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The Empress Catharine And Prince Potemkin






It has often been said that the greatest Frenchman who ever lived
was in reality an Italian. It might with equal truth be asserted
that the greatest Russian woman who ever lived was in reality a
German. But the Emperor Napoleon and the Empress Catharine II.
resemble each other in something else. Napoleon, though Italian in
blood and lineage, made himself so French in sympathy and
understanding as to be able to play upon the imagination of all
France as a great musician plays upon a splendid instrument, with
absolute sureness of touch and an ability to extract from it every
one of its varied harmonies. So the Empress Catharine of Russia--
perhaps the greatest woman who ever ruled a nation--though born of
German parents, became Russian to the core and made herself the
embodiment of Russian feeling and Russian aspiration.

At the middle of the eighteenth century Russia was governed by the
Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. In her own time,
and for a long while afterward, her real capacity was obscured by
her apparent indolence, her fondness for display, and her seeming
vacillation; but now a very high place is accorded her in the
history of Russian rulers. She softened the brutality that had
reigned supreme in Russia. She patronized the arts. Her armies
twice defeated Frederick the Great and raided his capital, Berlin.
Had Elizabeth lived, she would probably have crushed him.

In her early years this imperial woman had been betrothed to Louis
XV. of France, but the match was broken off. Subsequently she
entered into a morganatic marriage and bore a son who, of course,
could not be her heir. In 1742, therefore, she looked about for a
suitable successor, and chose her nephew, Prince Peter of
Holstein-Gottorp.

Peter, then a mere youth of seventeen, was delighted with so
splendid a future, and came at once to St. Petersburg. The empress
next sought for a girl who might marry the young prince and thus
become the future Czarina. She thought first of Frederick the
Great's sister; but Frederick shrank from this alliance, though it
would have been of much advantage to him. He loved his sister--
indeed, she was one of the few persons for whom he ever really
cared. So he declined the offer and suggested instead the young
Princess Sophia of the tiny duchy of Anhalt-Zerbst.

The reason for Frederick's refusal was his knowledge of the semi-
barbarous conditions that prevailed at the Russian court.

The Russian capital, at that time, was a bizarre, half-civilized,
half-oriental place, where, among the very highest-born, a thin
veneer of French elegance covered every form of brutality and
savagery and lust. It is not surprising, therefore, that Frederick
the Great was unwilling to have his sister plunged into such a
life.

But when the Empress Elizabeth asked the Princess Sophia of
Anhalt-Zerbst to marry the heir to the Russian throne the young
girl willingly accepted, the more so as her mother practically
commanded it. This mother of hers was a grim, harsh German woman
who had reared her daughter in the strictest fashion, depriving
her of all pleasure with a truly puritanical severity. In the case
of a different sort of girl this training would have crushed her
spirit; but the Princess Sophia, though gentle and refined in
manner, had a power of endurance which was toughened and
strengthened by the discipline she underwent.

And so in 1744, when she was but sixteen years of age, she was
taken by her mother to St. Petersburg. There she renounced the
Lutheran faith and was received into the Greek Church, changing
her name to Catharine. Soon after, with great magnificence, she
was married to Prince Peter, and from that moment began a career
which was to make her the most powerful woman in the world.

At this time a lady of the Russian court wrote down a description
of Catharine's appearance. She was fair-haired, with dark-blue
eyes; and her face, though never beautiful, was made piquant and
striking by the fact that her brows were very dark in contrast
with her golden hair. Her complexion was not clear, yet her look
was a very pleasing one. She had a certain diffidence of manner at
first; but later she bore herself with such instinctive dignity as
to make her seem majestic, though in fact she was beneath the
middle size. At the time of her marriage her figure was slight and
graceful; only in after years did she become stout. Altogether,
she came to St. Petersburg an attractive, pure-minded German
maiden, with a character well disciplined, and possessing reserves
of power which had not yet been drawn upon.

Frederick the Great's forebodings, which had led him to withhold
his sister's hand, were almost immediately justified in the case
of Catharine. Her Russian husband revealed to her a mode of life
which must have tried her very soul. This youth was only
seventeen--a mere boy in age, and yet a full-grown man in the rank
luxuriance of his vices. Moreover, he had eccentricities which
sometimes verged upon insanity. Too young to be admitted to the
councils of his imperial aunt, he occupied his time in ways that
were either ridiculous or vile.

Next to the sleeping-room of his wife he kept a set of kennels,
with a number of dogs, which he spent hours in drilling as if they
had been soldiers. He had a troop of rats which he also drilled.
It was his delight to summon a court martial of his dogs to try
the rats for various military offenses, and then to have the
culprits executed, leaving their bleeding carcasses upon the
floor. At any hour of the day or night Catharine, hidden in her
chamber, could hear the yapping of the curs, the squeak of rats,
and the word of command given by her half-idiot husband.

