Sunday, 6 March 2016

Catherine the Great

(This is a continuation of my earlier piece on Russian empresses)

Peter III was proclaimed Tsar of Russia immediately on the sudden death of his aunt, the Empress Elizabeth, at Christmas 1762. He inherited a country at the peak of its power: the war against Frederick the Great of Prussia was successful, with Russian troops occupying Berlin There was no opposition to Peter's succession, but there must have been severe doubts among those who knew him. Peter was half German in ancestry, and entirely German in upbringing and outlook. He had been brought to Russia at the age of 13, to be Elizabeth's heir, but had never bothered to conceal his dislike for everything about his new country: its religion, its language, its military system. Furthermore, although he was now 32, he seemed remarkably childish, even feeble-minded, in his behaviour. This was in stark contrast with his very strong-minded wife. She was Sophia; another German, from the insignificant little principality of Anhalt-Zerbst, who had been personally recommended by Frederick the Great, of all people. Sophia was brought to Russia aged 14, where she was converted to Orthodoxy and renamed Catherine; and in 1744 she and Peter were duly married.
          They did not get on. Peter preferred playing with his toy soldiers, while Catherine concentrated on making friends and allies at court; and, according to gossip, taking lovers. In 1754 a son was born, named Paul. The child's parentage was always in doubt. The Empress Elizabeth took the matter very calmly, saying, on hearing stories of the child’s alleged bastardy, “If he is, he’s not the first in my family!” But when Paul grew up he also acted very strangely, so maybe he really was Peter’s son!
          Things got more uncertain for Catherine in 1757, when Elizabeth suffered a stroke, bringing the question of the succession to the fore. Catherine gave birth that year to a girl, and Peter openly expressed doubts on the child’s paternity. "God knows where she gets these pregnancies from!" he exclaimed, "It's not from me!" 
    The Chancellor Bestuzhev, who was close to Catherine, was arrested and exiled; but now Catherine began to take up with a young army officer, Gregory Orlov, one of five brothers, without much education but strong and courageous, who had distinguished himself by his heroism at the battle of Zondorf against the Prussians. When Catherine was again pregnant in 1761, few doubted that Orlov was the father. Then on Christmas Day 1761, Elizabeth died, leaving personal debts of 675,000 roubles, but with her army holding Berlin. Her weird nephew duly succeeded.

          Peter was duly as bad as predicted. Some of his measures, like the decree releasing nobles from lifelong service to the state, but allowing them to retire to their estates whenever desired would have been popular; and another which abolished the Secret Chancellery (a forerunner of the secret political police) might seem admirable nowadays. His ending of the persecution of the Old Believers sect stemmed not from enlightened toleration, but from contempt for the Orthodox Church. More seriously, he was effectively the international president of the Frederick the Great Fan Club. He immediately pulled Russia out of the war with Prussia and renounced all conquests, just when a final and complete victory seemed just a matter of time. He even reversed Russian foreign policy to ally with Prussia against Elizabeth's ally, Austria! (see footnote for an odd echo of this in the 20th century!). He further infuriated Russia’s victorious army by remodelling drill and uniforms on Prussian lines. He was now openly hostile to Catherine, and was said to be intending to confine her to a convent and disinherit her son Paul. Catherine’s supporters even spread rumours he intended to murder her. Soon plots were forming against him.
          He lasted just six months. The Orlov brothers laid plans well. At dawn one day in June 1762, Catherine, staying at the Peterhof palace, was roused by Alexei Orlov, Gregory's thuggish brother, and driven to St Petersburg, where, like Elizabeth twenty years earlier, she immediately won the support of the Guards regiments. She appeared on the balcony of the Winter Palace with her young son, and made a speech criticizing Peter’s friendship with Prussia and hostility to the Church (though without naming him personally), and was proclaimed Empress by vast crowd. There was no suggestion of her merely being regent for her son! A few of Peter’s supporters were arrested, but there was no serious resistance.
          While all this was going on, Peter was at Oranienburg, along the coast. He did not attempt to rally his friends, but tried to flee to the Kronstadt naval base, where the sailors did not allow him to land. He returned to Oranienburg, was arrested, signed a document of abdication and was confined to fortress. A week later it was announced that he had died. He was presumably strangled by Alexei Orlov, but the announcement said had died of haemorrhoids! (The French philosopher, D’Alembert, commented, “Haemorrhoids are clearly very dangerous in Russia!” and rejected an invitation to visit the country because he suffered from them himself). 
    Yet again, the Guards had determined the Russian succession. Once again, they had placed a woman on the Imperial throne, but this time one without any dynastic claim and without a single drop of Russian blood. What would she make of it?

