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Saturday, 8 February 2014

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great was born on May 2, 1729 in Stettin in the Prussian province of Pomerania (now Szczecin), Poland) to Christian von Anhalt-Zerbst,  a minor German prince, and Elizabeth of Holstein. (There wasn't a drop of Russian blood in her).

She was christened Princess Sophie Auguste Von Anhalt-Zerbst.

In 1744, the Russian Tsarina Elizabeth selected Sophie as the wife for her nephew, Peter, her chosen successor. Sophie changed her name to "Catherine" (Ekaterina or Yekaterina) when she accepted the Russian Orthodox faith.

Catherine's brow was high and strong and she had bright and playful blue eyes. As a teenager, she was skinny with thick chestnut hair, elfin face, a healthy complexion and a full red lipped smile. She had a marvellous posture that made her appear taller than she was.

Young Catherine soon after her arrival in Russia, by Louis Caravaque

Catherine married on August 21, 1745 the uncouth, drunkard erratic, unstable Russian, Grand Duke Peter. She was so innocent that on the eve of her marriage she did not know the difference between a man and a woman. He was an unbalanced wimp who humiliated and neglected her and wasted hours playing with his toy soldiers on the floor and under the bed clothes.

Catherine the Great and Peter III

Six months after Peter succeeded to the Russian throne in 1762, becoming Peter III, he was removed in a coup and assassinated eight days later. Some speculate that Catherine had ordered this done, but there is no evidence to back this theory.

Catherine, although not descended from any previous Russian emperor, succeeded her husband on July 17, 1762. The coup was popular among the masses as the ex Czar was greatly hated. The cheering soldiers called her "little mother."

When Catherine traveled to Moscow for her coronation, the Court followed in 14 large sleighs and nearly 200 smaller ones. One of the sleighs was a miniature palace on runners, containing a saloon, library and bedroom inside it.



Charming, accessible, a fine conversationalist, Catherine spoke Russian with a German accent studded with mispronounced words.

By her middle age  Catherine was grossly fat,  a portly, extravagantly vain woman, whose tiny feet ached at supporting her heavy body.

Catherine imprisoned her hairdresser for three years in an iron cage to prevent rumors of her dandruff, (after she discovered the presence of dandruff on her collar.)

She wore fishnet stockings borrowed from the Leningrad trawler fleet.

Mid 1700s Fashion dolls were sent out by Versailles ever five years or so to Catherine's court with miniature versions of Madame Pompadour's latest wardrobe so that Catherine could get her dressmaker to copy them.

Catherine's casual love affairs with men younger than her made her notorious all over Europe - she had a 22 year old lover at the age of 60.

One characteristic of Catherine's reign was the important role played by her lovers, or favourites. Ten men occupied this semi-official position, and at least two, Grigori Orlov and Grigori Potemkin, were important in formulating foreign and domestic policy.

Orlov was instrumental in the June 28, 1762 coup d’état against Catherine's husband, but she did not marry him, as Orlov proved inept at politics and useless when asked for advice.

Catherine had three robust sons by Gregory Orlov and an earlier son, Paul (b 1754), whom she did not much like. He may have been fathered by her former husband Peter or by one of Catherine's lovers:. Paul succeeded her to the throne as Paul I of Russia.
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Catherine's second child, Anna Petrovna, Grand Duchess of Russia died in infancy. After the funeral, Catherine never mentioned her dead daughter again, having always preferred male offspring.

Grigori Potemkin (1739-91) was for 20 years Catherine's chief advisor. Boorish, pot-bellied, he was a fat drunkard with a discoloured, blotched complexion and his left eye was useless, half closed so  he was known as Cyclops. He had a grotesque facial tick and was dirty and smelly with fingernails chewed to the core, quick tempered. Potemkin's  uncouth behavior shocked the court, but he showed himself capable of suitable formality when necessary.A gifted mimic, Catherine declared him to be "one of the greatest, wittiest and most original eccentrics of this iron century."

Potemkin distinguished himself with Turkey over control of Crimea and improved Russia's naval power. During their long relationship they each took in other lovers, Catherine's were picked for her by Potemkin to occupy her during his absences in the south.

