Biographies & Memoirs

Johanna Goes Home

THE END OF THE wedding celebrations meant the end of Johanna’s misadventure in Russia. She had hoped, in coming to that country, to employ her connections and charm and become a significant figure in European diplomacy. Instead, her political plotting had infuriated the empress, her treatment of her daughter had alienated the court, her purported love affair with Count Ivan Betskoy had provided her enemies with titillated gossip. Her reputation was in ruins, but Johanna never seemed to learn. Even now, on the brink of departure, she continued to write to Frederick II. Her letters, however, were no longer secretly intercepted, read, copied, resealed, and sent along. Instead, by command of the empress, they were simply opened, read, and placed in a folder.

Soon after their arrival in Russia, Catherine had become aware that her mother was making mistakes. Because she did not want to provoke Johanna’s temper, she had never spoken a word of reproach. But the experience of her wedding night and Peter’s “confession” of his love for Mlle Karr had warmed Catherine’s feelings about Johanna. It was to her mother that she now looked for companionship. “Since my marriage, being with her had become my greatest solace,” Catherine wrote later. “I jumped at every opportunity to go to her rooms, particularly as my own offered but little joy.”

Two weeks after the marriage, the empress sent Catherine, Peter, and Johanna to the country estate of Tsarskoe Selo, outside St. Petersburg. The September weather was superb—an intense blue autumn sky and the birch leaves turning to gold—but Catherine was miserable. As her mother’s departure approached, her own ambition seemed to waver. Sharing memories with Johanna became a pleasure and, for the first time since coming to Russia, Catherine was homesick for Germany. “At that time,” Catherine wrote later, “I would have given much if I could have left the country with her.”

Before going, Johanna requested and was granted an audience with the empress. Johanna gave her version of the meeting to her husband:

Our farewell was very loving. For me, it was almost impossible to take leave of Her Imperial Majesty; and this great monarch, on her side, paid me the honor of being so deeply moved that the courtiers present were also deeply affected. Farewell was said innumerable times and finally this most gracious of rulers accompanied me to the stairway with tears and expressions of kindness and tenderness.

A different description of this interview came from an eyewitness, the English ambassador:

When the princess took leave of the empress, she fell at Her Imperial Majesty’s feet and implored her in floods of tears to forgive her if she had in any way offended Her Imperial Majesty. The empress replied that it was late to talk about such considerations, but that if the princess had had such wise thoughts earlier, it would have been better for her.

Elizabeth was determined to send Johanna away, but she also wanted to appear magnanimous and the princess departed with a cartload of gifts. To console the long-neglected Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, Johanna carried home diamond shoe buckles, diamond coat buttons, and a diamond-studded dagger, all described as presents from the prince’s son-in-law, the grand duke. In addition, before leaving, Johanna was given sixty thousand rubles to pay her debts in Russia. After her departure, it turned out that she owed more than twice that sum. To shield her mother from further shame, Catherine agreed to pay the arrears. Having only her personal allowance of thirty thousand rubles a year, this obligation was beyond her means and helped create a debt that dragged on for seventeen years until she became empress.

When the moment of departure arrived, Catherine and Peter accompanied Johanna on the short first stage of her journey, from Tsarskoe Selo to nearby Krasnoe Selo. The next morning, Johanna left before dawn without saying goodbye; Catherine assumed that it was “not to make me any sadder.” Waking up and finding her mother’s room empty, she was distraught. Her mother had vanished—from Russia and from her life. Since Catherine’s birth, Johanna had always been present, to guide, prompt, correct, and scold. She might have failed as a diplomatic agent; she certainly had not become a brilliant figure on the European stage; but she had not been unsuccessful as a mother. Her daughter, born a minor German princess, was now an imperial grand duchess on a path to becoming an empress.

Johanna would live another fifteen years. She died in 1760, at the age of forty-seven, when Catherine was thirty-one. Now, she was leaving behind a sixteen-year-old daughter who would never see any member of her family again. The daughter was under the control of a temperamental, all-powerful monarch, and was lying in bed every night beside a young man whose behavior was increasingly peculiar.

Traveling slowly, Johanna took twelve days to reach Riga. There, Elizabeth’s delayed punishment caught up with her ungrateful, duplicitous guest. Johanna was handed a letter from the empress commanding her to tell Frederick of Prussia, as she passed through Berlin, that he must recall his ambassador, Baron Mardefeld. The letter was phrased with cool, diplomatic politeness: “I consider it necessary to enjoin you to impress upon His Majesty the King of Prussia when you arrive in Berlin, that it would please me if he were to recall his plenipotentiary minister, Baron Mardefeld.” The choice of Johanna to deliver this message was a slap at both the princess and the king. La Chétardie, the French ambassador, had been given twenty-four hours to leave Moscow after the scene at Troitsa Monastery; Mardefeld, the Prussian ambassador, who had served in Russia for twenty years, had been spared for an additional year and a half, but now he, too, was to be sent home. And Elizabeth’s choice of Johanna to carry the news was explicit recognition of the fact that, while in Russia, the princess had conspired on behalf of the Prussian king to overthrow the empress’s chief minister, Bestuzhev. There is no proof that this painful assignment was the work of Bestuzhev—but it sounds like him. If so, Elizabeth had concurred.

Certainly, the letter, its content and its means of delivery, made plain to Frederick how greatly he had overrated Johanna. Regretting his own misjudgment, he never forgave her. Ten years later, after her husband had died and Johanna was acting as regent for her young son, Frederick suddenly reached out and peremptorily incorporated the principality of Zerbst into the kingdom of Prussia. Johanna was forced to take refuge in Paris. There, she died on the fringe of society two years before her daughter became empress of Russia.

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