PART ONE: A GERMAN PRINCESS
Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst was hardly distinguishable in the swarm of obscure, penurious noblemen who cluttered the landscape and society of politically fragmented eighteenth century Germany. Possessed neither of exceptional virtues nor alarming vices, Prince Christian exhibited the solid virtues of his Junker lineage: a stern sense of order, discipline, integrity, thrift, and piety, along with an unshakable lack of interest in gossip, intrigue, literature, and the wider world in general. Born in 1690, he had made a career as a professional soldier in the army of King Frederick William of Prussia. His military service in campaigns against Sweden, France, and Austria was meticulously conscientious, but his exploits on the battlefield were unremarkable, and nothing occurred either to accelerate or retard his career. When peace came, the king, who was once heard to refer to his loyal officer as 'that idiot, Zerbst,' gave him command of an infantry regiment garrisoning the port of Stettin, recently acquired from Sweden, on the Baltic coast of Pomerania. There, in 1727, Prince Christian, still a bachelor at thirty-seven, bowed to the pleas of his family and set himself to produce an heir. Wearing his best blue uniform and his shining ceremonial sword, he married fifteen-year-old Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, whom he scarcely knew. His family, which had arranged the match with hers, was giddy with delight; not only did the line of Anhalt-Zerbst seem assured, but Johanna's family stood a rung above them on the ladder of rank.
It was a poor match. There were the problems of difference in age; pairing an adolescent girl with a man in middle age usually stems from a confusion of motives and expectations. When Johanna, of a good family with little money, reached adolescence and her parents, without consulting her, arranged a match to a respectable man almost three times her age, Johanna could only consent. Even more unpromising, the characters and temperaments of the two were almost entirely opposite. Christian Augustus was simple, honest, ponderous, reclusive, and thrifty; Johanna Elizabeth was complicated, vivacious, pleasure- loving, and extravagant. She was considered beautiful, and with arched eyebrows, fair, curly hair, charm, and an exuberant eagerness to please, she attracted people easily. In company, she felt a need to captivate, but as she grew older, she tried too hard. In time, other flaws appeared. Too much gay talk revealed her as shallow; when she was thwarted, her charm soured to irritability and her quick temper suddenly exploded. Underlying this behavior, and Johanna had known this from the beginning, was the fact that her marriage had been a terrible - and was now an inescapable - mistake.
Confirmation first came when she saw the house in Stettin to which her new husband brought her. Johanna had spent her youth in unusually elegant surroundings. Because she was one of twelve children in a family that formed a minor branch of the ducal Holsteins, her father, the Lutheran bishop of Lübeck, had passed her along for upbringing to her godmother, the childless Duchess of Brunswick. Here, in the most sumptuously magnificent court in north Germany, she had become accustomed to a life of beautiful clothes, sophisticated company, balls, operas, concerts, fi reworks, hunting parties, and constant, tittering gossip.
Her new husband, Christian Augustus, a career officer existing on his meager army pay, could provide none of this. The best he could manage was a modest gray stone house on a cobbled street constantly swept by wind and rain. The walled fortress town of Stettin, overlooking a bleak northern sea and dominated by a rigid military atmosphere, was not a place where gaiety, graciousness, or any of the social refinements could flourish. Garrison wives led dull lives; the lives of the wives of the town were duller still. And here, a lively young woman, fresh from the luxury and distractions of the court of Brunswick, was asked to exist on a tiny income with a puritanical husband who was devoted to soldiering, addicted to rigid economy, equipped to give orders but not to converse, and eager to see his wife succeed in the enterprise for which he had married her: the bearing of an heir. In this endeavor, Johanna did her best-she was a dutiful if unhappy wife. But always, underneath, she yearned to be free: free of her boring husband, free of their relative penury, free of the narrow, provincial world of Stettin. Always, she was certain that she deserved something better. And then, eighteen months after her marriage, she had a baby.
Johanna, at sixteen, was unprepared for the realities of motherhood. She had dealt with her pregnancy by wrapping herself in dreams: that her children would grow into extensions of herself and that their lives eventually would supply the broad avenue on which she would travel to achieve her own ambitions. In these dreams, she took it for granted that the baby she was carrying-her firstborn-would be a son, an heir for his father, but more important a handsome and exceptional boy whose brilliant career she would guide and ultimately share. At 2:30 a.m. on April 21, 1729, in the chill, gray atmosphere of a Baltic dawn, Johanna's child was born. Alas, the little person was a daughter. Johanna and a more accepting Christian Augustus managed to give the baby a name, Sophia Augusta Fredericka, but from the beginning, Johanna could not find or express any maternal feeling. She did not nurse or caress her little daughter; she spent no time watching over her cradle or holding her; instead, abruptly, she handed the child over to servants and wet nurses.
One explanation may be that the process of childbirth nearly cost Johanna her life; for nineteen weeks after Sophia was born, the adolescent mother remained confined to her bed. A second is that Johanna was still very young and her own bright ambitions in life were far from fulfilled. But the stark, underlying reason was that her child was a girl, not a boy. Ironically, although she could not know it then, the birth of this daughter was the crowning achievement of Johanna's life. Had the baby been the son she so passionately desired, and had he lived to adulthood, he would have succeeded his father as Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst. Then the history of Russia would have been different and the small niche in history that Johanna Elizabeth earned for herself never would have existed.
Eighteen months after the birth of her first child, Johanna gave birth to the son upon whom she had set her heart. Her fondness for this second infant, Wilhelm Christian, became all the more intense when she realized that something about the child was seriously wrong. The boy, who appeared to suffer from rickets, became her obsession; she petted him, spoiled him, and scarcely let him out of her sight, lavishing on him all the affection she had denied her daughter. Sophia, already keenly aware that her own birth had been a disappointment to her mother, now observed the love with which Johanna surrounded her little brother. Gentle kisses, whispered endearments, tender caresses all were bestowed on the boy-while Sophia watched. It is, of course, common for the mother of a handicapped or chronically ill child to spend more time with that child, just as it is normal for other children in the family to resent this disproportionate attention. But Johanna's rejection of Sophia began before Wilhelm's birth, and then continued in aggravated form. The result of this maternal favoritism was a permanent wound. Most children, rejected or neglected in favor of a sibling, react more or less as Sophia did: to avoid more hurt, she sealed off her emotions; nothing was being given her and nothing was expected. Little Wilhelm, who simply accepted his mother's affection as normal, was quite innocent of any wrongdoing; even so, Sophia hated him. Forty years later, writing her Memoirs, her resentments still simmered:
It was told me that I was not very joyfully welcomed. . . . My father thought I was an angel; my mother did not pay much attention to me. A year and a half later, she [Johanna] gave birth to a son whom she idolized. I was merely tolerated and often I was scolded with a violence and anger I did not deserve. I felt this without being perfectly clear why in my mind.
Thereafter, Wilhelm Christian goes unmentioned in her Memoirs until his death in 1742 at the age of twelve. Then, her brief account is unemotionally clinical:
He lived to be only twelve and died of spotted [scarlet] fever. It was not until after his death that they learned the cause of an illness which had compelled him to walk always with crutches and for which remedies had been constantly given him in vain and the most famous physicians in Germany consulted. They advised that he be sent to baths at Baden and Karlsbad, but he came home each time as lame as before he went away and his leg became smaller in proportion as he grew taller. After his death, his body was dissected and it was found that his hip was dislocated and must have been so from infancy. . . . At his death, my mother was inconsolable and the presence of the entire family was necessary to help her bear her grief.
This bitterness only hints at Sophia's enormous resentment against her mother. The harm done to this small daughter by Johanna's open display of preference marked Sophia's character profoundly. Her rejection as a child helps to explain her constant search as a woman for what she had missed. Even as Empress Catherine, at the height of her autocratic power, she wished not only to be admired for her extraordinary mind and obeyed as an empress, but also to find the elemental creature warmth that her brother-but not she-had been given by her mother.
Even minor eighteenth-century princely families maintained the trappings of rank. Children of the nobility were provided with nurses, governesses, tutors, instructors in music, dancing, riding, and religion to drill them in the protocol, manners, and beliefs of European courts. Etiquette was foremost; the little students practiced bowing and curtseying hundreds of times until perfection was automatic. Language lessons were paramount. Young princes and princesses had to be able to speak and write in French, the language of the European intelligentsia; in aristocratic German families, the German language was regarded as vulgar.
