Piotr Feodorovich, as Elizabeth renamed her heir, was born at Kiel in 1728. As grandson of both Peter I and Charles XII, he was eligible to both the Russian and the Swedish thrones. Of feeble health, he was kept at home till he was seven; then, by a sudden change, he was assigned to the Holstein Guards, and was raised to be a soldier. He became a sergeant at nine, marched proudly in field parades, and learned the language and morals of army officers. At eleven he was given a German tutor who brought him up unforgettably in the Lutheran faith, and disciplined him into neurosis. Browbeaten by this pedagogue, he shrank into timidity and secrecy, took to cunning and deceit,35 became “permanently irritable, stubborn, quarrelsome.”36 Rousseau might have cited him as illustrating the notion that man is good by nature but is deformed by a bad environment; Peter had a kind heart, and a longing to do the right, as we shall see by his royal decrees; but he was ruined by being cast for parts he was not fitted to play. Catherine II, meeting him when he was eleven, described him as “good-looking, well-mannered, courteous,” and she “felt no repugnance at the idea” of becoming his wife.37
In 1743 Elizabeth had him brought to Russia, made him grand duke, converted him, apparently, to the Orthodox faith, and tried to train him for rule. But she “stood aghast” at the inadequacy of his education and the instability of his character. At St. Petersburg he added drunkenness to his other faults. Elizabeth hoped that before she herself died this strange youth, if mated to a healthy and intelligent woman, might beget a competent future czar. With that lack of ethnic prejudice which marked the European aristocracies even during the rise of nationalistic states, Elizabeth looked outside Russia and chose an undistinguished princess from one of the smallest German principalities. The wily Frederick II had recommended this choice, hoping to have a friendly German czarina in a Russia already fearsome to Germany.
At this point we are confronted by the memoirs of Catherine the Great. There is no doubt of their authenticity; they were not printed till 1859, but the French manuscript, in Catherine’s own hand, is preserved in the national archives in Moscow. Are they trustworthy? By and large the story they tell is confirmed by other sources.38 Their fault is not mendacity but partiality; they are a tale told well with wit and verve, but they are in part an apologia for having dethroned her husband, and for bearing with such equanimity the news that he had been killed.
She was born in Stettin, Pomerania, April 21, 1729, and was christened Sophia Augusta Frederika after three of her aunts. Her mother was Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp; through her Catherine was a cousin to Peter. Her father was Christian August, prince of Anhalt-Zerbst in central Germany, a major general in Frederick’s army. Both parents were disappointed by the birth of a girl; the mother mourned as if it had been a miscarriage. Catherine atoned for her sex by developing the virility of a general and the statesmanship of an emperor, all the while remaining the most sought and found mistress in Europe.
She had a variety of childhood sicknesses, one so severe that it left her apparently deformed for life, “the backbone running zigzag,” the “right shoulder much higher than the left”; she now “assumed the shape of the letter Z.” The local hangman, who had become a specialist in dislocations, encased her in a corset “which I never removed day or night except when changing my underclothes”; and “after eighteen months I began to show signs of straightening out.”39 She was so often told that she was ugly that she determined to develop intelligence as a substitute for beauty; she was another case of a felt defect stimulating compensatory powers. Her ugliness disappeared as puberty rounded out her angles into curves. Despite her tribulations she was of “a happy disposition,” and of such natural vivacity “as needed to be restrained.”40
She was educated by tutors, especially by a Lutheran clergyman who suffered from her questions. Was it not unfair, she asked, “that Titus, Marcus Aurelius, and all the great men of antiquity, virtuous though they might be, should have been damned because they did not know about Revelation?” She argued so well that her teacher proposed to flog her, but a governess intervened. She especially wanted to know what that chaos had been like which, according to Genesis, had preceded the Creation. “His replies never seemed to satisfy me,” and “we both lost our tempers.” He was still further harassed by her insistence on his explaining “just what was circumcision?”41 Her other teachers and the governess were French, so that she learned that language well; she read Corneille, Racine, and Molière, and was clearly ready for Voltaire. She became one of the best-educated women of her time.
News of this bright princess reached the Empress Elizabeth, eager for a girl who might give Peter intelligence by osmosis. On January 1, 1744, an invitation came to Sophia’s mother to come with her for a visit to the Russian court. The parents hesitated; Russia seemed dangerously unstable and primitive; but Sophia, surmising that she was being considered as a wife for the Grand Duke, pleaded for an affirmative reply. On January 12 they began the long and difficult journey through Berlin, Stettin, East Prussia, Riga, and St. Petersburg to Moscow. At Berlin Frederick entertained them, and took a fancy to Sophia, “asking me a thousand questions, and talking about opera, comedy, poetry, dancing, everything, in short, that one could possibly imagine in conversing with a girl of fourteen.”42 At Stettin “my father tenderly took leave of me, and this was the last time I saw him; I cried bitterly.” Mother and daughter, with a lavish entourage, reached Moscow on February 9, after a sleigh ride of fifty-two hours from St. Petersburg.
