Catherine the Great



CATHERINE was victorious, but exposed to all the hazards of a chaotic change. To reward the soldiers who had escorted her to power, she ordered the drinking establishments of the capital to supply them with beer and vodka free of charge; the result was a general drunkenness that for a time almost dissolved the military basis of her power. At midnight of June 29-30 Catherine, who was having her first sleep in forty-eight hours, was awakened by an officer who told her, “Our men are terribly drunk. A hussar has shouted to them, ‘To arms! Thirty thousand Prussians are coming to take away our mother [Catherine]!’ So they have armed themselves, and are coming here to see how you really are.” Catherine dressed, went out, denied the rumor about the Prussians, and persuaded her warriors to go to bed.1

Her son Paul, now eight years old, endangered her. Panin, many nobles, and most of the clergy felt that legitimacy required the coronation of Paul as emperor, with Catherine as regent. She feared that this would put the government in the hands of an aristocratic oligarchy, which would seek to depose or dominate her. She officially declared Paul heir to the throne, but his supporters continued their agitation; and the son grew up to hate his mother as having cheated him of the crown.

As news of the coup d’état spread through Russia it became evident that public opinion outside the capital was hostile to Catherine. The capital had known Peter’s faults at first hand, and generally agreed that he was unfit to rule; but the Russian people outside St. Petersburg knew him chiefly through the liberal measures that had given some nobility to his reign. The populace of Moscow, too distant to feel Catherine’s charm, remained sullenly opposed to her accession. When Catherine took Paul to Moscow (the stronghold of orthodoxy), Paul was fervently applauded, Catherine was coolly received. Many provincial regiments denounced the Petersburg soldiery as usurpers of national power.

We do not know if the wide sympathy for Peter was a factor in his death. Broken in spirit, the fallen Czar sent humble petitions to his wife to “have pity on me, and give me my only consolation”—his mistress—and to let him return to his relatives in Holstein. Instead of receiving such comfort he was confined to a single room, and was always under surveillance. Alexei Orlov, chief of those who guarded him, played cards with him, and lent him money.2 On July 6, 1762 (N. S.), Alexei rode in haste to St. Petersburg and informed Catherine that Peter had quarreled with him and other attendants, and in the ensuing scuffle had died. As to the mode of his death history has only rumors, none confirmed: that he was poisoned or strangled,3 that he was fatally beaten,4 that he died of “inflammation of the bowels and apoplexy”;5 “the details of the murder,” the latest historian concludes, “were never fully revealed, and the part played in it by Catherine remains uncertain.”6 It is improbable that Catherine ordered the deed,7 but she punished no one for it, concealed it from the public for a day, went through two days of visible weeping, and then reconciled herself to the fait accompli . Nearly all Europe held her guilty of murder, but Frederick the Great, who had so much to lose by Peter’s dethronement, exonerated her: “The Empress was quite ignorant of this crime, and she heard of it with a despair which was not feigned, for she justly foresaw the judgment that everybody passes upon her today.”8 Voltaire agreed with Frederick. Catherine’s son Paul, after reading the private papers left by his mother at her death, concluded that Alexei had killed Peter without any order or request from Catherine.9

The event created, as well as solved, problems for Catherine: it inspired a succession of conspiracies to depose her, and left her harassed and imperiled amid the administrative chaos that surrounded her. She later wrote of this period: “The Senate remained lethargic and deaf to the affairs of state. The seats of legislation had reached a degree of corruption and disintegration that made them scarcely recognizable.”10 Russia had just emerged from a victorious but costly war; the treasury owed thirteen million rubles, and was running a deficit of seven million rubles per year; the condition of the fisc had been signalized by the refusal of Dutch bankers to lend Russia money. The pay of the troops was many months in arrears. The army was so disorganized that Catherine feared at any moment an invasion of the Ukraine by the Tatars of South Russia. The court was agitated with plots and counterplots, with dread of losing, or hope of gaining, offices of profit or power. Shortly after Peter’s fall, the Prussian ambassador considered it “certain that the reign of the Empress Catherine is not to be more than a brief episode in the history of the world.”11 This was wishful thinking, for Frederick deplored the death of his worshipful ally, and Catherine was annulling Peter’s orders to help Frederick.

