Catherine, the Greatest. Selfpolished Diamond of the Hermitage

The last woman to rule Russia

‘Here lies Catherine the Great born in Stettin on 21 April 1729. In the year 1744, she went to Russia to marry Peter III. At the age of fourteen, she made the threefold resolution to please her husband, Elizabeth and the nation. She stopped at nothing to achieve this. Eighteen years of boredom and loneliness gave her the opportunity to read many books of all sorts. When she came to the throne of Russia, she wished to do what was good for her country and tried to bring happiness, liberty and prosperity to her subjects. She forgave easily and hated no one. She was good-natured, easy-going, cheerful, and had a republican spirit and a good heart. She made friends, took pleasure in her work, loved art and was sociable by nature.’
The empress wrote this mock epitaph for herself shortly before her sixtieth birthday.

In her day, Catherine was considered a great authority. The French writer and philosopher Voltaire, who corresponded with her, called her ‘the shining star of the North’. The French ambassador, the Comte de Ségur, spoke of her exceptional talents, her keen intellect, her greatness and her charm. She was intelligent and energetic, possessed subtle insight into human nature and knew how to win people over to her side. She surrounded herself with devoted and talented individuals and used their gifts for the good of the state. But her contemporaries also saw the dark side of her personality. Emperor Joseph II, the ruler of Austria, once wrote, ‘Vanity is her idol; success and flattery have spoiled her.’ The French Baron Corberon added, ‘Catherine is a hypocrite without equal! She is pious, gentle, proud, majestic, kind – but deep in her heart, she is true to herself alone and pursues only her own interests, resorting to any means necessary to achieve them.’
Sophia Auguste Frederika van Anhalt-Zerbst, the daughter of a German princeling, became – in defiance of all logic – the Empress of Russia and Europe's most powerful ruler. Catherine had no official claim to the throne, yet she held sway over the vast Russian Empire for more than thirty-five years, from 1762 to 1796. Her reign was undeniably a time of stability, an period of national power and glory and a golden age in the history of the Russian court. Like Peter I, she acquired the title 'the Great' during her lifetime.

Unidentified artist, after an original by Mikhail Shibanov of 1787, Portrait of Catherine the Great in Travelling Costume, after 1787
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Her childhood

Sophia was born in a merchant’s house in Stettin on 21 April 1729, to Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst and Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. She had a younger brother, Wilhelm Christian, and a younger sister, Elisabeth. Sophia was an inquisitive and very energetic child. She soon proved to be a born leader, taking control of her afternoon games with neighbour children. Her governess, Babet Cardel, taught her French and exposed her to the work of Corneille, Racine and Molière. As a child, she was dominated by her strict mother, who regarded Sophia as a proud, rebellious girl to be forced into submission and married off to a suitable husband. Sophia’s mother saw her eldest daughter as ugly and impertinent, and favoured her son, giving him preferential treatment. At the age of ten, Sophia was introduced to Karl Peter Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp, a distant cousin. The two of them seemed made for each other; years later, they were married.

Georg Caspar Prenner, Portrait of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, c. 1754
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Her unhappy life and marriage in the shadow of Empress Elizabeth

Catherine came to Russia by chance. The year 1741 brought the third palace coup in St Petersburg after the death of Peter the Great. Peter’s daughter Elizabeth declared herself empress, with the support of the imperial guard. Being unmarried and childless, Elizabeth chose an successor to the throne as soon as she was crowned in Moscow. This was her nephew Karl Peter Ulrich, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp. He was the grandson of Peter the Great and the son of Elizabeth’s sister Anna Petrovna, whom Peter had married off to Duke Karl Friedrich of Holstein-Gottorp. As soon as Karl Peter Ulrich had been chosen, the hunt for a suitable bride began. After a long search, Elizabeth settled on Sophia, who had met young Peter in her childhood. Elizabeth assumed that Sophia and her family members, who had no clout in European politics, would make little trouble for Elizabeth or for Russia. The lavish wedding took place in 1745. He, who had received the title of Grand Duke Pyotr Fyodorovich, was seventeen years old. She, now Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alexeevna, was sixteen.
Soon after the wedding, their relationship deteriorated. The two spouses were very different and never became intimate. They also had contrasting perspectives on Russia. The grand duke did not have a strong character. Despite his youth, he was often drunk, and his only interest was in military exercises and playing with soldiers. Since childhood, he had been a fervent admirer of the King Frederick the Great of Prussia. In Catherine's eyes, he was mentally and physically underdeveloped, and small-minded to boot. She quickly lost her respect for him and gradually even came to despise him openly.
In 1754 Catherine gave birth to a son, Paul. It is possible that his father was not Peter, but Catherine's first lover Sergey Saltykov. Empress Elizabeth took the child away from Catherine and had him raised under her supervision. Once Catherine had done the job required, Elizabeth no longer had any need of her. Tension mounted between Catherine and the empress; sometimes Elizabeth would not speak to her for months. Meanwhile, the contrast between the ineffectual future tsar and his wife was growing ever clearer. She charmed the courtiers with her erudition and practical intelligence. Elizabeth suspected Catherine of hatching a conspiracy and forbade her to correspond with anyone, even her mother. She was excluded from court life, and her existence in Russia seemed to be turning into a nightmare. Yet thanks to her stubborn, persevering nature, these setbacks only fuelled her secret dream of winning the throne for herself. It was clear to her that Peter was completely unqualified to rule the country.

