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Catherine II, called Catherine the Great (Russian: Екатерина II Великая, Yekaterina II Velikaya; 2 May [O.S. 21 April] 1729 – reigned as Empress of Russia from 9 July [O.S. 28 June] 1762 until 17 November [O.S. 6 November] 1796).

Catherine The Great

Ekaterina Alexeevna

1729-1796

Empress Of All Russia

 By Edward Arthur Brayley Hodgetts

 
PRINCESS SOPHIA of Anhalt-Zerbst, later to be known to the world as the Empress Catherine II of Russia, the Semiramis of the North, was born in Stettin on the 2nd May 1729. ^ From the very first, calumny and scandal seem to have enveloped the history of this singularly gifted princess, as much sinned against as sinning. Doubt has even been cast on her parentage. Several obscure eighteenth-century writers have stated authoritatively that she was the daughter, not of her reputed father, Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst, but of a very handsome and accomplished Russian diplomatist, Betzkoy by name, who, according to some, sojourned for a brief but happy period at Stettin during the year before Catherine's birth, whilst others would have it that the romantic episode took place in Paris, on the occasion of the Princess's alleged visit to that capital, when Betzkoy was attached to the Russian Embassy. The scandal was based on the favour the Empress Catherine graciously bestowed upon Betzkoy in later life in St. Petersburg, and the indulgence with which she tolerated his whims and caprices. But Catherine was indulgent and gracious to most people. A more far-fetched and ridiculous story made her out to be the natural daughter of Frederick the Great, who was barely seventeen at the time of her birth. Not content with disputing her parentage, the scandal-mongers have disputed her birthplace, and even refused to believe in her having been baptized, because no record of the performance of this rite can be traced in the parish registers of the various places in which she is supposed to have been born. The controversy has at last been finally settled by the publication of a letter, written by the Prince, announcing her birth, and by the discovery that he christened her himself. Regiment had taken up his residence in a private house in the Domstrasse where the room in which the "Great Empress" first saw the light used to be proudly shown. The cradle of the infant Princess is still treasured at Weimar, ^he was christened Sophia Augusta Frederika, in honour of her distinguished aunts. ..


Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst was the scion of a proud but insignificant princely house which had been split up into eight impoverished branches and had, throughout its history of two centuries, produced no distinguished offspring. Humdrum, honest princelings, its sons had for the most part spent their youth fighting for their living in the train of more powerful princes than they, marrying later German princesses in their own modest station in life, and as obscure as themselves, to settle down later and end their days in their ancestral castles on the straitened resources which a none too prodigal fortune had permitted them to retain.

(The husband of Catherine's mother, for, as we have seen, the chronique scandaleuse disputes his title to be called Catherine's father, was a Major-General in the Prussian Army, thirty-seven years of age, and commanding the 8th (Zerbst) Regiment of Infantry at Stettin when he married the sixteen-year-old Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. She was the youngest sister of the handsome Prince Charles Augustus of that ilk, the affianced husband of Princess Elizabeth of Russia, whom he did not live to marry, thereby being no doubt saved much trouble.


Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, who was never publicly married, but was lavish in her favours, later ascended the Russian throne, by a coup de main and through a palace revolution, at the head of the Imperial Guards, nearly all of whom were reported to have been her paramours. This truly remarkable woman remained, in sentiment at least, as we shall presently see, faithful to the memory of her betrothed.


'The birth of Sophia was a source of disappointment to her father, whose pride of race had led him to hope for a son. He did not think it necessary to make to the Russian Court an official announcement of her arrival. The town of Stettin had belonged to Prussia since 1720 only, and the princely commander of the 8th.

Later, when the Prince^vas made commandant of the fortress and governor of the town, he took up his abode in the old castle of Stettin, and here figgey," for such was her pet name, was educated under the eye of her mother. Princess Johanna Elizabeth was a bright, clever, and ambitious woman who brought up her daughter strictly and simply./ Figgey played with the children of the townspeople, was never called by her title, and was shown no special deference on account of her rank. Nevertheless, in later life her playfellows recalled that she was from her earliest years of an imperious disposition and inclined to dictate to her playmates and take the lead. She early manifested the characteristics of the tom-boy and a partiality for boyish sports; among other things, she was fond of shooting. Countess Mellin, one of her playmates, has left us a portrait of the child as she appeared to her: "She was well-proportioned, from infancy she had always possessed a distinguished bearing, and she was tall for her age. Her cast of countenance was not beautiful but very pleasant, her frank and open glance and amiable smile made her whole face most attractive. She was educated by her mother, who brought her up very strictly, and repressed the slightest exhibition of pride, to which the child was however extremely prone. The mother, for instance, made her kiss the hem of the garments of distinguished lady-visitors to the house."

Perhaps it was fortunate that this severe parent was compelled to devote less and less time to her eldest daughter, on account of the claims of her four other children, three of whom were sickly and needed constant care. Moreover, the Princess was pleasure-loving and fond of society. Figgey was thus saved from the contagion of some of the least lovable of her mother's characteristics, such as covetousness and jealousy of others, a passion for intrigue, backbiting, scandal-mongering, and, generally, envy, hatred, and malice, to which the generous nature of the young Princess was ever a stranger.

At that time Prussia was overrun by French emigrants, attracted by the hospitality of the Prussian King, and expatriated by the fanaticism of their own. The young Princess, in common with others of her rank, therefore early enjoyed the benefit of a French governess; this was, in her case, Mademoiselle Cardel, an amusing and intelligent person who had the great masters of French literature at her finger-ends and introduced her pupil to the creations of Racine, Corneille, and, more especially, Moliere. Of Wagner and other tutors the Princess later wrote that they were stupid and tiresome pedants, nevertheless she cherished a certain gratitude towards Wagner, to whom in after years she once sent a thousand ducats from St. Petersburg. "/Although she proved an apt scholar in most subjects, in music she made no progress, and a failure to appreciate its beauties continued her mental defect to the end of her days, to the scorn and derision of her numerous detractors and slanderers. Catherine has herself recorded how she used to listen with the greatest attention and interest to the conversation of her instructors and to their religious dissertations, putting her own interpretation on their views and teachings, which, however, she invariably concealed from them, thus developing at an early age that remarkable discretion and self-repression by means of which she was enabled later to play so difficult and so great a party' Mlle Cardel, however, may be excused for describing the child as obstinate and stubborn and an " esprit gauche."