That evening she met Peter for the second time, and again was favorably impressed, until he confided to her that he was a convinced Lutheran, and was in love with one of the ladies in waiting at the court.43 She noticed that his German accent and manners were distasteful to the Russians; for her part she resolved to learn Russian thoroughly, and to accept the Orthodox faith in toto. She felt “little more than indifference” toward Peter, but “I was not indifferent to the Russian crown.” She was given three teachers—for the language, for the religion, and for Russian dances. She studied so earnestly—once getting out of bed in the middle of the night to study her lessons—that on February 22 she was bedded with pleurisy. “I remained between life and death for twenty-seven days, during which I was bled sixteen times, sometimes four times a day.”44 Her mother lost favor at court by asking that a Lutheran clergyman be summoned; Sophia won many hearts by asking for a Greek priest. At last, on April 21, she was able to appear in public. “I had become as thin as a skeleton; … my face and features were drawn, my hair was falling out, and I was totally pale.”45 The Empress sent her a pot of rouge.
On June 28 Sophia underwent, with impressive piety, the ceremony of conversion to the Orthodox faith. Now to her existing names were added Ekaterina Alexeevna; henceforth she was Catherine. The next morning, in the great cathedral, Ouspenski Sobor, she was formally betrothed to Grand Duke Peter. All who saw her were pleased with her tactful modesty; even Peter began to love her. After fourteen months of apprenticeship they were married, August 21, 1745, at St. Petersburg. On October 10 Catherine’s mother left for home.
Peter was now seventeen, his wife sixteen. She was beautiful and he was plain, having suffered from smallpox in their betrothal year. She was intellectually avid and alert; he “displayed,” said Soloviev, “every symptom of mental backwardness, and resembled a grown-up child.”46 He played with dolls and marionettes and toy soldiers; he was so fond of dogs that he kept several of them in his apartment; Catherine was not clear which was worse, their barking or their stench.47 He did not improve the situation by playing his violin. His taste for liquor increased; “from 1753 he got drunk almost daily.”48 The Empress Elizabeth often reproved him for his faults, but she did not add example to precept. She was more disturbed by his unconcealed dislike of Russia, which he called “an accursed land”;49 by his scorn of the Orthodox Church and clergy; above all, by his idolatry of Frederick the Great, even when Russia and Prussia were in deadly war. He surrounded himself with a “Holsteiner Guard” of soldiers nearly all German; in his pleasure house at Oranienbaum he dressed his attendants in German uniforms, and put them through Prussian drills. When the Russian generals Fermor and Saltykov defeated the Prussians in 1759 they refrained from pursuing their victories for fear of offending Peter,50who might at any moment become czar.
The marriage became almost a conflict of cultures, for Catherine was furthering her education by studying the literature of France. It seems incredible that this young woman, in her unhappy years as grand duchess, read Plato, Plutarch, Tacitus, Bayle, Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu, whose Spirit of Laws, she said, should be “the breviary of every sovereign of common sense.”51 Such books must have finished Catherine’s religious beliefs—though she continued assiduously her observation of the Orthodox ritual; and they gave her that conception of “enlightened despotism” which Frederick had imbibed from Voltaire a generation before.
Meanwhile (if we may believe her firsthand report) “the marriage between me and the Grand Duke had not been consummated.”52 Castéra, who in 1800 wrote a well-informed and hostile biography of Catherine, thought that “Peter had a defect which, though easy to remove, seemed so much the more cruel; the violence of his love, his reiterated efforts, could not accomplish the consummation of his marriage”53—a remarkable parallel with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Perhaps the distaste that Catherine, during their long betrothal, had come to feel for Peter had become evident to him, and made him psychologically impotent. He soon turned to other women, and took a succession of mistresses, who hoped to replace Catherine as grand duchess. In her account these first years of marriage were years of misery for her. One day (according to Horace Walpole), when the Empress asked her why no issue had come of her union, she replied that none should be expected—which in effect announced her husband’s impotence. “Elizabeth replied that the state demanded successors, and left the Grand Duchess to procure them by whose assistance she pleased. A son and a daughter were the fruits of her obedience.”54 Mme. Maria Choglokova, appointed by Elizabeth to be lady in waiting to Catherine, explained to the Grand Duchess (according to the Grand Duchess) that there were important exceptions to the rule of marital fidelity; she promised to keep the secret if Catherine took a lover;55 and “there can be little doubt that this shameful suggestion came not from the lady in waiting, but from the Empress herself.”56 We must see these matters in the perspective of a Russian court long accustomed to polyandrous queens, a French court inured to polygynous kings, and a Saxon-Polish court with the 150 children of Augustus III.