Catherine II was one of the most important of all the Tsars. She is usually called Catherine the Great; though when I was visiting Russia back in the Communist days, I was interested to learn that she was not given the epithet there. She appears in the history books as one of the trio known as the "Enlightened Despots", alongside Frederick the Great of Prussia and Joseph II of Austria: rulers who used their autocratic powers to reform and modernize their countries.
     Catherine massively expanded the Russian empire. Together with Frederick and Joseph, she took advantage of the weakness of Poland to divide up the country between them in three partitions. In 1795 Poland disappeared from the map until after the First World War. This also had the effect of bringing vast numbers of Jews within the Russian empire. In 1791 Catherine issued a decree banning Jews from Moscow and St. Petersburg, which later developed into the "Pale of Settlement"; an area of western Russia outside of which Jews were not permitted to live. Poles were to be irreconcilable enemies of Russia, and pogroms against Jews, often with official encouragement, were to be one of the most disgraceful features of nineteenth century Russia.
    The other large state on Russia's border was the Ottoman (Turkish) empire. The Ukraine had always been an uncertain border region, contested between Russia and Poland, with Cossack forces of uncertain loyalty and periodic raids by Turkish and Tatar forces from the Crimea. But now the Ottomans were beginning their long decline, and the Don Cossacks were tamed and many were resettled in the Kuban and along the Terek, guarding Russia's new frontier on the northern slopes of the Caucasus. General Suvurov defeated the Turks in 1768, and Potemkin, Catherine's lover, general, organizer and right-hand man was able to establish permanent bases and the Black Sea and to conquer the Crimea for Russia. He founded the city of Odessa. The Ottomans also began to look vulnerable in what is now Moldova and Romania, though Russian forces invading there would be likely to provoke a crisis with the Austrians.
   And not just the Austrians. I have seen a cartoon in which the Devil offers a delighted Catherine two cities: Warsaw and Constantinople. Her obvious ambitions in the Black Sea area and towards the Bosporus straits (she even had two of her grandsons given the names of Alexander and Constantine; names not known in Russia before this) led to a serious diplomatic crisis with Britain. This was the start of one of the great themes of 19th century foreign policy; the so-called "Eastern question": how Britain might protect Turkey against Russian penetration. Catherine had already angered Britain by her hostile attitude during the war of American independence, where she turned down a rather desperate British attempt to buy her support by offering her the island of Minorca!

 Catherine was fascinated by the philosophical movement known as the "enlightenment". She corresponded with Voltaire and persuaded the French philosophe Denis Diderot to come to Russia, talking with him on a daily basis. She established schools for girls, encouraged inoculation against smallpox. She reformed local government structures, and in 1766 summoned a "Great Commission" to discuss all aspects of laws and government, but, typically, did not permit any real power to pass from her own hands. She continued to employ great architects, mostly Italian, but including a Scotsman: Charles Cameron. She also bought the magnificent collection of paintings accumulated by the British prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, when his feckless grandson was forced to sell them. (I remember on my first visit to the Hermitage being suddenly confronted by a portrait of Archbishop Laud by Sir Anthony Van Dyck, and thinking for a moment that I was back in England!)

None of this did anything to improve the lot of the Russian peasant serfs, who made up 90% of the population. In 1774 she faced a major revolt in the Volga and Urals region of peasants, disaffected Cossacks and racial minorities like the Bashkirs and Kalmyks, led by the Cossack Pugachev, who improbably claimed to be the murdered Peter III. There was enormous slaughter on both sides before the rising was crushed and the leaders publicly quartered.
   A pretender of a different kind was a mysterious young lady who turned up in Italy, claiming to be the daughter of the Empress Elizabeth. Alexei Orlov was dispatched to deal with her. After chatting her up he persuaded her to come aboard a Russian ship, where she was promptly arrested and taken back to Russia and imprisonment. In 1775 she died of tuberculosis, alone in her cell, maintaining till the end that she was Elizabeth's daughter. Her true identity remains a mystery. The most tragic case was that of the former baby Tsar, Ivan VI, who had been held in prison ever since his deposition by Elizabeth. The instructions were that he was to be killed if there was any plot to free him. In 1764 an eccentric young nobleman called Mirovich did attempt this; but the gaolers had time to stab Ivan to death before he could be rescued. Mirovich was executed and his co-conspirators savagely flogged.

   Catherine continued to have numerous lovers as the years advanced; often very young men,who had enormous wealth lavished upon them. Not surprisingly, wildly scandalous accounts of her supposedly voracious and perverse sexual appetites circulated amongst Russia's enemies. She lived to witness the French Revolution, which predictably horrified her. It is said that she purged her gallery of "worthies", destroying the effigies of Voltaire, whose writings were said to have inspired the revolution, and the English Whig leader Charles James Fox, who spoke in support of it.

    She died in 1796, and was succeeded by her son Paul; the first direct parent-to-son succession in the whole 18th century. Catherine had never thought much of him, and would not have been surprised that within five years he had met the same fate as his father; being deposed and strangled. So Russian traditions of succession by coup were continued.


Note: The salvation of Prussia when Elizabeth died and Peter  succeeded had an odd reprise in the 20th century. In the spring of 1945, with Hitler trapped in the bunker in Berlin by the attacking Soviet forces, Goebbels tried to cheer up the Fuhrer by reading him an account from the British historian Thomas Carlyle of how Frederick the Great was saved by the death of Elizabeth and the accession of Peter III. Soon afterwards the news came through the President Roosevelt had died. For just a day or so, Hitler believed that the luck of Germany had held again; and the news that America would continue in the war was one of the factors which led him to abandon hope and commit suicide.

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