Catherine II the Great, Empress and Autocrat of All the Russias
Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst was born on 2 May 1729, in Strettin, Kingdom of Prussia. She was the daughter of Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp (24 October 1712 - 30 May 1760) and Christian August, Prince von Anhalt-Zerbst (29 November 1690 - 16 March 1747). Her maternal grandparents were Albertina Frederica of Baden-Durlach and Prince Christian August of Holstein-Gottorp (1673-1726). Her paternal grandparents were Christine Eleonore of Zeutch and John Louis I, Prince of Anhalt-Dornburg. Sophie's parents were married on 8 November 1727, in Vechelde. They had five children, her siblings were: William Christian von Anhalt-Zerbst (17 November 1730 - 27 August 1742), Frederick Augustus von Anhalt-Zerbst (8 August 1734 - 3 March 1793), Auguste Christine von Anhalt-Zerbst (10 November 1736 - 24 November 1736) and Elisabeth Ulrike von Anhalt-Zerbst (17 December 1742 -5 March 1745). Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst traveled with her mother, Johanna of Holstein-Gottorp on 9 February 1744, to Russia, at the invitation of Elizabeth, Empress and Autocrat of All the Russias (1709-1762) as the bride of the heir to the Throne, Peter Feodorovich (21 February 1728 - 17 July 1762). He was the son of the Empress sister, Anna Petrovna of Russia (27 January 1708 - 4 March 1728) and Charles Frederick, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp (30 April 1700 - 18 June 1739). Sophie was christened into the Orthodox Church as Catherine Alexeievna. Catherine Alexeievna married Peter Feodorovich on 21 August 1745, in St. Petersburg. Her father, Christian Augustus von Anhalt-Zerbst died on 16 March 1747. In 1752, Catherine took a lover, Serge Saltykov, a Russian officer. Catherine gave birth to a son, Paul of Russia in 1754.
"I beg you take courage; the brave soul can mend even disaster."
The Child of Catherine II the Great and Peter III:
Paul, Emperor of Russia (1 October 1754 - 23 March 1801)
In 1760, Catherine took a new lover, Gregory Orlov. Her mother, Johanna of Holstein-Gottorp died on 30 May 1760. Empress Elizabeth died on 25 December 1761. She was succeeded by Peter III. Catherine gave birth to a son, Aleksey on 11 April 1762.
"The more a man knows, the more he forgives."
The Child of Catherine II the Great and Count Grigory Orlov
Aleksey Grigorievich Bobrinsky (11 April 1762 - 1813)
Aleksey Grigorievich Bobrinsky (11 April 1762 - 1813)
Peter III signed a treaty with Frederick of Prussia on 24 April 1762. Within a few months the Royal guard deserted Peter III and helped Catherine gain the Throne. The coup was organized by Count Grigorii Orlov. Peter III died on 17 July 1762.
"In my position you have to read when you want to write and to talk when you would like to read."
She was crowned Catherine II, Empress of Russia on 12 September 1762. She said; "I shall be an autocrat: that's my trade. And the good Lord will forgive me: that's his." In 1763, Catherine confirmed the privileges of the nobility and established a medical commission to improve medical conditions in Russia. In 1764, Count Betskoy was commissioned to draw up plans for the education of both boys and girls. In 1766, Catherine wrote the Nakaz Instructions. In 1768, Russia declared war on Turkey. In 1771, Russia conquered the Crimea.
"I am one of the people who love the why of things."
In 1772, she dismissed Grigory Orlov. In 1772, Catherine wrote to Grigori Alexandrovich Potyomkin-Tavricheski (1739-1791) for advice on military strategies. In 1773, Catherine II and Potemkin became lovers. Her son, Paul of Russia married Princess Wilhelmina of Hesse-Darmstadt, renamed Natalia Alexeievna (25 June 1755 - 15 April 1776) on 29 September 1773.
"Your wit makes others witty."