When wearied of this diversion Peter would summon a troop of
favorites, both men and women, and with them he would drink deep
of beer and vodka, since from his early childhood he had been both
a drunkard and a debauchee. The whoops and howls and vile songs of
his creatures could be heard by Catharine; and sometimes he would
stagger into her rooms, accompanied by his drunken minions. With a
sort of psychopathic perversity he would insist on giving
Catharine the most minute and repulsive narratives of his amours,
until she shrank from him with horror at his depravity and came to
loathe the sight of his bloated face, with its little, twinkling,
porcine eyes, his upturned nose and distended nostrils, and his
loose-hung, lascivious mouth. She was scarcely less repelled when
a wholly different mood would seize upon him and he would declare
himself her slave, attending her at court functions in the garb of
a servant and professing an unbounded devotion for his bride.

Catharine's early training and her womanly nature led her for a
long time to submit to the caprices of her husband. In his saner
moments she would plead with him and strive to interest him in
something better than his dogs and rats and venal mistresses; but
Peter was incorrigible. Though he had moments of sense and even of
good feeling, these never lasted, and after them he would plunge
headlong into the most frantic excesses that his half-crazed
imagination could devise.

It is not strange that in course of time Catharine's strong good
sense showed her that she could do nothing with this creature. She
therefore gradually became estranged from him and set herself to
the task of doing those things which Peter was incapable of
carrying out.

She saw that ever since the first awakening of Russia under Peter
the Great none of its rulers had been genuinely Russian, but had
tried to force upon the Russian people various forms of western
civilization which were alien to the national spirit. Peter the
Great had striven to make his people Dutch. Elizabeth had tried to
make them French. Catharine, with a sure instinct, resolved that
they should remain Russian, borrowing what they needed from other
peoples, but stirred always by the Slavic spirit and swayed by a
patriotism that was their own. To this end she set herself to
become Russian. She acquired the Russian language patiently and
accurately. She adopted the Russian costume, appearing, except on
state occasions, in a simple gown of green, covering her fair
hair, however, with a cap powdered with diamonds. Furthermore, she
made friends of such native Russians as were gifted with talent,
winning their favor, and, through them, the favor of the common
people.

It would have been strange, however, had Catharine, the woman,
escaped the tainting influences that surrounded her on every side.
The infidelities of Peter gradually made her feel that she owed
him nothing as his wife. Among the nobles there were men whose
force of character and of mind attracted her inevitably. Chastity
was a thing of which the average Russian had no conception; and
therefore it is not strange that Catharine, with her intense and
sensitive nature, should have turned to some of these for the love
which she had sought in vain from the half imbecile to whom she
had been married.

Much has been written of this side of her earlier and later life;
yet, though it is impossible to deny that she had favorites, one
should judge very gently the conduct of a girl so young and thrust
into a life whence all the virtues seemed to be excluded. She bore
several children before her thirtieth year, and it is very certain
that a grave doubt exists as to their paternity. Among the nobles
of the court were two whose courage and virility specially
attracted her. The one with whom her name has been most often
coupled was Gregory Orloff. He and his brother, Alexis Orloff,
were Russians of the older type--powerful in frame, suave in
manner except when roused, yet with a tigerish ferocity slumbering
underneath. Their power fascinated Catharine, and it was currently
declared that Gregory Orloff was her lover.

When she was in her thirty-second year her husband was proclaimed
Czar, after the death of the Empress Elizabeth. At first in some
ways his elevation seemed to sober him; but this period of sanity,
like those which had come to him before, lasted only a few weeks.
Historians have given him much credit for two great reforms that
are connected with his name; and yet the manner in which they were
actually brought about is rather ludicrous. He had shut himself up
with his favorite revelers, and had remained for several days
drinking and carousing until he scarcely knew enough to speak. At
this moment a young officer named Gudovitch, who was really loyal
to the newly created Czar, burst into the banquet-hall, booted and
spurred and his eyes aflame with indignation. Standing before
Peter, his voice rang out with the tone of a battle trumpet, so
that the sounds of revelry were hushed.

"Peter Feodorovitch," he cried, "do you prefer these swine to
those who really wish to serve you? Is it in this way that you
imitate the glories of your ancestor, that illustrious Peter whom
you have sworn to take as your model? It will not be long before
your people's love will be changed to hatred. Rise up, my Czar!
Shake off this lethargy and sloth. Prove that you are worthy of
the faith which I and others have given you so loyally!"

With these words Gudovitch thrust into Peter's trembling hand two
proclamations, one abolishing the secret bureau of police, which
had become an instrument of tyrannous oppression, and the other
restoring to the nobility many rights of which they had been
deprived.

