Madame De Maintenon
Mary The Mother Of Washington
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
A. D. 1729-1796
EMPRESS OF RUSSIA
The woman on whose history we now enter is, excepting Cleopatra, the worst of characters. Neither was she a Russian. She was a German. Yet her long career gives us the best expression we can get of high life in Russia, and no amount of moral condemnation will obscure the final fact that she is regarded both in the books of the past and in the literature and conversation of our own times, as a great sovereign: The curiosity of the nations must always be directed toward that land whose inner nucleus has fifty governments, whose solid territorial area of ninety-six provinces is so large that, if other sovereigns ruled over as much ground, there would be but five of them, four others than Victoria, who alone would need no acquisition of territory to her share of the dominions. And in this almost boundless nation Catherine II seems to rank next to Peter the Great. The tourist may go to St. Petersburg and see it, or he may absorb it, as it were, by sympathy, out of the histories of Frederick the Great and Frederick William II, his nephew; and of Maria Theresa and her sons, Joseph II and Leopold II. Catherine II must stand for Russian character, and for the Russian woman in power. There are women in Russia, by the millions, as good and pure as are to be found anywhere else. Nevertheless, a strait-laced young Lutheran woman was taken from the Spartan life of upper Saxony, and moulded at the Russian court into Catherine II; and Russia today stands proud of her. She accomplished those things which Russians most admire; her faults were those which Russians least deplore in the great.
Even learned commentators, looking with impartial eye on the performances of rulers in all parts of the earth, betray their respect for her. "The mighty Empire of Russia," says De la Croix, "was hewn out in the rough by Peter the Great; the form of this colossal figure was softened by Elizabeth; and it has received more of the human appearance from the able hand of Catherine II, who, by the instructions which she gave to the commissioners who formed her code of laws, proved herself worthy of governing a great empire. She did more for Russia by her equity and beneficence than all her generals did by their warlike virtues. So vast an empire did-not need wider bounds; its true welfare could be more essentially promoted by favoring population, by wise laws, by encouraging industry and commerce, by cultivating the arts and reconciling them to a stubborn land, uncongenial to their nature, by bettering the manners of a still savage race of nobles, and by communicating sensibility to a people whom the roughness of their climate had rendered impenetrable to all the soft affections and social virtues of humanity. These are the works which already make the name of Catherine illustrious, and will reflect glory on her memory."
A French noble, the Marquis of Custine, traveled in Russia in 1839 and 1840, and wrote as he journeyed. From him, possibly, we may receive our most awesome sense of the despotism of that new civilization. The highest officer, on meeting a magistrate of higher rank, basely cringes and leaves off all semblance of self-respect. Most eloquently does Custine picture the White Terror, where the Czar alone is legally safe, and he the least secure. It is an atmosphere of which English-speaking people have little knowledge. Little can come out of it, because of a press-censorship that, wisely for the safety of its own personnel, prohibits nearly all. This is the moral atmosphere, alone. In the material arts, the Russians do some things or long did them better than any other part of the world note the long list : They made the best cordials and liqueurs, even putting gold in their brandies; they made the best sheet-iron; the best furs; the best fine leathers; the best bronzes of horses, because they drove fastest, and were the riders par excellence of the world; the best mosaics, their vases of malachite, lapis lazuli, and jade being chief wonders of the world; they ranked high in chemistry, taking to their laboratories the promising students of Germany. During our lifetimes, we have had at the other end of our telegraph-wire, a Newsky Prospect tragedy, a Czar destroyed despite a Czar's power over a hundred million souls, which was as absolute as brute force could make it, and yet the people who saw and did these things were as cunning as we in the conquests of man over the elements of nature. This spiritual childhood of Russia is absolutely repugnant to the English sense. When the Russian's black eyes shoot fire, and he shows his gleaming teeth, in response to some savage jest, hopes of the brotherhood of the world and "the parliament of man" fade away. Let the reader prepare this Russian atmosphere for a study of Catherine's career. Let it be understood that, as late as the Tenth Century, St. Cyril went to Russia and set the Greek alphabet to the native sounds, adding some dozen or more letters by invention to catch their thick and epiglottic utterances, thus making the Russian language graphic. As late as the Tenth Century all the Russians were in the pastoral age, with brick tea for money. As late as Catherine's husband's aunt's father, the Czar Peter the Great, to get carpenters into Russia, had to go abroad and actually learn the trade himself the Arabian Nights tale of latter centuries.
"Russia," says Carlyle, "is not a publishing country. The books about Catherine are few and of little worth. Tooke, an English chaplain; Castera, an unknown French hanger-on, who copies from Tooke, or Tooke from him these are to be read as the bad-best, and will yield little satisfactory insight. Castera, in particular, a great deal of back-stairs gossip and street rumor, which are not delightful to a reader of sense. In fine, there has been published, in these very years, a fragment of early autobiography by Catherine herself a credible and highly remarkable little piece, worth all the others, if it is knowledge of Catherine you are seeking. A most placid, solid, substantial young lady comes to light there, dropped into such an element (Russian) as might have driven most people mad. But it did not her; it only made her wiser and wiser in her generation."
