Page:EB1911 - Volume 05.djvu/546

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527
CATHERINE II

mania,” the passion for uniforms, pipeclay, buttons, the “tricks of parade and the froth of discipline.” He detested the Russians, and surrounded himself with Holsteiners. For ten years the marriage was barren, and the only reason for supposing that the future tsar Paul (q.v.), who was born on the 2nd of October 1754, was the son of Peter, is the strong similarity of their characters. Living in the grossly animal court of the empress Elizabeth, bound to a husband whom she could not but despise and detest, surrounded by suitors, and entirely uninfluenced by religion, Catherine became and remained perfectly immoral in her sexual relations to men. The scandalous chronicle of her life was the commonplace of all Europe. Her male favourites were as openly paraded as the female favourites of King Louis XV. It may be said once and for all that her most trusted agents while she was still grand-duchess, and her chief ministers when she became empress, were also her lovers, and were known to be so.

For some time after the marriage, the young couple were controlled by the empress Elizabeth, who appointed court officials to keep a watch on their conduct; but before long these custodians themselves had become the agents of Catherine’s pleasures and ambition. After the birth of Paul she began to take an active part in political intrigues. Her abilities forced even her husband to rely on her judgment. When in difficulty he ran to her and flattered her with the name of Madame La Ressource—Madame Quick Wit—which did not prevent him from insulting and even kicking her when the immediate need of her help was over. In 1758 he endeavoured to turn the empress Elizabeth against her, and for a time Catherine was in danger. She faced the peril boldly, and reconquered her influence over the sovereign, but from this time she must have realized that when the empress was dead she would have to defend herself against her husband. That Peter both hated and dreaded her was notorious. The empress Elizabeth died on the 5th of January 1762. The grand duke succeeded without opposition as Peter III. His behaviour to his wife continued to be brutal and menacing, and he went on as before offending the national sentiment of the Russian people. In July he committed the insane error of retiring with his Holsteiners to Oranienbaum, leaving his wife at St Petersburg. On the 13th and 14th of that month a “pronunciamiento” of the regiments of the guard removed him from the throne and made Catherine empress. The history of this revolt is still obscure. It has naturally been said that she organized the mutiny from the first, and some plausibility is conferred on this belief by the fact that the guards were manipulated by the four Orlov brothers. The eldest, Gregory, was her recognized chief lover, and he was associated with his brother Alexis in the office of favourite. On the other hand, there does not appear to have been any need for organization. The hatred felt for Peter III. was spontaneous, and Catherine had no need to do more than let it be known that she was prepared to profit by her husband’s downfall. Peter, who behaved with abject cowardice, was sent to a country house at Ropcha, where he died on the 15th or 18th of July of official “apoplexy.” The truth is not known, and Frederick the Great at least professed long afterwards to believe that Catherine had no immediate share in the murder. She had no need to speak. Common-sense must have shown the leaders of the revolt that they would never be safe while Peter lived, and they had insults to avenge.

The mere fact that Catherine II., a small German princess without hereditary claim to the throne, ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796 amid the loyalty of the great mass of the people, and the respect and admiration of her neighbours, is sufficient proof of the force of her character. Her title to be considered a great reforming ruler is by no means equally clear. Voltaire and the encyclopaedists with whom she corresponded, and on whom she conferred gifts and pensions, repaid her by the grossest flattery, while doing their best to profit by her generosity. They made her a reputation for “philosophy,” and showed the sincerity of their own love of freedom by finding excuses for the partition of Poland. There is a very great difference between Catherine II. as she appears in the panegyrics of the encyclopaedists and Catherine as she appears in her correspondence and in her acts. Her foreign admirers amused her, and were useful in spreading her reputation. The money they cost her was a small sum in comparison to the £12,000,000 she lavished on her long series of lovers, who began with Soltykov and Stanislaus Poniatowski (q.v.) before she came to the throne, and ended with the youthful Platon Zubov, who was tenant of the post at her death. She spent money freely on purchasing works of art and curios. Yet she confessed with her usual candour that she had no taste for painting, sculpture or music. Her supposed love of literature does not appear to have amounted to more than a lively curiosity, which could be satisfied by dipping into a great number of books. She had a passion for writing, and produced not only a mass of letters written in French, but pamphlets and plays, comic and serious, in French and Russian. One on the history of Oleg, the more or less legendary Varangian, who was guardian to the son of Rurik, was described by her as an “imitation of Shakespeare.” The scheme is not unlike that of a “chronicle play.” Her letters are full of vivacity, of colour, and at times of insight and wit, but she never learnt to write either French or German correctly. The letters to Voltaire attributed to her are not hers, and were probably composed for her by Andrei Shuvalov. The philosophers and encyclopaedists who, by the mouth of Diderot, complimented Catherine on being superior to such female affectations as modesty and chastity, flattered her to some extent even here. She enforced outward decency in her household, was herself temperate in eating and drinking, and was by no means tolerant of disorderly behaviour on the part of the ladies of her court. They flattered her much more when they dwelt on her philanthropy and her large share of the enlightenment of the age. She was kind to her servants, and was very fond of young children. She was rarely angry with people who merely contradicted her or failed to perform their service in her household. But she could order the use of the knout and of mutilation as freely as the most barbarous of her predecessors when she thought the authority of the state was at stake, and she did employ them readily to suppress all opinions of a heterodox kind, whether in matters of religion or of politics, after the beginning of the French Revolution. Her renowned toleration stopped short of allowing the dissenters to build chapels, and her passion for legislative reform grew cold when she found that she must begin by the emancipation of the serfs. There were exceptions even to her personal kindness to those about her. She dropped her German relations. She kept a son born to her shortly before the palace revolution of 1762, whose paternity could not be attributed to Peter, at a distance, though she provided for him. He was brought up in a private station under the name of Bobrinski. She was a harsh mother to her son Paul. It seems highly probable that she intended to exclude him from the succession, and to leave the crown to her eldest grandson Alexander, afterwards the emperor Alexander I. Her harshness to Paul was probably as much due to political distrust as to what she saw of his character. Whatever else Catherine may have been she was emphatically a sovereign and a politician who was in the last resort guided by the reason of state. She was resolved not to allow her authority to be disputed by her son, or shared by him.

As a ruler, Catherine professed a great contempt for system, which she said she had been taught to despise by her master Voltaire. She declared that in politics a capable ruler must be guided by “circumstances, conjectures and conjunctions.” Her conduct was on the surface very unstable. In a moment of candour she confessed that she was a great commenceuse—that she had a mania for beginning innumerable enterprises which she never pursued. This, however, is chiefly true of her internal administration, and even there it should be qualified. Many of her beginnings were carried on by others and were not barren. Her foreign policy was as consistent as it could be considering the forces she had to contend against. It was steadily aimed to secure the greatness and the safety of Russia. There can be no question, that she loved her adopted country sincerely, and had an affection for her people, and an opinion of their great qualities which she did not hesitate to express in hyperbolical terms. Her zeal for the reputation of the Russians