Biographies & Memoirs


ELIZABETH’S PATIENCE was exhausted; the nightmare dash to Khotilovo and her long vigil over Peter’s bedside continued to haunt her. Her nephew had almost died, but he had survived. He was seventeen, and his sixteen-year-old bride-to-be had been in Russia for more than a year, but they were not yet married, and no infant child was on the way. True, the doctors had told her again that the grand duke was still too young, too immature, and had not recovered yet from the effects of his illnesses. This time the empress dismissed their arguments. She saw only that the succession hung on the health of Peter and his ability to produce an heir. If she waited another year, another fatal illness might carry off the grand duke, but if she went ahead with the marriage, a year might bring Russia a small Romanov heir, stronger and healthier than Peter, as strong and healthy as Catherine. For this reason, there must be a marriage as soon as possible. The physicians bowed and the empress began considering dates. In March 1745, an imperial decree set the wedding for the first of July.

Because the young imperial house of Russia had never celebrated a public royal wedding, Elizabeth decided that it must be so magnificent that her own people and the world would be convinced of the strength and permanence of the Russian monarchy. It must become the talk of Europe; it must be modeled after the great ceremonials of the French court; the Russian ambassador in Paris was instructed to report every detail of recent royal weddings at Versailles. Extensive memoranda and minute descriptions arrived, to be imitated and, if possible, surpassed. Thick folders of sketches and designs were brought back, accompanied by samples of velvet, silks, and gold braid. Enormous fees enticed French artists, musicians, painters, tailors, cooks, and carpenters to come to Russia. As this tide of information and people flowed into St. Petersburg, Elizabeth read, looked, listened, studied, compared, and calculated. She supervised every detail; indeed, through the spring and early summer, the empress was so taken up with wedding preparations that she had no time for anything else. She neglected affairs of state, ignored her ministers, and normal governmental activity almost ceased.

Once the Baltic and the Neva River were free of ice, ships began arriving in St. Petersburg with bales of silk, velvets, brocades, and the heavy cloth of silver from which Catherine’s wedding gown was to be made. Senior court officials were given a year’s salary in advance in order to equip themselves with finery. A decree ordered members of the nobility to provide themselves with carriages to be drawn by six horses.

While the court churned with excitement, the bride and bridegroom were left curiously alone. Of practical instruction as to what marriage involved, they were given nothing. Peter’s lessons on the proper relationship between a husband and wife came haphazardly from one of his servants, a former Swedish dragoon named Romburg whose own wife had been left behind in Sweden. The husband, Romburg declared, must be the master. The wife should not speak in his presence without his permission, and only a donkey would allow a wife to have opinions of her own. If there was trouble, a few well-timed knocks on the head would put things right. Peter liked listening to this kind of talk and—“about as discreet as a cannon ball,” as Catherine put it—enjoyed passing along to her what he had heard.

As for sex, Peter had been given a few basic facts, but only partially understood their meaning. His servants passed on information, coarsely expressed, but instead of enlightening him, their words only bewildered and intimidated him. No one bothered to tell him the essential fact that humans often find pleasure in sexual activity. Confused, embarrassed, and lacking in desire, Peter would come to his new wife’s bed with no more than a sense of duty and only an elementary, mechanical idea of how this duty was to be performed.

In the spring and summer before their marriage, Catherine saw her future husband frequently, as their apartments were adjoining. But Peter never remained with her for long and, as the days passed, it became increasingly apparent that he was avoiding her company so that he could be with his servants. In May, he moved with the empress to the Summer Palace, leaving Catherine and her mother behind. Catherine wrote later:

All the attention which the grand duke had previously showed me ceased. He sent me word through a servant that he lived too far away to come and visit me. I was well aware of his lack of eagerness and affection; my pride and vanity suffered, but I would not have dreamed of complaining. I would have felt humiliated if anyone had shown any sign of sympathy which might be interpreted as pity. But when I was alone, I shed many tears, then wiped them away and went to romp with my maids.