One other point, perhaps the reader will believe, should also be made clear. Neither Catherine nor the Czar she married and murdered was wholly a Russian. How did it come that such a vast country, and such a patriotic land, would permit these foreigners to usurp their combined throne of Pope, Caesar, and Sultan? It came in this way: When the quixotic Swedish Charles XII went into Russia to aid the northerners, he had for comrade a German Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, who was killed. Peter the Great adopted his orphan son and married that son to his daughter Anne, afterward Empress. They had a son, Karl Peter Ulrich, who went to live in Germany, whom Elizabeth chose as her successor, and at that time, in Russia, the arbitrary choice of the sovereign fixed the succession legally. She took him out of Holstein-Gottorp (in the Danish region), converted him to the Greek church, and made Oranienbaum, near St. Petersburg, his residence. But he was German, a Lutheran at heart, and a rapt admirer of Frederick and Voltaire that is, before he became besotted with drink and drugs. He was regarded with suspicion as an alien.
Now turn from Holstein-Gottorp to the small district of Anhalt-Zerbst-Domburg, in Upper Saxony. There Prince Christian Augustus ekes out a living by a General's slender pay in Frederick's father's army, and, in Frederick's time is commander at the fortress of Stettin. His wife appears to Carlyle to have been "an airy, flightly kind of lady, high-paced, not too sure-paced; weak, evidently, in French grammar, and perhaps in human sense withal." To them was born, at Stettin, May 2, 1729, a daughter, Sophia Augusta Frederica. This daughter's slightest caprice was to rule the inhabitants of one-sixth of the earth's surface for thirty four years. This daughter was to be Catherine II of Russia. She was baptized in the Lutheran church, and was supposed by her frugal parents and relatives to be counted as one more stanch enemy of pompous ceremonies and endless prayers. She skipped ropes on the ramparts at Stettin with her playmates of all classes, and easily directed the games and programme of their youthful days. She continued to be bright and vivacious, and was fairly educated under the eye of her mother. She resided by turns in Stettin, Domburg, or Zerbst, and was glad to go with her mother on various journeys, by which her manners could be polished and improved acording to her mother's tastes, which were princely in desire though Spartan in attainment. Her maternal grandmother, widow of the Bishop of Lübeck, welcomed the girl to Hamburg, and kept her at a small court, where a teacher, Von Brummer, enkindled in her nature a warm liking for literature. She learned to read the radical writings of the day, and, later, was a student of the new Encyclopaedia, and Voltaire and Rousseau. She also visited Brunswick, and there sometimes passed a whole summer with the Duchess Dowager of Wolfenbüttel. She was called Sophia. Elderly women liked to have her about, if they had no young women of their own to marry off. She flattered and amused them did it easily, did it well, and it also amused her to do it. She was taught that it was the way for a woman to succeed, and that way triumphed. When she was thirteen, the court preacher Dave received her fully as a member of the Lutheran church. She was invited to Berlin with her mother to witness the nuptials of Frederick's son.
On the 7th of November, 1742, (Sophia 13 years old) the Empress Elizabeth of Russia, determining that she would be the second great Eliza not to wed, fixed on Karl Peter Ulrich, as aforesaid, to be the next Czar. She had not yet come to hate Frederick, and begged him to furnish her with a suitable Princess to be Karl Peter's wife and future Czarina. Such a union was looked upon with mingled emotions of horror and ambition. Frederick did not wish to sacrifice any of his own blood to the northern Minotaur, but suggested the daughter of his friend, Madame of Zerbst. Elizabeth was pleased with the proposal. Accordingly, while the commandant of Stettin and his spouse were celebrating Christmas-tide, or early in 1744, at their castle in Zerbst, there suddenly arrived estafettes expresses from St. Petersburg, heralded by messages from Frederick with the astonishing intelligence that the Empress of all the Russias wished to enjoy the honor of a visit from Madame de Zerbst and her accomplished daughter, with intentions such as King Frederick carefully hinted at. This communication delighted mother and daughter, but offended the general, who did not feel it a comfort or a duty to feed his child to Minotaur, even for his King's sake. But he did not positively forbid, and mother and daughter wrote several letters in imperfect French, and soon appeared at Berlin, arousing a charming comment, and waiting only for money. As soon as that was furnished, they set out for St. Petersburg, and even for Moscow, travel being best in winter despite the storms, and reached Moscow February 18, 1744. Practising her highest arts on Elizabeth, young Sophia was received with satisfaction, and by July 12 had accepted the formulary of the Greek church. She was rebaptized and renamed Catherine Alexiewna. "Let it be Catherine," said the pleased Elizabeth, "my dear mother's name" (in Russian, Ekaterina).
For husband the ambitious German Princess found a 16-year-old boy (Peter) verging on idiocy, silly, wayward, extravagant. At times he would be studious, and his feelings were naturally gentle. He was not positively ugly, yet she could feel only indifference, mixed with a little pity. Soon after her arrival, conversion, acceptance, and betrothal, the boy took the small-pox, and for a time the prospects of mother and daughter were as good as lost, so certain did it seem the boy would die. To Catherine's joy, he recovered. Yet when she next saw him he had become a monster. His countenance was not only scarred, but distorted. Veiling her horror, she fell on his neck and wept, with marks of the liveliest affection, all practiced beforehand, when she had supposed him to be merely a foolish fellow. Returning to her chamber, she fell into a swoon of several hours. On her recovery she fought a last battle with her ambition, consulted her mother, thought of the sledge-ride from Berlin to Moscow, and married the Grand Duke Peter, September I, 1745, some considerable time later.