In her own Mtmoires, published by Herzen in the midnineteenth century, Catherine is made to say:


"I saw Peter III for the first time in 1739, when he was eleven years old, at Eutin at his guardian's, the Prince Bishop of Liibeck, a few months after the death of his father, Duke Charles Frederick. The Prince Bishop had collected all his family in order to present his ward to them. My grandmother, the mother of the Prince Bishop, and my mother, his sister, had come to Hamburg for this purpose with me, who was then ten years of age. Prince Augustus and Princess Anne, the brother and sister of the princely guardian and regents of Holstein, were also present. On this occasion I heard talk, in the family circle, of the young Duke's love of drink and the difficulty his entourage had in preventing him from getting drunk at table. He was reported to be obstinate and irascible and to dislike the people by whom he was surrounded." She describes him as sickly and very pale, extraordinarily thin and of a weak constitution.


Next year, 1740, she was again taken to Hamburg to stay with her grandmother, the widow of the Bishop of Liibeck, where von Briimmer, the hated tutor of Peter III, gave her books to read. It was here that Count Gyllenborg reproached her mother for having so poor an opinion of her daughter, and told her that the shrewd and sharp-eared little Princess was possessed of intelligence beyond her years, a statement which seems to have made a deep and agreeable impression on Figgey Brunswick was often visited, and here Pastor Dove gave her religious instruction. The Dowager Duchess Elizabeth Sophia Maria of Wolfenbiittel, who was in residence there, was also of the house of Holstein, and had been the guardian of Figgey's mother. It was here, in 1742 or 1743, that one of the canons of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Corbri, who had studied fortune-telling and palmistry, which, by the way, is forbidden by that Church, told Figgey's mother, in the child's presence, that he could see at least three crowns on the little girl's forehead. The mother treated this as a joke, but he adjured her not to doubt what he had said, and led her to a window, where, as she subsequently stated to her daughter, he told her marvellous things about which she even forbade him to speak, adding to her daughter that the canon's prophecies would be fulfilled.


The young Princess frequently visited Zerbst, where the famous portrait by Anna Rosina Liscewska was painted. She was of course present at the festivities of 1743 on the occasion of her uncle's accession to the dignity of reigning prince. This Prince John Louis was the brother of Christian Augustus.


The Princess also went to Berlin, whither her father's military duties often called him, and where her mother generally spent Christmas. Here she saw Frederick II, who had not yet become the hero of the Seven Years War, nor was she old enough to understand or appreciate her future peer among monarchs.


With the exception of these unimportant visits, the young Princess spent the whole of her childhood either at the ancestral castle of Zerbst or else at Stettin, in the Pomeranian fortress, in the trenches of which she planted a linden tree in 1740 which subsequently became famous as the Kaiserlinde.
 


 It will thus be seen that the early years and education of the future Empress of Russia were uneventful and ordinary; as she herself wrote later: "Mlle Cardel was not able to teach me much. She was an old Frenchwoman who gave ine an education suitable for the wife of any of our neighbours."


Baroness von Prinzen, speaking of the young Princess, said: "Princess Sophia was born, grew up, and was educated before my eyes; I witnessed her studies and her progress; I myself assisted her in the packing of her luggage before her departure for Russia. I enjoyed her confidence sufficiently to imagine that I knew her better than did anybody else, nevertheless I never guessed that she was destined to attain the fame she achieved. In the time of her youth all I remarked in her was her serious turn of mind, which was cold and calculating and as far removed from being in any way distinguished or brilliant, as from any suspicion of levity or of erratic eccentricity. In a word, I regarded her as just a very ordinary woman."


And so little Figgey, as she ran about in the grounds of her ancestral castle, was a very plain, uninteresting child, an ugly duckling, in fact.


Amidst the modest surroundings of the diminutive court in which she grew up, Russia was already a word to conjure with. Figgey's imagination was early fired by tales of the prowess of the Emperor of Russia, who had not so long ago besieged Stettin, of that Peter the Great who had led his troops to victory against the Danes, himself wading breast-high in water. Russia was a sort of land of promise to which her neighbours journeyed to make their fortunes, where all the nobles were fabulously rich, and where there was always an opening for the poor but industrious children of the inhospitable Fatherland. Her mother and all her maternal relations looked upon the Court of Russia as poor relations look upon the prosperous and influential head of the family. The mother of the graceless Duke of Holstein, her precocious and dissipated little third cousin, had been the heiress to the Russian throne, the pathetic and romantic story of his uncle's courtship, betrothal, and premature death was a frequent subject of conversation. When therefore a messenger arrived to announce the accession to the throne of this very Elizabeth around whom so much romance had centred, the hopes and cupidity of all the members of the Holstein-Gottorp family were suddenly revived. For Elizabeth had always taken a keen interest in this family, had obtained the portraits of its various members, and had shown in a variety of ways how tender was her solicitude for the relatives of her late sister's husband and of her beloved fiance\ the handsome Prince Charles. The beautiful Princess had never married, and now she was an Empress! During the reign of the Empress Anne of Russia the Kiel infant was regarded as a sort of horrid nightmare, a disturbing factor, and a possible pretender to the throne who destroyed the peace of mind and interfered with the plans of those in power. For this little Duke of Holstein was the grandson of Peter the Great and had been christened after his grandfather. From time to time the Empress Anne used to exclaim with indignation: "That little devil of Holstein is still alive!"


