The Girlhood of an Autocrat

THE early years of the eighteenth century witnessed a singular spectacle, namely, the crown of a great empire used as a shuttlecock by a succession of foreign adventurers, who tossed it to and fro at will. The common people of Russia went to bed each night with little certainty under whose government they were to wake in the morning. It was not a matter which interested them deeply. To a small intriguing faction only was it of vital importance, — a faction composed of foreigners made Russian ministers, nobles grown gray in crime, and the regiment of Preobrajensky, who, after the fashion of the prætorians of old, disposed of the crown and made and unmade emperors at will. For the rest, the common people suffered equally, were equally pillaged and despoiled, under one ruler as under another. They were beyond the pale of the law, and accepted dumbly the hardships of their lot, caring nothing for the spectral procession which mounted the throne, gliding like shadows, to disappear anon into Siberia or the dungeons.

Peter the Great died, and while the assembled nobles were deliberating over the succession Menchikoff stepped in, took the choice out of their hands, and nominated as Empress his repudiated mistress, Catherine I., widow of the Emperor Peter. To her succeeded Peter II., to die presently of smallpox. After him came the oldest daughter of Peter I., Anne, Duchess of Courland. Her reign was nominal, the real head of the empire being her lover, Biren, an inhuman monster, who cemented his power with blood, and sent, it is calculated, no less than twenty thousand persons to Siberia. Marshal Munich disapproved of these severities. His candidate was the Duchess of Brunswick, mother of an infant who, in direct line of succession, stood next to the throne. There were plots and counterplots. At last, one fine night, Munich, with a rapid coup d’état, arrested Biren in his own palace, sent him into exile, and next morning proclaimed as regent the mother of the young Emperor. She was a mild and gentle creature, indolent, pleasure-loving, incapable of injuring any one ; yet, a year later, the Princess Elizabeth, youngest daughter of Peter the Great, was led, by a series of intrigues set on foot by the French government, into believing her own life and liberty in danger from the inoffensive regent. Accordingly, on November 25, 1741, she presented herself before the guardhouse of the all-powerful regiment, magnificently dressed, and with a brilliant cuirass on her breast. She recounted her wrongs to the soldiers, who, flushed with sympathy and vodka, cried out, “ Command, Mother, command, and we will slaughter them all! ” No idle threat, for indiscriminate slaughter was held the proper thing on each change of government. Elizabeth was merciful. She turned aside the eager bayonets, and contented herself with arresting the regent, her husband, and the baby heir to the throne, and sending Munich to Siberia. By a curious irony of fate, the boat in which Biren had the year before started toward the same goal had been detained on the Volga, and was overtaken now by the escort having his rival in charge. These two Germans, who had "disputed the empire of Russia as though it had been a jug of beer.” met in mid-current ; both disgraced and in chains, and both bound on the same melancholy journey toward irremediable exile. History has few stranger situations to offer.

“ The new empire seemed to go on wheels; nothing was lacking but an heir.” Elizabeth looked about, and finally made choice of Peter, the orphaned grandson of the great Tzar, a boy of thirteen, who had been reared in the palace of his father’s cousin, the PrinceBishop of Lubeck. Weak and sickly of body, restive, impetuous, and brutal in temper, this lad, even at that early age, exhibited a pronounced passion for drink. He was nevertheless proclaimed heir to the throne. He made the necessary profession of faith in the Greek Church, and set to work on the course of study which was to qualify him for his high position, in which dancing and the elements of religion played a prominent part. The grand duke took kindly to dancing, but not to the elements of religion, disputing at length every thesis brought forward by his instructor, the Archbishop of Pleskov.

Three years later the question of his marriage arose, and the bride selected was the youthful Princess Sophia Augusta Frederika of Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, known to her parents and intimate friends by the nickname “ Figchen.” She was ordered on for inspection, and arrived in St. Petersburg with her mother on the 9th of February, 1744, — a day of fate for the Russian people ; for this child of fourteen, fair, playful, full of talent, of ambition, with an acuteness and a self-control remarkable at her age, became in later years the terrible womanEmperor, Catherine II., who for a third of a century held the balance of power in Europe, and ruled “ Holy Russia ” with a despotic caprice which, in splendor and unbridled license, rivaled the worst records of imperial Rome.

At her death, in 1796, a sealed manuscript was found among her papers, written in her own hand, and addressed to her son, the Grand Duke Paul, great-grandfather of the present Tzar. It was no less than an autobiography of the early years of her marriage. The record was carried down to nearly the date of the death of the Empress Elizabeth, and various notes and letters, explanatory and corroborative, were appended.

This manuscript, for reasons which are obvious, was regarded and treated as a state secret of the utmost importance. It was kept in the imperial archives, and guarded with scrupulous care, no one being allowed access to it. But the centuries play strange tricks with mysteries. At two different times copies of the autobiography were obtained, — in what manner is not explained ; and from these other copies were made, one of them by the hand of the poet Pushkin. These, as soon as they were discovered, were seized, by order of the Emperor Nicholas, but one which escaped notice was carried to Paris, and eventually found its way into print. The first edition, it is reported, was confiscated and burned, at the request of the Russian authorities. It is from a copy, rare and hard to come by, of the second edition, that we collate the material for this paper.

