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 Catherine the Great 
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Post Catherine the Great
I have finished my first biography on Catherine the Great (1729 - 1796, ruled 1762 - 1796) which only strengthens my conviction, which I got from reading about her in the history books, that she was indeed one exceptional person.

She has some similarities to Marie Antoinette. Both were foreign princesses only Catherine (or Sophie, Catherine was the name she got in Russia) wasn't from such great family, she was close to her age when she arrived in Russia (to marry Peter later in 1745.) and she also had a problem with her husband who couldn't perform his marital duties. In a sense the pressure she got, beside a feeling of personal failure, was even greater as the current empress Elizabeth did all in her power to encourage the young couple, by sending away anyone who became Catherine's close friend or employing the one couple in a good marriage and with many children, to set an example. With a specific task by the empress, they used to lock the couple together and watch them even more closely, setting many rules, but when Catherine and her husband Peter were left in the bedroom, he used to play with his toy solders rather than paying attention to his wife. He developed quite a bad character, his physique was much changed with smallpox, and he preferred being a duke of Holstein-Gottorp, which he became after the death of his father, than accepting his greater Russian destiny (his mother being a daughter of Peter the Great). The Current empress Elisabeth was childless, she was a daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I, and came to the throne encouraged by her supporters in 1741. She chose her nephew, Peter of Holstein-Gottorp as a legitimate heir and, like Catherine, he had to change his Protestant religion, although he hardly accepted the Orthodox doctrine. As for Elisabeth, apparently she was very beautiful and religious but not brilliant in running the state.

In difference to Marie Antoinette, Catherine had a good education and never had trouble learning, also she was interested in books. Apparently, when she as a young girl arrived in Russia with her mother, she wasn't too much dazzled by their rich reception but started asking one general about the important people of the court, even asking him to write their characteristics, promising that she wont tell anyone. She was more mature than her age, very clever and ambitious.

She came to the throne in her thirties, having that advantage that Marie Antoinette never had - experience. Still, that was a result of work, even before she tried to prepare herself and her husband for their future task. Peter III reign was very short but he quickly became very unpopular. Like the French, the Russian people also had a strong antagonism towards foreigners, especially Germans, because of their recent history. Peter III saw a Prussian leader as a hero and planned a war with Denmark in order to restore Schleswig to his Duchy of Holstein-Gottorp. Catherine II tried to distinguish herself from her husband's acts, and with the help of her supporters and the church, succeeded him to the throne in 1762. There is no proof that she ordered him to be strangled, in which deed was involved the brother of her lover, Alexey Orlov, the author of the biography doesn't believe that she had a knowledge of it, but even so that death could have been avoided. That death also came as a good solution, as alive he could always be a threat.

After Seven Years war, the finances of Russia were in a terrible state. She started reacting quickly. As Russia was mainly an agricultural country, she started sending experts to the far areas to examine the soil, allowed loans to the landowners who were willing to try the new developed English techniques, she commissioned a new catalogue which would describe Russian plants... Seeing that Russia is in need of more hands to work the land, with good conditions she attracted people from abroad. During her reign the number of manufactures increased from 948 to 3.161. She also had excellent results in trade by abolishing export duty. By these and many other measures quite quickly she managed to rectify the destroyed finances.

She was a very humane and enlightened monarch. She wanted to improve the status of the serfs, having in mind some radical reforms opposed to her time. She started opening schools and hospitals. In 1783. she opened a hospital for the very widespread venereal diseases, for both men and female and it wasn't allowed to ask for the name of a person who wanted the treatment. In Moscow she made a good Orphanage, better than any in Europe, mothers who wanted to leave their child would just pull a bell and a basket would come down where they could put the baby with a note about its name and whether it is baptised. In 1763. came one of her first humanist decrees. She forbade torture of prisoners, like after admitting the crime in order to get some further information. She ordered the translation of many European books unknown in Russia, she was patronizing arts and did all in order to make Russia one enlightened European country. This is just a tiny part of her reforms.

She had difficulties with rebellions, with war against the Turkey and she always showed amazing power of will. She put the benefit of her country first.

As for her personal life, I find it a bit less interesting than her reforms. We all heard about Orlov and Potemkin, both younger, and in general she much preferred younger men, one of her lovers was around 40 years younger, when she was in her sixties. She also liked splendour, beauty in objects, it is recorded that she ate very little, like Marie Antoinette, but then they both seem to be ample bodied in the later years. :wink: She used to read a lot, correspond with Voltaire who she much appreciated and even write scripts for small plays. Like Marie Antoinette, she was also depicted as Messalina in the French press and after one French newspaper was presented to her, she allowed it to be published so people could see how deeply the French press sank. The author says she had two husbands (he thinks it is very likely that she married Potemkin in secret) and 11 lovers, from which Potemkin had chosen some in fear that others may influence her against him. She died at the age of 67. Now, about her lovers, I wouldn't judge whether that is a lot or not.

