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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

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Bookworms, however, always have some consolation, as Catherine would observe in her self-penned epitaph: “Eighteen years of boredom and loneliness gave her the opportunity to read many books.” Peter, an adolescent himself when he arrived in Russia and perhaps the victim of a penile condition that made sex painful, preferred playing toy-soldiers in bed: “The absurdity of what they were doing, often until two in the morning, sometimes made Catherine laugh, but usually she simply endured.” Eventually, with impatient foster-grandma Elizabeth’s knowledge or indifference, Catherine took a court chamberlain as a lover and became pregnant with Paul, who was legally regarded as Peter the Great’s great-grandson.

Once Catherine gave birth, she was treated as if she had lost her use and was only rarely allowed to see her son: “For ten years [Elizabeth] had been keeping [Catherine and Peter] at the expense of the state. Thus, the child, required for reasons of state, created by her command, was now, in effect, the property of the state – that is, of the empress.”

It’s important to remember that Catherine herself had no legal or blood-relation claim on the throne – but when has fact ever hindered political ambition? Upon Elizabeth’s death, Peter III made one botch after another, the main one being that he never stopped thinking of himself as German and the disciple of Frederick the Great of Prussia, with whom the Russians were at war. Peter III immediately tried to refashion the army in the Prussian military image and boldly challenged the privileges and abuses of the Orthodox church.

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