Ring with monogram of Catherine the Great, France, unidentified master, late 18th century
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Anticipating the future and preparing in secret

Catherine and Peter spent the spring and summer in the palace complexes of Oranienbaum and Peterhof outside St Petersburg. There she learned to ride and gained a profound understanding of Russia, immersing herself in the history of the country and the world, as well as in philosophy and politics. She devoured books, reading Cicero, Plato, Tacitus, Montesquieu and Voltaire. At the same time, she was in contact with numerous political leaders and influential figures, including Frederick the Great and her own mother, who had been expelled from Russia as a conspirator and a 'spy for Frederick'. Catherine was ambitious and forward looking. Ever since her arrival in Russia, she had kept close track of Elizabeth's domestic and foreign policies. She went to great lengths to make the best possible impression and assembled a circle of people she could trust. One of Catherine’s greatest talents was her ability to win over competent, bold and dedicated individuals: statesmen and stateswomen, military leaders and diplomats. Her early allies included Count Kirill Razumovsky, Nikita Panin (her son Paul’s tutor), Ekaterina Dashkova and the brothers Alexey and Grigory Orlov. She was a master of intrigue and skilfully turned her husband’s blunders to her own advantage. She also strictly observed all court traditions and the rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church, despite her lack of religious faith. When Elizabeth died in December 1761, Catherine spent many hours at her coffin, thus winning the sincere admiration of the people around her. In contrast, Pyotr Fyodorovich laughed and flirted with other ladies as he stood in church beside the dead body of the empress.

Her coup and coronation

Peter became Emperor Peter III in January 1762. It rapidly became clear that he would act as the loyal vassal of King Frederick the Great of Prussia. By making peace with Frederick, Peter ended the Seven Years' War with Prussia, which Russia had been winning. This brought Elizabeth's foreign policies to an abrupt end. Because Peter did not trust the Russian imperial guard, he surrounded himself with soldiers from Holstein (his region of birth in northern Germany), again offending the Russian officers who had fought in the Seven Years’ War. In June 1762, during a banquet in honour of the peace treaty with Prussia, Peter publicly insulted his wife, accusing her of a lack of respect for Holstein. He called her an idiot and demanded her arrest, but one of his uncles managed to persuade him to rescind the order.
Catherine decided that it was time to act. Her allies had already planned the coup. On the morning of Friday 28 June 1762, Catherine was woken early by Alexey Orlov, who told her, ‘It is time.’ Wearing a military uniform, she went from her country residence in Peterhof to St Petersburg, where she was met by imperial guards and regiments. Nevsky Prospect, the city’s main thoroughfare, was packed with demonstrators. Catherine was declared the sovereign empress, and her seven-year-old son Paul was confirmed as heir to the throne. Then the new tsarina took the oath of office in the Winter Palace. When Catherine made an appearance on the palace balcony, she was greeted by a cheering crowd. In one of the many chaotic moments that day, a young soldier approached her from the crowd and handed her a sword knot that was missing from her uniform. She laughed and asked what his name was. It was Grigory Potemkin, and his audacious act would not be forgotten.
The next day, the deposed Tsar Peter III was arrested and exiled. Three weeks later, he was strangled by the officers who were guarding him. One of them is thought to have been Alexey Orlov.
In September 1762, Catherine was crowned in the Kremlin in Moscow. After eighteen difficult years of preparing in secret and honing her skills, her labours had finally borne fruit. She had ascended to power with the support of the army, the church, much of the aristocracy and the people of St Petersburg. Thus began Catherine the Great's 34-year reign.