It was a wretched position in which the young princess found herself, on her arrival in Russia. Her future depended entirely on the caprice of the Tzarina, and no one could predict what turn it was likely to take. On one side stood her mother, an illiterate German, greedy, irascible, ungovernable as to tongue and temper, who endangered her daughter’s prospects every day by her irrational jealousies and quarrels, and, when she was not boxing Catherine’s ears, complained to all and sundry that the girl was as cold as a stone, and had no natural affection in her. On the other was the grand duke, resenting the arrangement for marrying him, caring nothing for his promised bride, disclosing to her with a brutal and insulting frankness his love affairs with other women, and making not the least attempt to hide his indifference to herself. Beyond loomed the Empress, inaccessible, incalculable, degraded in morals, surrounded by a set of scandal-mongers who held her ear, and never lost a chance to misrepresent the princess and magnify her smallest indiscretions into crimes. The princess had no friends, no advisers ; alone and unhelped, she confronted the dangers of her situation, made more perilous by the extraordinary levity of the grand duke, who played with fire as a daily pastime. He had about as much discretion as a cannon ball, she remarks. “ I said nothing, but listened, and this gained me his confidence ; but in reality I was astounded at his imprudence and utter want of judgment in a variety of matters.”

In her zeal to learn Russian, she rose early and sat up late, studying in a cold room ; and the result, before she had been a fortnight in St. Petersburg, was a sharp attack of pleurisy. Her life was in danger for some days, and the utter want of tenderness and consideration exhibited by her mother during this period completed the disgust of the court for the unfeeling parent. Tales of her ill temper and greed flew about, and furnished a toothsome subject of scandal for the ladies in waiting.

“ I had accustomed myself to lie with my eyes closed,” writes the future Empress. “ I was supposed to be asleep, and then the Princess Roumiamsoff and the other ladies spoke their minds freely. I thus learned a great many things.”

This philosopher of fourteen was certainly alive to the insecurities of her position. These were complicated by the intrigues of her mother, who, with none of the mental equipment of a diplomat, and no experience, wished to play the game of diplomacy in the interest of her relative, the king of Prussia, and, with all the intrepidity of a light brain, essayed the most complicated moves on the board of politics, gave audiences, promised preferments, and compromised herself first with one party, and then with the other. These schemes of the Princess of Zerbst were no secret, and soon brought down upon her the displeasure of the Empress. In the May following the arrival of the girl bride, a stormy interview took place between her mother and the Empress. Catherine and the grand duke, perched on a window-sill of the anteroom, were awaiting its termination, and making merry meantime, after the fashion of youngcreatures of their age. The door opened. Count Lestocq came forth from the chamber, and, in passing, said to the princess, “This merriment will soon cease. You may pack up. You are going to set off home at once.”

The grand duke asked what he meant, but the only answer he received was, “ You will learn afterward. ”

“ The grand duke and myself were left to ruminate on what we had heard. His commentaries were in words, mine in thoughts. ‘ But,’ he said, “ if your mother is in fault, you are not.’ I answered, ‘ My duty is to follow my mother, and do what she orders me.’ I saw plainly that he would have parted from me without regret. As for myself, considering his character and sentiments, the matter was nearly indifferent to me, also, but the crown of Russia was not so. I do not know whether my mother succeeded in justifying herself to the Empress, but at all events we did not go away. However, my mother continued to be treated with much reserve and coldness.”

Month after month the matter of the marriage remained in abeyance. Now it was reported as certain, now improbable, again as quite given up ; the manners of the courtiers shifting from adulation to incivility, as the Empress’s moods varied and changed. Finally the betrothal took place, but still the uncertainty continued, and the omens were evil. The outrageous mother of his promised wife quarreled continually with the grand duke. They all but came to blows now and again, and both vented their discontents on the unoffending bride elect. Fate lent a hand, also, toward delaying the union. The grand duke had first measles, then smallpox, neither improving his appearance or his temper. Catherine’s mother pillaged her wardrobe and extorted money from her, the grand duke “borrowed” what was left, the Empress upbraided her for extravagance. She was spied upon, defamed, misrepresented ; her days were passed in a series of conflicting hopes and fears ; but through all vicissitudes she held to her inexorable purpose. Empress of Russia she was resolved to be, and diligently and inflexibly she made ready for her predestined exaltation.

“ I determined to husband carefully the confidence of the grand duke,” she writes, “ in order that he might at least consider me a person of whom he could feel sure, and to whom he could confide everything with the least inconvenience to himself, and in this I succeeded for a long time. Besides, I treated every one in the best way I could, and studied to gain the friendship, or at least to lessen the enmity, of those whom I in any way suspected of being badly disposed toward me. I made a promise to myself that I would do so; and when I have once made a promise to myself, I do not remember ever having failed in keeping it. I showed no leaning to any side, nor meddled with anything; always maintained a serene air ; treated every one with great attention, affability, and politeness; and as I was naturally very gay, I saw with pleasure that from day to day I advanced in the general esteem, and was looked upon as an interesting child, and one by no means wanting in mind. I showed great respect for my mother, a boundless obedience to the Empress, and the most profound deference toward the grand duke, and I sought with the most anxious care to gain the affection of the public.”

At last, on the 21st of August, 1745, after eighteen months of suspense and uncertainty, the marriage actually took place.

“ As the day drew near I became more and more melancholy,” Catherine tells us. “ My heart predicted but little happiness ; ambition alone sustained me. In my inmost soul there was a something which never allowed me to doubt for a single moment that sooner or later I should become the sovereign Empress of Russia in my own right.”

