The German Mistress
She was born Sophia Auguste Friederike von Anhalt-Zerbst, a princess of the Kingdom of Prussia, in 1729. Sophia's mother was related to many at European royal Courts and thus Sophia was exposed to and learned the royal customs. Educated by tutors in French, German and Russian she was seen by Empress Elizabeth of Russia, daughter of Peter I, as a political match for her nephew and heir, Peter, to strengthen ties between Prussia and Russia. Elizabeth herself had been engaged to Sophia's uncle but he died of smallpox before the marriage took place. Empress Elizabeth invited Sophia and her mother to the Russian Court. Having met the future tsar, Peter, when they were children, Sophia was not impressed by Peter who played with toy soldiers and drank alcohol at age 10.
She did her best to understand the Court and to win the favour of the Empress. When Sophia became severely ill she called for the Orthodox priest instead of the Lutheran pastor, a very diplomatic move, but which annoyed her mother. She polished her Russian and won the favour of the Empress Elizabeth. Sophia converted her religion against her parents' wishes and made a bold decision that one day, she would wear the Russian Imperial Crown. Princess Sophia was accepted in the Eastern Orthodoxy with the new name, Catherine. Next day, aged 16, she married the Peter she had detested as a child. The diplomatic liaison had been completed but importantly for Catherine, her husband was the heir of Empress Elizabeth of Russia.
On their wedding night, Peter stayed up late drinking with his servants and didn't show up in the bedroom until the next morning and then fell asleep. Catherine didn't produce her first child until nine years after the wedding. The young royals lived separate lives, he scarred by smallpox appeared now hideous to Catherine. Catherine was astute and soon realised Peter was childish, apparently playing with dolls and tin soldiers in their bedroom so that it was some time before the marriage was consummated. Then, perhaps it was not.
Catherine became immersed in reading and educating herself. Her marriage had been an emotional disaster and she was surrounded by a treacherous Court filled with handsome young men. Several now fell in love with her. She was tempted initially to flirt, for she was tall, slim and beautiful with dark hair, white complexion, blue eyes and a joyful personality. She realised Peter was out of his depth at Court and that he longed to return to Prussia. But she had to be faithful and bear a child.
Serge Saltykov, a nobleman, was probably her first lover. The largely innocent 23-year old Catherine had a passionate affair with this rakish Courtier while the Court seemed to approve - let there be an heir whosoever the father - as Peter had appeared to be inept in fathering a child after 8 years of marriage. After an initial miscarriage, Catherine bore a son, Paul. Although Saltykov was rumoured to be the father, Paul appeared to resemble Peter, for Peter had recovered his desires, and even acquired a mistress himself. But Saltykov was a ladies' man and soon tired of this clandestine affair to the distress of Catherine who returned to reading. The Empress Elizabeth banished Saltykov from Court and he died in exile. Meanwhile, there was chaos in domestic politics and looming wars in Europe; Catherine saw ineptitude at Court and became determined to strive for the throne as a means of survival.
In 1755 Catherine, at age 26, met a Polish nobleman, Stanislas Poniatowski, aged 23. Succumbing to his charms he became her first true love. He was cultured and secretary to the English envoy and was the father of her daughter, Anna, who died aged two. The Empress saw danger signs in a liaison with Poniatowski as the English were financing Prussia in the war against Russia. With Russia now allied with France and Austria going to war against Prussia, Poniatowski had to depart Russia.
Peter, who was Prussian after all, negotiated peace with Frederick the Great of Prussia but he denounced his wife, Catherine. Catherine was in great danger. Catherine showed great tact and convinced the Empress of her loyalty while the Empress Elizabeth became convinced that her nephew was not fit to rule. Meanwhile, with the war over, Poniatowski could now be rewarded with the crown of Poland and so was gone from Court.
Catherine was attracted to Grigory Orlov, a tall handsome lieutenant of the guards and became pregnant, giving birth to her second son. Orlov was not of noble birth, had several tall, strong brothers in the guard who became Catherine's allies as the Empress's health declined and succession was imminent. When the Empress died, the guards now including a young officer, Potemkin, ten years younger than Catherine, were ready to help Catherine seize the throne but Catherine did not want a coup.
