Was she a woman, or a monster? We have seen that at the beginning of her reign she was physically attractive; by 1780 she had grown stout, but this merely added weight to her majesty. The Prince de Ligne (who was among the first to call her “the Great”81) described her gallantly:
She still [in 1780] looked well. One saw that she had been beautiful rather than pretty.... It needed no Lavater to read on her forehead, as in a book, genius, justice, courage, depth, equanimity, sweetness, calm, and decision. Her fine bust had been acquired at the expense of her waist, once so terribly thin; but people generally grow fat in Russia. … One never noticed that she was short.82
Castéra, writing shortly after her death, pictured her as modestly dressed in a green robe. “Her hair, lightly powdered, floated over her shoulders, and was surmounted by a small cap covered with diamonds. In the last years of her life she put on a great deal of rouge, for she still had pretensions not to allow the traces of time to appear on her face; and it is probable that only these pretensions were the cause of her living in the utmost temperance.”83
She was vain, visibly conscious of her accomplishments and her power. “Vanity is her idol,” Joseph II told Kaunitz; “luck and exaggerated compliments have spoiled her.”84 Frederick the Great thought that if Catherine were corresponding with God she would claim at least equal rank.85 Yet she talked with Diderot as “man to man,” and begged Falconet to omit compliments. She was as amiable (barring a few possible murders and the sanctified slaughters of war) as Charles II of England and Henry IV of France. She daily threw from her windows bread for the thousands of birds that came regularly to her to be fed.86 In the ending years of her reign she indulged now and then in fits of rage unbefitting omnipotence, but she took care not to give an order or sign a paper in these volcanic moods; soon she grew ashamed of such outbursts, and schooled herself to self-control. As to her courage Europe discarded all doubt.
She was unquestionably and imperturbably sensual, but her amours offend us less than the Parc aux Cerfs of Louis XV. Like all the rulers of her time she subordinated morality to politics, and suppressed personal feelings when these impeded the aggrandizement of her state. Where there was no such conflict she had all the tenderness of a woman, loving children, gamboling with them, teaching them, making toys for them. On her tours she was always careful that drivers and servants were properly fed.87 Among the papers found on her table after her death was an epitaph she had composed for herself: “She forgave easily, and hated no one. Tolerant, understanding, of a gay disposition, she had a republican spirit and a kind heart.”88
She was not kind to her first son; partly because Paul had been taken from her soon after birth, and had been brought up by Panin and others under Elizabeth’s supervision; partly because the conspiracies to unseat her sometimes proposed to make him emperor with a regency; partly because Paul long suspected his mother as Peter’s murderer; and also because Paul “was always brooding over the theft of his rights” to succeed his presumptive father on the throne. But Catherine took to her heart Paul’s charming sons Alexander and Constantine, personally attended to their education, tried to alienate them from their father, and schemed to have Alexander, not Paul, inherit her crown.89 Paul, happily mated with a second wife, looked with manifest disgust upon the concatenation of paramours that amused his mother and drained the revenues of the state.
Mentally Catherine surpassed all her favorites. She indulged their greed, but rarely allowed them to determine her policy. She absorbed French literature to a point where she could correspond with its leaders as ojie philosophe to another; indeed, her letters to Voltaire excelled his in good sense, and rivaled them in grace and wit. Her correspondence was almost as voluminous as Voltaire’s, though written in the interstices of court intrigues, domestic insurrections, critical diplomacy, and map-remaking wars. Herconversation kept Diderot on his toes, and moved Grimm to ecstasy: “One must have seen, at those moments, this singular head, composed of genius and grace, to form an idea of the fire that swayed her, the shafts that she let fly, the sallies that pressed … one upon another … Had it only been in my power to take down these conversations literally, the whole world would have possessed a precious and perhaps unique fragment in the history of the human mind.”90 There was, however, a hurried confusion and instability in the torrent of her ideas; she plunged too quickly into projects that she had not thought through, and she was sometimes defeated by the urgency of events and the multiplicity of her tasks. Even so, the result was immense.
It seems incredible that in a career of such political and military excitement Catherine found time to write poems, chronicles, memoirs, plays, opera librettos, magazine articles, fairy tales, a scientific treatise on Siberia, a history of the Roman emperors, and extensive Notes on Russian History . In 1769-70 she edited anonymously a satirical journal to which she was the chief contributor. One of her sketches described a religious hypocrite who attended Mass every day, lit candles before holy images, and mumbled prayers intermittently, but cheated tradesmen, maligned neighbors, beat servants, denounced current immorality, and mourned the good old days.91 Catherine’s fairy tale Prince Khlor told of a youth who went through perilous adventures to find a fabled rose without thorns, only to discover in the end that there was no such rose but virtue; this story became a classic in Russian literature, and was translated into many languages. Two of her plays were historical tragedies imitating Shakespeare; most of them were unpretentious comedies ridiculing charlatans, dupes, misers, mystics, spendthrifts, Cagliostro, Freemasons, religious fanatics; these pieces lacked subtlety but they pleased the audiences, though Catherine concealed her authorship. On the curtain of the theater that she built in the Hermitage she placed an inscription, Ridendo castigat mores —“He chastizes manners with laughter”; this well expressed the aim of her comedies. Oleg , the best of her dramas, was a remarkable succession of scenes from Russian history, enlivened by seven hundred performers in dances, ballets, and Olympic games. Most of Catherine’s literary work was revised by secretaries, for she never mastered Russian spelling or grammar, and she did not take herself too seriously as an authoress; but literature took courage from the imperial example, and gave a final and tarnished glory to her reign.