A month after the marriage ceremony, which was celebrated with much magnificence, the elder Princess of AnhaltZerbst-Dornburg returned, unregretted, to her minute principality. She left in disgrace, her employment as a spy and giver of secret information to the king of Prussia having been fully unveiled by the removal of La Chétardie, the French ambassador. She was forced to hear some hard truths from the lips of the Empress, and to realize that she had irrevocably lost by her conduct the favor she had hoped to acquire at the Russian court. With her departure a chief element of discomfort and danger came to an end for the grand duchess. The last act of this fond mother was privately to request the Empress to remove from her daughter’s household Mademoiselle Joukoff, the only one of her attendants in whose company Catherine took the slightest pleasure!

A small act of arbitrary cruelty seems always to have been congenial to the Empress Elizabeth. She acted on the hint with a merciless severity. Mademoiselle Joukoff was dismissed at once in disgrace and without explanation. Appeal was in vain, and the grand duchess’s later attempts to befriend the poor girl only drew upon Mademoiselle Joukoff the further wrath of the Empress, and led in the end to her banishment to Astrakhan. Catherine was left to study at leisure the mind and manners of her recently wedded spouse, which furnished a curious if not edifying subject for contemplation.

This wretched boy — he never grew to the mental stature of a man — was an extraordinary mixture of the coward, the sneak, and the tyrant. His timidity was checkered with a reckless audacity, and both veiled an underlying cruelty of nature. The astute young wife, whom he neglected and insulted, was nevertheless his first refuge whenever he found himself in a difficulty of any sort. To her he ran when he hurt himself, when the Empress was angry with him, when he feared that the result of his follies was about to recoil upon himself. His levity was incredible.

He came one day and bade her and her ladies follow him at once and take part in an “ agreeable surprise,” — he did not say what. They went, accordingly, and found all the boon companions of the grand duke sitting on stools and benches, each with an eye glued to an auger hole bored in the partition which divided the chamber from the private dining-room of the Empress. A carpenter had left his tools in the chamber, and it had suddenly occurred to the grand duke that it would be an excellent joke to bore a series of holes in the wall, and watch the Empress and her intimates when they supposed themselves alone and unobserved.

Catherine, terrified and indignant, refused to look through the holes, and set forth the probable results of this escapade in such forcible language that the company, catching her alarm, stole away one by one ; and the grand duke, also frightened, and a little ashamed as well, followed them. It was impossible to mend the wall, however, and next day the inevitable explosion took place. The holes were noticed, and the Empress, in a violent rage, sent for her nephew and his wife.

The grand duke, who seems to have put the affair out of his mind, ran gayly in, clad in his dressing-gown, and kissed the hand of the Empress. She suffered the salutation, but then asked him how he dared to act as he had done, and play the spy over her during her moments of privacy. She reminded him that his grandfather, Peter I., had an ungrateful son whom he disinherited without compunction, and that the Empress Anne, who did not understand jokes, had been in the habit of sending jokers to the Fortress. As for him, he was but a little boy, she added, to whom she would teach manners. When he attempted to reply, she grew more and more angry, loaded him with insults, and treated him with as much contempt as indignation. She relented a little when she saw the grand duchess in tears.

“ This does not apply to you,” she said ; “ I know that you neither looked nor desired to look through the holes.”

She then wished them good-night, and retired with a flushed face and flashing eyes.

This storm blew over, but considering how many Russian heirs apparent, on less provocation than this, had vanished into the dreaded Fortress, to come no more out, the folly of the grand duke seems beyond belief. The lesson was thrown away upon him, however; all lessons were, in fact. Not many months later, his wife perceived that he was in a state of deep mental depression. He no longer played with his dogs, but instead read Lutheran prayer-books, and the histories of criminals who had been hanged or broken on the wheel. These symptoms alarmed her, as they well might. Gradually she coaxed a confession from him. He had been dabbling a little in conspiracy, the object of which was to kill the Empress, and crown him in her place ! He had not exactly committed himself, but he had listened, and in a way approved. And now the conspirators had been arrested, and there was no knowing what they might say under torture ; they might even implicate him!

This was more serious than the perforations in the partition, and for a time the youthful pair lived in a hush of terrible fear. But somehow this storm blew over, also. The persons under arrest did not mention the grand duke, and after a while they were released. Peter and Catherine were saved, but the foolhardiness of the grand duke went on unchecked, and again and again only his wife’s superior sense availed to save him from the consequences of his indiscretions.

The next thing about which we hear is that he had cut his cheek open with a whip. He was amusing himself, during a leisure hour, with cracking its long lash about the heels of his valets, making them jump from one corner to another, and the thong, recoiling, struck his face. Hoist thus with his own petard, he ran to Catherine, whimpering and terrified ; for the Easter ceremonies were at hand, and he feared the displeasure of the Empress, and that he should be forbidden to communicate or to walk in the procession. His quick-witted wife at once recollected a preparation used for herself, years before, on the occasion of a similar misadventure. The ingredients were procured, were made up in the form of a pomade, and Catherine filled the cut and dressed the cheek so skillfully that no trace remained of the wound except a slight smear of grease, visible only in a strong light. The grand duke made a most edifying appearance in the procession, and no one ever found out about the accident, — a fact which speaks volumes for Catherine’s surgery; for to conceal the slightest occurrence was most difficult, in the close espionage to which the young husband and wife were daily subjected.

