Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

against France.

Books were her refuge. Having set herself to learn the Russian language, she read every Russian book she could find. But French was the language she preferred, and she read French books indiscriminately, picking up whatever her ladies-in-waiting happened to be reading. She always kept a book in her room and carried another in her pocket.

Catherine approved this choice reluctantly. She recognized Peter Panin’s military abilities, but she disliked him personally. He had often declared that Russia should be ruled by a man; his preference was Grand Duke Paul. Catherine also worried about his reputation as a military martinet and about his unconventional personal behavior: he sometimes appeared in his headquarters wearing a gray satin nightgown and a large French nightcap with pink ribbons.

Catherine had to treat the church hierarchy carefully. She had always exercised a rational flexibility in matters of religious dogma and policy. Brought up in an atmosphere of strict Lutheranism, she had as a child expressed enough skepticism about religion to worry her deeply conventional father. As a fourteen-year-old in Russia, she had been required to change her religion to Orthodoxy. In public, she scrupulously observed all forms of this faith, attending church services, observing religious holidays, and making pilgrimages. Throughout her reign, she never underestimated the importance of religion. She knew that the name of the autocrat and the power of the throne were embodied in the daily prayers of the faithful, and that the views of the clergy and the piety of the masses were a power to be reckoned with. She understood that the sovereign, whatever his or her private views of religion, must find a way to make this work. When Voltaire was asked how he, who denied God, could take Holy Communion, he replied that he “breakfasted according to the custom of the country.” Having observed the disastrous effect of her husband’s contemptuous public rejection of the Orthodox Church, Catherine chose to emulate Voltaire.

Catherine, who knew little about sex, about erections and foreskins, and, certainly, nothing about phimosis, knew well what was expected of wives in a royal marriage.


For to tempt and to be tempted are things very nearly allied.

I do not know whether as a child I was really ugly, but I remember well that I was often told that I was and that I must therefore strive to show inward virtues and intelligence. Up to the age of fourteen or fifteen, I was firmly convinced of my ugliness and was therefore more concerned with acquiring inward accomplishments and was less mindful of my outward appearance.

I have listened with the greatest pleasure to all the inspirations of your brilliant mind. But all your grand principles, which I understand very well, would do splendidly in books and very badly in practice. In your plans for reform, you are forgetting the difference between our two positions: you work only on paper which accepts anything, is smooth and flexible and offers no obstacles either to your imagination or your pen, while I, poor empress, work on human skin, which is far more sensitive and touchy.

In January in Northern Russia, everything vanishes beneath a deep blanket of whiteness. Rivers, fields, trees, roads, and houses disappear, and the landscape becomes a white sea of mounds and hollows. On days when the sky is gray, it is hard to see where earth merges with air. On brilliant days when the sky is a rich blue, the sunlight is blinding, as if millions of diamonds were scattered on the snow, refracting light. In Catherine's time, the log roads of summer were covered with a smooth coating of snow and ice that enabled the sledges to glide smoothly at startling speeds; on some days, her procession covered a hundred miles.

I used to say to myself that happiness and misery depend on ourselves. If you feel unhappy, rise above it and act so that your happiness may be independent of all outside events.

I would say about myself that I was a true gentleman with a mind more male than female, but, together with this, I was anything but masculine and, combined with the mind and character of a man, I possessed the attractions of a loveable woman. May I be pardoned for offering this candid expression of my feelings instead of trying to cover them a veil of false modesty. This

Later, concealment of pride in humility came to be recognized as a deliberate and useful tactic which Sophia—renamed Catherine—used when confronting crisis and danger. Threatened, she drew around herself a cloak of meekness, deference, and temporary submission.

Madame, you must be gay; only thus can life be endured. I speak from experience for I have had to endure much, and have only been able to endure it because I have always laughed whenever I had the chance.

