Thursday, 2 August 2012

Great Catherine


Her name was Sophia Frederica Augusta.  She was a minor eighteenth century German princess of the minor eighteenth century duchy of Anhalt-Zerbst.  In the normal course of things she would have married a minor German prince, lived a minor German life and passed into history, minor and unnoticed.  But destiny had another path and another name for Sophia.  She became Ekaterina.  She became Catherine, Empress of all the Russias, known as ‘the Great’ even in her own lifetime.   

Catherine is one of those figures in history who has an enduring fascination for me.  I’m in Edinburgh at the present.  I came here specifically to visit the recently opened Catherine the Great – An Enlightened Empress exhibition in the National Museum of Scotland.  Marking the 250th anniversary of the coup d’état which placed her on the throne of Russia, it tells Catherine’s story through a collection of letters, diaries, jewellery, paintings, sculptures and dresses. 

Most of the items come from the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, including a recently restored giant coronation portrait, on show for the first time since the Revolution of 1917 which destroyed the Romanov dynasty.  The whole thing is a marvel, from the paintings, the porcelain, the grand dinner services and the intimate cameos.  It’s a story of Russia in peace and in war, a story of a Russia made even greater by a cultured, humane and civilized princess who took her adopted home to her heart. 



Catherine came to Russia to marry the Grand Duke Peter, the nephew of the reigning Empress Elizabeth.  If things had gone well she may have lived largely in her husband’s shadows and the shadows of history, like most other imperial consorts.  But they did not go well.  Peter and his new Grand Duchess developed a mutual loathing for one another, each taking a variety of lovers. 

Catherine was later to claim that her son Paul I, who succeeded her in 1796, was not the child of Peter but of Sergei Saltykov, one of her many paramours.  It’s almost certainly untrue.  Paul in character and attitude bore a striking resemblance to Peter, and was to fall from power for much the same reasons.  The two portraits on display in Edinburgh also show a remarkable physical similarity between father and son.

In the course of researching Catherine I came across an old movie called The Scarlett Empress, a 1934 historical drama directed by Josef von Sternberg, with Marlene Dietrich in the title role.  She’s really very good in the part, managing to catch the child-like simplicity of the young princess at one point and the scheming femme fatale at the next.  The movie has a marvellous Gothic cum expressionist quality.  The gargoyle thrones and the skeleton table decoration are really quite something.  The history, though, is as grotesque as the gargoyles, with Peter played as an inanely grinning imbecile by Sam Jaffe.



Peter III was, in truth, a competent and reforming emperor, but he managed to alienate just about everyone of significance in Russia, not just his wife.  With the support of the army and the leading Orthodox clergy, Catherine overthrew her husband in the coup of June 1762, after he had only been on the throne for a few months.  She went on to rule in her own right as Catherine II, while Peter was murdered. 

A black beginning did not presage a black reign; just the contrary.  Catherine was to prove herself the most cultured and civilized ruler ever to sit on the throne of Russia, the friend and correspondent of such luminaries of the Enlightenment as Denis Diderot and Voltaire.  I knew about this.  What I did not know is that she also had reason to be grateful to Charles James Fox, that old Whig bore.  His bust is one of the items on display! 

In the course of her reign, until the onset of the French Revolution introduced a note of caution, Catherine was instrumental in the pursuit of social and economic reform.  She was a great patron of the arts and sciences, encouraging all sorts of new enterprises.   In 1763 she founded Russia’s first College of MedicineRussia’s army and navy were hugely expanded, bringing success in war, particularly in successive conflicts with the Ottoman Turks.  Power, majesty and art; it was all a reflection of her glory. 



I loved it all; I spent over two hours in close examination of all sorts of marvellous things, walking in the footsteps of a remarkable woman, Matruschka, a petty German who became a great Russian.  I thought of her and her lovers, particularly of Prince Grigory Potemkin, the great passion of her life, shown here in portrait and sculpture.  


I loved Catherine’s formal paintings, pure expressions of power and majesty. But it was another kind of depiction altogether that wholly beguiled me.  Painted by Vladimir Borovikovsky, it shows Catherine, informally dressed, walking with her dog in the parkland of Tsarskoye Selo, a country gentlewoman, unremarkably remarkable.   The other remarkable painting is that entitled Catherine II in Travelling Costume by Mikhail Shibanov, formally accepted by the Empress though it is unflattering portrait, showing her as an old woman. 



Quite apart from being Russia’s most successful ruler, Catherine was an avid collector of all sorts of objets d’art.  The Edinburgh showcase was but a small cross-section of her collection, antiques and sculpture as well as painting.  And all that sumptuous table ware, porcelain, ceramics, jewels, gold and silver! 

It was such a pleasure also to see some of the court costumes and regimental dresses that the Empress herself wore.  When I was in Moscow I saw the boots that Peter the Great made for himself on display in the Kremlin Armoury Museum.  He was a giant of a man, reflected in his footwear.  Catherine was of more modest stature, reflected in her own costumes.  But as I stood and watched, knowing that she had been there, I still felt myself in the presence of one of history’s giants.  If Russians knew how to read, she once said, they would write me off.  Russians know how to read; they will never write Catherine off.  Such a thing is impossible.  


12 comments:

  1. Sounds like a great exhibition. I used to live just across the way in Glasgow - hope you enjoy Edinburgh!

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    1. Joe, I did. I was up in the north over the weekend, walking part of the West Highland Way, as you are about to discover!

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  2. There seems to be quite a Russian tradition of unexpected packages from the West, marked "Made in Germany" or "Made in France" . . . this one worked out better than most - except for Peter III, of course.

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  3. What can I say, she was a German!...I'm off on a holiday to the Pacific North West, I will follow when I can or when I return; Later!

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    1. Anthony, my friend, have a great time. :-)

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  4. For a stranger in that slavic society, she did well to survive in that environment of that time. Scary how she even became "Great"!

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    1. James, the thing about great people, wherever they emerge, is that they are able to adapt to any contingency and, in the process, absorb and overcome all difficulty.

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  5. Dietrich is absolutely brilliant in The Scarlet Empress

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  6. I visited the Catherine the Great exhibition in Memphis in 1991, and I remember being somewhat underwhelmed by the royal coach which was the centerpiece of the exibition. It was tiny! Was it on show in Edinburgh?
    :-)

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    1. Hey, CI; it's lovely to see you again. :-) No, but there was a fantastic sledge!

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