The Empress sought to quiet ecclesiastical opposition by deferring the operation of Peter’s ukases for the secularization of Church lands. She warmed the ardor of her partisans with rich rewards; Grigori Orlov received fifty thousand rubles, and access to the royal bed. Bestuzhev was recalled from exile and restored to comfort but not to office. Those who had opposed her were treated leniently. Münnich made his submission, was readily forgiven, and was appointed governor of Esthonia and Livonia. These measures may have helped to keep her on her slippery seat, but the chief factors were her own courage and intelligence. Seventeen years as the neglected wife of the heir to the throne had taught her, against her youthful vivacity, a degree of patience, prudence, self-control, and statesmanly dissimulation. Now, defying Panin’s advice, and suspicious of the Senate’s loyalty, integrity, and competence, she decided to center all rule in herself, and to face the absolute monarchs of Europe with an absolutism that would rival Frederick’s combination of militarism with philosophy. She took no husband. Since the nobility controlled the Senate, the choice was between the autocracy of the sovereign and the fragmentary absolutism of feudal lords—precisely the choice faced by Richelieu in seventeenth-century France.

Catherine surrounded herself with able men, and won their loyalty, frequently their love. She made them work hard, but she paid them well, perhaps too well; the splendor and luxury of her court became a major drain upon the revenues. It was a heterogeneous court, rooted in barbarism, veneered with French culture, and ruled by a German woman superior to her aides in education and intellect. Her lavish rewards for exceptional service begot emulation without checking corruption. Many members of her entourage took bribes from foreign governments; some achieved impartiality by accepting bribes from opposite sides. In 1762 Catherine issued to the nation a remarkable confession:

We consider it as our essential and necessary duty to declare to the people, with true bitterness of heart, that we have for a long time heard, and now in manifest deeds see, to what degree corruption has progressed in our Empire, so that there is hardly an office in the government in which … justice is not attacked by the infection of this pest. If anyone asks for place, he must pay for it; if a man has to defend himself against calumny, it is with money; if anyone wishes falsely to accuse his neighbor, he can by gifts insure the success of his wicked designs.12

Of the conspiracies that multiplied around her, some aimed to replace her with Ivan VI. Deposed by the coup d’état of December, 1741, he had now suffered twenty-one years of imprisonment. In September, 1762, Voltaire voiced apprehension that “Ivan may overthrow our benefactress”;13 and he wrote, “I am afraid that our dear Empress will be killed.”14 Catherine visited Ivan, and found him “a human derelict reduced to idiocy by long years of incarceration.”15 She left orders with his guards that if any attempt, not authorized by herself, should be made to release him, they should put Ivan to death rather than surrender him. At midnight of July 5-6, 1764, an army officer, Vasili Mirovich, appeared at the prison with a paper purporting to be an order of the Senate that Ivan should be turned over to him. Supported by several soldiers, he knocked at the door of the cell in which two guards slept with Ivan, and demanded entrance. Refused, he ordered cannon to be brought up to demolish the door. Hearing this, the guards slew Ivan. Mirovich was arrested; a document found on him declared that Catherine had been deposed, and that Ivan VI was henceforth czar. At his trial he refused to reveal the names of his accomplices. He was put to death. Public opinion generally accused Catherine of murdering Ivan.16

Conspiracies continued. In 1768 an officer named Choglokov, asserting that he had been commissioned by God to avenge the death of Peter III, armed himself with a long dagger, found entry to the royal palace, and hid himself at the turn of a passage where Catherine usually passed. Grigori Orlov heard of the plot, and arrested Choglokov, who proudly confessed his intent to kill the Empress. He was banished to Siberia.

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