Even very enlightened she believed in monarchy and was against the revolution, especially as she found that they denied their own goals by using force against other views and freedom. Apparently she cried for Louis XVI and wore black for three weeks, for Marie Antoinette twice as long but I don't know more about their relations. I remember that they used to write and that she received some nice green porcelain. The reason why she didn't get more involved is I think the Turkish war or not finding a purpose but she did join with foreign powers against France. Still it would be interesting to know more about this.

Even this is too long a post, there is much more to be written. She is a figure worth much discussion. My main source was the biography by Vincent Cronin. Among other sources, he mostly uses her own memoirs. I would like to find out more about many things about her, but I could also try and find more information or provide more information if anyone has some questions, like the books she liked, painters, her looks or similar. I think she was an exceptional figure from the very beginning and I will definitely read more about her.

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Fri Dec 18, 2009 11:58 pm
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Post Re: Catherine the Great
Very interesting post Marija! :)

I shall consider the points raised and try and do some justice to your scholarly approach in my reply!

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Sat Dec 19, 2009 1:01 pm
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Post Re: Catherine the Great
baron de batz wrote:
I shall consider the points raised and try and do some justice to your scholarly approach in my reply!


Please do and thank you baron! :rainbow:

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Sun Dec 20, 2009 6:52 pm
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Post Re: Catherine the Great
I see that you mention about some green porcelaine.


I have seen some of that collection sent by Louis XVI to Catherine in the Wallace Collection in London.

I agree that Catherine was very much a ruler in her won right, politically astute and calculating. Very different to MA who didn't calculate enough. But then MA was never destined to rule, nor was she groomed for that or had any such ambition. Comparisons between them are fairly futile. MA only became a politician or politicaly astute in later life by the force of circumstance. And yet she showed incredible abilities to apprehend the psychology of those she was in conflict with, and to use her charm to win support from unexpected quarters. She was however always fighting an uphill battle. Catherine is yet more proof that Queens or Empresses often make good rulers....

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Mon Dec 21, 2009 1:50 pm
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Post Re: Catherine the Great
I find your post deeply interesting and Catherine very fascinating. I haven't read any biography of her but I think I'll do. I agree with Baron that women often do great monarchs...Maybe it was because, in order to acquire stable power, they had to be even cleverer and more tenacious than men, so, in a way, when they got their position, they had developed the qualities that make a ruler great...
I'm very intersted in a point you made, Marija, marginal though it may be in your talk: you mentioned Catherine being compared to Messalina, just as Marie Antoinette, Now, as I'm quite interested in empress Messalina herself, and I find some similarities between her and MA (I'm convinced that all we know about her, too, is strongly biased and nearly all the rumours about her sexual behaviour are just rubbish), I would like to know where I can find some information about the parallel between Marie Antoinette (or other women from her time) and Messalina in contemporary libels.

If you could give me some information, I would be really grateful!

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Sat Dec 26, 2009 3:43 pm
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Post Re: Catherine the Great
Thank you very much for your replies. I read something about Mesallina, the wife of Roman emperor Claudius, after her came Agrippina (he wasn't very lucky :roll: ). I remember that she was much younger, that she was cruel and very, very promiscuous. I've read a lot about it ... :o Now, I am not so sure. I am wondering what is the truth about both women as far as their behavior is concerned, as the easiest way to discredit a woman is to speculate about her sexuality. When you have time, you could write me a private message about it. As for Catherine, she is very different from Marie Antoinette in that field, and that would be interesting to compare as I could never think of Marie Antoinette as someone incapable to fall in love.

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Wed Jan 06, 2010 2:33 pm
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Post Re: Catherine the Great
Here's a little blurb I found on the internet -

According to the De Imperatoribus Romanis article on Claudius,

In 38 A.D. Claudius had married Valeria Messalina, a scion of a noble house with impressive familial connections. Messalina bore him a daughter (Octavia, born in 39) and a son (Britannicus, born in 41): she was therefore the mother of the heir-apparent and enjoyed influence for that reason. In the sources, Messalina is portrayed as little more than a pouting adolescent nymphomaniac who holds wild parties and arranges the deaths of former lovers or those who scorn her advances; and all this while her cuckolded husband blunders on in blissful ignorance. Recently, attempts have been made to rehabilitate Messalina as an astute player of court politics who used sex as a weapon, but in the end we have little way of knowing the truth.[[19]] What we can say is that either her love of parties (on the adolescent model) or her byzantine scheming (on the able courtier model) brought her down.


