Catherine the Great: Part 8 – A Russia Without Catherine
This is the FINALE 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 enjoyed!
Every story has an ending, and we’ve reached the end of Catherine the Great. Born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg in Stettin, Pomerania, Prussia…converted to Catherine II by the Russian Orthodox Church…and becoming Catherine the Great within the pages of history. It’s time to talk about the final days of Catherine the Great, the mist of propaganda myths that surround them, and the future of Russia afterwards.
While Catherine’s reign was made up of success after success, her life ended with major failures.
Her Swedish cousin, King Gustav IV Adolph, visited Empress Catherine the Great in September 1796 to arrange a marriage between himself and her granddaughter, Alexandra. The deal felt fantastic for Catherine, who knew it would allow Alexandra, her precious granddaughter, to become the Queen of Sweden. Perhaps she saw her own past within her granddaughter.
However, Gustav Adolph was horrified to learn that Alexandra wouldn’t be converting to Lutheranism. Catherine had created an Orthodoxy feeling within her family, and Alexandra didn’t want to convert to her grandmother’s previous religion. It’s fairly obvious that Catherine wouldn’t have been thrilled to see her granddaughter to convert to Lutheranism to begin with. Those brownie points she gained from the late Empress Elizabeth by converting to Orthodoxy were the foundation of her personal and political success.
Although a ball was given at the Russian imperial court on September 11th, 1796, King Gustav Adolph refused to attend. In fact, he was so miffed by the religious differences between himself and the “delightful young Alexandra” that he fled Russia for his palace in Stockholm, Sweden.
This infuriated Catherine to the point where her health was severely affected.
It’s time to bring up Paul again. The firstborn son of Catherine the Great and most likely her first lover Sergei Saltykov, Paul had always been a difficult child. He never really felt a connection with his mother, as the late Empress Elizabeth had whisked him away from Catherine after his birth. Paul and Catherine maintained a rather distant and unfamiliar relationship with each other for most of, if not all of, Paul’s life.
Paul hated his mother’s lovers and friends, whom Catherine the Great showered with love and affection that he never received from her. One year, the Russian empress gave one of her “court favorites” over fifty thousand rubles on her birthday. Paul, on the other hand, received a cheap watch.
Paul fathered two sons, Alexander and Constantine. They were both whisked away from Paul’s care and unofficially adopted by Catherine – similar to what happened between Paul and Elizabeth. Catherine absolutely adored her grandsons, especially the young Alexander.
So, knowing the relationship between Paul and his mother, it is easy to see that Catherine didn’t really think much of her firstborn son. As she was recovering from the embarrassment her cousin Gustav IV Adolph had bestowed upon her court, she began planning a ceremony to replace Paul with her favorite grandson, Alexander, as the heir to the throne of Russia.
But, as stated previously, every story has an end; and Catherine’s story ended a little too early for her wishes to come true. Catherine the Great had a stroke on November 17th, 1796, and died without ever regaining consciousness.
There are some myths, mostly perpetuated by French political cartoons and Russian usurpers who wanted to deny Catherine her Great title in history, surrounding her death. One myth, unfathomably wrong, is that she – famous for her number of lovers; from Saltykov to Poniatowski to Orlov to Potemkin – desired sex that no man could offer her anymore. This propaganda-heavy story claimed that the empress died as she attempted to let a horse mount her.
Another myth claims that she had died after having a stroke while on the toilet. It seemed like a “fitting end” to some enemies of the state for such a “Great” leader to die in such a “shitty” way. Of course, these are nothing more than propagated myths and stories fluttering around the end of a legacy that no one could have asked for during this time period.
She most likely died peacefully, for the most part, in her bed. After never regaining consciousness, she drifted away in luscious blankets on top of her bed.
Now dead, Catherine could not hold an official ceremony for her grandson. Her will had stated, unsigned and unrecognized, that she desired Alexander to supersede her place on the throne…
…but Paul wouldn’t let that happen.
Once he learned his mother was dead, he ordered all of her papers to be burned, including the testimony that would have allowed Alexander a place in the palace.
Paul, anxious and fearing his “rightful recognition” being stripped away from him, implemented the Pauline Laws, which established a strict principle of primogeniture in the House of Romanov. This made it legally binding that the throne would have to be given to the next male heir, preventing any skips in generations.
These fears may have contributed to Paul’s promulgation of the Pauline Laws, which established the strict principle of primogeniture in the House of Romanov, leaving the throne to the next male heir.
Paul became Paul I, the supreme autocratic Emperor of Russia. But, as expected, he was not a popular or very successful leader. The Golden Age that the Empress had initiated was handed off to her probably bastard son, a boy who felt nor had any no love or respect from the late Catherine the Great. Paul was oftentimes described as generous, and he spent the first year of his reign reversing policies that Catherine had introduced. He allowed Catherine’s greatest critics and usurpers to return to Russia from exile, as well.
Catherine had to drop her plans to ban serfdom thanks to the Russian nobility. Paul viewed the Russian nobility as corrupt, and set his sights on transforming them into a more disciplined (and loyal) caste resembling what would have occurred in a more medieval chivalric autocracy. While Catherine had tried to make progress by going forward to the future, it almost seemed as if Paul had his eyes set on the “greater days” in the past.
Those who listened to Paul received great rewards. He gave some of his favorite “knights” more serfs in five years than his mother had ever given to her lovers over a period of thirty-four years. Those who didn’t agree or conform with his new views on society were dismissed from the court. Three-hundred-and-thirty-three generals were fired.
Paul wasn’t too smart, either. If you remember, Peter III had been incredibly unpopular thanks to his love for Prussia. Peter III had forced the military to wear Prussian uniforms and practice Prussian drills. When Catherine came into power shortly afterwards, she reversed this. Catherine’s reign had the army wearing comfortable and practical uniforms designed and described as “distinctly Russian”. The military loved this. Well, what did Paul do? He decided to force the Russian military to wear Prussian uniforms again.
Of course, Paul became more and more increasingly unpopular, smearing the legacies that Catherine had left behind. He would be assassinated after five years of ruling all of Russia on March 23rd, 1801; significantly better than Peter III’s six-month reign.
Conspirators had kidnapped him, forcing him onto a table within his bedroom at the newly built St Michael’s Castle. They announced that they meant no harm, and they merely wanted him to sign an abdication from the throne. Paul refused, resisting the men’s grip. One of the assassins struck him with a sword as a response, and Paul was strangled and beaten as he bled out on the table.
Paul’s eldest son – Catherine’s favorite grandson – Alexander I, was actually in the castle at the time of the assassination. At 23 years old, he was called into the room by General Nikolay Zubov – one of the assassins of Paul I. Zubov, perhaps drinking a bit too much, screamed “Time to grow up [Alexander]! Go and rule [all of Russia]!”
Alexander would rule Russia throughout the turbulence of the Napoleonic Wars, ruling until his death in 1825. With no surviving children at the time of his death, he would be replaced with his younger brother, Nicholas I.
And thus is the end of Catherine the Great’s story.