She now set out to charm the Empress by adroit flattery, by a deep interest in the most trivial concerns of the sovereign, by an absolute submission to her will, giving her self-negation the air of a grateful deference. In court she was also liked, because she was "the same to every-body." She pleased the people outside the palace by a regular and rigid performance of the duties imposed on members of the Greek church. She was taken so ill that she was supposed to be in danger of dying. She was generously asked if she would not like to see a Lutheran clergyman. But, even then, she dissembled and called only for Simon Theodorsky, a prelate of the Greek church, who came, edified her with his ministry, and greatly spread her fame and popularity among the soldiers and common people to whom his views were expounded.
Secretly she despised the country and the customs. We here enter upon an era and period in her career that she herself wrote about. Her memoirs from the time of her arrival at Moscow till she ascended the throne were inclosed by her in a sealed envelope addressed to her son Paul. He showed them to no one but Prince Kourakine. This Prince copied them, and at last four or five copies existed. The Emperor Nicholas caused his spies to destroy all the copies they could find, but a Frenchman, Herzen, obtained a transcript, and the Autobiography made its appearance in English in 1859. She says the women blended the manners and tastes of Indian squaws and French grandes dames; the men, modeling them-selves on Peter the Great, copied all but his wisdom and patriotism. The court added the vices of civilization to those of barbarism. The serious side of life was to avoid being sent to Siberia or Astrakhan; the pleasures of life lay in drinking, gambling, and still viler forms of entertainment. Three great court ladies were simultaneously married, and a bet was made as to which of the brides would first be the cause of a scandal. A certain gamester won renown and money by betting on the homeliest bride because he thought she would be the earliest neglected, and the first to amuse herself in some way of her own. The Grand Duke loved a friend named Brockdorf, who had a long neck, a broad flat head, red hair, small, dull, sunken eyes, and the corners of his mouth hung down to his chin. "Whenever Brockdorf passed through our apartments, everyone called out after him 'Pelican!' because this bird was the most hideous we knew of.
"When the death of my father was announced to me, it greatly afflicted me. For a week I was allowed to weep as much as I pleased, but at the end of that time Madame Tchoglokoff came to tell me that I had wept enough; that the Empress ordered me to leave off; that my father was not a King. It was not suitable for a Grand Duchess to mourn for a longer period a father who had not been a King." The influence which Catherine's mother exerted aroused the jealousy of the Empress, and the daughter was next compelled to witness the departure of the offending Princess, who was ordered out of Russia.
Her husband had established a menagerie of dogs, cats, and rats, all trained, at the very door of Catherine's sleeping apartments. He drilled his dogs and executed military sentences on his rats in childish glee, being often grossly intoxicated. She strove to ridicule his pastime, or rather, his business, but evoked only his anger, which was dangerous. He soon, moreover, desired her to know his scandalous proceedings with women, and, in fact, the twain quarreled he was unendurable to a dissembling Princess who had believed there was nothing she would not do to be Empress. At the same time, she bewitched the Chancellor Bestucheff, who early formed the design of excluding Peter from the throne and exalting Catherine better to have the clear-headed German of the two, he thought.
She was not suited to the Russian climate or its consequences. The Imperial family was so badly accommodated that sometimes its members were made ill by walking through passages open to wind and rain, and sometimes stifled by overcrowded rooms. When her first child was born, she was left utterly alone, and so neglected that she thirsted for a drink of water. Her child was taken from her at its birth, and kept from her, she hardly being allowed even to see it. It was always so wrapped in foxskins and sealskins that it lay in a continual perspiration.
At the Imperial masquerades, one season, the men were ordered to appear in women's dresses, while the women dressed as knights, and all to show the legs of the Empress, which were proclaimed by all who valued their heads or fortunes as the best at the festival. Catherine herself soon came to delight in male attire, and was not reluctant to adopt the principles of a most dissolute court. To have remained honorable in an atmosphere where the good had supposably perished, would have been a grievous insult to the very Empress herself. "The formality of the court was oppressive," Catherine writes; "its espionage was frightful. Universal selfishness, universal suspicion, universal plotting and counter-plotting, were the order of the day, and there was nothing but intrigue and drink to relieve the stately tedium of daily duties." But Catherine nevertheless relieved it. As early as i 754 she was known to be fond of Soltikoff, who defeated Frederick the Great. When Soltikoff went off to war, she took his friend Narichkine, and, before Elizabeth died, Poniatowski was her acknowledged favorite. When Peter began to talk of revenge on her, she was given opportunity, in self-preservation, to plot against him. Meanwhile Elizabeth was keeping an heir to the throne in prison Ivan and Catherine put her eye also on him. She also had several lovers in the Orloff family, and they headed the conspiracy in her interests. She was 33 years old when the Empress Elizabeth died as the result of intemperance, and Paul, the German, adorer of Frederick the Great, trainer of rats, came to the throne. Soltikoff had added Pomerania in Prussia to Russia, and the people there had taken the oath to Elizabeth and Peter III, the new Czar. Russian blood had flown at Zorndorf and Kunersdorf. The Czar now gave all back to Frederick, and angered every Russian in doing it. "Peter," says Carlyle, "is careering, tumbling about, on all manner of absurd broomsticks, driven too surely by the devil; terrific-absurd big Lapland witch, surrounded by multitudes smaller and less ugly." He compelled the Czarina to decorate his big Lapland witch with the Order of St. Catherine. He made Russian soldiers put on Prussian uniforms and adopt a harsh drill. He appeared to be starting off a good deal like Caligula at Rome, and was perhaps about to nominate his rats for Grand Dukes. At any rate, what was far more to the point, he was going to start a colony of Soltikoffs, Poniatowskis, and Orloffs in Siberia, with Catherine at their head, for he now thoroughly hated her. Yet while he had clearly drawn the issue, he did not act with decision. It is not impossible or improbable that she herself inspired in him his threats, so that he, in the sloth and delays that he would surely practice, might be hoist with his own petard.