On the receipt of the surprising intelligence that the beautiful Elizabeth had become Empress, the wise and worldly mother of little Figgey hastened to send her congratulations and, certainly, most sincere good wishes. In reply, Princess Johanna Elizabeth received a very affectionate and tender letter praying for the dispatch to the Empress of a portrait of her late sister Anne which had previously been in St. Petersburg but had now become the property of the Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, and of course the latter complied with the pious request. This was in the January of 1742; in the following July, Frederick II, to please the Empress of Russia, promoted Prince Christian Augustus to the rank of Field-Marshal, whilst the young Duke of Holstein had in the meantime been invited to Russia; in September Princess Johanna Elizabeth received a miniature portrait of the Empress set in brilliants and valued at 18,000 roubles; and in November the Kiel infant, " the little devil of Holstein," was proclaimed heir-apparent to the Russian throne.


Events were moving rapidly. In the family circle at Stettin the praises of the Empress were being constantly sung, and the splendour of Russia dinned into the ears of the little Princess on whose forehead fortune-tellers had already discerned three crowns. That very winter she had to go to Berlin to have her portrait painted for her uncle, Prince Augustus, to take to St. Petersburg. The whole of the year 1743 was spent either in Berlin or at Stettin, and at the latter place fresh evidence of the goodwill of the Empress Elizabeth was manifested by the announcement that another uncle, Prince Adolphus Frederick, had, thanks to her, been proclaimed heir-apparent to the crown of Sweden.


On the 1st January 1744, whilst the family were celebrating the New Year in the private chapel of the castle of Zerbst, a letter from Briimmer was received from St. Petersburg addressed to the Princess Johanna Elizabeth. This letter, dated 17th December 1743, was a lengthy document couched in the wearisome and long-winded language of the eighteenth century. The letter was even more remarkable for what it did not say than for what it said. In it Briimmer, who was the Court-Marshal, such was his official title, to the Grand-Duke Peter, assures the Princess of his devotion to her and to her house, and tells her how he has been working for the welfare of her family with a view to the restoration and firm establishment of its prosperity. Having done all he could in this difficult matter, it was now for her to put her hand to the task and complete it. She is therefore invited to come to St. Petersburg with her eldest daughter and pay her homages to the "divine" Empress. For weighty reasons the Empress does not desire her to be accompanied by her husband. In order to facilitate the journey and to enable suitable preparations to be made without delay, a substantial draft is enclosed. Briimmer adds: "Your Highness is too enlightened not to understand the true meaning of the impatience with which Her Imperial Majesty desires to see here as soon as possible yourself as well as the Princess, your daughter, of whom rumour has told us so much good. There are cases where the voice of the people is indeed the voice of God." In order that all the circumstances of this matter might be known to the Princess, Briimmer wrote, he had the honour to inform her that the King of Prussia had been admitted to the secret and could be consulted or not as might seem best. The letter prescribes an itinerary, and in a postscript the Princess is requested to travel incognita as the Countess Reinbeck until she arrives at Riga, where an escort will await her.


A few hours later there arrived a less ambiguous and more outspoken epistle from the King of Prussia himself, commencing quaintly: "Madam, my Cousin I" In this the King informs the Princess that his great esteem for her makes it his duty to tell her of the object of her journey. "My confidence," he says, "in your excellent qualities permit me to hope that you will treat with discretion my communication regarding a matter the success of which depends on the maintenance of absolute secrecy. In this conviction I do not desire to conceal from you any longer that in consequence of the regard cherished by me for you and for the Princess your daughter, I always desired her to be more than ordinarily happy, and I have had the idea that it might be possible to promote a union of her with her third cousin, the Grand-Duke of Russia." (It is to be hoped that Frederick was unconscious of the irony of this sentence.) He goes on to say how he had given instructions to follow up this idea secretly, in the hope that it would not be disagreeable to her. After touching lightly on certain difficulties arising out of consanguinity and similar considerations, which had been brushed aside, he adds that he had reason to believe in a successful issue provided she gave her consent.


Thus the obscure Princess Johanna Elizabeth found herself the centre of the diplomatic intrigues of exalted personages, courtiers and kings vying with each other to assure her of their goodwill and friendship, and claiming for themselves the credit of being the founders of her good fortune. It is permissible to assume that the astute Princess, who had been courting the favour of the Empress Elizabeth for the last two years, was less surprised than her correspondents may have imagined, and had had shrewd ideas concerning her daughter's destiny for some considerable time past. As we shall presently see, she was a very self-reliant, cool-headed, intriguing person, who had few illusions and less scruples, and looked out upon the world with a fine conquering, or shall we say martial? spirit. If she had only had a little more heart and a little more breadth of mind, a little less selfishness and less pettiness, she might have been able to watch over her daughter and save and protect her from many of the dangers and troubles which were in store for that high-spirited Princess.


Although the decision to invite the Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst to St. Petersburg with her daughter had been arrived at independently by the Empress Elizabeth without consulting either her neighbours or her ministers, as has now been conclusively established by Bilbassoff, the question of the marriage of the heir-apparent to the Russian throne had been a source of anxiety to half the courts of Europe and the subject of the intrigues of contemporary diplomacy. The dispatches of the various envoys to the Court of Russia are full of references to this important matter, a French Princess, a Saxon Princess, and even a sister of Frederick II, had all been named, although Frederick had consistently refused "to hand over one of his sisters to Russia," but instructed his representative to suggest several minor princesses, including the Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, and a Hessian Princess. On the ioth December 1743, the Marquis de la Chetardie reported to Paris: "Yesterday evening Lestocq came to see me and informed me that the question of the choice of a bride had been settled, and that the Empress had sent ten thousand roubles (rather more than 40,000 livres) to the Princess of Zerbst, and had invited her to come to St. Petersburg as speedily as possible "; thus putting a stop to further plotting.