If this is an accurate source, you can see some of the similarities used to compare Messalina and Marie Antoinette. Other sources talk about partying and excess regarding Messalina , also another interesting point is that both Messalina and Marie Antoinette's sons were killed and prevented from ruling. I don't know much about Catherine the Great but must agree she is really an intriguing figure well worth learning more about!


Wed Jan 06, 2010 7:26 pm
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Post Re: Catherine the Great
Marija Vera wrote:
I am wondering what is the truth about both women as far as their behavior is concerned, as the easiest way to discredit a woman is to speculate about her sexuality. .


This is just the point! This is why I'm always reluctant to take what is said about "perverted" women at face value.
I don't know very much about the critical debate concerning Messalina, I know what the ancient authors say about her (and of course what they said is not exactly flattering). I'll PM you, so I'll explain what my impression is about it...

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Thu Jan 07, 2010 2:15 pm
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Post Re: Catherine the Great
Rosalie wrote:

I'll PM you, so I'll explain what my impression is about it...

So the rest of us don't have the right to share in your impressions Rosalie? :wink: You'll make us jealous of Marija Vera... :)

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Fri Jan 08, 2010 1:42 pm
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Post Re: Catherine the Great
Marija Vera do you know any more regarding Catherine the Great's feelings about the Revolution? I vaguely seem to remember that she sent buyers to France to buy what she could at the revolutionary auctions - didn't she end up with some of Marie Antoinette's belongings?


Sat Jan 09, 2010 11:14 pm
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Post Re: Catherine the Great
I know that the martyred Csarina Alexandra had MA's picture on her writing desk in the Winter Palace. She also had a Gobelin tapestry of the Queen and her children at the Alexander Palace. The Empress Eugenie also went about recovering some of MA's possessions for the Great Exhibition of 1867.

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Sun Jan 10, 2010 1:29 am
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Post Re: Catherine the Great
I know that Catherine once told her ambassador, who had been summoned to explain Russia's supposed implication in the Varennes affair, that "one does not discuss with cobblers or with lawyers..."

She also said once that two thousand of her cossacks and 6000 croats would have sufficed to control the whole situation. All they needed to do was to get the control of one or two sleepy provincial towns and the whole pack of cards would cave in!

I don't think that her stance was very pro revolutionary. :wink:

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Mon Jan 11, 2010 4:01 pm
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Post Re: Catherine the Great
She also said to the Comte de Ségur, ambassador to Russia, when she summoned him to announce Russia's severance of diplomatic relations with France' that she deeply regretted the situation, but "What else can I do, I'm an aristocrat, I have to do my job!"

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Mon Jan 11, 2010 4:06 pm
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Post Re: Catherine the Great
baron de batz wrote:
She also said once that two thousand of her cossacks and 6000 croats would have sufficed to control the whole situation. All they needed to do was to get the control of one or two sleepy provincial towns and the whole pack of cards would cave in!


That really sounds like her! Although she thought that Russia didn't need more wars, she excelled in military planning when the situation needed it.

She, as a very enlightened monarch, didn't believe in the revolution for more than the reason of her being the queen. But of course, like Marie Antoinette, she strongly believed in monarchy as both of them couldn't imagine any other system. Firstly, she found anyone who believed in the revolution somehow mentally or physically disturbed. In order to tease them she used to send them to the sanatorium after which they would be too embarrassed to stay in Russia. She strongly believed in monarchy and used to say: "Order for a thousand people to make a sketch of one letter, let them discuss every sentence and you will see what will happen". She thought that in France equality by force would suppress talent. She thought that equality would weaken the competition and that people would lose honour and courage. But the main thing is that in the course of the revolution she thought that they had denied their every principle.

As for her buying at revolutionary auctions, that sounds possible. I know that queen Charlotte did. Somewhere I've read that she said for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in regard to their deaths "They deserved it". But in this biography is only mentioned that she cried for them, wore black... I am not sure what her real attitude was, she sounds like someone a bit machiavelistic, so it is highly possible that she was annoyed by the way they handled the situation and didn't have much real sympathy.

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Mon Jan 11, 2010 6:19 pm
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Post Re: Catherine the Great
She was an autocrat and she had the necessary presence to impose herself on all those that met her. She had majesty, something which Louis XVI, although a good and righteous man with many qualities, never had. His wife however had majesty, more so in later life, and it is clear that she cast an irresistible spell on all those who approached her in captivity. Catherine was greatly annoyed by Louis' hesitation, although he correctly pointed out that no other monarch before him had found himslef confronted with a similar situation: it was more than a battle of soldiers that he was facing, it was a battle of ideologies, and as an intelligent man used to seeing two sides to any question, he was tempted in some ways by the justice of the principals of the revolutionary movement that he was confronting.

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Tue Jan 12, 2010 8:52 am
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