Sixteen miles west of St. Petersburg is Cronstadt; five miles away from Cronstadt is the palace of Oranienbaum, where Czar Peter III amused himself, drilling soldiers, now that he was free to do so, and throwing up mimic fortifications exactly after the fashion of "my uncle Toby." in "Tristram Shandy," the novel. Yet he was breathing great threats, that sounded as if he were in possession of the plot of Bestucheff and Orloff. Only six miles away from Oranienbaum was Peterhof Palace, in which were the apartments of the Czarina Catherine. Early in the morning of July 9, 1762, Catherine was awakened by Alexis Orloff, who warned her that all was discovered, and orders would soon be issued for the arrest of Catherine, Odart, Princess Dashkoff, and the Orloffs. Alexis Orloff drove the carriage to St. Petersburg, and Catherine, composing her mind, determined upon the form of speech with which to address the soldiers on whom she now must throw herself. She proceeded at once to the barracks of the Ismailoff Guards, where she found her principal lover, Gregory Orloff, before her. Here, she understood, three companies of the regiment had been corrupted in her interest. But the three companies had been purposely held back, with orders not to leave quarters till the appearance of the Empress. As she arrived unexpectedly, and at an early hour, only thirty of the soldiers, and those but partly dressed, ran out to meet her with shouts of joy. The sorry appearance of the squad alarmed her, and her speech, for a time, was almost inarticulate. At last, however, she was able to say that she had been driven by her danger to the necessity of asking their assistance; that her death, together with that of her son, had been decreed by the Czar that very night; that flight had been forced upon her; that her confidence in their love had caused her to come to them; furthermore, that the Czar was of a mind to abolish their holy religion, and substitute the Lutheran service, which was approved by his model, Frederick the Great, and they could all see he was a madman. With this the small gathering made up in noise what its members lacked in number, and by loudly swearing to die for their holy religion, brought many others to the scene. The affair appearing to succeed, their Colonel appeared and hailed her as the sole sovereign, and now a great multitude surrounded her, no one raising a protest. The chaplain of the regiment was sent for, and a crucifix from the altar was brought. On this the oaths of the Guards were taken. Some cried "Long live the Regent !" but Gregory Orloff soon let it be known that she must be saluted as Empress, and, in fact, the cries to that effect were far the more numerous.
Two hours had now passed, and the Empress was in the center of 2,000 sworn warrior-subjects. As they moved along the civilians joined, and at last shouted approval, for the madness or mad rashness of Peter was widely feared, and this distrust had been sedulously cultivated by Bestucheff and Orloff. The Colonel led the way to the church of Our Lady of Kazan (Cathedral of St. Petersburg) where the conspirators were also in waiting. The Archbishop of Novgorod, arrayed in his sacerdotal robes, accompanied by a train of priests and acolytes, received her. The venerable appearance of the prelate and the patriarchs added a fortunate weight to the proceedings, and public acclamations at once began to be general through the city. The ceremony of coronation was carefully performed at the altar, the imperial crown was placed on her head, and the Archbishop, in a loud voice, proclaimed her, under the name of Catherine II, sovereign of all the Russias. Her son Paul, the young Grand Duke, was declared to be her successor. A Te Deum was then chanted, and so far as the people of St, Petersburg were concerned, if she had not been a Czarina a little while before, she was Czarina now anointed of the Lord. Her first manifesto was well received, especially at Moscow, where trouble had been brewing : "We wish to prove how far we merit the love of our people, for whose happiness we acknowledge our throne to be established. And we solemnly promise, on our Imperial word, to make in the Empire, such arrangements that the government may, with an intrinsic force, support itself within proper and limited bounds, each department of the State being provided with wholesome laws, sufficient to the preservation of order at all times and under all circumstances."