When the Empress asked Briimmer how soon the guests from Zerbst might be expected to arrive, that astute courtier truthfully replied: "If Her Highness had but wings she would fly to your Majesty!"


Indeed, by the 1oth January 1744 the trousseau of the young Princess and, far more important, her mother's outfit, had been got ready, and the small party started on their momentous journey accompanied by a very limited suite consisting of Captain Lattorf, the keeper of the castle, Hoffraulein von Khayn, ladyin-waiting, and Mlle Schenck, maid. Before their departure the good Prince Christian Augustus handed his daughter a work on religion and his spouse a MS. composed by himself, entitled Pro Memoria, in which this simple-minded soldier laid down a few honest religious and worldly precepts for the guidance of his daughter in her new and difficult circumstances. He piously hopes that it may be possible for her to retain the Lutheran faith, to recognize the futility of works, and to look for salvation in a saving faith in the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ. His worldly counsels savour of the advice given by Polonius to his son. After exhorting her to obey the Empress, before all things, and next to God, and her husband next to the Empress, he recommends her to be on familiar terms with nobody but to maintain her own dignity as much as possible; to be gracious to the servants and favourites of the Court, but exact no favours from them; scrupulously to observe the ceremonial and etiquette of her new country; to avoid playing for high stakes. He enjoins thrift in regard to pocket-money, urges the importance of never being without funds. He condemns interference in affairs which do not concern her, and the making of intimate friends.


His little daughter was not yet fifteen when she read these wise and prudent maxims and wrote to her father to assure him that they were engraved on her heart.


Thus fully equipped for mind and body the future " Semiramis" arrived in Berlin, and once more, and for the last time as it happened, beheld the Great Frederick. Her mother behaved with that lack of discretion and that tendency to fussiness which were the provincial characteristics of this rather vulgar Princess. She had interviews with statesmen and generally comported herself in a manner but little in harmony with the supposed secrecy of her journey. Her secret was no doubt more or less public property, nevertheless the grave and wily Podewills succeeded in calming the misgivings of the Saxon resident, and assured him that the only Russian marriage project he had heard of was associated with the name of Princess Maria Anne of Saxony.


Perhaps it was an unlucky day for the young Princess when she left Berlin on her way north, for it was on Friday the 16th January that the real start was made. At Schwedt she parted from her honest soldier father, never to see him again, and was first initiated in the true and mysterious object of her journey. The mother and daughter now assumed the name of Reinbeck, and experienced all the hardships of a journey in a sloshy winter, over bad roads and exposed to the biting bleak winds which blew over from the not very distant sea. The accommodation at the post-houses was far from luxurious, for the road was one but little frequented at that time by others than dispatch-bearers and bagmen. To protect their faces the ladies wore hoods made of wool, which covered them entirely and were provided with peep-holes only for their eyes. "As the strangers' rooms in the post-houses were not heated, we had to take shelter in the landlords' premises, which resembled more or less respectable pig-styes," the Countess von Reinbeck wrote to her husband. "The landlord, his wife, the house-dog, poultry, and children everywhere, in cradles, on beds, behind stoves, in the straw, all wallowed about in disorder, one alongside of the other like so many cabbages or turnips. But there was nothing for it, so I ordered a bench to be brought and established myself in the centre of the room." And thus travelling in great discomfort and by slow stages they reached Koenigsberg on the 27th J anuary. From here the Dowager Duchess of Holstein, the mother of the Princess, received the first intelligence of the momentous journey. In this letter the Princess informs her mother that although she is not tired she intends to rest a day. Characteristically, no mention is made of the condition of the insignificant little Figgey, the cause of the expedition. From Koenigsberg to Memel the road was excellent, for snow had fallen heavily and sledges could be used, but at Memel there was again no snow nor were there post-horses to be had. Horses had to be hired from the peasants. The party consisted of four carriages and twenty-four horses were required. As the sledges previously used had to be attached to the backs of the carriages, the caravan made a very ludicrous appearance as it slowly proceeded to Mittau. On the way poor little Figgey upset her digestion, but in her letter to her father she tells him that there had been no complications; she had, she said, drunk up all the beer she could get on the road, " but my dear mama has taken the beer away from me, and now I am quite well."


By the time they reached Mittau, on the 5th of February, they were thoroughly tired out. Here the party were for the first time received in a manner becoming their dignity. Colonel Voyeikoff, commanding the Russian garrison, presented himself, and expressed his satisfaction at having the distinction to be the first Russian to have the honour of receiving such near relations of his gracious sovereign. The party left Mittau on the 6th and arrived at Riga on the same day. Outside this city they were met by Narishkin, late ambassador to London, and Court Marshal, who welcomed them on behalf of his august mistress, and handed the Princess a characteristic effusion from Briimmer, enclosing a credit of Rs.2000. At Riga itself a state reception awaited them; salutes were fired, the civil and military authorities turned out; a guard of honour was given them as an escort, and they were generally made to feel their importance. Military bands, court etiquette, silver plate, silk, satin, and velvet, and general imperial gorgeousness superseded the hardships of Prussian travel. The Princess did not fail to send her husband a detailed description of all these splendours. Here little Figgey, the negligible cause of all this distinction, was handed the first of the many presents she was to receive from the Empress Elizabeth. This was nothing less than one of those wonderful sable furs for which Russia is still famous. Riga was left on the 9th of February at 11 a.m., and the departure partook of the nature of a triumphal procession, the whole town turning out to give the cortege a send-off. They drove in imperial sledges—provided for the journey with sable rugs, and satin cushions and bedding— drawn by a team of ten horses, two abreast. They were given an escort of mounted cuirassiers and were accompanied by a numerous and distinguished suite. They travelled so expeditiously, although they were always put up for the night and stopped at regular intervals for their various meals, that they reached St. Petersburg on the 3rd/14th February at noon, where they were taken to the Winter Palace. It was a bright frosty day. The Court had gone to Moscow, and St. Petersburg was empty. Lord Hyndford, the British Ambassador, reporting one of these transmigrations of the Court from the new to the old capital, says: "There are near a hundred thousand people in motion for that journey." The parsimonious Frederick II of Prussia granted his envoy 1200 icus travelling expenses for this change of residence, which frequently took months to effect.


