Catherine the Great
( Panting by Johann Baptist Lompi the Elder - 1793 )
Catherine the Great
In England the period of the New Monarchy from Edward IV to Elizabeth, in France the great Bourbon period from Henry IV to Louis XIV in Spain the epoch which extends from Ferdinand to Philip II, in Russia the rule of Peter the Great and Catherine were the time in which these nations reached their maturity, formed fully and confirmed their spirit and attained to a robust organisation. And all these were periods of absolutism or of movement to absolutism and a certain foundation of uniformity or attempt to found it. This absolutism clothed already in its more primitive garb the reviving idea of the State and its right to impose its will on the life and thought and conscience of the people so as to make it one single, undivided, perfectly efficient and perfectly directed mind and body.
Sri Aurobindo — The Ideal of Human Unity
Catherine was born in 1729, as Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, the elder daughter of an obscure, noble German family. She died in 1796 as Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia.
At the age of 14, she was summoned to the Russian court by the Empress Elisabeth, to be groomed as the future bride of the Grand Duke Peter, son of Elisabeth and heir to the throne. Falling in love with her new country, and its people, she identified fully with it, revoking her austere Lutheran faith and whole-heartedly
embracing the orthodox religion. For years, conscious of being no ordinary woman, she had nursed, deep within, the ambition to be great and do great things. Russia became her opportunity.
At the age of 33, she came to the throne and reigned 34 years, driven by a prodigious, superhuman life-force, which made the second half of her life undoubtedly the most spectacular, the most well- known, and the most brilliant, not only in Russia but throughout eighteen-century Europe.
Gradually stripping away her prejudices, scruples¹ and sense of shame, beliefs and principles of the past, she realised a dream few women in history have achieved: to rule as the absolute monarch² of a great nation, that owed her crown neither to hereditary rights nor to the love of a reigning sovereign. As she herself said, she was a self-made woman, for the Grand Duke's wife might have easily suffered the fate of so many other princesses who were the victims of an unhappy marriage and court intrigues. She affirms it loudly in her memoirs: she struggled hard to maintain her position and survive; she did not go insane, she did not die of grief; she spent eighteen years allowing people to trample on her heart, swallowing insults, gritting her teeth, steeling her nerves and forging a heart of iron.
Power once hers, she strove first and foremost to keep it. When her authority was assured, she gave herself up to her passion for ruling with an eagerness and a fervour that compel admiration: ten, twelve, fourteen hours of work a day: meetings of the Senate, councils of ministers, personally controlling all the machinery of government. Catherine insisted on being her own minister of finance, of war, of home and foreign affairs. Her ministers were to carry out her orders and were only occasionally called upon to advise her. She would read each paper submitted for her signature (she speaks with contempt of Elizabeth who nearly always signed without reading). She carried out after her own diplomacy through personal correspondence with all reigning monarchs. She would make it
¹ .Scruple: (often pl,) doubt or hesitation as to what is morally right.
²Absolute monarch: having unlimited authority; despotic.
her business to bring some order into the more than chaotic legislation of her empire and would convene a commission, a kind of parliamentary assembly, with the purpose of finding out the country's real needs and providing a fresh basis for legislation. All her life she was to be seized by sudden bouts of "legislation mania”, but she legislated alone.
Her equally great passion for building filled her capital, St. Petersburg, with magnificent stone edifices and the periphery of both St. Petersburg and Moscow with delightful palaces, country houses and parks. She also had a mania for collecting works of art, paintings, statues, carpets, gold and ebony work, coins, precious stones and so forth; her busy agents, recruited from among the best in Europe, literally stripped the private collections of France, England and Italy.
She was also to become an enlightened Maecena, the patron of poets, writers and philosophers, from whom she asked nothing in return but a bit of flattery. She built schools and hospitals, and busied herself with making textbooks for Russian children. Better still, she became a writer and authored satirical comedies and moral fables. She edited a literary review, the very first in Russia. She organized drama performances. In her palace, whose splendour outshone that of Versailles¹, she entertained lavishly, even beyond the dreams of Louis XIV² .