The earnestness and intensity of Gudovitch temporarily cleared the
brain of the drunken Czar. He seized the papers, and, without
reading them, hastened at once to his great council, where he
declared that they expressed his wishes. Great was the rejoicing
in St. Petersburg, and great was the praise bestowed on Peter;
yet, in fact, he had acted only as any drunkard might act under
the compulsion of a stronger will than his.

As before, his brief period of good sense was succeeded by another
of the wildest folly. It was not merely that he reversed the wise
policy of his aunt, but that he reverted to his early fondness for
everything that was German. His bodyguard was made up of German
troops--thus exciting the jealousy of the Russian soldiers. He
introduced German fashions. He boasted that his father had been an
officer in the Prussian army. His crazy admiration for Frederick
the Great reached the utmost verge of sycophancy.

As to Catharine, he turned on her with something like ferocity. He
declared in public that his eldest son, the Czarevitch Paul, was
really fathered by Catharine's lovers. At a state banquet he
turned to Catharine and hurled at her a name which no woman could
possibly forgive--and least of all a woman such as Catharine,
with her high spirit and imperial pride. He thrust his mistresses
upon her; and at last he ordered her, with her own hand, to
decorate the Countess Vorontzoff, who was known to be his
maitresse en titre.

It was not these gross insults, however, so much as a concern for
her personal safety that led Catharine to take measures for her
own defense. She was accustomed to Peter's ordinary
eccentricities. On the ground of his unfaithfulness to her she now
had hardly any right to make complaint. But she might reasonably
fear lest he was becoming mad. If he questioned the paternity of
their eldest son he might take measures to imprison Catharine or
even to destroy her. Therefore she conferred with the Orloffs and
other gentlemen, and their conference rapidly developed into a
conspiracy.

The soldiery, as a whole, was loyal to the empress. It hated
Peter's Holstein guards. What she planned was probably the
deposition of Peter. She would have liked to place him under guard
in some distant palace. But while the matter was still under
discussion she was awakened early one morning by Alexis Orloff. He
grasped her arm with scant ceremony.

"We must act at once," said he. "We have been betrayed!"

Catharine was not a woman to waste time. She went immediately to
the barracks in St. Petersburg, mounted upon a charger, and,
calling out the Russian guards, appealed to them for their
support. To a man they clashed their weapons and roared forth a
thunderous cheer. Immediately afterward the priests anointed her
as regent in the name of her son; but as she left the church she
was saluted by the people, as well as by the soldiers, as empress
in her own right.

It was a bold stroke, and it succeeded down to the last detail.
The wretched Peter, who was drilling his German guards at a
distance from the capital, heard of the revolt, found that his
sailors at Kronstadt would not acknowledge him, and then finally
submitted. He was taken to Ropsha and confined within a single
room. To him came the Orloffs, quite of their own accord. Gregory
Orloff endeavored to force a corrosive poison into Peter's mouth.
Peter, who was powerful of build and now quite desperate, hurled
himself upon his enemies. Alexis Orloff seized him by the throat
with a tremendous clutch and strangled him till the blood gushed
from his ears. In a few moments the unfortunate man was dead.

Catharine was shocked by the intelligence, but she had no choice
save to accept the result of excessive zeal. She issued a note to
the foreign ambassadors informing them that Peter had died of a
violent colic. When his body was laid out for burial the
extravasated blood is said to have oozed out even through his
hands, staining the gloves that had been placed upon them. No one
believed the story of the colic; and some six years later Alexis
Orloff told the truth with the utmost composure. The whole
incident was characteristically Russian.

It is not within the limits of our space to describe the reign of
Catharine the Great--the exploits of her armies, the acuteness of
her statecraft, the vast additions which she made to the Russian
Empire, and the impulse which she gave to science and art and
literature. Yet these things ought to be remembered first of all
when one thinks of the woman whom Voltaire once styled "the
Semiramis of the North." Because she was so powerful, because no
one could gainsay her, she led in private a life which has been
almost more exploited than her great imperial achievements. And
yet, though she had lovers whose names have been carefully
recorded, even she fulfilled the law of womanhood--which is to
love deeply and intensely only once,

One should not place all her lovers in the same category. As a
girl, and when repelled by the imbecility of Peter, she gave
herself to Gregory Orloff. She admired his strength, his daring,
and his unscrupulousness. But to a woman of her fine intelligence
he came to seem almost more brute than man. She could not turn to
him for any of those delicate attentions which a woman loves so
much, nor for that larger sympathy which wins the heart as well as
captivates the senses. A writer of the time has said that Orloff
would hasten with equal readiness from the arms of Catharine to
the embraces of any flat-nosed Finn or filthy Calmuck or to the
lowest creature whom he might encounter in the streets.

