Memoirs of the Empress Catharine Ii

Written by herself. With a Preface by A. HERZEN. Translated from the French. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 12mo. pp. 309.

IT would seem, that, if any one of the women celebrated in history should, more than all the others, have shrunk from writing her own memoirs, that woman was the petty German princess whom opportunity and her own crafty ambition made absolutest monarch of all the Russias under the name of Catharine II. And of that abandoned and shameless personal career which has made her name a reproach to her sex, and covered her memory with an infamy that the administrative glories of her reign serve only to cast into a blacker shadow, even she has shrunk from committing the details to paper. Indeed, in these Memoirs, she alludes to but one of her amours,—that with Sergius Soltikoff, which was the first, (if we may be sure that she had a first,)—and which seems clearly to have been elevated, if not purified, by a true and deep affection. That it was so appears not by any protestation or even calm assertion of her own, which in an autobiography might be reasonably doubted, but from the unstudied tenderness of her allusions to him; from the fact, which indirectly appears, that he first cooled towards her, and the pang—not of wounded vanity—which this gave her; and yet more unmistakably from the forgiveness which she, imperious and relentless as she was, extended, manifestly, again and again, to her errant lover.

The Memoirs are confined to events which occurred between 1744 and 1760,— the period of Catharine’s girlhood and youthful womanhood; but although she brings herself before us, a young creature of fifteen, “with her hair dressed à la Moise,” (which, in the beniglitmcnt of our bearded ignorance, we suppose to mean that astounding style in which the excellent Mistress Hannah More is represented in the frontispiece to her Memoirs, with each particular hair standing on end,—a crimped glory of radiating powder,) she appears no less ambitious, crafty, designing, selfish, and self-conscious then than when she drops her pen as she is deepening the traits of the matured woman of thirty. She went to Russia to be betrothed to the Grand Duke, afterwards Peter III., to whom she was at first utterly indifferent, and whom she soon began to despise and regard with personal aversion; and yet when there was a chance that she might be released from this union, she seems not to have known the slightest thrill of joy or felt the least sensation of relief, although she was then not sixteen years old,—so entirely was her mind bent upon the crown of Russia. Partly to attain her end, and partly because it suited her intriguing, managing nature, she set herself immediately to the acquirement of the favor of the Empress on the one hand, and popularity on the other. The first she sought by an absolute submission of her will to that of Elizabeth, giving her self-negation an air of grateful deference ; the latter she obtained, as most very popular people obtain their popularity, by adroit flattery,— the subtlest form of which was, in her case, as it ever is, the manifestation of an interest in the affairs of persons utterly indifferent to the flatterer. This moral emollient she applied, as popular people usually do, without discrimination. She remarks that she was liked because she was “ the same to everybody ” ; and it is noteworthy that the same is said almost invariably of very popular persons, and in way of eulogy, by the very people into whose favor they have licked their way ; the latter always seeming to be blinded by the titillation of their own cuticles to the fact that the most worthless and disagreeable individuals—those with whom they would scorn to be put upon a, level—have received the same coveted evidences of personal regard. When will the world learn that the man, of whom we sometimes hear and read, who is absolutely without an enemy, must either be very unscrupulous or very weak? Catharine’s duplicity in this respect seems to have been as constant as it was artful, during the years in which it was necessary for her purpose to make friends; and it was rewarded, as it almost always is, when skilfully practised, with entire success.

