Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Friday Fact

Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia
1729-1796

Today you'll learn a little bit about Catherine the Great. First off, her name wasn't Catherine. It was Sophie and she was Prussian by birth. Or German or Polish, whichever you prefer. Her mother was in direct line to produce an heir to the throne of Sweden. This is where things get confusing!

Catherine's uncle was engaged to a Russian princess, not just any Russian princess though. Grand Duchess Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. The uncle died before the wedding though, leaving Elizabeth with no way to produce an heir for her father's throne. So the responsibility fell to her younger sister Anna. She produced a son, Peter, and then died shortly after his birth. Now it gets even MORE confusing! This son was the heir to the Russian throne AND the Swedish throne. But there was also another heir for the Russian throne named Ivan VI.

Elizabeth got power hungry, deposed her cousin who sat on the throne as regent for Ivan, and declared Peter her heir. Then it became time to find Peter a wife. Elizabeth's first thought was for the niece of her dead fiancee. Princess Sophie. Sophie and Peter were wed and she took the name of Catherine.

Peter was a weak little man, refusing to grow up and refusing to be Orthodox. As far as he was concerned, there wasn't a drop of Russian blood in him and he was entirely German. Even going so far as retaining his Lutheran faith. Catherine despised him and despised his weakness. Peter was an ugly little man with no self-esteem. A very far cry from his grandfather Peter the Great who stood six and a half feet tall and brought Russia out of the Dark Ages. Catherine herself discovered a love of learning and read literally everything she could get her hands on, from Plato to Voltaire.

Eventually Peter did assume the Russian throne, and he was hated by the Russian people because he refused to be Russian. A bit later, Catherine caught wind of rumors of a plot afoot where she would be killed so Peter could marry his mistress and make her the Empress. Needless to say this didn't sit well with Catherine. She orchestrated a brilliant coup and seized control of the Russian throne without a single drop of blood being spilled. Peter died a few days later. Some say she had him murdered, some say his fragile health finally gave out completely. I like the murder theory myself, makes interesting reading.

Russia was deeply in debt. Her economy was in shambles and her morale shattered. Catherine changed all that. Though she didn't have a drop of Russian blood in her, she became Russian and ruled like a Romanov. Her reign is remembered as great and brilliant, rivaling that of Peter the Great. She fixed the economy, the military, the educational system, the healthcare system and completely revamped the tax code, thereby catapulting Russia very firmly into the Industrial Revolution. She also began the work that would eventually lead to the freeing of the serfs by her grandson, Alexander III.

The one child that she'd born from her late husband was named Paul, and he produced many offspring. Catherine became a doting grandmother and adored her numerous grandchildren. Paul himself married a German princess, thereby securing the fact that the future rulers of Russia would not be Russian.

Catherine also made significant contributions to Russian art. She was a collector of fine arts, and commissioned many of the art works that are associated with Imperial Russia, including the statue of Peter the Great where he's sitting astride a rearing horse. She also built the magnificent Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo. The famed Amber Room that was stolen by the Nazis is inside the Catherine Palace, as is The Great Hall made famous in Anastasia starring Ingrid Bergman and the animated Anastasia produced by Fox. She also built the most GORGEOUS sitting room I've ever seen in my life. It's done floor to ceiling, and the floor and the ceiling too, in blue and white tile. I think it's in The Hermitage, formerly known as the Winter Palace. I just remember seeing it when I went to see The Palaces of St. Petersburg exhibit many many years ago.

It was after Catherine's death that her son, Paul, decreed that no female could ever again sit on the throne of Russia. And no female ever has. But without Catherine, many of the things I love most about Russia and the very things that drew me in in the first place, would never have existed. In a way, I owe my entire fascination with Russia to Catherine. Without her desire to make Russia a modern power, the beauty I fell in love with simply wouldn't exist.

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