On the arrival of the Zerbst Princesses the spacious receptionrooms of the Winter Palace were crammed with " thousands of people " who had to be presented. This was very fatiguing, but the indomitable Princess nevertheless wrote the Empress a long letter on the selfsame day in which, however, her magnificent and incorrigible egotism was involuntarily exhibited, for it did not contain a single reference to her daughter, for whom the journey had been undertaken. She did not omit to indite a long and fulsome letter to Count Voronzoff. In a letter to her chers parens she describes her first day in St. Petersburg: "I dined alone with the ladies and gentlemen whom the Empress has appointed to attend me. In the evening various ladies called on me. I played cards and had supper with such as were deemed worthy." On the following day she received "the priests and monks," and adds: "To the honour of the Russians I must say that they are clever people. I see old generals who have served and assisted Peter the Great. I experience no fatigue in listening to their stories about their creator, as they call him." Her husband she informed: " Figgey bears the fatigue better than I do, but, thank God, we are both well." To Frederick II she wrote: "An iron constitution is needed to stand the hardships of this journey and the fatigue of court etiquette. My daughter is more fortunate than I in this respect; she is supported by her youth. Like young soldiers who despise danger because they are too inexperienced to understand it, she is enjoying the grandeur with which she is surrounded." Indeed, one of the first sights which Princess Sophia was shown, on the very day of her arrival, was the famous Preobrajensky Barracks, "the place from which the Empress proceeded when she took possession of the throne." She saw the men who escorted Elizabeth and heard them relate the details of the famous events of the 25th November 1741.


Wych, the British Envoy, wrote that the Princesses had received many distinguished visitors, and that the French and Prussian Envoys, " Mr. de la Chetardie and Mr. Mardefeldt, have been very assiduous in making their court" ; and in an earlier dispatch he writes: " I have the honour to be acquainted with the Mother since her infancy."


De la Chetardie was of course anxious to disabuse the mind of the Princess of any idea of the rivalry of a French candidate for the hand of the heir-apparent, and pretended this candidature was but a diplomatic ruse to counteract the hostility of Great Britain and Saxony to a marriage which might lead to an alliance between Prussia, Sweden, and Russia.


Mardefeldt, on the other hand, desired to represent the difficulties in the way, especially in view of consanguinity, and how he had succeeded by dint of his astute efforts, and by heavily bribing the Holy Synod, in overcoming them. There is little ground for believing these stories, though it is on record that Mardefeldt obtained considerable sums from Frederick II for this purpose, but Russian writers have demonstrated the improbability of these sums having been applied as pretended.


In the next chapter we propose to give a general review of the state of the Russian Court at the time of the arrival of the future ruler of that country, all unconscious of her fate, and of the various political influences at work there. For the present therefore we must take leave of the two Princesses of Zerbst, mother and daughter, who were now summoned by the Empress to come to Moscow, and duly proceeded thither in suitable style and with all the circumstances of luxury and magnificence which Russia and the eighteenth century were capable of affording. All this was indeed a change from the days of frugal simplicity in Stettin. The person, however, whose head was turned was not the sedate and wondering little Figgey, but her astute, manoeuvring, and lamentably vulgar mother, who could not be made to understand that, for the purposes of this visit at least, her unattractive daughter of barely fifteen, pale, thin, and childish, was of even greater importance than the wife of the reigning princeling of Anhalt-Zerbst, though he was a fieldmarshal in the Prussian army, and although that wife was a Holstein-Gottorp—a family which, but for its accidental alliance with the house of Russia, was no more distinguished than his own.



ELIZABETH ascended the throne of Russia in 1741; Peter I, the Great, died prematurely in 1725. In that interval of sixteen years much water had flowed down the Neva, from Lake Ladoga into the Gulf of Finland. Of Peter the Great, the creator of St. Petersburg, his admiral, Villebois, has written: "II 6tait un vray monstre de luxure, et, quoique laborieux, il s'abandonnait parfois, si Ton peut s'exprimer ainsy, a des acces de fureur amoureuse dans lesquels l'ige et le sexe meme luy importaient m6diocrement."

Peter appointed his second wife and boon companion, Catherine, to be his successor. This woman of obscure origin (she is said to have been brought up as a servant in Livonia), after becoming the joint paramour of Peter and his favourite Menshikoff without deceiving the one or the other, went through a ceremony of marriage (after divorcing her first husband) with Peter and was crowned by him, his wife Evdokhia having been previously put away. In the eyes of the Russian Orthodox Church this second marriage was not valid, especially as Catherine's first husband was alive, nor were the children of Catherine considered legitimate. Consequently while Peter was yet lying in his death agony, the principal nobles of Russia held a secret meeting at which it was resolved to arrest Catherine on his death and to proclaim his grandson, Peter Alexeyevitch, the son of that unfortunate Alexis who was tortured and finally beheaded by his semi-insane father. For Peter the Great's ideas of duty were as heroic as all his other ideas, and offer yet another illustration of the close alliance of madness to genius.


