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Catherine the Great was a warrior empress with literary taste

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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This edited article about Catherine the Great first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Catherine the Great,  picture, image, illustrationv

Supported by loyal troops Catherine took Czar Peter prisoner and became ruler of Russia, by C L Doughty

It was midnight at the prison of Ropsha in St. Petersburg. In the largest of the stone cells a man, still dressed, sat on his bed listening to the sounds of revelry and laughter from along the corridor. The noise sounded strangely ominous to him. He pulled his white silk scarf tighter about his neck to warm himself against the chill of the room, and shivered back against the pillows.

This man, until a few weeks ago, had been Peter the Third, Czar of all Russia. Then the Russian army had deposed him and proclaimed Catherine, his wife, as sole ruler. Now he was a prisoner. But a very favoured prisoner. He had been allowed his violin and his favourite dog. And when Peter had complained about not being able to sleep, Catherine had ordered that his own bed should be taken from the Palace to Ropsha prison to make his nights more comfortable.

Suddenly the noise grew louder and there were footsteps in the corridor. Then the door burst open and the room was filled with prison guards. At their head, Peter recognised Alexis Orlov – his most dreaded enemy, and one of the men who had led the revolt that had toppled him from the throne.

The guards had obviously been drinking. They danced and sang bawdy songs round his bed. Orlov held out a glass to Peter and filled it with wine. “It’s a party in your honour,” he said but there was a hint of mockery in his eyes.

Then, as Peter took the glass, a sudden brawl broke out. Two of the guards started fighting and fell across Peter’s bed. It was as if it had been arranged. Immediately Orlov sprang upon them as though to tear them apart. Instead, his hands fastened on Peter’s white silk scarf, pulling tightly at the ends. Within a few minutes, Peter the Third was dead.

A message was sent to Catherine. It told her that the ex-Czar of Russia, her husband, had been accidentally killed in a drunken brawl. She received the news calmly and informed the Russian people that her husband had died of natural causes.

Catherine was indeed now sole ruler of Russia.

Catherine had once been an obscure German princess. Her marriage had been arranged for her by Peter’s aunt, the Empress Elizabeth of Russia. When Elizabeth had died, Peter had become Czar. But his ways did not please the Russian people. And so the Russian army led a revolt and Peter was deposed.

But Peter, while he was still alive, remained a threat to Catherine, even though he was a prisoner. Catherine made her worries known to the Orlov brothers. She gave no orders. There was no need of them. Alexis Orlov understood only too well. And so, even before Catherine was crowned, Peter had been eliminated.

This was the woman who was to be known in history as Catherine the Great. And “great” she certainly was, for she was responsible for a vast expansion of Russian territory, turning a country into an Empire. Yet the early years of her reign were not without their troubles. There was much unrest amongst the Russian peasants, particularly in the south. Eventually, a leader emerged. His name was Pugachev. He formed the peasants into an army. Gradually he acquired control of part of the south. Catherine chose to ignore him, thinking that this tiresome rebellion would burn itself out. But then Pugachev pronounced himself to be the real Peter the Third, saying that the man who had died in Ropsha prison had been an impostor. He even set up his own royal Court.

This was too much for Catherine to tolerate. She immediately despatched her loyal army against Pugachev. The rebel forces were beaten into retreat but Pugachev managed to escape. Nevertheless, those closest to him were worried. Their own lives could be at stake. And so they betrayed the whereabouts of Pugachev in return for their own safety.

Pugachev was captured. Catherine was not content with merely this. The rebel leader had to be publicly humiliated. And so a special iron cage was built in which Pugachev was placed. He was taken in this cage to Moscow, and in every town and village through which he passed, the people were made to turn out and watch. Catherine wanted to make sure that the Russian people knew what would happen to anybody else who tried to rebel against her.

When the encaged Pugachev reached Moscow, he was placed on trial. It was only a formality. He was found guilty and was publicly beheaded.

Although Catherine never remarried, she had many admirers. The most famous of these was Potemkin, a brave and famous soldier who became a legend in his own lifetime. Although others came and went, Potemkin remained a constant favourite of Catherine. The Orlov brothers were jealous of this relationship and Potemkin became involved with them in a brawl during which he lost the sight of one eye. He retired to his private estate and it was a year and a half before Catherine could persuade him to come back to the Imperial Court and public life. They remained devoted friends from then on, and it was said that Potemkin was virtually co-Regent of Russia, acting as Catherine’s adviser in all matters. Certainly, when he died in 1791, Catherine was inconsolable and shut herself away for many weeks.

Catherine liked to dress magnificently, and her rich jewels and diamonds were renowned. Indeed, she loved all fine things. Her reign became a golden age of art and architecture, and she was responsible for a great deal of cultural and scientific development.

But literature and the theatre were Catherine’s greatest interests. She revived the Russian theatre and introduced the works of Shakespeare to the Russian people for the first time. She also loved to write herself. In fact, she wrote enough during her lifetime to fill twelve vast volumes. Most of all, she adored writing plays. In one year alone she wrote five. She seemed never to be happy unless she had her quill pen in her hand. But though her plays were produced and seemingly enjoyed, her work lacked talent. For one thing, because of her German birth and upbringing, she never really mastered the Russian language.

Catherine’s relationship with her son, Paul, was an unhappy one. He had been born when the Empress Elizabeth had been alive and he had immediately been taken from her to be brought up by the Empress. Catherine had always resented Elizabeth for this, and after Elizabeth’s death she transferred this resentment to her son, treating him with contempt and disinterest.

At the age of 19, Paul married a Prussian princess – Maria. A little later a son was born, Alexander. Catherine now seemed to take a delight in inflicting upon Paul what Elizabeth had inflicted upon her. She took the child away from his parents and brought him up herself, doting upon him. In the back of her mind was the thought that she would disown Paul and name her grandson, Alexander, as the next Czar of Russia.

But this she was never to do.

All her life, Catherine had enjoyed good health. Then, without any warning, on November 6th, 1796 Catherine had a sudden stroke. She never spoke again and was never able to name Alexander as her heir. Some 30 hours later it was all over. Catherine the Great was dead.

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