Did Catherine follow these exemplars to excess? After her accession, yes. Before her accession she seems to have limited herself stoically to three lovers. First—some six years after marriage—came Sergei Saltykov, a lusty young officer. Catherine explains her response:
If I may venture to be frank, … I combined, with the mind and temperament of a man, the attractions of a lovable woman. I pray to be forgiven for this description, which is justified by its truthfulness.... I was attractive; consequently one half of the road to temptation was already covered, and it is only human in such situations that one should not stop halfway. … One cannot hold one’s heart in one’s hand, forcing it or releasing it, tightening or relaxing one’s grasp at will.57
In 1751 she became pregnant, but had a miscarriage; and this painful experience was repeated in 1753. In 1754 she gave birth to the future Emperor Paul I. Elizabeth rejoiced, gave Catherine a present of 100,000 rubles, and sent Saltykov to safe obscurity in Stockholm and Dresden, where, Catherine tells us, he was “frivolous with all the women he met.”58 Peter drank more, and took fresh mistresses, finally settling down with Elizaveta Vorontsova, niece of the new Chancellor. Catherine quarreled with him, and made public fun of him and his friends.59 In 1756 she accepted the attentions of a handsome Pole, twenty-four years old, Count Stanislas Poniatowski, who had come to St. Petersburg as attaché to Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams, the British ambassador. Stanislas’ autobiography describes her in 1755:
She was five-and-twenty years old; … she was at that perfect moment which is generally, for women who have beauty, the most beautiful. She had black hair, a dazzlingly white skin, long black eyelashes, a Grecian nose, a mouth that seemed made for kisses, perfect hands and arms, a slim figure rather tall than short, an extremely active bearing, yet full of nobility. The sound of her voice was pleasant, and her laugh was as merry as her disposition.60
Gazing at her, he “forgot that there was a Siberia.” This was the most deeply felt of her many loves, and his; long after she had taken other suitors her heart remained with Poniatowski, and he never quite recovered from his infatuation, however sorely tried by her policies. When she went to stay with Peter at Oranienbaum, Stanislas risked his life by secretly visiting her there. He was detected, and Peter gave orders that he be hanged. Catherine interceded with Peter’s mistress, who, softened by a gift, appeased the Grand Duke. Finally, in a burst of good nature, Peter not only forgave Poniatowski but called Catherine to join her lover, and entered with them and Elizaveta Vorontsova into an amiable ménage à quatre, with many gay suppers together.61
On December 9, 1758, Catherine gave birth to a daughter. The court generally believed that Poniatowski was the father,62 but Peter took the credit, accepted congratulations, and organized festivities to celebrate his achievement;63 however, the child died four months later. The Empress had Poniatowski recalled to Poland, and Catherine was briefly loveless. But she was charmed by the adventures, in love and war, of Grigori Grigorievich Orlov, aide-de-camp to Piotr Shuvalov. Orlov had made a reputation by keeping to his post in the battle of Zorndorf despite three wounds. He had the build of an athlete and “the face of an angel”;64 but his only morality was to win power and women by any available means. Shuvalov had a mistress, Princess Elena Kurakin, one of the fairest and loosest beauties of the court; Orlov won her away from his superior; Shuvalov vowed to kill him, but died before attending to the matter. Catherine admired Orlov’s courage, and noted that in the guards he had four brothers all tall and strong; these five warriors would be useful in an emergency. She arranged a meeting with Grigori, then another, and another; soon she displaced Kurakin. By July, 1761, she was pregnant; in April, 1762, she gave birth, as secretly as possible, to Orlov’s son, who was brought up as Alexis Bobrinsky.
In December, 1761, it became apparent that the Empress was entering upon her final illness. Attempts were made to bring Catherine into a plot to prevent the accession of Peter; she was warned that Peter, as czar, would cast her aside and make Elizaveta Vorontsova his wife and queen; but Catherine refused to join in the plot. On January 5, 1762 (N.S.), the Empress Elizabeth died, and Peter, without open opposition, mounted the throne.