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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 upo
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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.