The Ghosts Among Us
By Fred Mittag
Catherine the Great (1729-1796)
Catherine was both a lusty and a brilliant woman. She excelled in all her studies, but her childhood was unhappy. Her father was a stern Lutheran and her mother was cold and indifferent.
Marriages were matters of state, and because of the reach of bloodlines, rulers often came from other lands. Needing an heir, Empress Elizabeth of Russia adopted a German prince named Peter. He had been orphaned and was her nephew. Peter had a terrible childhood, because he had been turned over to a cruel man who had no idea how to rear and teach children. Peter was beaten daily in public and went without meals. His upbringing retarded both his physical and mental development.
When Peter arrived in Russia, Elizabeth needed to arrange a marriage to create a line of succession, so she sent for Catherine, a German princess and Peter’s second cousin. Peter was happy that Catherine had arrived, but he behaved childishly, as though they were playmates. Catherine found him boring. Peter contracted smallpox, but he survived – with a badly scarred face. Catherine betrayed her shock, and Peter never got over it, thinking he was too ugly for her.
Elizabeth spent months planning the most extravagant wedding for Peter and Catherine that Europe had ever seen. The British ambassador reported that he had never seen anything like it. Catherine had no idea what a nude boy might look like. She had a slumber party for her young ladies-in-waiting and asked them, but they, too, were innocent about how the two sexes differ. When the slumber party failed to inform her, Catherine asked her mother about boys, but her mother severely scolded her for her “indecent curiosity.”
After the wedding festivities, older ladies put Catherine in her marriage bed with a beautiful gown. She begged them not to leave, but they told her they must go and she must await Peter. Two hours passed and then one of the ladies came to Catherine and told her Peter had ordered something to eat. When he finally came to bed, he laughed nervously and went to sleep. Catherine by this time was 16 and Peter was 17. Catherine wrote in her Memoirs “ And matters remained in this state without the slightest change during the following nine years.”
In those years, Catherine gained admiration in the Russian court. She was quick and eager at learning Russian, converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, and gained herself loyal allies and friends.
When Empress Elizabeth died, Catherine’s husband became Peter III. He was foolishly incompetent and was overthrown within six months by palace guards and forced to abdicate. Catherine was declared the Empress of Russia and Peter was sent to another place where he was assassinated at age 34.
Catherine’s reign was the Golden Age of the Russian Empire. Through conquest and diplomacy she made Russia a major European power. She was a patron of the arts and she herself wrote comedies, fiction, and memoirs, and she maintained a correspondence with French writers, including Voltaire. She brought the European Enlightenment to Russia and expanded universities to increase the number of Russian scientists.
Catherine took many lovers throughout her long reign, often after they had been tested by ladies of her court in a selection process to ensure quality. (Rank has its privileges.) She always showed generosity toward them, even after she ended the affair, and granted them pensions, land, and serfs. She repaired her bridal innocence with a vengeance and was quite open about it, generating jokes that still survive in legend.
Catherine the Great died of a stroke at 67.