Besides all this activity, she conducted long and ruinous, expensive wars against Turkey. Although present only in the person of her generals, she controlled the day-to-day operations and communicated by means of a voluminous correspondence with the heads of her armies. Her victories were also an excuse for stage-managed, lavish celebrations, the scale of which the most ambitious film directors of our times could hardly dare to imagine.
Thus she took a personal interest in everything, which did not
¹ Versailles: a city in North central France, near Paris: site of an elaborate royal residence built for Louis XIV; seat of the French kings (1682-1789).
² Louis XIV: known as le Roi Soleil (the Sun King). 1638-1715, king of France (1643-1715). Effective ruler from 1661, he established an absolute monarchy. His reign is regarded as a golden age of French literature and art.
prevent her from keeping up a lively correspondence with such illustrious friends as Voltaire, Diderot, Madame Geoffrin, and Baron Melchior von Grimm. To Grimm more than anyone else she poured out her thoughts and feelings, but she wrote to all letters ten or twenty pages long, for letter writing was another of her devouring passions.
In her private life, this husbandless woman did not pretend and was always lucid and honest about her nature's needs. Her great love remained Potemkin, intellectually her superior, an exceptional partner on many levels, and whom she sorely missed when he passed.
It was for everyone to see, especially diplomats, how her achievements in all directions were dictated by a genuine will to do the right thing. The opulence, she regarded as essential, had to be real. She managed to acquire it at the cost of incessanteffort. Her decrees show a remarkable good sense, especially coming from a woman who was not a trained political economist. She succeeded in reorganizing trade; she managed to rebuild and repopulate practically dead cities, to centralize administration and colonize desert provinces. In all of this, it is true she was assisted by Potemkin, who was an exceptionally able man.
Under her rule, Russia acquired new territories totalling a quarter of the area of European Russia; she created outlets to the Black Sea and the Baltic, doubled the strength of the army and the Russian fleet, and expanded trade. During her reign, Russia exported twice as much as in the time of Elizabeth and imported three times more. Thanks to her imperialist and expansionist policies, based on long-term planning, she succeeded' in making Russia a much wealthier and more powerful country than it had been under her predecessors.
It is hardly possible, for us today, to fathom the display of the richness of Catherine's palaces — the splendour of which today only still dazzling traces remain —, the pictures and descriptions by admiring contemporaries portraying entertainments worthy of the Thousand and One Nights, in short, what the day to day pomp of this life may have been like for hundreds of privileged people
Catherine the Great in 1694, two years before her death
(Painting by Vladimir Borovikosky)
who lived and moved in this setting of almost unbearable luxury.
Yet, little imagination is needed w see we other side of we picture which calls for questions: where did all this money come from? Whose hands built, decorated and maintained all this? Catherine was not a miracle-doer. She did attempt a reform of serfdom¹, but did not succeed and the situation of the poor grew worse. For the truth is that never before had greater luxury, wealth and refinement been based on such an exploitation of a people’s misery and humble submission. A people whose backwardness she as an autocrat and absolutist ruler of her time did not understand nor accept; as late in life she would not understand the French Revolution and, horrified by the fate dealt to the French crowned heads, would part altogether with Voltaire's ideas which she had earlier endorsed and promoted.
She, the woman, who through her fortunate wars (and the fortunate partition of Poland), through the fairylike brilliance of her court, her refined tastes and broad culture, was also to wrest her country from Turkish influence, thereby bringing up Russia as a modern state among the great-powers of Europe. She, who nurtured Russian culture to its flowering, gave her name to a whole era of Russian history and has been, in the generally accepted meaning of the term, a great monarch.
¹Serf: (esp. in medieval Europe) an unfree person, esp. one bound to the land. If his lord sold the land, the serf was passed on to the new landlord.