Meanwhile Peter was drilling his guards at Oranienbaum. After awhile, on this fatal day, he went over to Peterhof Palace, and found the Empress gone. He was there told of the revolution, and urged by his friends to act with courage. But his heart failed him. He concluded that he did not wish for power, and was unfit to wield it. He would retire to Holstein-Gottorp and be a Lutheran that would be better. Catherine's agents were at hand to give him counsel to her interest, and Ismailoff urged him to surrender as a prisoner. This he did, and his own guards were sworn to Catherine. He next signed a paper renouncing all claims to the crown. To his request for a passport for Germany, he received orders to retire to an Imperial estate called Ropscha, where attempts were made to poison him. These failed, and the Orloff s, Gregory and Alexis, at last broke into his chamber and choked the life out of him. The date of this final crime was the 17th of July, 1762. The troops at Moscow were bribed into acquiescence. As plans were also discovered which comprehended the coronation of Ivan, the prisoner, that unfortunate Grand Duke was put to death. The manner in which that crime was accomplished was especially revolting. A lieutenant was induced by Catherine's agents to allure Ivan into an attempt to escape, so that the guards could shoot and kill him. This was all brought about. Then the lieutenant was arrested and hanged for inciting the Grand Duke's attempt, and waited in vain on the scaffold for the reprieve that had been promised him.
Peter III, before his murder, had repudiated Paul as his son, and Catherine, brazenly declaring that Soltikoff was Paul's father, kept him under the strictest surveillance to the end of her reign, and thus made his assassination easy after he became Czar as her successor.
The petty German Princess, who once must have looked upward to Maria Theresa as the highest of earth's women, was now seated on a greater throne. Maria Theresa had already been Queen for twenty-two years, but was twelve years older than Catherine. We have seen at what a moment Catherine's arbitration entered into the history of the Seven Years' War. Had she gone back to the policy of Elizabeth, Frederick must have perished; Silesia would have been Austria's. While she doomed Maria Theresa to disappointment, she still acted well within the interests of Russia. There was no more pulling of Austrian chestnuts out of the fire. The Minister of France waited on her, striving to gather, from her conversation, the probable duration of the peace between Prussia and Austria. The Minister flattered her with remarks to the effect that she was the arbiter of Europe. "You think, then, that Europe has its attention fixed on me, and that I have weight in foreign courts. I do, indeed, believe that Prussia is a considerable power. I have the finest army in the world. I am short of money, it is true, but shall be abundantly provided within a few years. If I give the reins to my inclination, my taste is for war rather than for peace; but reason, justice, and humanity restrain me. Yet I will not, like the Empress Elizabeth, allow myself to be pressed to make war (she means by Maria Theresa). Whenever it shall prove to my advantage, I will assuredly enter upon it; but never through complaisance to others. Not till at least five years shall have passed will the world be able to properly judge of my character. It will require at least that time to reduce the Empire to order. In the meantime I shall act toward all the powers like a finished coquette."
She now began the work of civilizing Russia where the great Peter had left off. She had all the power there was, and she used it with propriety in Russia. Of one thing the boyards or nobles were soon proud. She was Russian to the core. She expelled the Saxon Duke of Courland and put another of her lovers, Biron, in his place. With this advantage gained the duchy was joined totally to Russia before she died. She suggested the election of her former lover, Poniatowski, as King of Poland, and the terrible army of Cossacks that had made such a fame in Pomerania came so near to Poland again that Poniatowski was elected. On this an old-fashioned war of Reformation was stirred up, until Poland was the theater of anarchy. At last the anti-Russian section was driven out, when the Turks, urged by Maria Theresa, and alarmed, as she was, by the ambition of Russia, declared war. Catherine's armies marched victoriously to the banks of the Danube, and the Turks were disgracefully defeated. They accordingly begged the mediation of Frederick and Austria, to prevent the aggrandizement of Russia, not alone in Poland, but on the Black Sea as well. Frederick's salve, to cure all the hurts of war, and to keep Catherine out of Constantinople, was the partition of Poland. It may be asked why Europe, after so many crusades against the Crescent, did not now let Catherine carry her Cross to the Golden Horn. The answer must be that it was an age when faith had decayed. The Cross would be Greek-a rival Christian church; the gain of territory would be dangerous to the bodies of Austrians, however advantageous to the souls of the Mohammed-ans. When the devout Maria Theresa, praying five hours a day, took sides with Mohammed against Russia, a new era had come in the religious world.
In 1772 the three robbers agreed as to Poland, Maria Theresa standing out for a remarkably large share, which created hatred between the two women. A fund was raised to bribe the Polish Diet, and, after three acts of partition, Russia finally came off with two-thirds of Poland. At about the same time the rule of Russia was extended to the Black and Caspian Seas, and, by 1783, the Crimea and Sebastopol were added to Christian territory.
The prestige acquired in these almost bloodless triumphs gave Catherine a reasonable degree of security on the throne of all the Russias. Near her person that is, in governments the doings of which she could be informed of by hearsay as well as official reports, the rule was sufficiently benignant; afar, it was dark and terrible a sort of life of beasts, where the thick skins of the wretched victims were pierced and their feelings reached with cat-o'-nine-tail whips on the ends of the lashes of which were sharp steel hooks. The red flag of auction was raised above the tribunals of the courts of equity, and property-owners revealed their wealth only when they purchased justice. The masses the people of Russia were all serfs. They were stupid, except when flying through the air on horseback or in cumbrous vehicles; then they became the very spirit of momentum itself, revealing the keenness that lay pent-up in their natures. There were nearly a hundred millions of these people. Over them their Papa (Pope), their White Mother, Autocrat not merely of their Russia, as they knew it, but of All the Russias, probably all the world, in their view was a handsome woman, carrying her head high, and appearing taller than she was. Her hair was auburn, her eye-brows dark, her eyes blue. Her countenance never betrayed what was passing in her mind. When she walked she appeared to especial advantage. She often wore a green gown or vest, with close sleeves reaching to the wrist. Her hair was lightly powdered and flowed upon her shoulders, in the Russian fashion. On her head was a small cap covered with diamonds. In her diet she was strictly temperate; she took a light breakfast, ate a moderate dinner, and had no supper.