The influence of her governess, Elizabeth (Babet) Cardel, was critical at this time in Sophia's life. Babet, a Huguenot Frenchwoman who found Protestant Germany safer and more congenial than Catholic France, was entrusted with overseeing Sophia's education. Babet quickly understood that her pupil's frequent belligerence arose out of loneliness and a craving for encouragement and warmth. Babet provided these things. She also began to give Sophia what became her permanent love of the French language, with all its possibilities for logic, subtlety, wit, and liveliness in writing and conversation. Lessons began with Les Fables de La Fontaine; then they moved on to Corneille, Racine, and Molière. Too much of her education, Sophia decided later, had been sheer memorization: 'Very early it was noticed that I had a good memory; therefore I was incessantly tormented with learning everything by heart. I still possess a German Bible in which all the verses I had to memorize are underlined with red ink.'
Babet's approach to teaching was gentle compared to that of Pastor Wagner, a pedantic army chaplain chosen by Sophia's fervently Lutheran father to instruct his daughter in religion, geography, and history. Wagner's rigid methodology-memorize and repeat-made little headway against a pupil whom Babet had already described as an esprit gauche and who asked embarrassing questions: Why were great men of antiquity such as Marcus Aurelius eternally damned because they had not known of Christ's salvation and therefore could not have been redeemed? Wagner replied that this was God's will. What was the nature of the universe before the Creation? Wagner replied that it had been in a state of chaos. Sophia asked for a description of this original chaos; Wagner had none. The word 'circumcision' used by Wagner naturally triggered the question: What does that mean? Wagner, appalled at the position in which he found himself, refused to answer. By elaborating on the horrors of the Last Judgment and the difficulty of being saved, Wagner so frightened his pupil that 'every night at dusk I would go and cry by the window.' The next day, however, she retaliated: How can the infinite goodness of God be reconciled with the terrors of the Last Judgment? Wagner, shouting that there were no rational answers to such questions, and that what he told her must be accepted on faith, threatened his pupil with his cane. Babet intervened. Later Sophia wrote, 'I am convinced in my inmost soul that Herr Wagner was a blockhead.' She added, 'All my life I have had this inclination to yield only to gentleness and reason-and to resist all pressure.'
Nothing, however, neither gentleness nor pressure, could assist her music teacher, Herr Roellig, in his task. 'He always brought with him a creature who roared bass,' she later wrote to her friend Friedrich Melchior Grimm. 'He had him sing in my room. I listened to him and said to myself, ‘he roars like a bull,' but Herr Roellig was beside himself with delight whenever this bass throat was in action.' She never overcame her inability to appreciate harmony. 'I long to hear and enjoy music,' Sophia- Catherine wrote in her Memoirs, 'but I try in vain. It is noise to my ears and that is all.'
Babet Cardel's approach to teaching children lived on in the empress Catherine, and, years later, she poured out her gratitude: 'She had a noble soul, a cultured mind, a heart of gold; she was patient, gentle, cheerful, just, consistent-in short the kind of governess one would wish every child to have.' To Voltaire, she wrote that she was 'the pupil of Mademoiselle Cardel.' And in 1776, when she was forty- seven, she wrote to Grimm:
One cannot always know what children are thinking. Children are hard to understand, especially when careful training has accustomed them to obedience and experience has made them cautious in conversation with their teachers. Will you not draw from that the fi ne maxim that one should not scold children too much but should make them trustful, so that they will not conceal their stupidities from us? The more independence Sophia displayed, the more she worried her mother.
The girl was arrogant and rebellious, Johanna decided; these qualities must be stamped out before her daughter could be offered in marriage. As marriage was a minor princess's only destiny, Johanna was determined 'to drive the devil of pride out of her.' She repeatedly told her daughter that she was ugly as well as impertinent. Sophia was forbidden to speak unless spoken to or to express opinions to adults; she was made to kneel and kiss the hem of the skirt of all visiting women of rank. Sophia obeyed. Bereft of affection and approval, she nevertheless maintained a respectful attitude toward her mother, remained silent, submitted to Johanna's commands, and smothered her own opinions. Later, concealment of pride in humility came to be recognized as a deliberate and useful tactic which Sophia-renamed Catherine-used when confronting crisis and danger. Threatened, she drew around herself a cloak of meekness, deference, and temporary submission. Here, too, an example was set by Babet Cardel: a woman of gentle birth who accepted her inferior position as a governess but still managed to preserve a self- respect, dignity, and pride that raised her, in Sophia's eyes, higher than her own mother. Outwardly, in these years, Sophia was a cheerful child. In part this sprang from the ebullient curiosity of her mind and in part from her sheer physical energy. She needed a great deal of exercise. Walks in the park with Babet Cardel were not enough, and her parents allowed her to play games with children of the town. Sophia easily took command of these little bands of boys and girls, not simply because she was a princess but because she was a natural leader and her imagination created the games that everyone liked to play.
Eventually, Christian Augustus was promoted from commander of the garrison to governor of the town of Stettin, an advance that entitled him to move his family into a wing of the granite castle on the town's main square. For Johanna, the move to the castle did not help. She was still unhappy, still unable to reconcile herself to the situation in which life had deposited her. She had married beneath her, and instead of the brilliant life she had dreamed of she was now no more than a provincial lady in a garrison town. Two more children had followed her first two-another son and another daughter-but they brought no added happiness.
In her longing to escape, her thoughts turned to the high connections she still possessed. By birth, Johanna belonged to one of the great families of Germany, the ducal house of Holstein-Gottorp, and she remained convinced that with her family rank, her cleverness, her charm and vivacity, she still might create a better place for herself in the world. She began spending time cultivating her relatives by writing frequent letters and by paying regular visits. She went often to Brunswick, the glittering court of her girlhood, where Rembrandts and Van Dycks hung on the walls. Then, every February at carnival time, she visited Berlin to pay her respects to the king of Prussia. She had a passion for intrigue, and, from the perspective of Stettin, even the gossipy intrigues of petty German courts, where she thought she would shine, attracted her. But somehow, wherever she went, Johanna was always aware that she was no more than a poor relation, a girl of good family who had made an unpromising marriage.
When Sophia was eight, Johanna began taking her along on these travels. Arranging a marriage was a duty Johanna meant to fulfill, and it could do no harm, even at an early stage, to let society know that an available little princess was growing up in Stettin. And, indeed, marriage was a major conversational topic as mother and daughter made these rounds. By the time Sophia was ten, talk of this or that potential husband was commonplace among her aunts and uncles. Sophia never objected to traveling with her mother; indeed, she enjoyed it. As she grew older, she was not only well aware of the purpose of their visits, she wholeheartedly approved. Not only did marriage offer the best avenue of escape from her mother and family, but Sophia had been introduced to another dreadful alternative. This was the condition of her spinster aunts, surplus daughters of the north German petty nobility, who had been put away in the farthest wings of family castles or permanently stabled in remote Protestant convents. Sophia remembered visiting one of these unfortunates, an older sister of her mother's, who owned sixteen pug dogs, all of whom slept, ate, and performed their natural functions in the same room as their mistress. 'A large number of parrots besides lived in the same room,' Sophia wrote. 'One can imagine the fragrance which reigned there.'
Despite her own wish to marry, Sophia's chances of an excellent match appeared only marginal. Each year produced a new crop of eligible adolescent European princesses, most of whom offered far more of substance to reigning royal and noble families than a union with the insignificant house of tiny Zerbst. Nor was Sophia a child with remark- able physical attractions. At ten, she had a plain face with a thin, pointed chin, which Babet Cardel had advised her to keep carefully tucked in. Sophia understood the problem of her appearance. Later, she wrote:
I do not know whether as a child I was really ugly, but I remember well that I was often told that I was and that I must therefore strive to show inward virtues and intelligence. Up to the age of fourteen or fifteen, I was firmly convinced of my ugliness and was therefore more concerned with acquiring inward accomplishments and was less mindful of my outward appearance. I have seen a portrait of myself painted when I was ten years old and that is certainly very ugly. If it really resembled me, they told me nothing false.