They were virtually prisoners of state. They might neither go out nor communicate with outsiders without express permission. All their letters were inspected. Catherine was told that it did not become a grand duchess of Russia to write any, for whatever was proper would be composed for her at the office of Foreign Affairs, where she needed only to attach her signature, because the ministers knew better than she what was proper to be said ! The infrequent notes which passed between her and her mother were smuggled into her hand or slipped into her pocket; their existence would have been treated as a crime, had they been discovered. Almost every one of her attendants was a spy in the pay of the Empress. The least indication of a preference for anybody was a signal for that person’s dismissal. The smallest imprudence on her part was magnified into an offense.

The Empress had a severe attack of illness. It was treated as a state secret, and only by the gloom and severity of the spies was the grand duchess led to suspect that something was wrong. Twice people whispered in her ear what was going on, both entreating her not to mention to any one what had been told. The grand duke was “ elated.” He does not seem to have had a ray of gratitude or regard for the aunt who had raised him to his high position. It was an embarrassing moment. The young couple dared not send to inquire how the Empress was, because at once the question would have been asked, “ How and through whom did you learn that she was ill ? ” and any one named or suspected would infallibly have been dismissed, exiled, or sent to the secret chancery, that state inquisition more dreaded than death itself.

At last the Empress was better, and the Countess Schouvaloff inadvertently mentioning at the table that her Majesty was “still weak,” Catherine took advantage of the remark to express her surprise and solicitude. It was not a moment too soon. Two days later came an angry message. The Empress was astonished and hurt at the little interest which the grand duke and duchess had taken in her condition ; even carrying their indifference to the point of never once sending to inquire how she was !

“ I told Madame Tchoglokoff,” writes Catherine, “that I appealed to herself that neither she nor her husband had spoken a single word to us about the illness of her Majesty, and that, knowing nothing about it, we had not been able to testify our interest in it. She replied, 4 How can you say that you knew nothing about it, when the Countess Schouvaloff has informed her Majesty that you spoke to her at table about it? ’ I replied, ‘ It is true that I did so, because she told me that her Majesty was still weak and could not leave her room, and then I asked her the particulars of the illness.’ Madame Tchoglokoff went away grumbling, and Madame Vladislava said it was very strange to try and pick a quarrel with people about a matter of which they were ignorant; that since the Tchoglokoffs alone had the right to speak of it, and did not speak, the fault was theirs, not ours, if we failed through ignorance. Some time after, on a court day, the Empress approached me, and I found a favorable moment to tell her that neither Tchoglokoff nor his wife had given us any intimation of her illness, and that therefore it had not been in our power to express to her the interest we had taken in it. She received this very well, and it seemed to me that the credit of these people was diminishing.”

This Madame Tchoglokoff and her husband were highest in office among the spies placed by the Empress about her nephew and his wife. Next, to them came a certain Madame Krause. Catherine had her own methods of dealing with these people. The Tchoglokoffs were greedy after money, and liked to win at cards. She let them win, and so kept them in good humor. As for Madame Krause, she was more cheaply dealt with.

“ I discovered in her a decided propensity for drink,” writes the grand duchess coolly ; “ and as she soon got her daughter married to the marshal of the court, Sievers, she either was out a good deal or my people made her tipsy, and my room was delivered from this sulky Argus.”

Madame Tchoglokoff was passionately fond of her husband and very jealous of him. He was a husband of whose fidelity any wife might feel uncertain, and she was resentful and unhappy when, later, he cast eyes of preference on the grand duchess. Catherine by no means reciprocated his sentiments, so she found it easy to treat him with a courteous avoidance, which won for her the gratitude of Madame Tchoglokoff, and gradually transformed the implacable duenna into almost a friend. Nearly all the people placed about her through ill will began in a short time to take an interest in her, she tells us ; and we can easily believe it, for her powers of pleasing were not inconsiderable, and were regulated and stimulated in their exercise by careful policy. She never relaxed in her steady determination after absolute power, and in her earliest girlhood had learned the importance and influence of the trivial.

The Prince of Anhalt died. The news was announced to his daughter, and greatly afflicted her.

“ For a week I was allowed to weep as much as I pleased,” she writes. “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 my father was not a king, and she replied that it was not suitable for a grand duchess to mourn for a longer period for a father who had not been a king. In fine, it was arranged that I should go out the following Sunday, and wear mourning for six weeks.”

This regulation of natural grief by imperial ukase is sufficiently curious.

The grand duke divided his time between love affairs with his wife’s ladies and the training of his dogs, of which he kept a great number. “ With heavy blows of his whip and cries like those of a huntsman, he made them fly from one end to the other of his two rooms, which were all he had. Such of the dogs as became tired or got out of rank were severely punished, which made them howl the more. When he got tired of this detestable exercise, so painful to the ears and destructive to the repose of his neighbors, he seized his violin, on which he rasped away with extraordinary violence and very badly, all the time walking up and down his rooms. Then he recommenced the education and punishment of his dogs, which to me seemed very cruel. On one occasion, hearing one of these animals howl piteously and for a long time, I opened the door of my bedroom, where I was seated, and which adjoined the apartment in which this scene was enacted, and saw him holding this dog by the collar, suspended in the air, while a boy who was in his service, a Kalmuck by birth, held the animal by the tail. It was a poor little King Charles spaniel, of English breed, and the duke was beating him with all his might with the handle of a whip. I interceded for the poor beast, but this only made him redouble his blows. Unable to bear so cruel a scene, I returned to my room with tears in my eyes. In general, tears and cries, instead of moving the duke to pity, put him in a passion. Pity was a feeling that was painful and even insupportable in his mind.”