In 1776, the affair between Catherine II and Potemkin ended. Peter Alexeyevich Zavadovsky became Catherine's new lover. Her daughter-in-law, Natalia died after she delivered a still born daughter on 15 April 1776. Paul of Russia married his second wife, Princess Sophie of Württemberg, renamed Maria Feodorovna (25 October 1759 - 5 November 1828) on 7 October 1776.
"For to tempt and to be tempted are things very nearly allied - whenever feeling has anything to do in the matter, no sooner is it excited than we have already gone vastly farther than we are aware of."
In 1777, Potemkin returned and had Zavadovsky removed. In 1777, Russia made an alliance with Prussia. In 1780, Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor (1741-1790) asked to meet Catherine II. In 1781, alliance between Russia and Austria. She said; "In politics a capable ruler must be guided by circumstances, conjectures and conjunctions." And; "Power without a nation's confidence is nothing." In 1789, Catherine II offered to help Marie Antoinette, Queen Consort of France and Navarre (1755-1793) and Louis XIV, King of France and Navarre (1754-1793) escape the terrors in France. In 1790, Russia made peace with Sweden. One lover soon placed the other. "Assuredly men of worth are never lacking, for it is affairs which make men and men which make affairs; I have never tried to look for them, and I have always found close at hand the men who have served me, and I have for the most part been well served." She said; "Men make love more intensely at 20, but make love better, however, at 30." Potemkin died in 1791. The devastated Catherine said, "Prince Potemkin has played me a cruel turn by dying! It is me on whom all the burden now falls." In 1791, the treaty of Jassy was signed between Turkey and Russia. Louis XVI was executed on 21 January 1793, by the guillotine. Marie Antoinette met the same fate on 16 October 1793. According to the Memoirs of Madame Vigée Le Brun by Marie-Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun (1755-1842), "...I was alone with the autocrat of all the Russias. The Ambassador had told me I must kiss her hand, in accordance with which custom she drew off one of her gloves, and this ought to have reminded me what to do. But I forgot all about it. The truth is, that the sight of this famous woman made such an impression upon me that I could not possibly think of anything else but to look at her. 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. She at once said in a voice that was soft though rather thick: "I am delighted, madame, to see you here; your reputation had preceded you. I am fond of the arts and especially of painting. I am not an adept, but a fancier." Everything else she said during this interview, which was rather long, in reference to her wish that I might like Russia well enough to remain a long time, bore the stamp of such great amiability that my shyness vanished, and by the time I took leave of Her Majesty I was entirely reassured. Only I could not forgive myself for not having kissed her hand, which was very beautiful and very white, and I deplored that oversight the more as Count Esterhazy reproached me with it. As for what I was wearing, she did not seem to have paid the least attention to it. Or else perhaps she may have been easier to please than our Ambassadress. I went over part of the gardens at Czarskoiesielo, which are a veritable little fairyland. The Empress had a terrace from them communicating with her apartment, and on this terrace she kept a large number of birds. I was told that every morning she went out to feed them, and that this was one of her chief pleasures." Madame Vigée Le Brun continued, "The Russian people lived very happily under the rule of Catherine; by great and lowly have I heard the name of her blessed to whom the nation owed so much glory and so much well-being. I do not speak of the conquests by which the national vanity was so prodigiously flattered, but of the real, lasting good that this Empress did her people. During the space of the thirty-four years she reigned, her beneficent genius fathered or furthered all that was useful, all that was grand. She erected an immortal monument to Peter I.; she built two hundred and thirty-seven towns in stone, saying that wooden villages cost much more because they burned down so often; she covered the sea with her fleets; she established everywhere manufactories and banks, highly propitious to the commerce of St. Petersburg, Moscow and Tobolsk; she granted new privileges to the Academy; she founded schools in all the towns and the country districts; she dug canals, built granite quays, gave a legal code, instituted an asylum for foundlings, and, finally, introduced into her empire the boon of vaccination, adopted by the Russians