It would appear that General Soltikoff was her first lover (before she was Empress), and that his object was to get command under Elizabeth; he cooled toward her first, and while she was grievously hurt, she took no revenge on him later, but left him Governor of Moscow when he died, in 1772. He was the father of Emperor Paul. When she discarded a favorite she loaded him with wealth, erected statues to him, and elevated him to power, and her largesses in this shameful direction are computed in all at $100,000,000. Potemkin secured her favor in 1775, supplanting Orloff, and, until his death, in 1791, was supreme in Russia under her. When her personal affection for him cooled, he supplied her with other companions without laying down his own power. At last a freed serf (Platon Zeuboff) took the reins, and pursued the same course of deception that had been adopted by Potemkin.
Like Frederick the Great, like Paul, like Louis XVI, Catherine had been converted to the views of Montesquieu and Rousseau. She set out, in 1762, to make her subjects happy or at least the nobles, for it is not likely that the serfs of Russia were considered capable of civilization. She particularly admired the Encyclopaedists—Diderot, D'Alembert, Euler, Voltaire, Rousseau. The Encyclopaedia, so far as it dealt with the trades and trade secrets, was welcome in Russia on account of the work of Peter the Great. Hearing that Diderot, its editor, was in want of money, and offered his library to obtain a dowry for his daughter, she at once purchased his library, appointed him librarian, and sent him his salary for fifty years. He set off for St. Petersburg. His clothes were so unpresentable that the Empress sent him a splendid court dress. He spent several hours a day in her cabinet, speaking with perfect familiarity. "Go on," said she, "anything is allowable among men." When he came away, he shed tears, and so did she. The climate did not agree with him. He was old, and wished to die in Paris. Grimm also visited Catherine. She carried on a correspondence with many great scholars, and if she found she could advance their interests, she was a munificent friend, having no ulterior purpose. While the poor, ill, and persecuted Rousseau was hunted in the region of the Rhine, the sovereign of all the Russias was modeling an educational manual in the Russian language on the "Emilius," which had set the western world cursing Rousseau. When Diderot died at Paris, he was in comfortable apartments rented for him by Catherine. "She was a second Peter the Great, in a sense," says Carlyle, "to me none of the loveliest objects; yet there are uglier, how infinitely uglier. She was an object grandiose, if not great." Carlyle is kind to her because she did not send Soltikoff back after Frederick. If Maria Theresa only had been Catherine, with her regiment of lovers, what a fiery epistle we should have had for Carlyle on the High Mother of the court of Vienna!
Catherine came upon the stage at a moment when Europe, panting with the bloodiest war it had ever seen, looked up to behold an endless nation of savages, peering into civilization with white glistening teeth and curious black eyes. Their own cities were "ten months' journey deep in far Tartarean wilds." The taste of victory at Kunersdorf, the taste of pillage in Pomerania, might tempt them to spill themselves over Europe in countless numbers. It may be imagined that Europe was glad a Saxon woman was on the Imperial throne of this Russia, and Europe's Kings set to outdo each other with flattery and offers of good will. When she issued her "Instructions for a Code of Laws," Frederick named her the Semiramis of the North; she was catalogued with Solon, Lycurgus, Theodosius, Justinian, Alfred. She responded to these tributes of good will by aiming to earn the good will of Europe, and within the sphere of her personal influence, as has been said, ameliorated the harsh conditions of life. She built the great palace of Tsarskoye Selo, outside of St. Petersburg. She established the Foundling Hospital at St. Petersburg, occupying thirty acres of ground and accommodating 6,000 persons. Its expenses are $5,000,000 a year. There are 800 nurses. From twenty to twenty-five children arrive daily. A lying in hospital, conducted on principles of the most generous secrecy, is an important branch of the great establishment. These children are educated at the public expense. A century of this sort of thing is what has put material Russia in the front rank of nations.
Peace did not come to Catherine in five years, as she had hoped it would. In 1771 the plague raged at Moscow, and the Archbishop of Moscow and his followers were massacred in a tumult growing out of sanitary questions. A remarkable character in history named Pugatcheff, a Cossack of the Don, who has a story of his own, proclaimed himself to be Peter III, headed a great rebellion, and took the Volga country and Kazan. Many Mongol tribes joined him. Suwaroff finally captured him, after Catherine had actually feared for her throne, and he was exhibited at Moscow in an iron cage. Pugatcheff was too cruel even for the Cossacks, or he would have been Czar.