On another occasion, Catherine found an enormous rat suspended on a gallows in her husband’s apartment, and was told that the penalty was inflicted for a crime which, by the law of the land, was deserving of capital punishment. The rat had climbed over the ramparts of a fortress of cardboard, and had eaten two sentinels made of pith who were on duty on the bastion ! The grand duke was very angry with her for laughing on this occasion, but, as she dryly observes, it may at least be said in justification of the rat that, he was hanged without being questioned or heard in his own defense.

During the second winter after the royal marriage, the strict surveillance established about the young couple was redoubled in severity. A stringent order was issued by the Empress forbidding any one from entering their apartments without express permission from the Tchoglokoffs, and the ladies and gentlemen of their court were directed, under pain of dismissal, to keep in the antechamber, and never speak, not even to the servants, except in a loud voice which could be heard by everybody. The grand duke and grand duchess, thus compelled to sit and look at each other, murmured, and secretly interchanged thoughts relative to this species of imprisonment. To divert his ennui, the duke had five or six hounds brought from the country and placed behind a wooden partition close to his wife’s bed. Poor Catherine was forced to endure the odor of this kennel all winter. When she complained of the inconvenience, the only answer she received was that “it was impossible to help it.”

So puerile were the tastes of this lad of seventeen, the destined ruler of a great people, that he enjoyed playing with dolls and other childish toys. He did not dare to indulge in these amusements in public, but when the doors were locked for the night, and the royal pair were supposed to be asleep, the puppets, which were bidden under the bed, came out, and the grand duke played, and obliged his wife to play, with them, often till two in the morning. “ Willing or unwilling, I was forced to join in this interesting amusement,” writes poor Catherine. “ I often laughed, but more often felt annoyed, and even inconvenienced, for the whole bed was filled with playthings, some of which were rather heavy.”

Madame Tchoglokoff, it would seem, got wind of these nocturnal pastimes, for one night, about twelve, she knocked at the door of the bedroom. For some moments no one answered, for the terrified grand duke and grand duchess, with the assistance of Madame Krause, were gathering up the toys and cramming them into or under the bed, — anywhere to conceal them. This done, they opened the door, to receive a scolding for keeping the visitor waiting, and an intimation that the Empress would be much displeased at their being awake at such an hour. She then sulkily departed without having made any discovery, the door was relocked, and the grand duke went on with his amusement till he became sleepy.

It was a curious situation. On one side the partition was this brutal, foolish boy, flogging his dogs and his attendants, playing like a child with a regiment of puppets, often drunk, and passionately resisting the order to take a bath, which thing was abhorrent to his soul ; on the other side was his girlish wife, acute, penetrating, silent, scrutinizing and judging things and persons, veiling beneath smiles and discreet words her real character and purposes. There she sat month after month, bending her curly head over a book. Books were her chief friends, she tells us, during those years of suspense. She always carried one in her pocket, and if she had a moment to herself she spent it in reading. She read political economy ; she read Plato ; she read somebody’s history of Germany in nine volumes quarto, Madame de Sévigné, Baronius, Montesquieu’s Esprit des Lois, Voltaire’s Universal History; also all the Russian books she could lay hold of, and the Annals of Tacitus, which, she says, caused a singular revolution in her brain, to which, perhaps, the melancholy cast of her thoughts at that time contributed not a little. She studied hard at languages, equipping herself in every possible way for that future on which she was implacably set. She read under surveillance as she did everything else. A maid always stood by to watch her. All she could see was the young duchess intent on her books. No one suspected the passions at work under that childish exterior, the pride, the resolve, the boundless ambition concealed behind the bright young eyes and the ready smile.

Here is her portrait, the portrait of a despot in embryo, painted by herself: —

“In whatever position it should please Providence to place me, I should never be without those resources which talent and determination give to every one according to his natural abilities, and I felt myself possessed of sufficient courage either to mount or descend without being carried away by undue pride on the one hand, or feeling humbled and dispirited on the other. I knew I was a human being, and therefore of limited powers and incapable of perfection, but my intentions had always been pure and good. If from the very beginning I had perceived that to love a husband who was not amiable and who took no pains to be so was a thing difficult, if not impossible, yet at least I had devoted myself to him and his interests with all the attachment which a friend and even a servant could devote to his friend and master. My counsel to him had always been the very best I could devise for his welfare ; and if he did not choose to follow it the fault was not mine, but that of his own judgment, which was neither sound nor just. When I came to Russia, and during the first years of our union, had this prince shown the least disposition to make himself supportable, my heart would have been opened to him ; but when I saw that, of all possible objects, I was the one on whom he bestowed the least attention, precisely because I was his wife, it is not wonderful I should find my position neither agreeable nor to my taste, or that I should consider it irksome and even miserable. This latter feeling I suppressed more resolutely than any other; the pride and cast of my disposition rendering the idea of being unhappy most repugnant to me. I used to say to myself, happiness and misery depend on ourselves; if you feel unhappy, raise yourself above your misery, and so act that your happiness may be independent of accidents. To such a disposition I joined great sensibility, and a face, to say the least of it, interesting ; one which pleased at first sight without art or effort. Naturally indulgent, I won the confidence of those who had any relations with me, because every one felt that the strictest probity and good will were the impulses which I most readily obeyed ; and, if I may be allowed the expression, I venture to assert in my own behalf that I was a true gentleman, one whose cast of mind was more male than female; and yet I was anything but masculine, for, joined to the mind and character of a man, I possessed the charms of a very agreeable female.”