That summer, the court moved to the palace and estate of Peterhof on the Gulf of Finland, nineteen miles west of the capital. Catherine described their activity:

We spent our time walking, riding, or driving. I saw then, clear as day, that the grand duke’s retinue, and especially his tutors, had lost all authority over him. His military games, which he had kept secret, now went on practically in their presence. Count Brümmer could now only observe him in public; the rest of the time he spent entirely in the company of servants in childish pursuits incredible for someone his age; he even played with dolls. The grand duke found great amusement in instructing me in military exercises, and owing to him, I can handle a rifle with the precision of an experienced grenadier. He made me stand at arms with my musket, on duty at the door of the room between his and mine.

In many ways, Catherine also remained a child. She loved what she called “romping” with the young women of her small court; together they still played games of blindman’s buff. Underneath, however, she was approaching her marriage with apprehension.

As my wedding day came nearer, I became more melancholy, and very often I would weep without quite knowing why. My heart predicted little happiness; ambition alone sustained me. In my inmost soul there was something that never for a single moment allowed me to doubt that, sooner or later, I would become the sovereign Empress of Russia in my own right.

Catherine’s premarital nervousness did not come from fear of the nocturnal intimacies that marriage would demand. She knew nothing about these things. Indeed, on the eve of her marriage, she was so innocent that she did not know how the two sexes physically differed. Nor had she any idea what mysterious acts were performed when a woman lay down with a man. Who did what? How? She questioned her young ladies, but they were as innocent as she. One June night, she staged an impromptu slumber party in her bedroom, covering the floor with mattresses, including her own. Before going to sleep, the eight flustered and excited young women discussed what men were like and how their bodies were formed. No one had any specific information; indeed, their talk was so ill-informed, incoherent, and unhelpful that Catherine said that in the morning she would ask her mother. She did so, but Johanna—herself married at fifteen—refused to answer. Instead, she “severely scolded” her daughter for indecent curiosity.

Empress Elizabeth was aware that all was not well in the relationship between Catherine and Peter, but she assumed that the trouble was temporary. The grand duke might be immature for his age, but marriage would make a man of him. For this, she counted on Catherine. Once the young woman was in his bed, applying her charm and freshness of youth, she would make him forget about playing games with his servants. In any case, the feelings of the nuptial couple about each other mattered only peripherally; the reality was that neither of the two adolescents had a choice; they were to be married, like it or not. The betrothed pair knew this, of course, and faced the prospect differently. Peter fluctuated between deep depression and petty revolt. Sometimes he would grumble that Russia was an accursed country. At other times, he would lash out angrily at everyone around him. Catherine’s response was different. Despite her apprehensions, there was no turning back. She had come to Russia, she had learned Russian, she had resisted her father and converted to Orthodoxy, she had worked hard to please the empress, she was ready to marry Peter despite his flaws. Having made all these concessions and sacrifices, she was not going to throw it all away, go home, and settle down with Uncle George.

Meanwhile, the vast extent and complexity of the wedding preparations had forced even an impatient Elizabeth to postpone the marriage ceremony, not once but twice. Finally, it was set for August 21. On the night of August 20, the city was rocked by salvos of artillery and the pealing of bells. Catherine sat with her mother and, for a while, they put aside their misunderstandings and animosities. “We had a long, friendly talk, she exhorted me concerning my future duties, we cried a little together and parted very affectionately.”

At this moment, mother and daughter shared a common, humiliating disappointment. By now, Johanna, having incurred the anger and contempt of the empress, was barely tolerated at court. Johanna knew this and had no illusions about the advantages she herself might gain from her daughter’s marriage. Her last hope was that her husband, the father of the bride, would be invited to the wedding. Behind this desire lay no overwhelming affection for Christian Augustus, but her own pride. She well understood that Elizabeth’s continuing refusal to invite him was a slap at her as well as at her husband; it made plain to Johanna—and to the world—where she stood.

Explaining this to her husband had not been easy. For months, Christian Augustus had been writing from Zerbst, begging Johanna to obtain from the empress the invitation to which he was obviously entitled. Johanna had long held out hope for this invitation, telling her husband to be ready, that the invitation was on the point of being dispatched. But no invitation came. In the end, it was explained to Christian Augustus that the empress did not dare invite him out of consideration for Russian opinion, which, he was told, was strongly opposed to “German princes”—despite the fact that a prince of Hesse, the Duke of Holstein, and other German noblemen were then living at the Russian court. Further, among those invited were two of Johanna’s brothers, both German princes, Adolphus Frederick, now heir to the throne of Sweden, and Augustus, who had succeeded him as prince-bishop of Lübeck. Thus, two of Catherine’s uncles were to be present at her wedding, but her father was not. It was a flagrant insult, but there was nothing Johanna could do.