Catherine was apprised of the decision of the nobles by Bassevitch, who informed her of it in the night. She was prostrated with grief and incapable of forming any decision, but begged Bassevitch to consult with Menshikoff and promised to do whatever they advised. How Menshikoff was awakened in his sleep, immediately seized the treasure, secured the fortress, and bribed the guards, some of the nobles, and the principal clergy are matters of history. Catherine I was a simple creature who had fortune forced upon her. Gordon describes her as " a very pretty, well lookt woman, of good sense, but not of that sublimity of wit, or rather of that quickness of imagination, which some people have believed. The great reason why the Czar was so fond of her, was her exceeding good temper; she never was seen peevish or out of humour; obliging and civil to all, and never forgetful of her former condition; withal mighty grateful." She could neither read nor write, and her reign, which lasted but two years, has been described as the reign of Menshikoff. It is not surprising that this amiable and uneducated woman should have lacked the moral sense. During the two , years of her reign she maintained two lovers, and frequently drank more Tokay than was consistent with sobriety.having got rid of Menshikoff, turned his back on St. Petersburg and the foreign institutions introduced by his grandfather, and, taking up his residence in Moscow, reverted to Russian customs. He was now betrothed to a Princess Dolgorouki, and it seemed as though Russia was definitely closing the window looking out into Europe which Peter the Great had so laboriously constructed, when suddenly his grandson contracted small-pox and died in 1730; and thus the house of Romanoff in the male line became extinct.


Catherine I had two daughters by Peter: Anne, who was married to Charles Frederick, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp; and Elizabeth, unmarried. On the death of the Empress, the crown devolved upon Peter the Great's grandson, Peter, the son of the rebellious. ^Alexis. This boy was between twelve and thirteen years of age when he came to the throne, and the Empress had provided that he should be placed under the guardianship of her daughters Anne and Elizabeth, and of the Duke of Holstein and the Bishop of Liibeck, as well as the Supreme Council. But Menshikoff drove the Duke of Holstein out of Russia and virtually took the reins of government into his own hands. He betrothed the Emperor to his own daughter and proceeded to assume parental authority over him and to treat him with austere and imperious severity. Peter was a boy of spirit, and in 1727 got the Dolgorouki family, with whom he was distantly connected, to turn Menshikoff out. This extraordinary man, who began life by selling hot pies in the bazaars, now experienced a reverse of fortune; he was exiled to Siberia, and his great and ill-gotten wealth confiscated. Although he bore his disgrace manfully he did not long survive it, and died in 1729. Peter II,

On his death the Dolgoroukis produced what purported to be the will of Peter II, according to which the Princess to whom he had been betrothed was to succeed him. The other nobles on the Council of State, however, declared the document a forgery, and conceived the bold idea of converting the autocracy into a sort of oligarchic limited monarchy, of which they proposed to pull the strings. As the will of Peter II was pronounced to be a forgery and that of Catherine—appointing, in the event of failure of issue to Peter II, the Duchess Anne of Holstein and her children as heirs, with remainder to Elizabeth—was disregarded, because Catherine herself was considered a usurper and her children illegitimate, the Council proceeded to elect a successor of their own choice.


Now Peter the Great had had a step-brother, Ivan, who had shared the throne with him, and jointly with Peter had held the title of Tzar. Three daughters of this Tzar Ivan were still living: the eldest had married a Duke of Mecklenburg, but had sought refuge from his turbulence in St. Petersburg, where she lived in retirement; the second, Anne, had married the Duke of Courland, and was living as his widow in Mittau; the third was still unmarried, and lived in St. Petersburg. The choice of the Council fell on Anne of Courland, and a sort of draft constitution was drawn up, the most important provisions in which were that taxation could not be imposed without the consent of the Senate, and that war and peace depended on the advice of that body. Anne subscribed to these conditions, and had the new form of government publicly proclaimed, but, against the express stipulations of the Council, she nevertheless brought with her to Moscow an obscure and rather shabby individual called Biren, who was her lover, and was later to become the scourge of Russia. Had the Council had the power and the courage to expel this favourite, the history of Russia would probably have been very different from what it has been, but they failed at the critical moment, and Anne summoned a sort of national assembly, the probity and independence of the deputies to which were not above suspicion. This Assembly, to the feigned surprise of the Empress, rejected the new-fangled form of government, and so Anne tore up, in the presence of the deputies, the constitution she had been compelled to sign as a condition of her accession. Although nominally governed by Anne, Russia was now really ruled by her favourite "and Grand Chamberlain, von Biren, a man of no capacity but of great brutality. He was aided by the wise and honest Ostermann, the Nestor of Russian diplomacy, and the accomplished Marshal Count Miinnich, who gave Russia roads and, with the aid of Peter Lacy, that famous Irish soldier of fortune, organized and commanded her forces.


The Empress Anne was a masculine Princess who punished the nobles who had attempted to limit and circumscribe her power with a rigour which seemed to aim at their extinction. The nobles of Russia were then taught a lesson, and remained in a state of abject subjection for nearly a century afterwards, and when, in 1825, they once again endeavoured to assert themselves, their ghastly failure demonstrated the hopelessness of their case.


During her long residence in Courland, Anne had acquired tastes rather more refined than might have been expected from her antecedents. It was her ambition to make her Court the most brilliant in Europe; in this she failed, but she succeeded in gathering about her an incongruous display of profusion without elegance, tawdry finery, pomp and squalor. Gross gluttony and drunkenness disappeared in some measure from her Court; but dissipation of every kind, ruinous extravagance, and reckless gambling were the fashion. Yet under the wise administration of Ostermann and Miinnich the political and military affairs of the State did not suffer. The interests of industry and civilization were by them promoted, but morality remained as it had ever been, except that its sepulchres were painted and gilt. The greatest splendour and immeasurable extravagance were but a veneer covering, though scarcely concealing, the rudest barbarism, and at the same time there was often a want of the barest and simplest of necessaries.


In appearance, Anne was fat with a yellow complexion and a greasy face which, as she was very dark, emphasized her ugliness. Her forehead was narrow, her eyes small, wild, and fierce, she had a long prominent nose, thin lips, a disagreeable mouth, and was short in stature. The Marquis de la Chetardie used to say that she looked well from behind. Her neck and shoulders, arms and hands were in keeping with the rest. She was of a lugubrious and melancholy disposition and addicted to drink. Suspicious of everybody, she exhibited tenderness and affection for no one, although she was reputed to have a temperament, in which, however, it is said, vanity pla}-ed the principal part. She was harsh and cruel, and behaved with so little decency in church that she scandalized her pious subjects.


