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Joseph Kaminski

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October 18, 2019

Catherine the Great: Part 2 – A Dysfunctional Marriage

This is Part 2 of Catherine the Great. Catherine II, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the most known and the longest-ruling female leader of Russia. You can click here for the archives of this miniseries. I hope you enjoy!

“Catherine” had been the name of Empress Elizabeth’s mother, so it seemed fitting for such a family name to be used for young Sophie’s new Orthodox name. Realize that this new religion meant quite a bit to the newly-named Catherine, as she saw it “close enough” to her previous Lutheran roots to not find any offense to her religious past.

Now, you might be wondering: what happened to Johanna, Catherine’s mother? Прощай! She, at this stage of the game, is nearing her exit. Nobody in the royal courting had any respect for the future Empress’s mother after months of dealing with her ignorance and arrogant thirst for fame. The whole bloodletting incident had made it painted out to seem as if Johanna was cruel, wishing for her daughter to die. She had been seen taking expensive fabrics from royal bedrooms, she had started far too much gossip, and she had made a complete fool of herself countless times throughout the courtship.


A portrait of Johanna by Antoin Pesne, c.1746.

Johanna oftentimes acted as if she was more than a guest within the Russian royalty. After the wedding, her daughter Catherine officially outranked her, however. Unable to even sit at the same table as her daughter, Johanna was infuriated with the lack of significance she now held.

Though her husband Christian August begged for her to come home, Johanna would lurk in attempt to “live the good life” until she was forced to return to Germany. An account of a love affair with a well-known conspirator against the Empress Elizabeth led to Johanna being prohibited from ever returning to Russia.

Her importance to the story is relatively over. Catherine would later write that she “was not on good terms” with her mother, and for obvious reasons as discussed through Part 1 of this biography.

But, regardless, it was a fantastic time to be a civil servant!

Servants in the castle were given a year’s advance on their salary in order to buy the finest clothes to attend the wedding in. This really would be the first “royal wedding” of the royal Romanov family, if you really want to think about it. Peter the Great had married his peasant wife in secrecy, Peter II had never married, Anna had been a widow, Ivan IV had been overthrown as a mere baby by Elizabeth, and Elizabeth had lost her lover to smallpox before the marriage could occur.

But, in Catherine’s eyes, she did not love Peter. She did, however, absolutely fall in love with her adopted country of Russia.

Catherine and Peter

Grand Duchess Catherine with her husband Peter III.

After a wedding ceremony that lasted four hours and receiving a ring worth more than the average village this side of the Don River, Catherine and Peter were an item – a dysfunctional royal one.

The obsession so many young girls have with becoming a princess and being whisked away to a powerful kingdom to have a happily ever after with some Prince Charming is…fantasy at that. Catherine’s marriage was Peter was objectionable at best.

Catherine’s new beau had said at one point prior to the marriage that he had “felt closest” to Catherine whenever her mother Johanna made her cry. In any other circumstance, we’d probably feel a pang of sympathy in this scenario. But, we need to remember what was exactly wrong with Peter to begin with.

Peter still had a drinking problem, something he had held onto since he was at least ten years old. He hated Russia despite being the legal heir to it. He was socially awkward, demanding, and horrendously uncharismatic to the world around him. He had issues with fear, anger, and anxiety – and he oftentimes let out his rage on animals and lower class-men who happened to be surrounding him at the time.

We’re talking about the same man who reportedly told Catherine prior to the marriage that he intended on “thoroughly beating” her as she was to learn that she was his property and wives, even of royal nature, were not to have opinions.

Peter had never given up the obsession with military soldiers that he had when he was a kid. To think of it this way, it would be as if a young boy was still obsessed with plastic dinosaur models well into his teenage years in our modern society. It was a bit of a mania with dominated his thought process for the most part. He would oftentimes play with toy soldiers in bed, scolding Catherine if she moved as it would cause his line to fall over.

He had survived an epidemic of measles, but quickly fell into a case of smallpox and nearly died. As Peter was sick, many courtiers who had once been Catherine’s “friends” began to slowly distance themselves away from her. If Peter died before taking the throne, well, Catherine would rather useless. But, luckily (or rather unfortunately), Peter survived.

Smallpox did, however, leave a bad mark on Peter’s public appearance. He was transformed, in short, rather hideously. The scars overwhelmed his already damaged physique, making him hideous in the eyes of Catherine. The scars on the outside of Peter’s body did not work well with the scars already deep within his personality, and Catherine’s initial reaction to her husband’s new appearance did not go quite well.

He was never the same again, to be brutally honest. He instantly retreated to his chambers, dressing up servants in military outfits and drilling them throughout the day like an irritated and rather insane general. He oftentimes requested – or should I say demanded – that Catherine be involved in these days. He would order her to stand, in Prussian salute, to guard the chambers. Catherine would later half-joke in her memoirs by stating that she “knew the Prussian drills more than anyone in the castle” due to how many times Peter made her do them in her private quarters.

Doctors had told Catherine that Peter was not physically well enough to give her a child. It is actually thought that Peter had Phimosis, the same disease that King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette’s husband, had. It’s very interesting to consider this coincidence, as the young Catherine had gone to Versailles as a guest at Antoinette’s marriage to Louis XVI shortly before her own marriage in order to get a feel for what a royal wedding should look like.

Elizabeth didn’t care. She wanted Peter and Catherine to produce an heir, so she ordered that they be locked in a bedroom within the castle in order to have sexual relations. She even hired a widow who had sported several children in order to “encourage” Peter. But, Peter had no interest in having marital sex with the gorgeous Catherine.