The royal residences of Russia, in that, day exhibited a singular mixture of squalor, inconvenience, and barbaric splendor. Money flowed like water at the court entertainments ; immense sums were squandered at the gaming-table, and in jewels and equipage. (Four thousand superb dresses belonging to the Empress were burnt up in one fire alone which broke out in the Winter Palace ; and fires were a common occurrence at that time, both in St. Petersburg and the country, from the faulty construction of the houses.) But with all this lavish expenditure, daily life, even for the junior royalties, was full of discomforts. There were evil smells from defective drainage ; fevers lurked in the palace corners ; many of the suites of rooms had but one entrance; the furniture was often scanty or deficient; there was absolute lack of privacy. When the court journeyed, matters were even worse. The Empress occupied the post-stations ; the lest of the party were accommodated in tents and outhouses. Catherine chronicles dressing once close to an oven where the bread had just been baked, and at another time sleeping in a tent whose floor was covered ankle-deep with water. No well-to-do and self-respecting American mechanic of the present day would submit to such a state of things as these heirs of a great empire habitually endured.

The rooms in the palace of Peterhoff, where, in 1753, Catherine’s eldest son was born, were sunless, gloomy, and full of draughts. They had but one issue, like all others in the Summer Palace ; there was scarcely any furniture, and no kind of convenience. As soon as the child was safely in the world, had been dressed and received his name, the Empress took him in her arms and swept away, followed by the grand duke and all present, except one lady-in-waiting. Catherine, who was lying on a temporary couch between doors and windows which did not shut tightly, was conscious of a chill. She begged to be removed to her own bed, and to have something to drink, but with these requests Madame Vladislava dared not comply. It was as much as her place was worth for her to touch the grand duchess without express permission. For nearly four hours the young mother lay weeping from pain, thirst, and the bitter sense of neglect before any one recollected to do anything for her. The Empress, intoxicated with joy at the birth of an heir, was absorbed in the child. The grand duke, intoxicated also, but after another fashion, was drinking his son’s health with whomsoever he could get to join him. The bells were ringing, the populace shouting, the cannon firing feux de joie ; no one wasted a thought on poor Catherine. At last the Countess Schouvaloff, “very elaborately dressed,”arrived. When she saw the condition in which the grand duchess had been left, she was angry, and said it was enough to kill her, which was “very consolatory, certainly,” as Catherine dryly remarks. It did almost kill her. The exposure brought on rheumatic pains, followed by a violent fever, during which the patient was almost as much neglected as at the outset of her illness.

“ The grand duke, indeed, did come into my room for a moment, and then went away, saying that he had not time to stop. I did nothing but weep and moan in my bed. Nobody was in my room but Madame Vladislava; in her heart she was sorry for me, but she had not the power to remedy this state of things. Besides, I never liked to be pitied or to complain. I had too proud a spirit for that, and the very idea of being unhappy was insupportable to me.”

Forty days after the confinement of the grand duchess, the Empress came to visit her. The child came with her; it was the first time his mother had seen him since his birth. “ I thought him very pretty,” Catherine writes, “ and the sight of him raised my spirits a little ; but the moment the prayers were finished, the Empress had him carried away, and then left me.” It was poor consolation for all this suffering to receive a christening present of one hundred thousand roubles, especially as, a week later, it was “ borrowed ” to be given to the grand duke, who had chosen to sulk because his wife had a gift, and he had not. It was not till some months later that the Empress repaid the loan.

Catherine was not allowed to have anything to do with her son. The Empress possessed him utterly, and treated him as if he had been her sole property.

“It was only by stealth that I could get any account of him,” says the poor young mother ; “ for to have inquired about him would have passed for a doubt of the Empress’s care, and would have been very ill received. She had taken him into her own room, and whenever he cried she herself would run to him, and, through excess of care, they were literally stifling him. He was kept in an extremely warm room, wrapped in flannel, and laid in a cradle lined with black fox furs. Over him was a coverlet of quilted satin lined with wadding, and over that one of rose-colored velvet lined with black foxskins. I saw him myself, many times afterward, lying in this condition, the perspiration running from his face and his whole body ; and hence it was that, when older, the least breath of air that reached him chilled and made him ill. He had, beside, in attendance on him a great number of aged matrons, who, by their illjudging care and their want of common sense, did him infinitely more harm than good, both physically and morally.”

It is curious to hear of a baby swathed in rose-colored velvet and fox furs, and shut from every breath of air, whose mother rose each morning at six to practice leaping in the riding-school, and, in the country, habitually spent six, eight, sometimes twelve hours a day in the saddle. Catherine’s superb health bore her safely through everything that she was forced to undergo. Hardy in body, she became with advancing years more and more daring and defiant in spirit. It was the critical period of her life, and it was then that those seeds of corruption were sown which in the end made her notorious among profligate sovereigns. Her contempt and aversion for the grand duke increased year by year, and his dislike of her kept pace.

