Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
526
CATHERINE II.

and, finally (1711), by her public marriage to the tsar, who divorced the tsaritsa Eudoxia to make room for her. Henceforth the new tsaritsa was her husband’s inseparable companion. She was with him during the campaign of the Pruth, and Peter always attributed the successful issue of that disastrous war to the courage and sang-froid of his consort. She was with him, too, during his earlier Caspian campaigns, and was obliged on this occasion to shear off her beautiful hair and wear a close-fitting fur cap to protect her from the rays of the sun.

By the ukaz of 1722 Catherine was proclaimed Peter’s successor, to the exclusion of the grand-duke Peter, the only son of the tsarevich Alexius, and on the 7th of May 1724 was solemnly crowned empress-consort in the Uspensky cathedral at Moscow, on which occasion she wore a crown studded with no fewer than 2564 precious stones, surmounted by a ruby, as large as a pigeon’s egg, supporting a cross of brilliants. Within a few months of this culminating triumph, she was threatened with utter ruin by the discovery of a supposed liaison with her gentleman of the bedchamber, William Mons, a handsome and unscrupulous upstart, and the brother of a former mistress of Peter. A dangerously familiar but perfectly innocent flirtation is, however, the worst that can fairly be alleged against Catherine on this occasion. So Peter also seemed to have thought, for though Mons was decapitated and his severed head, preserved in spirits, was placed in the apartments of the empress, she did not lose Peter’s favour, attended him during his last illness, and closed his eyes when he expired (January 28, 1725). She was at once raised to the throne by the party of progress, as represented by Prince Menshikov and Count Tolstoy, whose interests and perils were identical with those of the empress, before the reactionary party had time to organize opposition, her great popularity with the army powerfully contributing to her success. The arch-prelates of the Russian church, Theodosius, archbishop of Novgorod, and Theophanes, archbishop of Pskov, were also on her side for very much the same reason, both of them being unpopular innovators who felt that, at this crisis, they must stand or fall with Tolstoy and Menshikov.

The great administrative innovation of Catherine’s reign was the establishment of the Verkhovny Tainy Sovyet, or supreme privy council, by way of strengthening the executive, by concentrating affairs in the hands of a few persons, mainly of the party of Reform (Ukaz of February 26, 1726). As to the foreign policy of Catherine I. (principally directed by the astute Andrei Osterman), if purely pacific and extremely cautious, it was, nevertheless, dignified, consistent and independent. Russia, by the mere force of circumstances, now found herself opposed to England, chiefly because Catherine protected Charles Frederick, duke of Holstein, and George I. found that the Schleswig-Holstein question might be reopened to the detriment of his Hanoverian possessions. Things came to such a pass that, in the spring of 1726, an English squadron was sent to the Baltic and cast anchor before Reval. The empress vigorously protested, and the fleet was withdrawn, but on the 6th of August Catherine acceded to the anti-English Austro-Spanish league. Catherine died on the 16th of May 1727. Though quite illiterate, she was an uncommonly shrewd and sensible woman, and her imperturbable good nature under exceptionally difficult circumstances, testifies equally to the soundness of her head and the goodness of her heart.

See Robert Nisbet Bain, The Pupils of Peter the Great, chs. ii.-iii. (London, 1897); The First Romanovs, ch. xiv. (London, 1905).  (R. N. B.) 


CATHERINE II. (1729–1796), empress of Russia, was the daughter of Christian Augustus, prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, and his wife, Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. The exact date and place of her birth have been disputed, but there appears to be no reason to doubt that she was right in saying that she was born at Stettin on the 2nd of May 1729. Her father, who succeeded to the principality of Anhalt-Zerbst in 1746 and died in 1747, was a general in the Prussian service, and, at the time of her birth, was military commandant at Stettin. Her baptismal name was Sophia Augusta Frederica. In accordance with the custom then prevailing in German princely families, she was educated chiefly by French governesses and tutors. In 1744 she was taken to Russia, to be affianced to the grand-duke Peter, the nephew of the empress Elizabeth (q.v.), and her recognized heir. The princess of Anhalt-Zerbst was the daughter of Christian Albert, bishop of Lübeck, younger brother of Frederick IV., duke of Holstein-Gottorp, Peter’s paternal grandfather. The choice of her daughter as wife of the future tsar was the result of not a little diplomatic management in which Frederick the Great took an active part, the object being to strengthen the friendship between Prussia and Russia, to weaken the influence of Austria and to ruin the chancellor Bestuzhev, on whom Elizabeth relied, and who was a known partisan of the Austrian alliance. The diplomatic intrigue failed, largely through the flighty intervention of the princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, a clever but very injudicious woman. But Elizabeth took a strong liking to the daughter, and the marriage was finally decided on. The girl had spared no effort to ingratiate herself, not only with the empress, but with the grand-duke and the Russian people. She applied herself to learning the language with such zeal that she rose at night and walked about her bedroom barefoot repeating her lessons. The result was a severe attack of congestion of the lungs in March 1744. During the worst period of her illness she completed her conquest of the good-will of the Russians by declining the religious services of a Protestant pastor, and sending for Simon Todorskiy, the orthodox priest who had been appointed to instruct her in the Greek form of Christianity. When she wrote her memoirs she represented herself as having made up her mind when she came to Russia to do whatever had to be done, and to profess to believe whatever she was required to believe, in order to be qualified to wear the crown. The consistency of her character throughout life makes it highly probable that even at the age of fifteen she was mature enough to adopt this worldly-wise line of conduct. Her father, who was a convinced Lutheran, was strongly opposed to his daughter’s conversion, and supplied her with books of controversy to protect her Protestantism. She read them, and she listened to Todorskiy, and to other advisers who told her that the Russian crown was well worth a mass, or that the differences between the Greek and Lutheran churches were mere matters of form. On the 28th of June 1744 she was received into the Orthodox Church at Moscow, and was renamed Catherine Alexeyevna. On the following day she was formally betrothed, and was married to the archduke on the 21st of August 1745 at St Petersburg.

At that time Catherine was essentially what she was to remain till her death fifty-one years later. It was her boast that she was as “frank and original as any Englishman.” If she meant that she had a compact character, she was right. She had decided on her line in life and she followed it whole-heartedly. It was her determination to become a Russian in order that she might the better rule in Russia, and she succeeded. She acquired a full command of all the resources of the language, and a no less complete understanding of the nature of the Russian people. It is true that she remained quite impervious to religious influences. The circumstances of her conversion may have helped to render her indifferent to religion, but their influence need not be exaggerated. Her irreligion was shared by multitudes of contemporaries who had never been called upon to renounce one form of Christianity and profess belief in another in order to gain a crown. Her mere actions were, like those of other and humbler people, dictated by the conditions in which she lived. The first and the most important of them was beyond all question the misery of her married life. Her husband was a wretched creature. Nature had made him mean, the smallpox had made him hideous, and his degraded habits made him loathsome. And Peter had all the sentiments of the worst kind of small German prince of the time. He had the conviction that his princeship entitled him to disregard decency and the feelings of others. He planned brutal practical jokes, in which blows had always a share. His most manly taste did not rise above the kind of military interest which has been defined as “corporal’s