My Love Affair with Catherine the Great

by Kenneth Rayman on September 5, 2017
Лучше весь век учиться, нежели пребыть незнающим. – Catherine the Great (Let him learn all his life, rather than abide ignorance)

People ask me all the time, “why are you so fascinated by Catherine the Great?” To accurately explain I say “It might require a cup of coffee and a clear schedule to say why.” I also often have trouble also saying exactly “why.” In a word, you could say “passion.” She was passionate about her duty, about learning, for her citizenry, and was portrayed as a loving, warm, motherly figure, by and large.

People snicker at this explanation occasionally, and tell me their own rudimentary knowledge of her. They say, “Don’t you know…” and proceed to talk about her sexual appetite for men, her hot temper, and a rumored “truth” about her death by being crushed by a horse that she had suspended above her that she was having sex with. This “truth” has led me to “intellectually argue” to “defend my love’s honor” with a few people who were absolutely convinced and no matter how much research I’d done in my years of studying her was going to change their minds. This was also met with a look of disdain and disgust by my guide in St. Petersburg when we talked about my knowledge of her and I mentioned this sentiment in the US about her.

In actuality, she died of a stroke and was in her powder room at the time, literally as I say, “having had a stroke on the toilet,” and she fell against the door and with her full body weight on it, her attendants couldn’t get to her in time. This rumor began, in my opinion, because she had, in fact, created many enemies within the nobility and with her own son, that a death so innocuous as that was not a lurid enough tale considering everyone knew her interest in younger men, her list of “favorites,” and her character.

Catherine was presented to me a child as a warm loving figure. As a teen, I found out about her interest in multiple partners. As an adult I learned more about her life, interests, and accomplishments. I was astonished to find out that she wasn’t even Russian but German, born Sophie Frederick Augusta. She was brought to Russia by Elizabeth the First to be the bride of her heir to the throne. The marriage was arranged by Sophie’s mother because she was power hungry and wanted to improve her stature.

When she arrived in Russia, she nearly died from contracting pneumonia after reading her Russian lessons by moonlight in her cold bed chamber. This helped to endear her to the population, according to Robert Massie in his book “Portrait of a Woman”, by showing that she was making an effort to understand the Russians themselves unlike her German fiance, Peter, who mocked anything Russian. She become deeply pious in her conversion to Russian Orthdoxy and read widely to learn all she could about her new homeland and her passion in philosophy.

She handled Peter’s bullying behavior with grace and worked to better herself through study, relationship building (romantically and strategically), and learned how to court favor from the Empress and the nobility. She was also forward thinking, pushing for governmental reform to give the citizenry new rights, educational opportunities and health care services. Her most famous example was to allow herself and her son to be infected with a small dose of the smallpox virus and establish an Immunol vaccination. She challenged herself and those around her to work for the betterment of their subjects and didn’t conform to a life of luxury based on her status. She wrote different philosophers and debated with them. She established schools and hospitals in remote regions where availability was scarce as well.

I saw a lot of myself in her with a true passion for learning and wanting to help others. She was a figure that I could look up to and admire her actions. I would later find out about her rolling back efforts based on fear that the nobility would depose her like they did her husband, and the constant peasant threats from people claiming to be her dead husband that she viewed as a slap in the face for all she’d done for them.

She became larger than life to me and the embodiment of learning to love another culture like it was your own because she lived it. She taught me to learn everything I could on a subject that interested me and inspired my love of Russia itself, as such.

To love her is to know her and it feels beyond passion to be so interested in her. If I had the opportunity to meet anyone in history she would be atop the list.

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