It happened that at the time of Catharine's appeal to the imperial
guards there came to her notice another man who--as he proved in a
trifling and yet most significant manner--had those traits which
Orloff lacked. Catharine had mounted, man--fashion, a cavalry
horse, and, with a helmet on her head, had reined up her steed
before the barracks. At that moment One of the minor nobles, who
was also favorable to her, observed that her helmet had no plume.
In a moment his horse was at her side. Bowing low over his saddle,
he took his own plume from his helmet and fastened it to hers.
This man was Prince Gregory Potemkin, and this slight act gives a
clue to the influence which he afterward exercised over his
imperial mistress!

When Catharine grew weary of the Orloffs, and when she had
enriched them with lands and treasures, she turned to Potemkin;
and from then until the day of his death he was more to her than
any other man had ever been. With others she might flirt and might
go even further than flirtation; but she allowed no other favorite
to share her confidence, to give advice, or to direct her
policies.

To other men she made munificent gifts, either because they
pleased her for the moment or because they served her on one
occasion or another; but to Potemkin she opened wide the whole
treasury of her vast realm. There was no limit to what she would
do for him. When he first knew her he was a man of very moderate
fortune. Within two years after their intimate acquaintance had
begun she had given him nine million rubles, while afterward he
accepted almost limitless estates in Poland and in every province
of Greater Russia.

He was a man of sumptuous tastes, and yet he cared but little for
mere wealth. What he had, he used to please or gratify or surprise
the woman whom he loved. He built himself a great palace in St.
Petersburg, usually known as the Taurian Palace, and there he gave
the most sumptuous entertainments, reversing the story of Antony
and Cleopatra.

In a superb library there stood one case containing volumes bound
with unusual richness. When the empress, attracted by the
bindings, drew forth a book she found to her surprise that its
pages were English bank-notes. The pages of another proved to be
Dutch bank-notes, and, of another, notes on the Bank of Venice. Of
the remaining volumes some were of solid gold, while others had
pages of fine leather in which were set emeralds and rubies and
diamonds and other gems. The story reads like a bit of fiction
from the Arabian Nights. Yet, after all, this was only a small
affair compared with other undertakings with which Potemkin sought
to please her.

Thus, after Taurida and the Crimea had been added to the empire by
Potemkin's agency, Catharine set out with him to view her new
possessions. A great fleet of magnificently decorated galleys bore
her down the river Dnieper. The country through which she passed
had been a year before an unoccupied waste. Now, by Potemkin's
extraordinary efforts, the empress found it dotted thick with
towns and cities which had been erected for the occasion, filled
with a busy population which swarmed along the riverside to greet
the sovereign with applause. It was only a chain of fantom towns
and cities, made of painted wood and canvas; but while Catharine
was there they were very real, seeming to have solid buildings,
magnificent arches, bustling industries, and beautiful stretches
of fertile country. No human being ever wrought on so great a
scale so marvelous a miracle of stage-management.

Potemkin was, in fact, the one man who could appeal with unfailing
success to so versatile and powerful a spirit as Catharine's. He
was handsome of person, graceful of manner, and with an intellect
which matched her own. He never tried to force her inclination,
and, on the other hand, he never strove to thwart it. To him, as
to no other man, she could turn at any moment and feel that, no
matter what her mood, he could understand her fully. And this,
according to Balzac, is the thing that woman yearns for most--a

kindred spirit that can understand without the slightest need of
explanation.

Thus it was that Gregory Potemkin held a place in the soul of this
great woman such as no one else attained. He might be absent,
heading armies or ruling provinces, and on his return he would be
greeted with even greater fondness than before. And it was this
rather than his victories over Turk and other oriental enemies
that made Catharine trust him absolutely.

When he died, he died as the supreme master of her foreign policy
and at a time when her word was powerful throughout all Europe.
Death came upon him after he had fought against it with singular
tenacity of purpose. Catharine had given him a magnificent
triumph, and he had entertained her in his Taurian Palace with a
splendor such as even Russia had never known before. Then he fell
ill, though with high spirit he would not yield to illness. He ate
rich meats and drank rich wines and bore himself as gallantly as
ever. Yet all at once death came upon him while he was traveling
in the south of Russia. His carriage was stopped, a rug was spread
beneath a tree by the roadside, and there he died, in the country
which he had added to the realms of Russia,

The great empress who loved him mourned him deeply during the five
years of life that still remained to her. The names of other men
for whom she had imagined that she cared were nothing to her. But
this one man lived in her heart in death as he had done in life.

Many have written of Catharine as a great ruler, a wise diplomat,
a creature of heroic mold. Others have depicted her as a royal
wanton and have gathered together a mass of vicious tales, the
gossip of the palace kitchens, of the clubs, and of the barrack-
rooms. But perhaps one finds the chief interest of her story to
lie in this--that besides being empress and diplomat and a lover
of pleasure she was, beyond all else, at heart a woman.









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