Catherine the Great
Hey there, Scribblers!
I promised you a fun ride. And what’s more fun than a sledge ride through Russian history?
Shall we begin?
Catherine The Great. What’s your first impression? Is it the chair? Please don’t tell me it’s the chair. You know, the male anatomy presenting chair that everyone seems to pull out whenever the lady in question is mentioned. Shame on you. How would you like to be judged by generations to come for your Internet browsing history? Hm? Not so funny anymore, is it?
Seriously, dude. You need to stop that. Now. Not cool.
Instead, let me tell you a story about Sophie.
She was born on May 2, 1729. It was an ordinary year. The year North Carolina became a royal colony. The year city of Baltimore was founded. That year the first American Catholic nun was ordained in New Orleans. Just your basic, nothing special year. According to her own words, Sophie’s childhood was also nothing special. Though she was a tomboy, under the iron fist of her ambitious mother, her early years were rather uneventful.
That was until 1744. When a little girl came to her new home. Russia. She came, as many little girls did back then, to be a puppy in socio-political games played by big dogs. But no one knew what the beautiful face and frail body held within.
Sophie came to become the next Empress of Russia.
After converting to Orthodox Christian, she became Catherine (Ekaterina). Young Cathie was smart. She knew that if you want to do something, you have to excel at it. And so she studied. She read. A lot. Everything she could get her hands on. She stayed up every night learning the language. Then she got up before dawn and helped the servants while practicing Russian with them. Cathie was preparing for the throne.
Fast forward a couple of years it became obvious that her husband, Peter the 3rd, was like totally unfit to rule anything but his toy soldiers. People never knew what he was going to do next. Also, he planned to remove Catherine and replace her with his mistress, Elizabeth Vorontsova. Her life was in danger. Some say he was mentally ill, others say it was brain damage from the smallpox he had when he was a teen. Maybe he was just spoiled. We’ll never know for sure. Bottom line was, he had to go.
Catherine, favorite in all the circles that count, devised a plan and in summer of 1762. she… Let’s say dissolved their marriage. In the autumn that year, she was crowned the Empress of Russia.
Now you’re expecting me to dive in all debauchery and juicy details. Right?
Because you see, this Empress dedicated her life to work. She lived on a strict schedule, drank blackcurrant juice instead of wine, and ate plain food. Not what you expected, hm?
Now all the years of reading and learning finally paid off. Catherine wanted to make a change. Starting with the laws. She ordered a commission to be assembled, people from all walks of life. Catherine wrote a document, an instruction for what the new laws should look like. And that document contained things like freedom of speech, abolition of the death penalty, presumption of innocence, equality of all classes before the law… Sounds familiar? It had more than 600 points. Progressive lady, wouldn’t you say? Her ideas were in fact so outrageously liberal they were banned in France. France, the cradle of freedom, enlightenment and modern democracy.
She put together a group of more than 500 people to draft those new laws. But men being men couldn’t agree on anything. Catherine watched them from the secret gallery while they were in session. Have you ever watched men trying to agree about something? Not a pretty picture. Instead of granting more liberties, they wanted more repression. Instead of talking about new laws, they were deciding on her nicknames and sucking up to her. Finally, she had enough and dismissed them all. And their nicknames. One nick she kept though. Mother of the Nation. She kept it for the rest of her life.
Tough cookie that she was, Catherine always gathered competent people around her. So, when in 1768. Ottoman Empire declared the war she was more than ready. Of course she was, with men like Alexander Suvorov on her side. The guy won more than 90 battles and went down in history as one of the very few generals who were never defeated.
During that war, many young men came to join the Russian army from all over the world, attracted to fame and fortune and victories. One young French officer wanted to come, but he gave up when he heard foreigners were being demoted a notch upon joining. Egoistical much? You might have heard of him. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte. Though, he did came to Russia some years later. But if he came when he first planned his second trip would never happen or would probably have ended differently. Clueless about what he was to face he fell into a trap. The same trap Austrian guy named Adolf fell in a century later. I’m telling you, some men will never learn.
What’s the trap you ask? Winter. There is one force that stayed unbeatable to this day. And that is Russian winter.
Anyway, Catherine’s army was crushing Ottoman Empire forces left and right on land and on the sea. They did that even when the plague hit Moscow in 1774. Grigory Orlov, Cathie’s boyfriend at the time, went to Moscow. He organized people, buried the dead, opened hospitals… He managed to turn the situation around in one month.
Another boyfriend helped her build cities, roads and develop the country. His name was Grigory Potemkin. The villages thing is just a myth, trust me. Even after their love affair ended, they remained friends. He was one of her closest confidantes until his death in 1791.
In 1787. Potemkin organized a grand tour of Russia for Catherine. It lasted six months. The nation got to meet their mother.
Catherine built foundations for modern Russia. She raised cities, made new laws, and crushed rebellions. Most notorious maybe is Pugachev’s rebellion. She reorganized the government, doubled the number of provinces… She did the job.
But she was also an author. And for that she deserves some respect from Twitter Writing Community. Cause we all know how hard it is to write with a full-time job, right? She was a freelance journalist, published in magazines. She wrote plays, comedies, operas… Her pen pal was Voltaire. Dude! Voltaire! Amazing… She built museums and monuments, galleries. Accumulated a huge collection of art, which later became Hermitage Museum.
Catherine also introduced smallpox vaccines to Russia, vaccinating herself, and her son, and about two hundred people from her court. Her physician was Scottish hottie Dr John Rogerson. Totally get it, kilts and all. I mean, come on, you wouldn’t become a hypochondriac with a Doc like that, hm?
Her achievements surpassed those of Peter the Great. Population doubled, almost 150 towns were founded, Russian cast iron industry beat Great Britain’s, army and navy development was like nothing ever seen before. And Catherine still had more plans.
Unfortunately, on November 17, 1796. Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, Mother of the Nation died. Her 34 year long reign has ended.
Contrary to the rumors, she died somewhat peacefully after a stroke.
She had her flaws, sure. We all do. But in this day and age, aren’t we supposed to not judge? Repeat after me: Whatever two (or more) consenting adults do behind closed doors is their own business.
This is 2019. Are we still judging women by the number of boyfriends they had? Really?
So, the next time you hear of Catherine the Great, think about the little girl who came to a foreign country filled with dreams and fell in love. With men, a couple of times, yes. With the country once, for the rest of her life. Think about a woman that has beaten all the odds and became one of the longest ruling women in history. When you hear of Catherine the Great, think of one bad ass lady who showed them all who’s the boss.