The state of society at that time may be best appreciated from the fact that, while Peter I never had fewer than twelve buffoons, Anne had as many as six, three of whom were men of highest birth, and no private household with any pretensions was without at least one. These buffoons were birched if they failed in their duty or did not submit with a good grace to perform such fooleries as were required of them. One of Anne's buffoons was the famous Prince Golitzin, a man of forty and a widower, whom she married to one of her waiting-women, a Calmuck hunchback, named Boujininovna. For the purposes of the wedding an ice-palace was erected on the Neva, furnished throughout in the same material, and illuminated by means of candles of ice soaked in naphtha. Fountains of petroleum played into basins constructed of ice, and, as the bridal procession approached the palace, salutes were fired from ice-cannon placed at the entrance, and ice-elephants spurted naphtha from their frozen trunks. It was an exceptionally cold winter even for St. Petersburg. The bridal procession was a sort of pageant, the governors of all the provinces of the empire were instructed to send each a couple attired in the local national dress. Three hundred persons composed this extraordinary procession, some on horseback, some on donkeys, others on camels, reindeer, oxen, goats, dogs, and even pigs. The " happy pair" were placed in a cage which was carried on the back of an elephant. All this motley crowd passed before the imperial palace and through the principal streets of the capital. The banquet was served in Biren's famous huge riding-school, the scene of so many tragedies, and here the special dishes of the various countries or districts represented were served. A ball followed, at which the different national airs and dances of the empire were introduced. After these junkets the unfortunate bride and bridegroom were re-conducted to the illuminated ice-palace, where they were placed upon an ice-bed, and left for the night. A cordon of sentries kept guard all night to prevent them from escaping, and on the following morning the genial Empress was graciously pleased to visit her buffoon and his hunchback wife and exchange with them some light-hearted and elegant badinage. It was in this reign that a Russian nobleman had the temerity to become a convert to Judaism, for which act of apostasy he and the Jew who converted him/were burnt alive.


v/Of course those were rude times ; in the neighbouring State of Prussia, Frederick William I, though more frugal, was quite as coarse and cruel in his humour, and even in France and England manners were far from mild. Nevertheless, from the point of view of grossness and cruelty, self-indulgence and barbaric luxuriousness, Russia was pre-eminent. -


Anne had no children or at least, if the scandalous story be true that Biren's son Peter was hers, no legitimate children of her own. Her favourite sister Catherine, who had been married to a Duke of Mecklenburg, died without leaving a male child, but her daughter Anne was adopted by the Empress. Lady Rondeau, the wife of the British Minister, only knew her as a shy and awkward girl and thought her stupid. She is described as a round-faced, pleasantlooking blonde, very good-natured and easy-going, if rather indolent and deficient in energy. The Empress'selected her to be the mother of the future Emperor of Russia, and, whilst she was yet in her teens, dispatched her Grand Chamberlain to the Court of Vienna to find her a suitable mate. The choice fell on Prince Anthony Ulrick of Brunswick-Bevern, who was forthwith dispatched to Russia to be educated. The young couple grew up under the eyes of the Empress but betrayed no inclination for each other. Indeed, the young Princess took so little pains to disguise her dislike for her spouse in futuro that Biren, Duke of Courland, thought there might be a chance for his own son Peter, the reputed offspring of his relations with the Empress when she was herself but Duchess of Courland and he, the grandson of a groom, her obscure servitor and lover. Peter was five years younger than the Princess, who repelled with scorn Biren's overtures, made through the intermediary of Princess Stcherbatoff, the female buffoon of the Empress. In July 1739 the marriage of " inconvenience" between Prince Anthony Ulrick and Princess Anne was celebrated, and in August 1740 the Empress had the satisfaction of holding in her arms at the font the future Emperor Ivan III of tragic memory. Six weeks later, Sunday, 16th October, the Empress was seized with a fit whilst at table, and removed insensible to her bed which she was never to leave alive. At first Anne rallied, and it was hoped that the skill of her Portuguese physician, Sanchez, might prolong her life for some months, though, from the nature of her malady, a permanent cure was well-nigh impossible. On the 22nd October she was so much better that a complete recovery was talked of, but on the 26th the Empress had a relapse, and in the evening of the 28th she expired.1 During the anxious period of her indisposition Biren was horribly agitated, and at a loss to know what course to adopt. After consultation with her ministers, he asked Anne to appoint him Regent during the infancy of Ivan. Anne readily signed a decree appointing Ivan her successor, but hesitated to accede to Biren's request, for her clear common-sense told her that her favourite's well-merited unpopularity would cause his fall as soon as she was no longer alive to support and shield him. But, blinded by ambition, the infatuated Duke succeeded in persuading her to sign a " positive declaration " appointing him Regent.