There were complications at Court. Peter was Tsar. His successor was his 6-year-old son Paul, not his mother, Catherine. When Tsar Peter held a banquet to celebrate the peace with Prussia, Catherine did not stand or toast the imperial family, saying she was also a member of the family. Peter was furious, ordered Catherine to be killed or sent to a monastery. Next day Peter set out to claim back Holstein, his former Prussian dukedom. The guards did not want another war so soon. A complicated plot to depose Peter organised by the sister of Peter's mistress was underway. And there was another heir, Ivan VI, who had been imprisoned as a baby together with his parents near Lake Lagoda, when their cousin the Empress Elizabeth, had seized the throne. Secret orders demanded that if a rescue attempt was made for Ivan VI he was to be killed. There was advantage in the confusion, and the guards and a handsome horseman Potemkin escorted Catherine back to St Petersburg where she proclaimed herself, Empress. A famous painting shows Catherine in full military regalia, completed by the sword dragonne(knot), a feature she had missed in donning her attire, but was handed to her gallantly by the 22-year-old Potemkin, at the first parade. Peter was deposed, arrested and then later, murdered. Catherine appears to have taken advantage of the situation. Catherine supposedly wept, not for her husband but for her reputation. 'My glory is spoilt. Posterity will never forgive me.'
Potemkin arrived at Court and soon stood out - handsome, a fine horseman, (Catherine liked to ride) and above all, he could make the Empress laugh. They thrived on intellect and enjoyed each other's company and her bedroom. Potemkin was a military man and often absent from Court. Alexander Vassilchikov entered as her favourite, and then Orlov returned and presented Catherine with a 199-carat diamond that Catherine had mounted in the Imperial sceptre. He married his second cousin after the affair with Catherine cooled, but the young bride soon died of TB in Lausanne where they had travelled seeking treatment. Orlov returned to St Petersburg, became ill and died leaving his estate to his son by Catherine. However, when Potemkin learned of the affairs he fled in anguish to a monastery and turned to becoming a monk. Catherine heard of his despair, summoned him; he shaved, took off the cassock, donned his military uniform and arrived back at her bedroom. This time he had conditions for remaining in the bedroom - he was to be made adjutant -general.
Potemkin was an astute military general, acquiring great expanses of land including Crimea, for Russia, building the fleet, and port cities of Sevastopol and Odessa. He was a visionary with an innate instinct for the realities of power.
During his absences, he found suitable, replacement lovers for Catherine. They corresponded and remained strong allies and friends and he kept her letters that have revealed her love. They are said to have even secretly married in a church ceremony, though her son Paul, who succeeded Catherine, probably had the marriage certificate destroyed because he disliked his mother. In correspondence Catherine refers to Potemkin as, 'husband' and at the French Court, she was referred to as 'Madame Potemkin'.
Catherine hired a new secretary, handsome Ukrainian named Peter Zavadovsky and amorous moments became a trial for Zavadovsky when Potemkin would burst in at the most inopportune times. Zavadovsky became over-worked, his French for imperial correspondence was not good, so Catherine had no need to bestow any great favours on his departure. Meanwhile Potemkin still remained her closest adviser and although Potemkin could tolerate some 'free' time, Catherine had needs of love as well as counsel.
A protocol was developed whenever a new prospect appeared. Foreign Court despatches have recorded how this process occurred. The new favourite was vetted by a confidante of Catherine and then announced, which meant a private audience devoted to conversation by which Catherine could judge him on general intellect. If he passed he was ushered into the Imperial apartments but probation continued for several days during which time he was only permitted to communicate with selected staff, and retained at the palace. Once formalities had been dealt with and he was accepted, he began to appear at Court and in public with the Empress, standing behind the Empress.
Following Zavadovsky the next brief encounter was with Rimsky-Korsakov, the Court composer, whom Potemkin acquired for her. She likened him to a Greek statue, and he taught her to sing. Other women including Catherine's best friend soon distracted Rimsky-Korsakov and he began an affair with the married Countess Ekaterina Stroganoff. The family had made a fortune from salt mines, governed most of Siberia and were extremely wealthy. The Countess left her husband and abandoned her child, causing a scandal at Court that Catherine did not tolerate. Both were soon banished from Court to live in the Countess's various estates. This time the humiliated Catherine became despondent and state business lapsed for a while. I happen to have seen a gown of a Countess Stroganoff at an exhibition and remembered the occasion for the culinary name. My photograph shows an elegant apricot embroidered silk gown decorated with appliques of peonies and other flowers. Her son devised the dish, beef stroganoff, for the family was know for dinner parties. Apparently the addition of French mustard to Russian sour cream gave the stew the distinctive flavour.
French was spoken at the Russian Court and Count Alexander Dmitriev-Mamonov, a high -ranking nobleman who spoke excellent French, was introduced to Catherine by Potemkin. Mamonov even staged one of Catherine's plays but once the French conversation wore off its novelty, both Alexander and Catherine became bored. Alexander fell in love with one of the ladies in waiting, the Countess Sherbatoff. Catherine must have been jealous and posed a test. With one of her richest subjects, the Countess Bruce present, she ordered that Mamonov marry the Countess Bruce. Mamonov pleaded her forgiveness, that he already loved another and so with only this humiliation, he was despatched to marry his Countess Sherbatoff.
The 21-year old Alexander Lanskoy was an aide-de-camp to Potemkin and met the 50-year old Empress and fell genuinely in love with her, not seeking favours. The relationship was stable and happy. He was interested in literature, painting and architecture. He was her companion and helped design the gardens at Tsarkoe Selo. Sadly, he died 4 years later of diphtheria and Catherine was broken-hearted.
Next came Ivan Shuvalov, 29 years younger than the Empress. Again he was in love with her, declined the title of count, and made use of his relationship to become Minister of Education, founding Moscow University and an Academy of Noble Arts. He remained true to her and never married.
Platon Zubov was 22 years old and very handsome. He had a brother who was even more handsome and Catherine, then 60, said she could fall for the brother; 'but since I have already fallen in love, I'll go with the first.'
In 1791, when Catherine was 62, Potemkin died far away on the Steppes of Russia. She wrote: '... my pupil, my friend, almost my idol, Prince Potemkin of Taurida, has died in Moldavia after about a month's illness. You cannot imagine how broken I am ...'. The golden age of her reign died with him.
Zubov was promoted to count, then prince, acquiring great wealth and power during her last 7 years' reign. It was said, 'he was minister of all parts of the administration', for Catherine appointed him to Potemkin's old post as governor-general of the New Russia and head of the Black Sea Fleet. But savage rumours about Potemkin's outlandish character emerged to obscure his achievements. Russia's national enemies, jealous Courtiers and Catherine's unstable son and successor, Paul I, sought to avenge himself of his mother's lover. Potemkin's achievements lay obscured for 200 years even during the Romanov's dynasty.
After Catherine died, her son became Tsar Paul I. He was assassinated five years later. One of the murderers was Catherine's last lover, Zubov.
Catherine, the German who did become Empress of Russia and also mistress of many, ruled Russia in precarious times. Above all, Potemkin stands out as Catherine's confidant, perhaps husband but effectively, her true co-ruler, their love and respect for each other enduring for three decades. With Potemkin, the soldier, they acquired large amounts of territory for Russia which stretched from Siberia to Poland to Crimea. In the 20thcentury most of these territories have been lost though Russia’s leader continues to dream of returning the dominions back to Mother Russia.
Recently a giant freshwater pearl, known as ‘The Sleeping Lion’ was auctioned. The provenance stated it once belonged to the Russian Empress. Catherine recognised that grand jewellery formed part of the Russian court tradition and spoke of power. She transformed her bedchamber into the Brilliant Room described by a German visitor as a ‘priceless jewel case. Her regalia is laid out on a table under a giant crystal globe through which everything can be examined in detail … The walls of the room are lined with glass cabinets containing numerous pieces of jewellery set with diamonds and other precious stones as well as insignia and portraits of Her Majesty, snuff boxes, watches and chains, drawing instruments, signet rings, sword belts and other priceless treasure among which the Empress chooses presents for giving away.’
The mineral wealth of her territories allowed her to commission jewellers to produce and acquire an unlimited collection of precious things. Soon her jewels were transferred to a new larger room that hung with paintings by van Dyck and a peacock clock as the centrepiece. And she wore her jewels. In her hair there would be pins, or a tiara; ‘the five huge diamonds blazing out from your hair are far more effective than a man’s hat which is either ridiculously small or ridiculously big,’ described an admirer. Her diamond jewellery proclaimed her power and her rank as Empress and appealed to the Russian taste for sumptuous possessions.
In 1934 a lavish film, 'The Scarlet Empress' was produced by Paramount Pictures in which Marlene Dietrich starred as Catherine. The title referred to the beautiful embroidered orange red velvet dolman or tunic worn by the Empress.
Catherine continued to fascinate politicians into the 20th century. Stalin said, 'her genius lay in her choice of Prince Potemkin to govern the State'.
And the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has on her desk a silver framed portrait of Sophia Auguste Friederike von Anhalt-Zerbst, a minor German princess who unexpectedly rose to become the most powerful woman in the world of the 18th century and who pursued policies in the spirit of enlightenment. It is a reminder to her of what a woman who met a different culture head on and with endurance, among a culture of men, can achieve.