On this Day:
In 1796, one of history’s most formidable women, Catherine the Great, died. She had been Empress of Russia for 34 years, the longest reign of any female Russian leader.
Catherine was responsible for the Westernisation and modernisation of Russia and during her reign extended its borders by appropriating over 200,000 square miles of territory, adding Crimea and much of Poland.
By the end of her reign, 29 provinces had been reorganised; more than 100 new towns had been built while old ones were expanded and renovated; trade had flourished; Russia had successfully flexed her military muscles; and Catherine’s court had become a magnet for the finest minds in Europe. Her admiring contemporaries dubbed her “the Great.”
It all seemed very unlikely when she was brought to Russia as a 15-year-old in 1744. At the time the country was ruled by a daughter of Peter the Great, Czarina Elizabeth, who had assumed the throne in a coup just three years earlier.
Unmarried and childless, Elizabeth had chosen her nephew Peter as her heir and she was now seeking a wife for him.
Fitting the bill was the daughter of a minor German prince – Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, who had been born in 1729 at Stettin, then part of Prussia (now Szczecin in Poland).
After being received into the Russian Orthodox Church, and changing her name to Ekaterina, or Catherine, Sophie married Grand Duke Peter in 1745. She was 16, he was 17. She disliked him from the start and their marriage was a disaster.
She was pretty, vivacious, ambitious and blessed with a prodigious intellect but he, according to Catherine’s journals, was “a drunk, a simpleton, and somebody who took pleasure in beating men and animals.”
Czarina Elizabeth died in 1762, and her nephew succeeded to the throne as Emperor Peter III, with Catherine as his consort.
In a move deeply resented by the military, Peter withdrew from the Seven Years’ War and formed an alliance with Russia’s enemy, Prussia. He then upset Russian nobility by introducing liberal reforms to improve the lives of the poor. He angered the Church and he was widely disliked because of the poor way he treated his wife.
So when Catherine was led to believe that Peter planned to divorce her, she had strong support for her response: she overthrew him and took the throne for herself. The coup d’état came just six months after Peter had been crowned Emperor.
Eight days after he was deposed Peter died while in custody, officially after a severe attack of colic and a stroke. He was just 34 and most historians believe that Catherine arranged for him to be murdered, though no proof ever emerged. True or not, with him out of the way Catherine became Empress of Russia and was formally crowned on September 22, 1762.
She was childless for the first eight years of her marriage but she gave birth to a son, Paul, in 1754. Though it is generally accepted that he was Peter’s son, the paternity of Catherine’s three later children is much more open to question with historians widely believing that none of them were fathered by Peter.
By the time her husband had become Emperor, Catherine was having an affair with a dashing artillery officer, Grigory Orlov, and she went on to have a series of lovers throughout her life. Her last paramour, Platon Zubov, was 22 when Catherine, aged 60, enjoyed his services.
Despite her achievements, Catherine ignored any concern she may at one time have felt for the plight of serfs. Swayed by her dependence on the nobility to control the country, she gave the nobles greater control over their land and serfs and guaranteed their privileges. It meant a significant decline in the already low status and rights of serfs.
Catherine suffered a stroke on November 5, 1796, and died aged 67 the following day at the Winter Palace, Saint Petersburg, where she had built a fabulous art collection still admired to this day.
Her son was to take the throne as Emperor Paul I. He always believed he should have done so after the death of his father. Paul had long resented his mother’s position which he thought was rightfully his and he was jealous of the favours that she showered upon her lovers whilst he was virtually ignored.
Immediately after her death Paul ordered that the remains of his father, the deposed Peter III, be exhumed and transferred to a place of honour at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.
Grigory Orlov, Catherine’s first lover, who had been involved in the former Emperor’s overthrow and possibly his death, was made to walk ahead of Peter’s coffin in the funeral cortege, holding the Imperial Crown. Orlov was 60 by this time.
Emperor Paul also ordered the bones of former military commander Grigory Potemkin, another of his mother’s lovers, to be dug up from his grave and scattered.
However, Paul’s crusade of revenge would not last long. His reign ended after four years when he was assassinated by conspirators. And Catherine then triumphed from beyond the grave when the throne was handed to Paul’s son, Alexander. All along he had been her preferred choice over Paul as her successor (per https://www.onthisday.com/articles/catherine-the-great-builds-a-new-russia)
First, a Story:
This week on Dancing With the Tsars…
Ivan was Terrible, Peter & Catherine were Great, and Boris was Godunov.
Second, a Song:
Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (born March 28, 1986), known professionally as Lady Gaga, is an American singer, songwriter, and actress. She is known for her image reinventions and musical versatility. Gaga began performing as a teenager, singing at open mic nights, and acting in school plays. She studied at Collaborative Arts Project 21, through New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, before dropping out to pursue a career in music. After Def Jam Recordings canceled her contract, she worked as a songwriter for Sony/ATV Music Publishing, where she signed a joint deal with Interscope Records and Akon’s label, KonLive Distribution, in 2007. Gaga rose to prominence the following year with her debut studio album, The Fame, and its chart-topping singles “Just Dance” and “Poker Face”. The album was later reissued to include the EP The Fame Monster (2009), which yielded the successful singles “Bad Romance”, “Telephone”, and “Alejandro”.
Gaga’s five succeeding studio albums all debuted atop the US Billboard 200. Her second full-length album, Born This Way (2011), explored electronic rock and techno-pop and sold more than one million copies in its first week. The title track became the fastest-selling song on the iTunes Store, with over one million downloads in less than a week. Following her EDM-influenced third album, Artpop (2013), and its lead single “Applause”, Gaga released the jazz album Cheek to Cheek (2014) with Tony Bennett, and the soft rock album Joanne (2016). She also ventured into acting, playing leading roles in the miniseries American Horror Story: Hotel (2015–2016), for which she received a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress, and the critically acclaimed musical drama film A Star Is Born (2018). Her contributions to the latter’s soundtrack, which spawned the chart-topping single “Shallow”, made her the first woman to win an Academy, Grammy, BAFTA, and Golden Globe Award in one year. Gaga returned to her dance-pop roots with her sixth studio album, Chromatica (2020), which yielded the number-one single “Rain on Me”. She followed this with her second collaborative album with Bennett, Love for Sale, and a starring role in the biographical crime film House of Gucci, both in 2021.
Having sold 124 million records as of 2014, Gaga is one of the world’s best-selling music artists and the fourth highest-earning female musician of the 2010s. Her accolades include 12 Grammy Awards, 18 MTV Video Music Awards, 16 Guinness World Records, awards from the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and recognition as Billboard’s Artist of the Year (2010) and Woman of the Year (2015). She has also been included in several Forbes’ power rankings and ranked fourth on VH1’s Greatest Women in Music (2012). Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010 and 2019 and placed her on their All-Time 100 Fashion Icons list. Her philanthropy and activism focus on mental health awareness and LGBT rights; in 2012, she founded the Born This Way Foundation, a non-profit organization aiming to empower youth, improve mental health, and prevent bullying. Gaga’s business ventures include Haus Laboratories, a vegan cosmetics brand that launched in 2019 (per Wikipedia).
Here is Lady Gaga’s tribute to Catherine the Great. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“I praise loudly. I blame softly.” – Catherine the Great
Further to the Story in the Guy Fawkes Smile (What happened to the boy that was accused of stealing the Guy Fawkes Day fireworks? He was let off…), Gerry Wahl of North Vancouver, BC, writes:
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky