. Sophie always felt that her parents would have preferred a boy as their firstborn, but that nevertheless her father at least was pleased by her arrival in the world. Throughout her life she retained a great respect for Prince Christian August, thinking of him as a model of integrity, honesty and erudition. One of Christian August’s cousins was Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau (known as the ‘Alte Dessauer’), who had the reputation of being an exceedingly brave soldier and who had assisted the military martinet King Frederick William in devising the 54 movements of Prussian drill, including the ceremonial march-past with unbent leg which came to be known as the goosestep. Prince Leopold was King Frederick William’s most trusted general; Christian August himself, who had also served with distinction in the Prussian army, was not far behind in the King’s esteem. At the time of Sophie’s birth he was the Governor of Stettin, having been sent by King Frederick William to command the garrison there just after his marriage in 1727. He was a serious and austere man and a committed Lutheran, who preferred the company of books to social gatherings.

His young wife Johanna, with her aquiline nose, arched eyebrows and curly fair hair, was of a different character altogether. She had been brought up at the Court of Brunswick by her godmother and aunt by marriage, Elizabeth Sophie Marie, the Duchess of Brunswick-Lüneberg, to whom the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp had been happy to relinquish one of his several daughters. Johanna had grown up on the same footing as the Duchess of Brunswick-Lüneberg’s own daughter, and it was the Duchess who arranged her marriage at the age of 15 and provided her dowry. It would be an anachronism to draw any psychological conclusion from the fact that the young Johanna married in 1727 a man old enough to be her father and who had the same Christian names as her own father, who had died in the previous year; nevertheless, it is true to say that there was something of a father-daughter relationship between Sophie’s rather ill-matched parents.

Johanna found her existence with her sober middle-aged husband in the misty grey town of Stettin at the mouth of the river Oder a far cry from the livelier atmosphere she had grown used to at the Court of Brunswick. In Stettin the Governor and his family lived in the ducal castle (now known as the Castle of the Pomeranian Princes), a sixteenth-century granite building in the main square. The city offered little scope to a young woman who hankered after an exciting social life. Neither did the advent of her first child appear to bring Johanna much joy. Her attitude towards Sophie was always ambivalent. The birth had been difficult, and Johanna appears to have felt the reward was insufficient for what she had had to endure; according to her daughter, she almost died in the process and it took her 19 weeks to recover.

The infant Sophie, who had very fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, was handed over to a wet-nurse and placed in the overall charge of ‘the widow of a certain Herr von Hohendorf’, who also acted as a companion to Johanna. Frau von Hohendorf did not retain her position for long, failing in her relations with both the child and her mother. She was given to shouting, with the result that the small girl got into the habit of ignoring any order unless it was said repeatedly and in a very loud voice. Sophie was rescued from incipient uncontrollability, however, by the advent of the Cardel sisters, part of a family of Huguenot refugees. The elder sister, Magdeleine, who had charge of her until she was about four years old, did not succeed in capturing the child’s affection, but her successor, her younger sister Elizabeth, usually known as Babet, was able to win her over and secured a lasting place in her memory and in the pantheon of people she believed to have influenced her for good. Sophie saw little of her father, though she seems to have been sure of his rather distant affection (‘[he] considered me to be an angel’), and even less of her mother, who, she remembers, ‘did not bother much about me’. She had been supplanted in her mother’s affections (if indeed she had ever been in them at all) by the much-desired son, William Christian Frederick, who had arrived 18 months after her own birth. She herself was, as she put it, ‘merely tolerated’ – and at times not even that. Babet Cardel made up for this lack of parental care, taking the little girl – who had become rather spoilt as well as neglected – in hand. She taught her to read, while visiting tutors provided elementary lessons in writing and dancing.

When Sophie was three years old, she had been taken by her parents to visit her grandmother Albertine in Hamburg. An even more exciting event took place when she was four: King Frederick William of Prussia came to visit the small Court at Stettin, and little Sophie was instructed to greet him formally by kissing the hem of his coat. She was, however, too short to reach it, a fact about which she claims to have complained audibly, blaming the King for not wearing a longer coat; the incident remained in Frederick William’s memory so that subsequently he always asked after her. Sophie suffered the usual round of childhood accidents, including having a toy cupboard fall on her and almost sticking a pair of scissors in her eye. In early childhood she was subject to outbreaks of a skin disease which would now be called impetigo. When the rash appeared on her hands she wore gloves until the scabs fell off, and when her scalp became affected she had to have her hair shaved off and wear a bonnet.

Much of the instruction the young Sophie received consisted of rote learning, which she later came to despise as both bad for the memory and a waste of time; what was the point of learning things by heart, she wondered, when you could just as easily go and look them up in a book? She was taught both French and German, and was also instructed in religion, history and geography by a Lutheran pastor called Wagner, with whom she had several tussles over such questions as whether those who had never had a chance to hear the Gospel – ‘Titus, Marcus Aurelius, and all the great men of antiquity’ – could really be damned for eternity, and the nature of the chaos which preceded creation. The picture the adult woman was keen to produce in her memoirs was of an independent-minded, intellectually courageous child who would not be cowed into accepting received opinion. She also recalls asking the pastor to explain what circumcision was, a question which even the valiant Babet Cardel refused to answer.