Catherine, too, had hoped that her father would be invited. She had not seen him for a year and a half. She knew that he cared for her, and she believed that, in his simple, honest way, he might give her useful advice. But Catherine’s wishes and feelings on this matter interested no one. Her position, in its way, was as clear as her mother’s: beneath her title and her diamonds, she was only a little German girl brought to Russia for the sole purpose of providing the son of the house with an heir.

On August 21, 1745, Catherine rose at six o’clock. She was in her bath when the empress arrived unexpectedly to examine, unclothed, the virginal bearer of her own dynastic hopes. Then, as Catherine was being dressed, the empress and the hairdresser discussed what coiffure would best hold in place the crown the bride was to wear. Elizabeth supervised everything, and Johanna, allowed to be present, subsequently described the scene for her German relatives:

Her silver brocade wedding gown was of the most shimmering cloth I have ever seen, encrusted with glittering embroidery of silver roses. It had a wide skirt, a seventeen inch waist, and a tight bodice with short sleeves. [She wore] superb jewels: bracelets, drop earrings, brooches, rings.… The precious stones with which she was covered, gave her a charming appearance.… Her complexion has never been lovelier.… Her hair was a bright, lustrous black, slightly curled, which set off her air of youthfulness even more.

Because she was pale, a little rouge was added to her cheeks. Then, a cloak of silver lace, so heavy that Catherine could scarcely move, was attached to her shoulders. Finally, the empress placed on her head the diamond crown of a Russian grand duchess.

At noon, Peter arrived dressed in a suit made of the same cloth of silver as Catherine’s dress and train. He, too, was smothered with jewels; his buttons, his sword hilt, and his shoe buckles were encrusted with diamonds. Then, together, in matching silver and diamonds, holding hands as the empress instructed, the young couple left to be married.

A blare of trumpets and the thunder of drums signaled the start of the wedding procession. Twenty-four elegant carriages rolled down the Nevsky Prospect from the Winter Palace to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan. The bridal pair sat with Elizabeth in the empress’s state coach, “truly a little castle,” drawn by eight white horses, their harness adorned by silver buckles, the huge wheels of the coach shining with gilt, the side panels and doors covered with paintings of mythological scenes. “The procession infinitely surpasses anything I have ever seen,” reported the English ambassador. Inside the cathedral, Catherine was surrounded by a sea of jeweled icons, lighted candles, clouds of incense, and rows of faces. The service, conducted by the bishop of Novgorod, lasted three hours.

For Catherine, her wedding ceremony, with its chanted liturgy and magnificent a cappella hymns, was a physical ordeal. Her beautiful gown was “horribly heavy”; the weight of the crown crushing her forehead produced a terrible headache, and there still remained the banquet and the ball to follow. Once the wedding ceremony in the cathedral was over, she asked permission to remove the crown, but Elizabeth refused. Catherine persevered through the banquet in the Long Gallery of the Winter Palace, but just before the ball, with her headache worsening, she begged to have the crown lifted for a few minutes. Reluctantly, the empress consented.

At the ball, only the highest male dignitaries, burdened with years as well as honors, were privileged to dance with the sixteen-year-old bride. Fortunately for her, after half an hour the ball was cut short by Elizabeth’s impatient desire to get the young bride and groom to bed. Preceded by a train of court officials and ladies- and gentlemen-in-waiting, Elizabeth escorted the seventeen-year-old husband and his wife, again holding hands, to their nuptial chamber.

The apartment consisted of four large, elegantly furnished rooms. Three were hung with cloth of silver; the bedroom walls were covered with scarlet velvet, trimmed with silver. An enormous bed, covered with red velvet embroidered with gold and surmounted by a crown embossed with silver, dominated the middle of the room. Here, the bride and groom separated and the men, including the new bridegroom, withdrew. The women remained to help the bride undress. The empress removed Catherine’s crown, the Princess of Hesse helped to free her from her heavy dress, a lady-in-waiting presented her with a new, pink nightgown from Paris. The bride was placed in bed, but then, just as the last person was leaving the room, she called out. “I begged the Princess of Hesse to stay with me a little while, but she refused,” Catherine said. The room was empty. Wearing her pink nightgown, she waited alone in the enormous bed.

