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Sordid Friday Tales: Catherine II, the Great

One of my friends, a world history teacher, told me that he adored Catherine II, the Great.  I wondered if there was more to her than the sordid rumors I had heard.  I downloaded the Memoirs of Catherine the Great from Amazon, and found a complex young woman.

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great

In the 18th and nineteenth centuries Russian nobility was a very small portion of the population.  Nobility world-wide was beginning to lose prestige.  As Catherine  the Great wrote her memoirs, French King, Louis XIV lost his head, and Americans elected their first President.  In Russia the Table of Ranks still ruled, and at its head, the powerful Empress, Catherine II.

Most memorable to me was how little control Catherine (Sophie) had over her circumstances during the 20 year reign of Elizabeth, daughter of Peter I.  I saw a young woman who had a very structured, difficult and very political life.   She lived by rules, one of which included,  “Be merry, but neither damage nor break anything, nor gnaw on anything.”  She  presented herself as dutiful and humble.

Even though she wanted to be remembered as wise and just, her memoirs do not hold back information that she had several affairs, nor that her children were removed from her care immediately upon birth.  Her most dangerous year began on Christmas day, 1761 with the death of Empress Elizabeth I.  Her husband, Peter III became Emperor.  She was pregnant by Count Grigory Orlov, and faced possible arrest, exile or death.  Peter III stated, “God knows where my wife gets her pregnancies. I really do not know if this child is mine and I ought to recognize it.”  Instead, he planned to install his mistress, Elizabeth Vorontsova, as his consort.  Catherine seized the throne, and declared herself Empress Catherine II.  Members of her political friends murdered her husband, and she took charge and ruled until 1796 when she died in the bathroom at age 67.  Rumors vary about how that happened.  None of the rumors are pretty.  I particularly wonder how anyone, even a promiscuos sixty-seven year old empress, could attempt to have a sexual encounter with a stallion.

The Preface to her memoirs called her a “graphomaniac”, meaning that she wrote unceasingly about herself, from the time she was 14 until she was 67, completing 700 pages about her life.  Her writing helped her understand herself, and her role in making history.  She also used her memoirs to influence future readers to recognize her justifiable place in history.

I identify with her graphomania and even the reasons for it as I sit here blog, blog, blogging, making history in 2013.  In reading more about Catherine the Great, I begin to understand my friend’s fascination with her life and contribution to Russian and world history.

35 replies »

  1. In the fall of 1987, I traveled in Russia on a tour that included a week in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). We spent only an afternoon at Catherine’s Palace but the tour of the interior was a blast. She had several well-placed secret passages between her bedroom and other rooms. The grounds of the palace were the most beautiful I saw there — gorgeous forest! But the mosquitoes were gigantic and flew kamikaze attacks against all foreigners! I loved this palace though, better than Petrodvoretz even. And Leningrad itself is full of palaces. You can walk along the Neva River where Rasputin was reportedly killed….


  2. I’ve read the “Wicked History” book of her. She had a pretty tangled up life.

    Hm, favorite sordid character. There’s so many to choose from.The rude cashier who is determined not to sell you that lovely set of crochet hooks; the shoppers who think they are supposed to play dodge ball with the carts they’re pushing; the pushy swindler who stands in front of the Indy Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. Yep, there’s a bunch. To be on the safe side I’ll probably have to choose a historical figure. 😉


    • That’s what I thought, too. You write about such interesting things. How do you find them all. Those great stories are what makes history so interesting – and a bit controversial, too. I’d like to use you as a guest author on my new blog for history resources. What do you think? 🙂


          • okie dokie. I created a Google + page last night and linked your blog to that as well. It won’t do you much good. I don’t have ANY friends yet. You have to start all over importing friends, and I just ran out of interest in doing that. 🙂 I’ll be by to check out which stories I’m interested in. I’m going to look for WWI vintage since that’s the theme of our conference this year. 🙂 Marsha 🙂


          • Thank you for doing that! 🙂

            Alrighty, sounds good. I’ve recently taken a bigger interest in WWI as it pertains to something I’m working on, but haven’t been able to delve much into it.


  3. I’m going to have to look into reading this book!! I was just there! Catherine’s Palace … and Peterhof…. oh my goodness, they were spectacular!!!


    • Oh my gosh. How wonderful! Did you take tons of pictures? My blog could use some good pictures of her Palace! I never thought of that!!! 🙂 She was pretty spendy!


  4. My husband enjoyed Massie’s “Peter the Great,” so I’m thinking his bio of Catherine should be good. She sounds like a fascinating person. I’ll have to add this one to my list. Thanks!


  5. There is a superb bio of Catherine the Great by Robert Massie. She is a phenomenally interesting character – to start with she was German, not Russian. Her husband was quite strange to say the least. She is an immensely powerful woman and had some very progressive ideas. Whichever biography people read she is a character worth exploring.


    • You are knowledgable about her, and she is an interesting woman. I would say that quite strange is an understatement about her husband. I’ll have to check out his bio. Thanks Andrew! 🙂


  6. From the same geographical area, I’d go with Rasputin as historical freak.
    Shot, stabbed, poisoned, and thrown in a freezing river before he finally died.

    Though what I’ve read about him doesn’t at all show why people thought he was charismatic…


  7. I love hearing about historical figures like this. I do love history, no all history, more the people, rather than the political. It is hard to believe that these people ever existed sometimes.





Hi, I'm Marsha Ingrao, a retired educator and wife of a retired realtor. My all-consuming hobby is blogging and it has changed my life. My friends live all over the world. In November 2020, we sold everything and retired to the mile-high desert of Prescott, AZ. We live less than five miles from the Granite Dells, four lakes, and hundreds of trails with our dog, Kalev, and two cats, Moji and Nutter Butter. Vince's sister came with us and lives close by. Every day is a new adventure.

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