Catherine was forbidden to write to anyone, and her favorite maids were sent away and exiled in an attempt to keep her mind focused on getting Peter to bear her with a child. Her social orbit – something she had enjoyed immensely – was taken away from her completely!

And in the meanwhile? Peter was still playing with his stupid little toy soldiers, something which disappointed and irritated Catherine to extremes.

Peter’s sadism was more than obvious through this period where the two were forced to be near each other. He would put rats that he found in the room on trial, where he would find them guilty and hang them from the rafters or behead them with a pocket knife. Catherine would question what the hell the dead rat was doing there, to which Peter would ramble about the crimes that the rat committed.

Catherine would smile and say something along the lines of, “Oh, okay. It sounds like the rat deserved it.”

Catherine quickly learned that Peter’s obsession with the military did not mean he would be an excellent ruler or general. Peter would sulk for days if he lost a game of cards…imagine how he would react if he lost on a battlefield!

But, rather than go insane with this immense pressure surrounding her, Catherine took refuge in books. She had servants sneak books into her dress pockets, and oftentimes had the “no talking to anyone” rule broken in order to request specific titles. However, the books only did so much. She would learn through notes that Empress Elizabeth was incredibly sick, and the paranoia that someone would rush into the room to kill both Peter and herself began keeping her up at night. Fortunately, Elizabeth would recover.

Sergei Saltykov

Sergei Saltykov.

That’s when Catherine met Sergei Saltykov.

A tall and handsome Russian chamberlain, Sergei Saltykov became Catherine’s lover. He had persuaded Catherine to have extramarital affairs through the promise of love and…a child.

Being the wife to the future leader of Russia meant she had one job: to produce the next heir. Her position as Duchess wasn’t exactly set in stone. If she would be unable to produce an heir, she could have been extradited to the nunnery instead.

Peter might have outgrown his Phimosis, or he just might have had the medical procedure done in order to fix it. Regardless, the spread of rumors concerning the next Emperor’s sexual activity was nothing more than a ruse to get people thinking he was able to bear a child after all.

On the flip side of things, Peter actually knew – and encouraged – the affair between Catherine and Sergei Saltykov. He was mostly happy that they were tricking people into thinking sexual relations were in process.

Catherine suffered a miscarriage at five months. This was around the same period of time that Sergei asked her to help him advance his career. She contacted someone within the state who easily helped Sergei do just that – but this actually surprised Catherine more than anyone. For the person she had contacted was not necessarily her friend. Her mother had left a rather fowl impression upon him, and he was considered an enemy of the state back home in Prussia.

However, this man knew something. Peter hated Russia, while Catherine loved Russia. The so-called “mending of the fence” through helping Catherine out served as a nod for the young Duchess actually loving the country that the actual heir to the throne hated with a passion.

Catherine would suffer through a second miscarriage before her third pregnancy would prove successful. She was slowly transported to St. Petersburg, where she would give birth to her son, Paul.

Paul would instantly be taken away from her by Empress Elizabeth, who wrapped him up and quickly took him out of the room with the crowd of doctors and family members following her. They left her on a mattress on the floor, sweating and filthy from giving birth, for hours. Peter came in the room once, smiling and thanking her for giving birth, before heading back to the parties celebrating Paul’s birth.

It’s very ironic, though, that Catherine had nothing to do with Paul’s life. Similar to how Johanna had no real maternal affection for her daughter, Catherine was shut out of Paul’s life. However, Johanna had done it by choice – Catherine was forced. You see, Elizabeth had not had a baby, so she kind of symbolically adopted the young child. Catherine was seen as an empty vessel, someone who provided a “legitimate” baby to Russia.

I must put an emphasis on “legitimate”, though.

Historically, we can’t really know who the actual father was. Though we know that Catherine spread rumors that Sergei Saltykov was the father, and that we know for a fact these extramarital affairs happened, many historians question these primary sources. For one, we see that she suffered from two miscarriages with Sergei prior, and that the third actually worked out. Many historians actually believe that these rumors were just spread by Catherine in an attempt to bash Sergei’s reputation and prevent Paul from being the heir to the throne.

Paul actually, in person, resembled Peter III more than Sergei. He inherited the character and appearance of the aggressive and thickset Peter. Catherine’s memoirs, however, do put note that Saltykov had a rather “ugly” brother, which further muddles the rumors between whether it was Peter or Sergei who fathered the child. So, perhaps Catherine simply wanted to prevent this child from being a “legitimate” heir after being put through such hell.

If that wasn’t enough for Catherine, she quickly learned through the grapevine that Sergei Saltykov had played her. He had multiple other affairs while sleeping with her, and most likely never really loved her like he claimed. She felt completely unloved and unwanted now as a ruler, the same feeling she had felt as a small child. That just goes to show you that, emotionally, humans are humans regardless of wealth and status.

Catherine quickly fell into postpartum depression, retreating to a small room to take refuge once again in books by a cozy fireplace. She absolutely adored French books, and spent much of her time reading the enlightening works by Voltaire. During this time, she read up on the history of the Russian peoples, the history of the church, and several Roman novellas.

These books inspired her! She knew she was a competent administrator through the boring tasks Peter had thrown to her through their marriage. She knew she had a good social ability to keep people friendly towards her, for the most part. She felt as if she deserved power. She gained an ambition that she hadn’t really had prior to this point in her life.

She learned, through these books, that reason is what propels a man – or in this case a woman – throughout history. She felt as if she wasn’t manipulative enough to pull anything off, but there’s one thing certain about Catherine’s character: she now had determination, a desire that not too many women at the time ever thought of chasing.

That concludes part two of this special little miniseries about Catherine the Great. You can click here for the archives of this miniseries, which will be updated when the next post is published.

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