We have seen that Isabella had her Ximenes, and Maria Theresa her Kaunitz. We must now enter the chapter of Catherine and her Potemkin. The Russians pronounce it Patiumkine. This is a less creditable picture, yet by no means an unimportant one in the world's view. Potemkin-supplanted Gregory Orloff, and was a lover for only two years. After that he was Foreign Minister. He induced the Czarina to believe that he alone could protect her from insurrection and assassination, and, with his advice, some of the darkest and Machiavellian crimes were committed. Assassins were lured into their crimes, and then punished for the crimes by which the imperial sovereign alone profited, after the manner of Ivan's murder. Maria Theresa and her son, Joseph II, loaded Potemkin with Austrian decorations, and Frederick was equally pliant. After Potemkin had reached the Black Sea, he set out to build both seaports and fleets. It was he who founded Kherson, Kertch, Nikolaeff, and Sebastopol. He was appointed Governor of the Taurida. He began a great "boom" on the Black Sea, and invited Catherine, in 1787, to visit him. To impress her with the magic growth of the regions under his rule, he caused an immense number of wooden painted sham houses to be constructed, and these he grouped into towns and villages along the route the Czarina was to take. He hired people to act the part of villagers, merchants, tradesmen, and agriculturists, en-gaged in their various pursuits. The Czarina was gratified with the show, and attributed it to the growth of the Empire under her reign. A forest was burned, for fire-works. War was now declared on the Turks, Potemkin was made commander-in-chief, with Suwaroff as lieutenant, and Potemkin was everywhere victorious. He was on his way to Constantinople, when Catherine stayed his march. The Greeks who had been stirred up were delivered to the vengeance of the Turks. Potemkin set out to meet the Empress, convince her, and get Constantinople after all, when he died on the road. He had been ruined by Zeuboff.
There is a possibility that Catherine at one time would have allowed Potemkin to kill Paul and declare himself her successor. At any rate, it was one day proclaimed that Paul was ill. On this a vast multitude, recalling the death of Peter III, surrounded the palace and demanded to see the Czarowitz, as the Crown Prince is called. The Empress, thoroughly alarmed, and trembling for her own safety, brought her son forward. He was spared to reign for a short time, notwithstanding his mother's want of regard for him.
Potemkin set out to gratify the luxurious tastes of his mistress. He built a wonderful hot-house, called the Taurida, in honor of his government. The so-called Hermitage, a vast picture-gallery and museum, was added to the Winter Palace, and even exceeded that structure in size. To the Hermitage the Empress admitted only those whom she personally liked. On the walls of this social sanctum she inscribed the following rules, still to be seen: "i. On entering, put off your rank, your hat, your sword. * * * 3. Be merry, but merriness does not consist in spoiling or breaking. 4. Sit, stand, walk, do whatever you please, without caring for anyone. 5. Speak not too often, in order to hear others. 6. Argue without anger.
7. Banish sighs and yawns; ennui may be catching. 8. Innocent games, proposed by any member of the society, must be accepted by the others. 9. Eat slowly, but with appetite; drink so moderately as to be able to walk out. 1o. Leave all quarrels at the door; whatever enters at one ear must go out at the other. If anyone violate one of these rules, for each fault witnessed by two persons, he must drink a glass of fresh water (ladies not excepted) and read aloud a page of Frediakoffsky [bad poet], Whoever in one evening violates three of these rules, must learn by heart six lines of Frediakoffsky. Whoever violates the tenth rule, must nevermore re-enter the Hermitage." It is said that Diderot did not get along too well under some of these ordinances.
Potemkin sent agents into Europe with wholesale orders to buy Old Masters, and $175,000 was paid for the Walpole collection of paintings. The vast collections of the Winter Palace and Hermitage may be gauged by the statement that there are twenty Murillos. It nowadays requires four days to complete the journey past the paintings, treasures, curios, and antiquities of these two palaces, where Western eyes for the first time gain a correct idea of Muscovite wealth and splendor.
Potemkin's advancement, according to gossip, was made possible by a coolness that sprang up between Gregory Orloff and Catherine on the following account : Catherine proposed a secret marriage to Orloff as a reward to him for his services in placing her on the throne; he thought, by refusing this alliance, he could secure a public acknowledgment that would seat him beside her. She was offended by his refusal, and did not recall him into favor. He died in 1783, after being Minister to France. Mention must be made of the famous Orloff diamond, which now surmounts the Russian scepter. This diamond was a gift from lover Orloff to Catherine. It has two insignificant flaws, weighs 194 carats, is one of the most beautiful, and is the largest of the crown diamonds of Europe. It was a gem in the eye-socket of an idol in a temple of Seringapatam, India; it was stolen by a French deserter, who sold it at Malabar to a sea-captain for $10,000; he sold it to a Jew for $60,000; the Armenian merchant Lazareff sold it to Count Orloff for $360,000 in gold, an annuity of $1,600, and a patent of nobility. Orloff presented it to Catherine, and she added it to the crown jewels, which are usually exhibited to the public at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.
In 1783 Sweden made war to recover Finland, but failed. When the French Revolution opened, Catherine made a pivotal change in her sentiments, and prohibited the publication of French books in Russia. While Europe was busy throttling liberty in France, she concluded it would be a good time to conclude the affair of Poland, and poured an army of 100,000 Russians into the remnant of the Kingdom that the three robbers had left. Her general, Suwaroff, besieged Warsaw in 1794, fought Kosciusko, defeated him near Warsaw, and carried him captive to St. Petersburg. He was in captivity when Catherine died. In 1795 Poniatowski resigned his crown, and Poland ceased to be. From 1550 it cannot be said that it had maintained a government that was not a menace to the peace of other nations.