Her eyes were fixed on the door through which her new husband would come. Minutes passed and the door remained closed. She continued to wait. Two hours went by. “I remained alone not knowing what I ought to do. Should I get up again? Should I remain in bed? I had no idea.” She did nothing. Toward midnight, her new principal lady-in-waiting, Madame Krause, came in and “cheerfully” announced that the grand duke had just ordered supper for himself and was waiting to be served. Catherine continued to wait. Eventually, Peter arrived, reeking of alcohol and tobacco. Lying down in bed beside her, he laughed nervously and said, “How it would amuse my servants to see us in bed together.” Then he fell asleep and slept through the night. Catherine remained awake, wondering what to do.

The next day, Madame Krause questioned Catherine about her wedding night. Catherine did not answer. She knew that something was wrong, but she did not know what. In the nights that followed, she continued to lie untouched at the side of her sleeping husband, and Madame Krause’s morning questions continued to go unanswered. “And,” she writes in her Memoirs, “matters remained in this state without the slightest change during the following nine years.”

The union, although unconsummated, was followed by ten days of court rejoicing in the form of balls, quadrilles, masquerades, operas, state dinners, and suppers. Outside, for the public, there were fireworks, banquet tables set in Admiralty Square, and fountains spurting jets of wine. Catherine, who usually loved to dance, hated the way she spent these evenings because young people her own age were excluded. “There was not a single man who could dance,” she said. “They were all between sixty and eighty years old, most of them lame, gouty or decrepit.”

In the meantime, a change for the worse had taken effect in the circle of women around Catherine. On her wedding night, she had discovered that the empress had assigned Madame Krause as her new principal lady-in-waiting. “The following day,” Catherine said, “I noticed that this woman had already struck fear in all my other ladies because when I went to talk to one of them in my usual manner, she said to me, ‘For God’s sake, do not come near me. We have been forbidden even to whisper to you.’ ”

Nor had marriage improved Peter’s behavior. “My dear husband did not pay the slightest attention to me,” she said, “but spent all his time playing soldiers in his room with his servants, drilling them or changing his uniform twenty times a day. I yawned and yawned with boredom, having no one to speak to.” Then, two weeks after their wedding, Peter finally had something to say to Catherine: with a broad smile, he announced that he had fallen in love with Catherine Karr, one of the empress’s ladies-in-waiting. Not content with passing this news to his young wife, he also went out and confided his new passion to his chamberlain, Count Devier, telling him that the grand duchess was in no way to be compared with the enchanting Mlle Karr. When Devier disagreed, Peter exploded with anger.

Whether Peter’s passion for Mlle Karr was genuine or whether he had merely concocted this story to explain to Catherine (and perhaps also to himself) his lack of sexual interest in his wife, he was aware that he was subjecting her to insult and humiliation. Years later, in her Memoirs, Catherine described the situation she found herself in, and the course she chose to take in dealing with it:

I would have been ready to like my new husband had he been capable of affection or willing to show any. But in the very first days of our marriage, I came to a sad conclusion about him. I said to myself: “If you allow yourself to love that man, you will be the unhappiest creature on this earth. With your temperament, you will expect some response whereas this man scarcely looks at you, talks of nothing but dolls, and pays more attention to any other woman than yourself. You are too proud to complain, therefore, attention, please, and keep on a leash any affection you might feel for this gentleman; you have yourself to think about, my dear girl.” This first scar made upon my impressionable heart remained with me forever; never did this firm resolution leave my head; but I took good care not to tell anybody that I had resolved never to love without restraint a man who would not return this love in full; such was my disposition that my heart would have belonged entirely and without reserve to a husband who loved only me.

This was the voice of an older, wiser Catherine, looking back on the difficulties of the young woman she had been many years before. But whether or not her description accurately reflects her thoughts at the earlier time, she was, at least, always more honest and realistic than her mother. Johanna was never able to leave her fantasy world or stop describing life as she wished it were. Writing to her husband to describe their daughter’s wedding, she told him that it “was the gayest marriage that has perhaps ever been celebrated in Europe.”

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