Although Russia had prospered under the reign of Anne, who governed by means of a Cabinet consisting of three persons, of whom Ostermann was the most important, she was not popular, for she was too partial to foreigners ; moreover, the severities and cruelties of Biren were laid at her door. Ernest Johan Biren (Biron or Biihren) was the grandson of a groom in the service of Duke James III of Courland, who bestowed upon him a small estate where Ernest Johan was born on 1st December 1690. After an idle and vagabond youth he gained a footing at the court of Mittau through the dishonour of his sister. Here he attracted the attention of the Duchess by his handsome face and figure and bluff bonhomie, and succeeded in supplanting her older lover, Peter Bestujev. When the Russian deputies arrived at Mittau to announce the election of Anne to the throne, a former successful lover, Prince Vassili Dolgorouki, who was doubtless in hopes of renewing his relations, on entering her apartment found with her a man rather meanly dressed, to whom he made a sign to retire. As the man did not stir, the tactless Dolgorouki took him by the arm to emphasize the hint, but Anne stopped him, for the shabby person was Biren, who never forgave Dolgorouki. During the later years of Anne's life Biren increased so enormously in power and riches that he must have been a marvel to himself as well as to others. His apartments in the palace adjoined those of Anne, and his liveries, furniture, and equipages were scarcely less magnificent than hers. Half the bribes intended for the Russian Court passed through his hands. The massive gorgeousness of his silver plate astonished the French Ambassador, and the diamonds of his wife (a Fraulein von Treiden, by whom he had several children) were the envy of princes. In 1737 he was elected Duke of Courland and became a Most Serene Highness. Although Biren did not meddle with affairs of State, which he left to the Cabinet, he was a man of fierce and cruel hatreds and of a vindictive disposition. People who had the misfortune to offend him were kidnapped into his riding-school and stables and inhumanly flogged, and it is estimated that during the ten years of Biren's supremacy more than 20,000 people (some say 40,000) were sent to Siberia, of whom 5000 were never again heard of. The Empress would often fall on her knees before him in hopes of moving his clemency, but neither her prayers nor her tears were able to affect this obdurate monster, whose cruelties, practised on the most illustrious persons of the country, almost exceed belief. The Minister, Valinsky, he beheaded.


1. The cause of death was supposed to be stone in the kidney with complications.


Under Anne the prestige of Russia was immensely increased in Europe, thanks to her victory over the Turks and the able diplomacy of Ostermann, and both France and England grew equally apprehensive of the sudden rise of this new power which, according to Rondeau, was beginning " to have a great deal to say in the affairs of Europe," and England was even anxiously desirous of concluding an alliance with her.

When, after the death of Anne, her will appointing her greatnephew Ivan, Emperor, and Biren Regent, was read out in the great hall of the Summer Palace on the 29th October 1740, the indignation of the child's parents may be imagined. Prince Anthony gave voice to his feelings in conversation with the officers of the regiment he commanded, and even hinted that the will was a forgery. Biren hearing this, had him arraigned before a general assembly of the Cabinet, the Senate, and the nobility, and publicly rebuked him. The Prince broke down with a lamentable want of courage, burst into tears, and made a confession of conspiracy implicating a number of unfortunate officers in his regiment, who were knouted and degraded to the ranks, whilst Prince Anthony was deprived of all his offices and virtually made a prisoner in his wife's apartments, whence he did not venture to emerge till after the fall of Biren. This latter event was brought about by Marshal Count Miinnich, the distinguished soldier who had with Peter Lacy been mainly instrumental in the aggrandizement of Russia, and whom Biren was unwise enough to slight. The Grand-Duchess Anne, the Emperor's mother, though lazy and good-natured, was not lacking in spirit, and had several altercations with Biren, who actually threatened to have her and her husband expelled the country. This was too much; the outraged mother confided in the discontented Miinnich, who was an abler and bolder conspirator than her weak-kneed husband. One eventful night, at the head of his Preobrajensky Grenadier Guards, Miinnich quietly arrested Biren in bed, where he was peacefully sleeping by the side of his wife, and after a desperate struggle, in which he kicked and bit like a maniac, Biren was bound fast by the soldiers, and, with a quilt thrown over him, flung into Miinnich's coach, his wife being served in the same manner. All Biren's partisans were also arrested, and the same morning his regency was annulled and that of the Grand-Duchess Anne proclaimed in its stead. The whole Biren family were incarcerated in the fortress of Schliisselburg, and all the acts of the Biren regency, of a brief three weeks' duration, were annulled and expunged from the public records. Biren's punishment was perhaps less severe than he deserved. He was examined, though not tortured, and condemned to death by quartering, an inhuman sentence which the kindly Anne commuted to banishment to Siberia. His property was confiscated, and he became an exile, yet he lived to return to Courland, and to rule his duchy with some success.

Miinnich was now in the ascendant, and got himself appointed Prime Minister, a unique office, which he was the first and last to hold. Bribed by Frederick the Great he forsook the policy of adherence to Austria consistently followed by Ostermann, whom Miinnich placed on the shelf as Grand-Admiral. His boundless rapacity (he amassed more wealth in two months than Biren had accumulated in his first seven years) and his overbearing insolence became too much for the amiable Anne, who, gladly listening to Ostermann's representations that the Prime Minister's ignorance of affairs was damaging the country, restricted his administration to the Army and the Ladoga Canal, while Ostermann was reinstated in the direction of foreign affairs. Naturally Miinnich sent in his resignation, and, to his dismay, this was graciously accepted. Ostermann now became the virtual ruler of Russia, whilst Anne gave herself up to enjoyment.


Some years before her marriage Anne was suspected of entertaining a tenderness for Count Lynar, the Envoy of Saxony. Rondeau called him "an uncommonly pretty fellow." Before she had had time to compromise herself her stern and sagacious aunt, the Empress Anne, induced Lynar to leave the country for the benefit of his health, and shortly afterwards married her daughter, as we have seen, to Prince Anthony. Adversity kept the uncongenial partners together for a time, but when Anne became Regent they drifted apart; she made a friend and companion of a countrywoman named Fraulein Julia Mengden, who was of about her own age, and was given apartments adjacent to her own, in which the Regent, very much in deshabille, with her head tied up in a striped cotton kerchief, would spend most of her time talking and playing cards and surrounded by her favourite's relations.


'Finch, the British Envoy, writes to Lord Harrington: "I should give your lordship but a faint idea of the great affection that the Grand-Duchess has for Mlle Mengden, by adding that the passion of a lover for a new mistress is a jest to it. By good luck she (Miss Mengden) has no great share of parts, nor, as they say, of malice, so that it is to be hoped that she will neither have the power nor the inclination to do much harm." The brother, mother, and a few sisters of this pleasant companion were also invited to Russia and loaded with gifts. One sister, Bina, was attached to

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