On one occasion of my trip in St Petersburg, I was told that a great historical woman could speak 20 languages – Catherine the Great. Today felt like the right time to give this woman her due respect, to present a new perspective of this intriguing character. Putting aside all political and historical baggage and looking at her in isolation as a person, one could learn many lessons, many which had been clouded by biased judgment based on political/historical inclinations.
Born Sophie Augusta Frederica, Catherine II had been placed in a diplomatic marriage to Russia, at which she had not shown signs of ingratiation or subservience to the royal family. Indignant, some might call her, but it was in my opinion an act of style and character. This was further proven with her determination to overcome the Russian language. Resolving to master all that she required to wear the crown, Catherine II had suffered from pneumonia, pleuritis, amongst many other attacks which may have claimed her life.
While her resolute nature was admirable, some might reprimand her abandonment of Lutheranism for the Eastern Orthodoxy – debatably not from true faith but out of a necessity to gain favoritism with the Empress. This also contributed to Catherine II’s future religious-indifference – at some points in time exploiting beliefs, other times assimilating and accepting co- existence. Again to put aside any personal preferences and to look at Catherine II’s actions without biasness, it may have been an ideal situation for her. Given the vast territories she eventually inherited and grew during her control, the multi-pronged approach had benefited her largely in controlling the nation.
Soon after, Catherine II had discovered Peter’s affairs, further coupled with his obstinate support for Frederick II of Prussia, which had upset much of the nobility. A bloodless coup was conducted, where Catherine II took over Peter’s position. Notably, Peter had not fought to regain his reign and had instead, left with his mistress. On hindsight and with modern social norms, one might wonder, how an ambitious woman like Catherine II would have had a lesser man as her partner. Giving her fair judgment, one might pity her situations – a marriage without love, and a partner incompatible to her intellectual capacity.
Under the rule of Catherine II, the Russian Empire expanded vastly to include Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, amongst others, and completed the conquest which Peter the Great had begun in the Azov campaigns. To enhance her personal status, Catherine II had assumed the role as international mediator, signed treaties to ensure Russian security and peace.
As a patron of arts and culture, Catherine II saw to a flourishing Russian culture, literature and education. Catherine II had modernized the nation while retaining its traditional local flavors, a daunting task but which had succeeded tremendously to give us the Russia we know of today. My memories of St Petersburg could not be complete without the visit to the Hermitage Museum, one of the oldest museums in the world started by Catherine II in 1764. The Winter Palace stood grand and magnificent by the wide canal. Digressing and advocating a visit to the Winter Palace, foreigners’ entrance to the Museum are extremely costly compared to that of a local visitor, but it is definitely worth the visit – spend an entire summer day in the Palace that now hosts millions of artworks ranging from Egyptian antiquities to authentic Russian art. If you are lucky, visit on the first Thursdays of each month to enjoy a free entrance!
Back to Catherine the Great. It was not uncommon to hear of Catherine II’s personal life stories, oftentimes rumors or sexual innuendo during her reign. While commonly acknowledging her young lovers and recognizing the tales of the Potemkin villages, one might again see the loneliness of Catherine II in her position. Potemkin and Catherine II eventually ended the love affair and he had continued several romances of his own. His potential cover-ups of the situation in the South served merely to insult Catherine II’s intelligence – exaggerations have arose that Potemkin had a staged village presented to Catherine II in order to falsify the economic and social conditions. How could someone of Catherine II’s caliber have fallen for an absurd fraud of such intensity? While they were in an affair, one must remember Catherine II’s early life, her intelligence and capabilities that cannot be undermined by what we often think of today as “blinded love”. One might recall that Catherine II, while romantically involved with Orlov, had preferred to rule the country than to re-marry anyone else, further testifying to her remarkable disposition and ambitious nature.
Sadly, her brilliance had oftentimes been seen through jealous and disbelieving eyes of the larger population, giving rise to various jokes of her supposedly voracious sexual appetite or immoral behaviors. Myths have resonated of her death as a result of a sexual incident with a stallion. One might wonder, again with a modern outlook, why anyone might wish to undermine such a brilliant character with such crude remarks. Jealousy, I might have mentioned. Political considerations. Nationalism. Undeniably justified, but one could take a step back to look at Catherine II as an individual before giving a judgment.
Catherine the Great, an outstanding individual; Catherine the Second to Peter the First, as engraved in the Bronze Horseman (in my gravatar), a strong admirable woman that the world could learn from and I regard highly. Enlightened despot? Definitely NOT.