Catherine toured Crimea in 1787 down the River Dniepp. Potemkin erected whole sham villages to impress the Queen and delude her about conditions in the hinterlands. After she had looked round they were dismantled. Potemkin persuaded the peasants in the existing villages to clean the streets, paint the fronts of their houses, wear their best clothes and smile. The Empress never saw their true miserable, pathetic conditions.

Catherine was a devotee of Italian music and during her reign the earliest printed editions of native Russian folk music were seen. However she was tone deaf and sang off key.

Catherine collected antiques and paintings and brought Sir Robert Walpole's great collection of art.

The Hermitage in Saint Petersburg started off as a retreat where Catherine kept her extensive collection of paintings, drawings and sculptures.

Catherine owned the most celebrated earthenware service of all time, which consisted of 952 pieces made by Josiah Wedgwood's company each bearing her green frog emblem. On them were painted different English landscapes all enamelled in sepia.

Catherine was one of the first people to use a fountain pen.

She entertained writers and philosophers at her court. A bookworm, Catherine's first love was her library. She wrote comedies, fiction and memoirs, while cultivating such figures of the Enlightenment as the rationalist Diderot and Voltaire, French encyclopedists who later cemented her reputation in their writings.

She corresponded with Voltaire once writing to him: "Since 1746, I have been under the greatest obligations to you. Before that period I read nothing but romances ... I have ... no desire for books less well written than yours."

Oil on canvas portrait of Empress Catherine the Great by Russian painter Fyodor Rokotov

In 1767, a smallpox epidemic in Siberia wiped out some 20,000 people. Voltaire suggested that Catherine summoned the Quaker and inoculator Thomas Dimsdale to inoculate her and her son against smallpox to prove to the people that this was a safe and effective procedure. He inoculated them successfully along with 200 other Russians. The parents of the first child patient was commanded by Catherine to re-Christian him "Vaccinoff".

Catherine established the first Russian College of Medicine, and hospitals for civilians.

Catherine and Potemkin traveled with a portable garden, borne by serfs, which was planted wherever they stopped for the night.

Catherine once took such a liking to a primrose in the palace garden that she ordered a sentry to guard the plant day and night.

Catherine sponsored the first school for girls in Russia and established a system of elementary schools.

Catherine composed this epitaph for herself in the middle of her reign: "She wished to do good and strove to introduce happiness, freedom and prosperity."

Catherine II of Russia by Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder Wikipedia Commons {{PD-US}}

Catherine relaxed by being tickled, especially by young courtiers.

The Empress sometimes diverted the court with a parlor trick of her own - Catherine could wiggle her ears.

She'd travel between St Petersburg and Moscow in a fleet of seven barges painted gold and scarlet, each with an orchestra, a library and a dining table that sat 70.

In 1764 Catherine placed Stanisław Poniatowski, her former lover, on the Polish throne. When he encouraged Catholic and political reform, the orthodox Catherine sent the troops in and massacred 20,000 Catholics and Jews.

In 1785 Catherine declared that Jews were officially foreigners, with foreigners’ rights. This re-established the separate identity that Judaism maintained in Russia throughout the Jewish period of failed assimilation.

After the French Revolution Catherine rejected many principles of the Enlightenment that she had once viewed favourably and became critical of Liberal attitudes.

Portrait of Catherine in an advanced age, with the Chesme Column in the background

During her reign Russia extended its borders to include part of Turkey, Poland and Sweden. Catherine added 200,000 square miles giving Russia access to the Black Sea and 7 million people to her empire.

Catherine died on November 17, 1796 in St Petersburg of a stroke, straining to overcome constipation, whilst sitting on her night stool in her palace. She was buried at the St Peter and St Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg.

Catherine's will gave specific instructions should she die: "Lay out my corpse dressed in white, with a golden crown on my head, and on it inscribe my Christian name. Mourning dress is to be worn for six months, and no longer: the shorter the better." In the end, the Empress was laid to rest with a gold crown on her head and clothed in a silver brocade dress.

Sources  Chronicle of the World,  The Alarming Story of Medicine by Richard Gordon

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