“ I saw distinctly,” she writes, “ that three courses, almost equally perilous, presented themselves for my choice : first, to share the fortunes of the grand duke, be they what they might; secondly, to be exposed every moment to whatever he chose to do either for or against me; or, lastly, to follow a course entirely independent of all eventualities. To speak more plainly, I had to choose the alternative of perishing with him or by him, or to save myself, my children, and perhaps the empire also, from the wreck which all the moral and physical qualities of this prince made possible. This last choice seemed to me the safest. I resolved, therefore, to the utmost of my power, to continue to give on all occasions the very best advice I could for his benefit, but never to persist in this, as I had hitherto done, so as to make him angry ; to open his eyes to his true interests on every opportunity that presented itself ; and, during the rest of the time, to maintain a mournful silence, while, on the other hand, taking care of my own interests with the public, so that in the time of need they might see in me the saviour of the commonwealth.”

Mortified in pride and thwarted in affection, with all the natural currents of duty dammed in at their outlet; filled with a bitter scorn for the paltry partner imposed upon her, and a resentment equally bitter for the treatment accorded her ; without one friend to speak a word in behalf of the higher law or point out the nobler way, it is not to be wondered at that Catherine listened to the base counselors who whispered in her ear that, under such circumstances, the grand duchess was excusable if she trampled upon conventional laws of morality. She did not emulate the engaging frankness of her husband, who, when she pretended sleep to avoid the recital of his amours, roused her with sturdy thumps and punches of his fist, and forced her to listen. No, her adventures were studiously kept secret, but none the less did they exist; and they were pursued by her with an audacious delight.

Gradually the grand duchess collected about her a little circle of intimates who encouraged her in all that was evil and dangerous. Abetted by these boon companions, she was able to defy the strict cordon of regulations drawn about her life by the arbitrary Empress. Parties met in her rooms night after night, the spies sitting without unconscious; or a mew, the chosen signal of mischief, would sound at her door, and hey ! presto ! the imprisoned princess was out of her prison, attending all sorts of merrymakings, suppers, and dances ; or, dressed in man’s attire, frolicking all over St. Petersburg with her lover, Leon Narishkine ! It speaks well for her power of influencing others that not once was she betrayed by any of the persons in her confidence ; yet it was a secret worth money to the betrayer, for the Empress would have made short work of an ex-Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg detected flagrante delicto at such pranks. Catherine reveled in these stolen pleasures with all the joy of long-repressed liberty broken forth into license ; but while trampling on other commandments, she scrupulously kept the eleventh, of man’s enactment, and, luck waiting on audacity, never was “found out.”

She relates with great glee the effectual precautions taken by her against neglect when her second child was born. A disused lumber - room opened from her bedchamber. She secretly caused this to be cleared out and furnished; the door of communication was hidden by a screen, and there her little private court of intimates assembled. The events of her second confinement were an exact reproduction of those of the first. Again the Empress took possession of the infant as soon as it was named, and carried it off, leaving the mother to her fate ; but now Catherine had friends at hand, who, as soon as the coast was clear, came in and ministered to her wants with food, wine, and every luxury. There was no need now for her to lie weeping and moaning ; her convalescence was made merry by the companionship of the gay little party in the lumber-room, who filled every lonely moment with laughter and pranks. She only found it necessary to affect tedium now and then in order to disarm suspicion. Once or twice the merry troupe, “ from laughing too heartily,”became hungry and thirsty, and demanded supper. The grand duchess replied that this was no more than fair, since they were kind enough to give her their company. She accordingly rang the bell, professed herself starving, and ordered a repast of not less than six courses. When the dishes went out empty, not a crumb left in any of them, there must have been wonderment in the kitchens over the phenomenal appetite of the invalid, but no comment was made. The Empress’s health had declined. She had had two or three alarming seizures, and the influence of the grand duchess was on the increase. Courtiers are quick to mark the signs of the times, and trim their sails to meet a coming change of wind.

It is an astonishing feature of these memoirs that there is scarcely a reference in them to Russia and the common people. “ The Winter Palace, with its military and administrative machinery, was a world of its own,” Hertzen tells us. “ Like a ship floating on the surface of the ocean, it had no real connection with the inhabitants of the deep beyond that of eating them. In that monstrous barrack, in that enormous machinery, there reigned the cold rigidity of a camp. One set gave or transmitted orders ; the rest obeyed in silence. Behind that triple line of sentries, in those heavily ornamented salons, there fermented a feverish life, with its intrigues and its conflicts, its dramas and its tragedies. It was here that the destinies of Russia were woven, in the gloom of the alcove, in the midst of orgies, beyond the reach of informers and the police. What interest could the young German princess take in that magnum ignotum, that people unexpressed, which concealed itself in its villages, behind the snow, and only appeared in the streets of St. Petersburg like a foreign outcast, tolerated by reason of contempt ? ”

At last, in 1761, the seventeen long years of suspense, dissimulation, and uncertainty came to an end, — years which had found the grand duchess a child, and left her hardened into a cynical profligacy. Elizabeth died, and the Emperor Peter III. was declared ruler of Russia in her stead.