solely through her mighty will, and, for the public encouragement, was the first to be inoculated. Catherine herself was the source of all these blessings, for she never allowed any one else real authority. She dictated her own despatches to her ministers, who, in effect, were but her secretaries. I am much annoyed that the Duchess d'Abrantès, who has recently published a work on Catherine II., has either not read what the Prince de Ligne and the Count de Ségur have written, or has not given credence to those irrefutable witnesses. If she had, she would have more justly appreciated and admired the qualities distinguishing that great Empress, considering her as a ruler, and she would have paid more respect to the memory of a woman in whom our sex ought to take pride for so many reasons. Catherine II. loved everything that was magnificent in the arts. At the Hermitage she built a set of rooms corresponding to certain rooms in the Vatican, and had copies made of the fifty pictures by Raphael adorning those rooms. She enriched the Academy of Fine Arts with plaster casts of the finest ancient statues and with a large number of paintings by various masters. The Hermitage, which she had founded and erected quite near her palace, was a model of good taste in every respect, and made the clumsy architecture of the imperial palace at St. Petersburg appear to worse advantage than ever by the contrast. It is well known that she wrote French with great facility. In the library at St. Petersburg I saw the original manuscript of the legal code she gave the Russians written entirely in her own hand and in the French language. Her style, I was told, was elegant and very concise, and this reminds me of an instance of her laconic manner of expression which seems to me quite delightful. When General Suvaroff had won the battle of Warsaw, Catherine at once sent him a messenger, and this messenger brought the fortunate victor nothing but an envelope on which she had written with her own hand, "To Marshal Suvaroff." This woman, whose power was so great, was at home the simplest and least exacting of women. She rose at five in the morning, lit her fire, and then made her coffee herself. It was even said that one day, having lit the fire without being aware that the sweeper had climbed up the chimney, the sweeper began to swear at her, and to shower the coarsest revilements upon her, believing he was speaking to a stove-lighter. The Empress hastened to extinguish the fire, though not without laughing heartily at having been thus treated. After breakfast the Empress wrote her letters and prepared her despatches, remaining in seclusion until nine o'clock. She then rang for her men servants, who sometimes did not answer her bell. One day, for instance, impatient at waiting, she opened the door of the room they were in, and, finding them settled down at a game of cards, she asked them why they did not come when she rang. Thereupon one of them calmly replied that they wanted to finish their game – and so they did. On another occasion the Countess Bruce, who was allowed in the Empress's apartments at all hours, came in one morning to find her alone at her toilet. "Your Majesty seems to be without assistance," said the Countess. "How can I help it?" answered the Empress. "My maids all went off. I was trying on a dress which fitted so badly that I lost my temper over it, and so they left me to myself. Not one of them stayed, not even Reinette, my head maid, and I am waiting for them to cool off. In the evening Catherine would gather about her some of the people of her court she liked best. She sent for her grandchildren, and blind man's buff, hunt the slipper and other games were played until ten o'clock, when Her Majesty went to bed. Princess Dolgoruki, who was among the favoured, often told me with what good spirits and jollity the Empress enlivened these gatherings. Count Stachelberg and the Count de Ségur were invited to Catherine's small parties. When she broke with France and dismissed the Count de Ségur, the French Ambassador, she expressed deep regret at losing him. "But," she added, "I am an autocrat. Every one to his trade." She suffered a stroke on 5 November 1796. Catherine died in her bed without having regained consciousness, aged 67, at 9:45, on 6 November 1796, in St. Petersburg, Russia. She was interred at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia. She was succeeded by her son, Paul. Emperor Paul made his half-brother, Aleksey Grigorievich Bobrinsky a Count of the Russian Empire and promoted him General-Major.
"I like to praise and reward loudly, to blame quietly." Catherine II the Great, Empress of Russia.
Excerpts and Source: Memoirs of Madame Vigée Le Brun by Marie-Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun.