Like any philosopher, Catherine had begun with pacific aims. She announced that the internal problems of the empire would absorb her attention, and that she would, if unmolested, avoid all conflict with foreign powers. She confirmed Peter Ill’s peace with Prussia, and ended his war with Denmark. She rejected in 1762 the temptation to conquer Kurland or to interfere in Poland; “I have people enough to make happy,” she said, “and that little corner of the earth will add nothing to my comfort.”69 She reduced the army, neglected the arsenals, and sought to negotiate with Turkey a treaty of perpetual peace.
But the more she studied the map, the more fault she found with the boundaries of Russia. On the east the empire was well protected by the Urals, the Caspian Sea, and the weakness of China. On the north it was protected by ice. But on the west Sweden held part of Finland, from which at any moment an attack might be expected from a nation still resenting its losses to Peter the Great; and Poland and Prussia barred the way into “Europe” and Europeanization. On the south the Tatars, under a Moslem and Turkishcontrolled khan, barred the way to the Black Sea. What abortions of history had given Russia such geography, such anomalous boundaries? Old General Münnich, new general Grigori Orlov, whispered to her how much more rational it would be if the Black Sea were the southern boundary, and how sweet it would be if Russia could take Constantinople and control the Bosporus. Nikita Panin, her foreign minister from 1763 to 1780, pondered ways of promoting Russia’s influence in Poland and preventing that defenseless land from falling under Prussian domination.
Catherine was moved by their arguments. And she itched to give her adopted country a place in politics commensurate with its place on the map. Within a year of her accession she sallied forth upon a foreign policy that aimed at nothing less than to make Russia the pivotal power on the Continent. “I tell you,” she wrote to Count Keyserling, her ambassador at Warsaw, “that my aim is to be joined in bonds of friendship with all the powers, in armed alliance, so that I may always be able to range myself on the side of the oppressed, and so become the arbiter of Europe.”70
At times she came close to her goal. By taking Russia out of the Seven Years’ War she in effect decided that Continent-wide conflict in favor of Frederick. In 1764 she signed with Frederick a treaty that presaged the dismemberment of Poland. She took advantage of Denmark’s need of Russian support against Sweden to dominate the foreign policy of the Danes. In 1779 she served as arbiter between Frederick and Joseph at the Peace of Teschen, and became protectress of the German Imperial Constitution. In 1780 she bound Denmark, Sweden, Prussia, Austria, and Portugal with Russia in a “League of Armed Neutrality” to protect neutral shipping in the war of England with the American colonies: neutral ships were to be free from attack by either combatant unless they carried munitions of war; and a blockade, to be legal and respected, must be real, and no mere paper declaration.
Long before that second reversal of alliances the irrepressible conflict had begun for control of the Black Sea. Catherine’s first Turkish war originated as a strange by-product of her invasion of Poland. She had sent troops there to help the non-Catholics in their struggle for equal rights with the Catholic majority; the Catholics moved a papal nuncio to explain to Turkey that now was an opportune time for Turkey to attack Russia; France seconded the suggestion, and urged Sweden and the Khan of the Crimea to join in the attack.71 Voltaire mourned for his endangered Empress. “That a nuncio enlists the Turks in his crusade against you,” he wrote to her, “is worthy of an Italian farce: Mustafa the worthy ally of the Pope!”—the situation almost persuaded him to be a Christian. Indeed, in a letter of November, 1768, he proposed to Catherine a holy war against the infidels:
You force the Poles to be tolerant and happy despite the nuncio, and you seem to be having trouble with the Mussulmen. If they wage war on you, perhaps Peter the Great’s idea of making Constantinople the capital of the Russian Empire may take shape.... I think that if ever the Turks are expelled from Europe it will be by the Russians.... It is not enough to humiliate them; they must be sent back forever.72
Sweden refused to share in the assault upon Russia, but the Crimean Tatars ravaged the newly settled Russian colony of Novaya Serbia (January, 1769). A Turkish army of 100,000 men advanced toward Podolia to join the army of the Polish Confederation. Catherine refused to withdraw her forces from Poland. She sent thirty thousand men under Alexander Golitsyn and Piotr Rumiantsev to repulse the Tatars and check the Turks; told that these were too numerous, she replied, “The Romans did not concern themselves with the number of their enemies; they only asked, ‘Where are they?’”73 The Tatars were driven back; Azov and Taganrog, at the mouth of the Don, were taken; seventeen thousand Russians defeated 150,000 Turks at Kagul (1770); Rumiantsev advanced as far as Bucharest, where he was received with joy by the Orthodox population. In 1771 Vasili Mikhailovich Dolgoruki overran the Crimea and put an end to Turkish rule there. Even more spectacular was the exploit of Alexei Orlov, who led a Russian fleet through the English Channel, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean, defeated the Turkish navy off Chios, and annihilated it at Chesmé (July, 1770); but the damage to his own ships was too severe to let him follow up his victories.
Some other events were less comforting to Catherine. A plague broke out in the Russian army along the Danube and spread back to Moscow, where, in the summer of 1770, it took a thousand lives a day. She knew that Frederick looked askance at the extension of her realm and power; that Joseph II was disturbed by the advance of Russia to the Austrian frontier in the Balkans; that France was leaving no stone unturned to strengthen her Turkish ally; that England would vigorously oppose Russian control of the Bosporus; and that Sweden was merely awaiting her opportunity. Catherine invited the Turks to a conference; they came, but balked at her insistence on the independence of the Crimea; and in 1773 the war was resumed.
In January, 1774, Mustafa III died; his successor decided that Turkey had reached a condition of chaos and exhaustion that threatened her existence as a European state. By the Peace of Kuchuk Kainarji (in Romania), July 21, 1774, Turkey recognized the independence of the Crimea (which remained under Tatar rule), ceded Azov, Kerch, Yenikale, and Kilburun (at the mouth of the Dnieper) to Russia, opened the Black Sea, the Bosporus, and the Dardanelles to Russian shipping, paid Russia a war indemnity of 4,500,-000 rubles, granted amnesty to Christians involved in insurrections against their Turkish governors, and acknowledged the right of Russia to protect Christians in Turkey. Altogether, this was one of the most advantageous treaties ever made by Russia.74Russia was now a Black Sea power; the Crimea and the other Tatar regions in South Russia were left open to early Russian conquest, and the skeptical Empress could pose as the defender of the faith. Drunk with success, Catherine dreamed of liberating—i.e., conquering—Greece, and crowning her grandson Constantine at Constantinople as head of a new empire. She gladdened Voltaire’s aging heart with visions of Olympic Games restored; “we will have the ancient Greek tragedies enacted by Grecian players in the theater of [Dionysius at] Athens.” Then, mindful of armies and treasury exhausted, she added: “I must practice moderation, and say that peace is better than the finest war in the world.”75
She was now replacing Frederick as the most famous sovereign in Europe; everyone marveled at her resolute pursuit of her aims, and the awesome extension of her power. Joseph II of Austria, who had so long bowed to the genius of Frederick, traveled to Mogilev, and thence all the way to St. Petersburg, to meet the Czarina and solicit her alliance. In May, 1781, she signed with Joseph a pact for united action in Poland and against Turkey.
Meanwhile Potemkin was making a name for himself in the south. He organized, equipped, and fed a new army of 300,000 men, built a Black Sea fleet, with harbors at Sevastopol and Odessa and an arsenal at Kherson, colonized the sparsely settled regions of South Russia, founded towns and villages, established manufactures, and supplied the colonists with cattle, tools, and seed—all with a view to having bases of supplies in a campaign to add the Crimea to Catherine’s crown, and perhaps win a crown for himself. The Tatars of the Crimea quarreled and divided; Potemkin softened their leaders with bribes; when, at last, he invaded the peninsula (December, 1782), he found only negligible resistance, and on April 8, 1783, over Turkey’s futile protests, the Crimea was absorbed into the Russian realm. Potemkin was made field marshal, president of the College of War, Prince of Tauris, and governor general of the Crimea. The Empress added a pourboire of 100,000 rubles; Potemkin used them on mistresses, liquor, and food.
Catherine too thought it time for relaxation. She combined pleasure with business by arranging a stately “progress” over land and water to inspect her conquests and impress their people—and all Europe—with the wealth and splendor of her court. On January 2, 1787, muffled in furs, she left the Winter Palace and began the long journey in a berline , or coach, large enough to contain—besides her now spacious self—her current favorite Mamonov, her chief lady in waiting, a lapdog, and a small library. She was followed by fourteen carriages and 170 sleighs, bearing the ambassadors of Austria, Britain, and France—Cobenzl, Fitzherbert, and the Comte de Ségur—plus the Prince de Ligne and an army of officials, courtiers, musicians, and servants. Potemkin had gone some days in advance to prepare the route, to light it by hundreds of torches, and to arrange for each evening’s meals and sleeping quarters for all. At major towns the cortege rested for one or two days while the Czarina met the local dignitaries, surveyed conditions, asked questions, distributed censure or reward. Every town on the route, warned and instructed by Potemkin, was on its best behavior, washed and dressed as never before, happy for a day.
At Kiev Potemkin superintended the transfer of the mobile court to eighty-seven vessels which he had equipped and adorned. On these the imperial horde moved down the Dnieper. Along the river Catherine saw the “Potemkin villages” which the clever Prince of Tauris had primed and polished for her pleasure, and perhaps to impress the diplomats with the prosperity of Russia. Some of the prosperity had been improvised by Potemkin, some of it was real. “That he constructed sham villages along the banks, and marshaled the peasantry to create the illusion of progress was the fantastic invention of a Saxon diplomatist.”76 The Prince de Ligne made several excursions ashore to see behind the façades; he reported that while Potemkin had used some legerdemain, he (Ligne) had been impressed by the “superb establishments in their infancy, growing manufactures, villages with regular streets lined by trees.”77 Catherine herself was probably not deceived, but she may have concluded, as Ségur did, that even if half the prosperity and neatness of those towns was a passing show, the actuality of Sevastopol—town, forts, and port, built on Crimean shores in two years—was enough to merit Potemkin praise. The Prince de Ligne, who had known almost everyone of account in Europe, called him “the most extraordinary man I have ever met.”78
At Kaniov Stanislas Poniatowski, king of Poland, came to offer his homage to the woman who had given him her love and his throne. Farther down the Dnieper, at Kaidaky, Joseph II joined the procession, which thence went overland to Kherson and into the Crimea. There the Empress, the Emperor, and the Governor General fondled their dreams of driving the Turks from Europe: Catherine of capturing Constantinople, Joseph of absorbing the Balkans, Potemkin of making himself king of Dacia (Romania). England and Prussia advised Sultan Abdul-Hamid to strike at the Russians while they were off guard, with their military preparations incomplete.79 The insolence of the Russian ambassador at Constantinople provided an additional stimulus; the Sultan jailed him, declared a holy war, and demanded the restoration of Crimea as the price of peace. In August, 1787, the main Turkish army crossed the Danube and marched into the Ukraine.
Potemkin had celebrated too soon; Russia was not yet prepared for the ultimate test; he advised the Empress to surrender the Crimea. She reproved him for his unwonted timidity; she ordered him, Suvorov, and Rumiantsev to marshal all their available forces and go forth to meet the invaders; she herself retreated to St. Petersburg. Suvorov routed the Turks at Kilburun, and Potemkin besieged Ochakov, which commanded the outlets of both the Dniester and the Bug. While jihad and crusade came face to face in South Russia, Sweden decided that now at last the time had come to recapture her lost provinces. Encouraged by England and Prussia,80 Gustavus III renewed an old alliance with the Turks, and demanded of Catherine the return of Finland and Karelia to Sweden, and of the Crimea to Turkey. Of that war we may speak later; it is enough to say here that on July 9, 1799, a Swedish fleet decisively defeated the Russians in the Baltic; the roar of Swedish cannon could be heard from the Winter Palace; Catherine thought of evacuating her capital. Soon, however, her agents persuaded Sweden to peace (August 15, 1790).
Now she was free to concentrate forces against the Turks, and Austria joined Russia in the war. Potemkin ended the siege of Ochakov by ordering his men to attack at whatever price; the victory cost the Russians eight thousand lives; and the fury of battle ended in indiscriminate massacre (December 17, 1788). Potemkin went on to take Bender, the Austrians captured Belgrade, Suvorov routed the Turks at Rimnik (September 22, 1789). Turkey seemed doomed.
The Western powers felt that the situation called for united action against Catherine if the strategic Bosporus was not to fall into her hands and make Russia the master of Europe. Frederick the Great having died (1786), his successor, Frederick William II, saw with dismay the movement of Russia toward Constantinople, and of Austria into the Balkans; between Russia and Austria so strengthened, Prussia would be at their mercy. On January 31, 1790, he bound his government with the Porte in a pact that committed him to declare war upon both Russia and Austria in the spring, and not to lay down arms till all Turkey’s lost territory had been restored.
The political tide seemed to be turning against Catherine. Revolt in the Austrian Netherlands and disorder in Hungary weakened Joseph II; he died on February 20, 1790, and his successor signed an armistice with the Turks. England and Prussia again urged Catherine to make peace on the basis of restoring all terrain won in the war; she refused; the capture of Ochakov had cleared Russian access to the Black Sea; she would not surrender that vital gain. Moreover, her generals were moving from victory to victory, culminating in the capture of Izmail (December 22, 1790) by Suvorov and Potemkin; in taking that Turkish stronghold on the Danube the Russians lost ten thousand men, the Turks thirty thousand. After that feast of blood Potemkin, exhausted, relapsed into luxurious indolence and shameless incest with his nieces; and on October 15, 1791, he died on a road near Jassy. Catherine fainted three times on the day that she heard of his death.
In March, 1791, William Pitt the Younger proposed to Parliament that an ultimatum be dispatched to Russia requiring her to return to Turkey all territory taken in the present conflict, and he prepared to send a British fleet into the Baltic as a promise of war. Catherine made no reply, and Parliament, hearing British merchants mourn the loss of Russian trade, dissuaded Pitt from his enterprise. Turkey, exhausted, gave up the struggle, and signed at Jassy (January 9, 1792) a treaty that confirmed Russia’s control of the Crimea and the basins of the Dniester and the Bug. Catherine had not reached Constantinople, but she had risen to the zenith of her career as the most powerful ruler in Europe, and the most remarkable woman of her century.