Catherine, an enlightened despot

During the coup, Catherine showed courage and determination. Once on the throne, she showed an open mind, and her political ideals were based on rationality and efficiency. She also had a sense of humour. Her knowledge and understanding of the political scene was faultless, and she took an interest in culture and the arts and sciences. She always aimed to keep up with all affairs of state. Industry and agriculture, state institutions, the army and navy, health care and education, the justice system, science, literature and art – it is hard to think of an area that she did not look into personally. Catherine began her reign with radical plans for reforming Russia. In a manifesto of July 1762, she promised to rule as an Enlightenment monarch, recognising the primacy of the state system and putting an end to the arbitrary exercise of authority. Not long after that, she presented the Nakaz, a statement of principles for state leaders. This ‘Instruction’, on which the empress had worked for two years, was based on Montesquieu’s famous De l’esprit des lois (‘The Spirit of the Laws’) and other major works of Enlightenment philosophy. Yet its main tenets were far ahead of their time, and very distant from the realities of Russian life.
Catherine pressed on with many reforms, but her attempts to abolish serfdom and establish the rule of law, and the equality of all citizens before the law, met with fierce resistance from the aristocracy. Realising she could not win the battle, she was quick to withdraw those proposals. She acknowledged all the rights of the ruling aristocratic class and even exempted its members from compulsory service to the state. The document said nothing about the situation of the peasants living in serfdom. Their status remained the same: they could not escape compulsory service to the aristocracy. Partly for that reason, the friction between social classes increased and led to uprisings. Pugachev's Rebellion, a violent revolt in 1773-74, was the greatest threat to Catherine’s rule. In the process of quelling it, she realised once and for all that the aristocracy formed her greatest pillar of support and she had to stay in their good graces. Enlightenment principles could not be applied directly to a population that was underdeveloped and, in large part, illiterate, so Catherine put her ideas on ice.
But whenever matters of state did not intervene, Catherine remained a believer in Enlightenment philosophy. She had been interested in Enlightenment principles since her youth, and they had provided the basis for her initial plans. For many years she corresponded with Voltaire, and after his death in 1778, she bought his enormous library (6,000 books, now in the National Library in St Petersburg). Yet in practice her politics became quite conservative, a far cry from Enlightenment ideology. She concentrated on expanding the Empire and enriching Russian culture.

Peter the Great and foreign affairs

Peter the Great was Catherine’s hero and model of statesmanship. She made it her mission to continue his work. Like Peter, she took an active approach to governing the state. Her efforts were focused on resolving urgent issues. Also like Peter, Catherine saw it as crucial to the success of her policies to encourage the arts and sciences, improve the educational system and expand trade. The equestrian statue of Peter the Great that was ceremonially unveiled in St Petersburg in 1782 bore a symbolic inscription in Russian and Latin: ‘From Catherine II to Peter I’.

In foreign policy, Catherine adopted Peter the Great’s doctrine of acquiring access to the Black Sea, expanding westward, and consolidating access to the Baltic. Catherine made progress on all three fronts.
- After a series of resounding victories in the Russo-Turkish wars of 1768–74 and 1787–92, she added several territories to Russia, such as the Crimea and the North Caucasus. This gave Russia a secure foothold on the Black Sea.
- Relations with Prussia were normalised. Catherine no longer treated Frederick the Great as an enemy, and was even on friendly terms with him.
- Stanisław Poniatowski, Catherine's chosen favourite, was crowned King Stanisław II of Poland in September 1764. It was public knowledge that he was Catherine's puppet; she joked that he was her 'wax doll'. He stood by, virtually powerless, when his country was divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria in 1772, 1793 and 1795. After the Third Partition, Poland no longer existed, and Catherine’s empire extended far to the west.
- She also cemented Russian access to the Baltic, which had long been blocked by Sweden until Peter the Great had conquered coastal territories.