And so it was that, despite mediocre prospects and a plain appearance, Sophia trailed around north Germany after her mother. During these journeys, she added new subjects to her education. Listening to adults gossiping, she learned the genealogy of most of the royal families of Europe. One visit was of particular interest. In 1739, Johanna's brother, Adolphus Frederick, the Prince-Bishop of Lübeck, was appointed guardian of the newly orphaned young Duke of Holstein, eleven-year-old Charles Peter Ulrich. This was an extraordinarily well-connected boy, presumably destined for an exalted future. He was the only living grandson of Peter the Great of Russia, and he also stood first in line to become heir to the throne of Sweden. A year older than Sophia, he was also her second cousin on her mother's side. Once he became her brother's ward, Johanna lost no time in gathering up Sophia and paying the prince-bishop a visit. In her Memoirs, Sophia- Catherine described Peter Ulrich as 'agreeable and well- bred, although his liking for drink was already noticeable.' This description of the eleven- year- old orphan was far from complete. In reality, Peter Ulrich was small, delicate, and sickly, with protuberant eyes, no jaw, and thin, blond hair falling to his shoulders. Emotionally as well as physically, he was underdeveloped. He was shy and lonely, he lived surrounded by tutors and drillmasters, he had no contact with anyone his own age, he read nothing, and he was greedy at meals. But Johanna, like every other mother of an eligible daughter, watched every movement he made, and her heart soared when she saw her own ten- year- old Sophia talking to him. Afterward, Sophia saw her mother and her aunts whispering. Even at her age, she knew that they were discussing the possibility of a match between herself and this strange boy. She did not mind; already she had begun letting her own imagination wander:
I knew that one day he would become king of Sweden, and although I was still a child, the title of queen fell sweetly on my ears. From that time on, the people around me teased me about him and gradually I grew accustomed to thinking that I was destined to be his wife.
Meanwhile, Sophia's appearance was improving. At thirteen, she was slender, her hair was a silky, dark chestnut, she had a high forehead, brilliant dark blue eyes, and a curved rosebud mouth. Her pointed chin had become less prominent. Her other qualities had begun to attract attention; she was intelligent and had a ready wit. Not everyone thought her insignificant. A Swedish diplomat, Count Henning Gyllenborg, who met Sophia at her grandmother's house in Hamburg, was impressed by her intelligence and told Johanna in Sophia's presence, 'Madame, you do not know the child. I assure you she has more mind and character than you give her credit for. I beg you therefore to pay more attention to your daughter for she deserves it in every respect.' Johanna was unimpressed, but Sophia never forgot these words.
She was discovering the way to make people like her, and, once she had learned the skill, she practiced it brilliantly. It was not a matter of behaving seductively. Sophia-and, later, Catherine-was never a coquette; it was not sexual interest she wished to arouse but warm, sympathetic understanding of the kind Count Gyllenborg had given her. To produce these reactions in other people, she used means so conventional and modest that they appear almost sublime. She realized that people preferred to talk rather than to listen and to talk about themselves rather than anything else. In this respect, her mother, pathetically anxious to be considered important, had provided a telling example of how not to behave.
Other feelings were stirring within her. Sophia was awakening to sensuality. At thirteen and fourteen, she often went to her room at night, still restless with nervous energy. Attempting to find some release, she sat up in bed, placed a hard pillow between her legs, and, astride an imaginary horse, 'galloped until I was quite worn out.' When maids outside her room came in to investigate the noise, they found her lying quietly, pretending to be asleep. 'I was never caught in the act,' she said. There was a reason for her steely control in public. Sophia had a single, overriding desire: to escape her mother. She understood that her only avenue of escape would be marriage. To achieve that, she must marry-and marry not just any husband, but one who would raise her in rank as far as possible above Johanna.
She succumbed, however, to one episode of adolescent infatuation. At fourteen, she flirted briefly with a handsome young uncle, her mother's younger brother, George Lewis. Ten years older than Sophia and attracted by the fresh innocence of his blossoming niece, this pomaded lieutenant of cuirassiers began to pay court. Sophia describes the progress of this little romance, which ended with her uncle George suddenly asking her to marry him. She was dumbfounded. 'I knew nothing about love and never associated it with him.' Flattered, she hesitated; this man was her mother's brother. 'My parents will not wish it,' she said. George Lewis pointed out that their family relationship was not an obstacle; unions of this kind often occurred in the aristocratic families of Europe. Sophia was confused and allowed Uncle George to continue his suit. 'He was very good looking at the time, had beautiful eyes, and knew my disposition. I was accustomed to him. I began to feel attracted by him and did not avoid him.' In the end, she tentatively accepted her uncle's proposal, provided 'my father and mother give their consent. At that point, my uncle abandoned himself entirely to his passion which was extreme. He seized every opportunity of embracing me and was skilled at creating them, but apart from a few kisses, it was all very innocent.'
Was Sophia really prepared to set aside her ambition to become a queen in order to become her own mother's sister- in- law? For a moment, she teetered. Perhaps she might have given in, permitted George Lewis to have his way, and married him. But before anything final had happened, a letter arrived from St. Petersburg.
Excerpted from Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
by Robert K. Massie
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