Catharine seems to have written these Memoirs partly for her own satisfaction and partly to justify her course to her son Paul and his successors. Therefore they record much that is of little value or interest to the general reader; and that, indeed, is unintelligible, except to those who are intimately acquainted with the Russian Court during the reign of Elizabeth. Such persons will find in these pages much authentic matter which will confirm or unsettle their previous belief as to the secret intrigues of that court, political and personal. To the great mass of readers, the revelations of the internal economy of the Court of Russia in the middle of the last century, and of the manners and morals of the persons who composed it, which are freely made by the anther of these imperial confessions, will constitute their principal, if not their only interest. In this respect they will well repay the attentive perusal of every person who likes the study of human nature. The picture which they present is strikin'?, and its various parts keep alive the attention which its first sight awakens. Yet it cannot be regarded with pleasure by any reader of undepraved taste ; and a consideration of it is absolutely fatal to the faith which is cherished by many deluded minds in the social, if not in the ethical virtues of an ancient aristocracy. In this respect Catharine’s “Memoirs” are not peculiar. For it is remarkable, that in all the published memoirs, journals, and confessions of members of royal households, (there may be an exception, but we do not remember it,) court-life within-doors has appeared devoid of every grace and beauty, and deformed by all that is coarse, brutal, sordid, and grovelling. Even that grace, almost a virtue, which has its name from courts, seems not to exist in them in a genuine form ; and instead of it we find only a hollow, glittering sham, which has but an outward semblance to real courtesy, and which itself even is produced only on occasions more or less public and for purposes more or less selfish.

Russia in its most civilized parts was half barbarous in the days of Catharine’s youth, and society at the Court of St. Petersburg seems to have been distinguished from that in the other circles of the empire only by an addition of the vices of civilization to those of barbarism. The women blended the manners and tastes of Indian squaws and French marquises of the period ; the men modelled themselves on Peter the Great, and succeeded in imitating him in everything except his wisdom and patriotism. The business of life was, first, to avoid being sent to Siberia or Astracan,—next and last, to get other people sent thither; its pleasure, an alternation of gambling and orgies. Catharine makes some excuse for her unrestrained sexual license, which shows that she wrote for posterity. For what need of extenuation in this regard for a woman whose immediate predecessors were Catharine I., and Anne, and Elizabeth, and who lived in a court where, on the simultaneous marriage of three of its ladies, a bet was made between the Hetman Count Rasoumowsky and the Minister of Denmark,—not which of the brides would be false to her marriage vows,—that was taken for granted with regard to all,—but which would be so first! It turned out that he who bet on the Countess Anne Voronzoff, daughter of the Vice-Chancellor of the Empire, and bride to Count Strogonoff, who was the plainest of the three and at the time the most innocent and childlike, won the wager. The bet was wisely laid ; for she was likely to be soonest neglected by her husband.

What semblance of courtesy these highborn gamblers, adulterers, and selfish intriguers showed in their daily life appears in their behavior to a M. Brockdorf, against whom Catharine had ill feelings, more or less justifiable. This M. Brockdorf, who was high in favor with the Grand Duke, was unfortunately ugly,— having a long neck, a broad, flat head, red hair, small, dull, sunken eyes, and the corners of his mouth hanging down to his chin. So, among these court-bred people, “whenever M. Brockdorf passed through the apartments, every one called out after him ‘ Pelican,’ ” because “ this bird was the most hideous we knew of.” But what regard for the feelings of a person of inferior rank could be expected from his enemies, in a court where the dearest ties and the tenderest sorrows were dashed aside with the formal brutality recorded by Catharine in the following remarkable paragraph?—

"A few days afterwards, 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. I told her, I knew that he was not a king; and she replied, that it was not suitable for a Grand Duchess to mourn for a longer period a father who had not been a king. In fine, it was arranged that I should go out on the following Sunday, and wear mourning for six weeks."