Though her mother occasionally hit her, out of impatience and exasperation, corporal punishment was not a routine part of Sophie’s childhood. Pastor Wagner, she claims, wanted her to be flogged for her impertinence in asking too many questions, but Babet Cardel was not authorised to carry out such punishments. Deprived of the rod, the pastor took to the infliction of mental torture instead, frightening the child with stories of hell and damnation until Babet noticed her charge crying by the window and persuaded him to desist. The sensible Babet used the approach of the carrot rather than the stick, rewarding Sophie for good work and behaviour by reading aloud to her.

The adult woman remembered herself as a boisterous child, who would pretend to go to sleep at bedtime but sit up as soon as she was left alone and turn her pillow into an imaginary horse, bouncing up and down on it until she was tired. (It has sometimes been assumed that what she was in fact doing was masturbating; admittedly children sometimes do, but they also pretend pillows are horses...) Her other night-time trick, indulged in when the family was staying at her father’s country estate in Anhalt, consisted of racing up four flights of stone stairs whenever Babet left the room to go to the privy, which was along a short passage, then running back down to throw herself under the covers before the rather stout and slow-moving woman returned.

As Sophie grew older, Johanna seemed to find the company of her little girl more acceptable. In 1736 she took the child to the Court of Brunswick for the first time to meet the woman to whom she owed her own upbringing and marriage, the Duchess Elizabeth Sophie Marie of Brunswick-Lüneberg. Still aged only seven, Sophie greatly enjoyed herself, prattling away, being spoiled and petted and, as she put it herself, ‘insufferably forward’. Johanna was in the habit of staying at this Court for several months of every year (escaping from the boredom of Stettin), and from now on Sophie always went with her. This was where she first experienced the routines and rituals of formal court life, a training which would prove invaluable to her. Around the time of this first visit, she became aware of the kind of future which might await her, and of the possibility of aiming high. In her memoirs she attributes this realisation to comments made by Dr Laurentius Bolhagen, a close friend and adviser of her father. Bolhagen was reading a gazette containing an account of the marriage of Princess Auguste of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, one of Sophie’s second cousins, to the Prince of Wales (in April 1736), and he commented to Babet Cardel: ‘Really, this Princess has been much less carefully brought up than ours; she is not beautiful either, but there she is, destined to become Queen of England! Who knows what future faces ours?’

In the same year, Sophie suffered her first serious illness; from the symptoms she describes – initially a violent cough and sharp chest pains – it was clearly a form of pneumonia. In the same year Johanna also suffered the death of a baby daughter, Auguste. Sophie spent three weeks in bed with a fever, the cough and chest pains continuing, only able to lie on her left side. Such medical treatment as was provided for her was experimental; as she herself recalled: ‘I was given many mixtures to take, but God alone knows what they were!’ When she was finally well enough to get out of bed, it was observed that she had developed a pronounced curvature of the spine. This appears rather to have frightened her parents, who were already having to cope with one disabled child, the elder of Sophie’s two brothers (her second brother, Frederick August, having been born in 1734) being able to walk only with the aid of crutches. It seems more than likely that both children were affected by rickets, a condition where skeletal deformities occur as a result of vitamin D deficiency and a lack of direct sunlight. They were keen to keep the news of Sophie’s apparent deformity within the family; if it were to become public, it would seriously damage her marriage prospects. Her parents’ horrified reaction cannot have done much for Sophie’s already fragile self-confidence. Neither can the bizarre treatment they eventually procured for her. The only local person they could find with a reputation for skill in straightening out ‘dislocations’ was the town’s executioner. After examining Sophie in the greatest secrecy, he ordered that her back and shoulders should be rubbed every day with the saliva of a servant girl, who was under strict orders not to eat anything beforehand. It is possible that the massage may have done Sophie some good, but in addition she was made to wear, night and day, an uncomfortable corset. Curiously, the executioner also gave her a black ribbon to wear round her right arm and shoulder. After about 18 months, Sophie’s spine began to grow straight again, and by the time she was II she was allowed to stop wearing the corset (though it would in any event have been quite normal for a girl of her age and time to wear at least a reinforced bodice to push back the shoulders and thus keep the back flat).

Clearly Sophie’s parents did not believe in mollycoddling their little girl. Neither did they act with much sensitivity. Around the same time that she became ill they decided she was too old for dolls and other toys, so they were all confiscated. The grown woman claims not to have suffered much from this, as she was imaginative enough to turn anything that came to hand into a toy. Arguably, this is where she first learnt how to make the best of a not particularly good situation, how to bide her time, be watchful, retreat into her inner self and prepare for the time when she would be able to act, even though this was hardly a conscious strategy at the ag...

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