Catherine did not pity nor attempt to lighten the burdens of the serfs. In the fifth year of her reign a ukase forbade them to bring any complaints against their masters. The masters could send the serfs to Siberia or could enlist them in the army. There were auctions of serfs. This condition may be compared with the acts of Maria Theresa, at the same moment, in the neighboring nation, where the humblest Austrian, Hungarian, Bohemian, Dutchman, or Italian might personally whisper in the ear of the sovereign, or, if need be, see her alone in a room.
Catherine, to stay the growing power of the Church, put in operation what we would call the law of eminent domain. She condemned the property, including the serfs, of the monasteries, and allotted to their heads fair payments from the treasury. Thus the Church became entirely dependent on the throne.
She was friendly to the Americans, and justly condemned the arrogance of England on the seas, which, during the wars with France, was destructive of the property of neutrals. Toward the last, she believed the representations of Zeuboff that she had 400,000 men under arms, although there were only 200,000 who were being paid, and thus was led into a war with Persia, which ended disastrously for Russia, the Empire losing two armies and gaining nothing. Zeuboff had made Catherine believe that the whole Georgian region could be readily joined to the Empire. Catherine's death and Paul's interest in Napoleon, who was now the Frederick of the West, put an end to operations on the Persian side which might have then ended the great Kingdom of Cyrus, much as it is ending tobanday namely, by division between Russia and Great Britain. It cannot be said that Catherine's eastern plans were unwise, or that the western operations of her successors brought happiness to Russia. Edmund Burke wrote an epistle to Catherine, extolling her to the skies for her efforts to stop the French Revolution. She has now become an imperial "Majesty who reigns and lives for glory." He is hers with the utmost possible respect and veneration for her and hatred for Lafayette and all other liberty-loving Frenchmen. She refused to receive ambassadors from the French Republic, and loaded the King's brother (Artois, afterward Charles X) with favors and money. The emigrants were all welcomed at the court, where many of them were saved from starvation, and some of them ungratefully testified what a bad woman she was.
Catherine was residing at the palace of Tsarskoye Selo, in the last year of her life, when Vigée Lebrun (who has also described Marie Antoinette for us) was presented and quartered as a guest at the imperial summer home. "I was surprised to find her very short; I had fancied her prodigiously tall, as high as her grandeur. She was very stout, but still had a handsome face, beautifully set off by her white curly hair. Genius seemed seated on her high white forehead. Her eyes were soft and sweet, her nose quite Grecian, her complexion florid, and her features animated. She had a voice of much sweetness. She had a beautiful white hand."
On Thursday, November 17, 1796, she did not ring at 9 o'clock a. m., as usual. They waited till io and even later. At last the head waiting-maid entered. Not seeing the Empress in her room, the maid went to a little clothes-cupboard, and, as soon as she opened the door, the body of Catherine fell to the floor. No one knew at what hour she had been seized with the apoplectic attack which had stricken lier down; but her heart was still beating. She did not die till 9 in the evening. Her son Paul arrived, and kissed her hand. There was extreme terror in the palace and the city, everyone fearing an insurrection, and all, too, dreading the reign of Paul. The people gathered in the squares and wailed like children, calling out "Matusha ! (Mother.) Matusha !"
The body remained exposed for six weeks in a large saloon, which was illuminated day and night. The catafalque was surrounded by escutcheons bearing the arms of all the cities of Russia. The face was uncovered; the fine hand was placed where it could be kissed.
Paul's management of the funeral was remarkable, and aroused doubts of his sanity. Peter III's body was exhumed. It had been buried for thirty-five years in a con-vent. These remains were taken to the cathedral. At the funeral a crown was placed on the coffin of Peter III, and it was carried before that of Catherine. Before Peter's coffin, on the way to the fortress, was a guard, in golden armor, from head to foot, who afterward died of fatigue. Before Catherine's coffin was a guard clad only in steel. The family of the assassins of Peter, the Orloffs, were ordered to carry Peter's pall. Paul, the new Emperor, followed the procession on foot. It was dreadfully cold. The procession entered the Cathedral of the fortress of Saints Peter and Paul, and there Peter and Catherine were buried. Her tomb, among the ancestors of her murdered husband, is shown to-day with pride, alike to stranger and to patriot, as one of the monuments of the past. Her portraits present a face of singularly benevolent appearance. Her memory is revered by the Russians. They have only to note that she extended the Empire to the Caspian, the Euxine, the Dniester, to Silesia, to the Gulf of Bothnia. They drive the harder, when they think of her they have further to go.
She made war on the Turks often on the Turks on the Poles, on the Swedes, on the Cossacks, on the Persians. She was cordially hated in England for her sympathy with America, for her spirit in repelling the arrogations of British sea-captains, and her tendency to share with Britain in the division of Asia. This hatred was cultivated in English poetry, and was politically useful until Russia's aid was needed to restore Louis XVI and to outlaw and capture Napoleon. We append an example of the anonymous verse that was fashionable in England about the time she moved on Persia :
Base counterfeit of all that's mild and good!