Catherine’s secretary Adrian Gribovsky once described the empress's daily routine at the age of 66: ‘She rises at seven, drinks one cup of extremely strong black coffee, and remains in her study, writing, until nine o’ clock. From nine to twelve, she listens to reports from her officials. At two o’ clock, she has her midday meal, after which she goes through the post and reads books. At six o' clock the people staying in the Hermitage gather to pass the evening together. Sometimes, guests are invited to the empress's chambers until ten o' clock, when she retires. One of the rituals of these evening gatherings is a visit to the court theatre. At eleven she goes to bed.

Art and propaganda

Catherine was seriously involved in architectural projects and in collecting art – at first, mainly paintings. Her first major purchase, in 1764, was of 317 paintings from the collection of the rich Berlin merchant and businessman Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky. She snatched away these paintings from Frederick the Great, who had been the intended buyer but could not pay for them at that time. Catherine’s purchase was the first step towards the foundation of the Hermitage.
From 1766 onwards, she regularly bought large collections of art works with the help of expert advisors such as her representatives in Europe – Count Alexander Stroganov, Count Ivan Shuvalov and Prince Dmitry Golitsyn – and her foreign friends Friedrich Melchior von Grimm and Denis Diderot. She purchased works by all the great painters of the day and of earlier periods. The exhibition includes works that she acquired by Reni, Pittoni, Van Dyck, Teniers the Younger, Greuze and Mengs. Not all her purchases made it into the Hermitage. In a tragic incident in 1771, paintings she had bought from the Braamcamp collection were lost in a shipwreck of the coast on Finland. These included works by Brueghel, Ter Borch and Steen. Catherine's greatest personal passion was collecting cameos. By 1794, she owned more than 10,000 of them. A few dozen remarkable examples are included in the exhibition. During Catherine’s reign, St Petersburg became a stately city, and the opulent baroque style made way for the dignified restraint of classicism. Palaces, churches and government buildings popped up everywhere, and intellectual life flourished. In 1783, the Russian Academy was founded in St Petersburg as a centre of Russian linguistics. The Academy’s first president was a woman, Princess Ekaterina Dashkova, Catherine’s long-time ally. That same year saw the construction of the Bolshoy or Great Theatre, later subsumed into the Mariinsky Theatre. Catherine closely monitored the activities of many educational institutions, regarding the Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Fine Arts founded under Elizabeth as critical to the evolution of Russian culture.
During her reign, art became a powerful tool for political propaganda. The successes of her foreign policies found full expression in the work of the great artists of her day, as did another theme close to Catherine's heart: her status as the successor to Peter the Great. She expected works of art not only to glorify her reign, but also to create an image of her as an enlightened monarch and the ruler of one of Europe's most powerful states.

Domenichino (Domenico Zampieri), Maria Magdalene Taken up to Heaven, c. 1620
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Her favourites

Favouritism was not limited to the Russian court. In that respect, Catherine was a child of her time. Despite the many legends, Catherine did not have that many favourite men in her life. Most of them played a pivotal role, both private and politically.
Her great favourite was Grigory Potemkin, for whom she always had the greatest affection and respect, even after their relationship ended. Potemkin was a leading statesman. As commander-in-chief, he led the Russian military to great victory over Turkey and pushed the country’s borders further south. He was one of the few people Catherine fully trusted and who really supported her. Potemkin’s death in 1791 was a great blow for Catherine. ‘From now on, the burden of government is solely on my shoulders’.

In the 1790s, Catherine's health went into decline; she became corpulent and short of breath and had difficulty walking, but still worked hard. She usually spent the summer in her beloved residence of Tsarskoye Selo, often strolling through the palace park with her favourite dogs. She dressed very simply. The French painter Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun had this memory of the empress a year before she died: ‘I was at first extremely surprised to find her short; I had imagined her a great height – something like her renown. She was very stout, but still had a handsome face, which her white hair framed to perfection. Genius seemed to have its seat on her broad, high forehead. Her eyes were soft and small, her nose was quite Greek, her complexion lively, and her features very mobile. Catherine, the Greatest died of a stroke in November 1796 at the age of 67.

Fyodor Rokotov after Alexander Roslin, Portrait of Catherine the Great, 1780–90 (original 1777–78). Oil on canvas
Vigilius Eriksen, Portrait of Catherine the Great on Horseback, 1762. Oil on canvas
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

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