Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, died on 6th November 1796 at the age of 67, having reigned as the absolute monarch of Russia for 34 years.
Catherine did not have a single drop of Russian blood in her, having been born a German princess in 1729, but she married, at the age of 14, her second cousin Peter. Peter was also German by ancestry but had been declared heir presumptive of Russia by his maternal aunt, Empress Elizabeth I.
Thus, when Peter became Tsar Peter III in 1762, Catherine became Empress Consort. However, she had come to thoroughly dislike Peter as a husband and was living apart from him at the time of his accession. She joined a plot to overthrow him, which succeeded sixth months later. Peter was murdered during the coup, but whether Catherine had ordered this is a matter for debate. At all events, Alexei Orlov, the man who committed the crime either directly or otherwise, became a court favourite of Catherine’s and was heaped with honours.
Technically, Catherine ruled as regent for her young son Paul, who was eight years old at the time and was almost certainly not fathered by Peter III. However, he had to wait until his mother’s death before he became Tsar in his own right. In the meantime, Catherine was most definitely in charge.
Catherine was certainly one of the strongest monarchs that Russia has had in modern times. She expanded the borders of Russia to the south and west, thus ensuring Russia’s highly influential place in European power politics. During her reign some 200,000 square miles were added to the Russian Empire.
She saw herself as a liberal in internal affairs, but that is a strange definition of “liberal”. She increased the power of nobles and landowners at the expense of the serfs, who were little more than slaves who worked the land but had no rights to it.
She did not re-marry, but instead took on a succession of lovers. It was said that the young men who attended to her needs had been “market tested” by the ladies of her court in advance, but the promotion to the royal bedchamber cannot have been one to fill the candidates’, hearts with joy, given that she continued to require a succession of young men as she grew older and fatter. Her final lover, aged 22, was taken on when she was 60.
Catherine’s death was not particularly pleasant for those around her, if such things ever are. She suffered a stroke on 5th November while sitting on the toilet and it took six strong men to carry her unconscious body to her bedroom. Even they could not lift her on to her bed, so she had to lie on a mattress on the floor, where she expired late the following day.
Her son Paul insisted that Catherine be accompanied by her late husband at her funeral. Two bodies therefore lay side by side in their coffins during the ceremony at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul – the dried-up remains of long-dead Tsar Peter and the massive corpse of Catherine the Great. It must have been a bizarre and somewhat nauseating event.
© John Welford