This was Catherine’s opportunity, and the folly of her brutalized husband made it an easy one. Having "lost the small share of sense which originally belonged to him,” as his affectionate wife remarks, he inaugurated his reign by a series of unpopular measures which offended everybody. He proposed to disband the imperial guards, and replace them with troops from Holstein ; to change the religion of the country ; to repudiate Catherine, imprison her, and marry his mistress, Elizabeth Voronsky. A thousand disquieting rumors flew to and fro, while the Emperor, shut up with a small circle of sycophants at Oranienbaum, kept himself invisible and inaccessible. Many of these rumors were doubtless exaggerated on premature, but they were sufficient for Catherine’s purpose, and were, not improbably, inspired by her.

The crisis came when, at a festival given in celebration of peace with the king of Prussia, Peter publicly insulted his wife at table, and the same evening signed an order for her arrest. The order was retracted for the moment, but Catherine knew that the sword wavered above her head, and must presently fall. With her customary energy and clear insight into things, she wasted no time in indecision. The minds of the guards had already been prepared, her adherents were ready. The news of the order of arrest reached her at Peterhoff, where she was living alone, — “ seemingly forgotten by every one,” she remarks. It was six in the morning. Dressing hastily, she flung herself into a carriage, and drove straight to the capital, and to the barracks of the Ismailofski regiment.

“ The throne of Russia is neither hereditary nor elective,” said the Neapolitan Caraccioli. “ It is occupative !

There were not more than a dozen soldiers in the building, but the drummer beat the alarm, and the others speedily came crowding in. When they saw the Empress, they broke into wild enthusiasm, kissing her hands, feet, and dress, and calling her their saviour. Two of them brought a priest with the cross, the oath of government was administered, and at the head of the regiment Catherine proceeded to the Church of Our Lady of Kasan. Here other regiments, the horse guards and the all-important Preobrajenskies among them, joined the cortége, with shouts of “Vivat! ” and “Pardon us for having come last. Our officers detained us, but we have brought them to you under arrest to show our zeal.” Catherine was proclaimed “ colonel ” of the regiments, changed her dress for a uniform, and at the head of over fourteen thousand men swept out to Oranienbaum, where Peter, unconscious of the storm about to break upon him, sat composing manifestoes against her, and, as she asserts, arranging the details of her assassination.

It was too late. His terrible wife, if we may borrow a phrase from Australia, “ had the drop on him ” in every particular. In abject terror he made haste to sign his resignation, conferring upon Catherine all the rights and privileges of which he stood possessed. Contemptuously she accepted all, and gave orders that the ex-Emperor should be conveyed to Rapscha, a place seven versts distant from St. Petersburg, “ very retired, but very pleasant,” we are assured, where he was placed under guard. The unhappy young man only asked that he might have his mistress, his dog, his negro, and his violin forwarded to him; but “ for fear of scandal, and not wishing to increase the general excitement,” doubtless also from pure love of morals, the Empress omitted the mistress, and sent only the three articles last named !

It was given out that Peter was to remain at Rapscha only till suitable apartments at Schlüsselberg could be prepared for him. “ But it pleased God to dispose otherwise,” as Catherine piously remarks. Three days after his removal, the Emperor died suddenly : of dysentery, she tells us ; of strangulation, the rest of the world believed; and with his death Catherine II. entered upon her thirtyfour years of absolute power, untrammeled by any obligation, human or divine, whose validity she recognized.

The biography closes with these words :

“ Such, pretty nearly, is our history. The whole was managed, I confess, under my own immediate direction, and toward the end I had to check its progress. Everything, in fact, was more than ripe a fortnight beforehand. In a word, God has brought about things in his own good pleasure, and the whole is more of a miracle than a merely human contrivance; for assuredly nothing but the Divine Will could have produced so many felicitous combinations.”

Tied up with the manuscript in which these edifying words are recorded was the original letter from Alexis Orloff, in which, with the most cold-blooded distinctness of phrase, he announced to the Empress the murder of her husband !

In the early years of our own century, a young Bostonian — who later became one of the noted wits of his generation, — in the course of a visit to Europe spent some weeks at St. Petersburg. He became intimate with an elderly diplomat, to whom he had letters of introduction, and who had long resided in Russia. One day, when dining tête-à-tête with his friend, he ventured to hint a question upon a delicate subject which had for years occupied the curious in such matters, namely, the truth as to the death of the Emperor Peter III.

His host silenced him with a gesture. “ The subject is too dangerous for discussion,” he said, in a low tone. “ I dare not enter upon it even with you and alone. Your curiosity must be answered without words, if at all. We are going to the ball at the palace to-night. Keep your hand in my arm, and whenever we pass one of the persons suspected — mind, I only say suspected — of complicity in the matter, I will give it a slight pressure. But you must guard your face. It would never do to have it imagined that any communication on such a subject was passing between us.”

So that night, as the young American, leaning on his friend’s arm, passed through the brilliant throng at the Winter Palace, he was conscious ever and anon of a slight significant pressure. Always it came as they encountered some court official high in office, and especially resplendent in dress or decorations. At last they met the gigantic Prince Orloff, literally blazing with orders and jewels, and towering head and shoulders above the crowd. The pressure here was particularly distinct.

“He held the handkerchief,” murmured the diplomat in his young friend’s ear.

This “ handkerchief,” the enormous Orloff, and the puny and enfeebled young Emperor furnished, it may be presumed, one of the most striking of the “felicitous combinations” which Catherine had in mind, and for which she thanked Heaven with such exemplary fervor.

Susan Coolidge.