My friend,” he said, “there is no worse traitor than a small lapdog. The first thing I always do when I am in love with a woman is to give her one of these little dogs. This way, I can always discover whether there is someone more favored than myself. The test is infallible. As you saw just now, the dog wanted to bite me because I am a stranger, but when it saw you, it went mad with joy.” Two days after this visit, Poniatowski left Russia.

She had dealt with her pregnancy by wrapping herself in dreams.

She sent me a bottle with a liquid composed of lemon juice, egg white and French brandy. In a few days my sunburn disappeared and since then I have always used this mixture. One

The love of power and the power to attract love were not easy to reconcile.

The very tall Monsieur Sievers, who was wearing a hoop skirt the empress had lent him, was dancing a Polonaise with me. Countess Hendrikova, who was dancing behind me, stumbled over the hoop skirt of Monsieur Sievers as he turned around with his hand in mine. In falling, she struck me so hard that I fell beneath the hoop skirt of Monsieur Sievers which had sprung upright beside me. Sievers himself became entangled in his own long skirts which were in great disorder and there we were, all three of us, sprawling on the floor with me entirely covered by his skirt. I was dying of laughter trying to get up, but people had to come and help us up because the three of us were so entangled in Monsieur Sievers’s clothing that no one could get up without causing the other two to fall down.

This,” Catherine wrote later, “is the effect that can be produced by a stupid, carelessly spoken word—it is never forgotten.

This marriage had resulted from impulse: he had seen her on a high-flying swing at Tsarkoe Selo and her skirt, flared by the breeze, had exposed her ankles; he had proposed the following day.

This was not what Europe or Prussia had expected. In his childhood, Frederick had been a dreamy, delicate boy, often beaten by his father, King Frederick William I, for being unmanly. As an adolescent, he wore his hair in long curls hanging down to his waist, and costumed himself in embroidered velvet. He read French writers, wrote French poetry, and performed chamber music on the violin, the harpsichord, and the flute.

To prove to [her friend, Swedish diplomat Count] Gyllenborg that she was not superficial, Catherine composed an essay about herself, "so that he would see whether I knew myself or not." The next day, she wrote and handed to Gyllenborg an essay titled 'Portrait of a Fifteen-Year-Old Philosopher.' He was impressed and returned it with a dozen pages of comments, mostly favorable. "I read his remarks again and again, many times [Catherine later recalled in her memoirs]. I impressed them on my consciousness and resolved to follow his advice. In addition, there was something else surprising: one day, while conversing with me, he allowed the following sentence to slip out: 'What a pity that you will marry! I wanted to find out what he meant, but he would not tell me.

We human beings often see only what is before our eyes. But God in His infinite justice searches the heart and our secret motives and manifests accordingly to us His mercy.

What had I not to suffer from the voice of an irrational and cruel public opinion when this question was considered by the Legislative Commission? The mob of nobles … began to suspect that these discussions might bring about an improvement in the position of the peasants.… I believe that there were not twenty human beings who reflected on the subject with humanity.

When the moment of departure arrived, Catherine and Peter accompanied Johanna on the short first stage of her journey, from Tsarskoe Selo to nearby Krasnoe Selo. The next morning, Johanna left before dawn without saying goodbye; Catherine assumed that it was “not to make me any sadder.” Waking up and finding her mother’s room empty, she was distraught. Her mother had vanished—from Russia and from her life. Since Catherine’s birth, Johanna had always been present, to guide, prompt, correct, and scold. She might have failed as a diplomatic agent; she certainly had not become a brilliant figure on the European stage; but she had not been unsuccessful as a mother. Her daughter, born a minor German princess, was now an imperial grand duchess on a path to becoming an empress.

Why is almost the whole earth governed by monarchs?” Voltaire asked. “The honest answer is because men are rarely worthy of governing themselves.… Almost nothing great has ever been done in the world except by the genius and firmness of a single man combating the prejudices of the multitude.… I do not like government by the rabble.

You were in a mood to quarrel. Please inform me when this inclination passes.

(Catherine, in a letter to Grigory Potemkin).