It is worthy of especial note that these people, though they led this sensual, selfish, heartless life, trampling on natural affection and doing as they would not be done by, prided themselves very much on the orthodoxy of their faith, were sorely afraid of going to hell, and were consequently very regular and rigid in the performance of their religious duties. Catharine was no whit behind the rest in this respect. Though bred a Lutheran, she was most exemplary in her observance of all the requirements of the Greek Church; and even carried her hypocrisy so far, that, when, on occasion of a dangerous and probably fatal illness, it was proposed that she should see a Lutheran clergyman, she replied by asking for Simon Theodorsky, a prelate of the Greek Church, who came and had an edifying interview with her. And all this was done, as she says, for effect, chiefly with the soldiers and common people, among whom it made a sensation and was much talked of. This, by the way, is the only reference which occurs in the Memoirs to any interest below that of the highest nobility. As for the people of Russia, the right to draw their blood with the knout and make them sweat roubles into the royal treasury was taken as much for granted as the light and the air, by those who, either through fraud or force, could sit in the seat of Peter the Great. They regarded it as no less an appanage or perquisite of that seat than the jewels in the imperial diadem, and would as soon have thought of defending a title to the one as to the other. And the possession of the throne, with the necessary consent of the dominant party of the high nobility, seems to have been, and still to be, the only requisite for the unquestioned exercise of this power; for, as to legitimacy and divine dynastic right, was not Catharine I. a Livonian peasant? Catharine II. a German princess, who dethroned and put to death the grandson of Peter the Great ? and docs she not confess in these Memoirs that her son, the Emperor Paul, was not the son of Peter’s grandson, but of Sergius Soltikoff? so that in the reigning house of Russia there is not a drop of the blood of Romanoff. And Catharine’s confession, which M. Herzen emphasizes so strongly, conveys to the Russian nobles no new knowledge on this subject; for an eminent Russian publicist being asked, on the appearance of this book, if it were generally known in Russia that Paul was the son of Soltikoff, replied,—“No one who knew anything ever doubted it.” And perhaps the descendants of the Boiards are quite content that their sovereign should have illegally sprung from the loins of a member of one of the oldest and noblest of the purely Russian families, rather than from those of a prince of the petty house of Holstein Gottorp. But then what is this principle of Czarism, which is not a submission to divine right, but which causes one man to sustain, perhaps to place, another in a position which puts his own life at the mercy of the other’s mere caprice?

Catharine tells many trifling, but interesting incidents, of various nature, in these Memoirs: of how, after the birth of her first child, she was left utterly alone and neglected, so that she famished with thirst for the lack of some one to bring her water ; how her child was taken from her at its birth, and kept from her, she hardlybeing allowed even to see it; how it was always wrapped in fox-skins and seal-skins, till it lay in a continual bath of perspiration ; how the members of the royal family itself were so badly accommodated, that sometimes they were made ill by walking through passages open to wind and rain, and sometimes stilled by over-crowded rooms ; how at the imperial masquerades, during one season, the men were ordered to appear in women’s dresses, and the women in the propria quœ maribus,—the former hideous in large whaleboned petticoats and high feathered head-dresses, the latter looking like scrubby little boys with very thick legs,—and all that the Empress Elizabeth might show her tall and graceful figure and what beautiful things she used to walk with, which Catharine says were the handsomest that she ever saw ; how in this court, where marriage was the mere shadow of a bond, it was yet deemed a matter of the first nuptial importance that a lady of the court should have her head dressed for the wedding by the hands of the Empress herself, or, if she were too ill, by those of the Grand Duchess; how Catharine used, at Oranienbaum, to dress herself from head to foot in male attire, and go out in a skiff, accompanied only by an old huntsman, to shoot ducks and snipe, sometimes doubling the Cape of Oranienbaum, which extends two versts into the sea,—and how thus the fortunes of the Russian Empire, during the latter half of the eighteenth century, were at the mercy of a spring-tide, a gust of wind, or the tipping of a shallop. There is even a recipe for removing tan and sunburn, which the beautiful Grand Duchess used at the instance of the beautiful Empress; and, as both the imperial belles testify to its great efficacy, it would be cruel not to give all possible publicity to the fact that it was composed of white of egg, lemon juice, and French brandy; but, alas! the proportion in which these constituents are to be mixed is not recorded.

Of the authenticity of these Memoirs there appears to be no reasonable doubt, and we believe that none has been expressed. They were found, after the death of Catharine, in a sealed envelope addressed to her son Paul, in whose lifetime no one saw them but the friend of his childhood, Prince Kourakine. He copied them ; and, about twenty years after the death of Paul, three or four copies were made from the Kourakine copy. The Emperor Nicholas caused all these to be seized by the secret police, and it is only since his death that one or two copies have again made their appearance at Moscow (where the original is kept) and St. Petersburg. From one of these M. Herzen made his transcript. They fail to palliate any of Catharine’s crimes, or in the least to brighten her reputation, and add nothing to our knowledge of her sagacity and her administrative talents; but they are yet not without very considerable personal interest and historical value.