The life of Catherine the Great (Catherine II), the eighteenth century Russian empress, reads like an opera libretto. Lots of violence and lust, at least one illegitimate child, and grasping for power. That was what politics was in the days of yore. Modern day sex scandals look kind of pathetic in comparison to the lives of the imperial court. Catherine acknowledges having hidden away a child fathered by one of her lovers and puts the paternity of her first son in question as well in her autobiography. Political rivalries were an issue unsurprisingly, but whereas now your political rival will scour the internet until they find a picture of you in college looking drunk and stupid with a really dated hair style or hunt around for a sex tape just in case you didn’t realize that sex + video camera = your career, no matter what it is, being DOA, in imperial Russia the preferred method of killing a rival’s career was to kill the rival and perhaps start a rumor that they died of something really embarrassing. After some of Catherine’s allies killed her husband, her supporters started a rumor that he died of a sever case of hemorrhoids, thus adding insult to forced expiration.
Theatrics aside, the reason I admire Catherine the Great is actually her skills as a politician. Far from being the heir apparent, she was born a German princess named Sophie whose marriage to the prospective tsar, Peter III, was arranged by her family. Once the plans were made she essentially crafted a Russian identity, changing her name, her, religion,and her language while developing a taste for all things Russian not only to ease her assimilation and enable her to make some friends in her new home, but because she knew that, without allies, as soon as she birthed a male heir, she could become expendable and expendable people didn’t live too long. Once she arrived at the Imperial Court, she started to learn the politics of the court. By the time things with her husband had broken down to the point that her life was in danger, she had made enough connections and maintained enough popularity that there was a bloodless coup which installed her into power. Eight days later, her husband was killed by a close friend of hers. It is not known whether or not she was aware of the murder plot, but she certainly gained safety and peace of mind from his death because he couldn’t attempt to seize power from beyond the grave. Her astute political sense and aptitude as a leader allowed her to do what few famous monarchs of the day got the chance to do – die of natural causes. She died of a stroke at the age of 67 after a reign of more than 34 years. She was smart, brutal, effective, ambitious. I wouldn’t have wanted to live in eighteenth century Russia, but as a historical figure, I’m impressed by her story and how she made herself into a world leader in a time when women were viewed by everyone as the “weaker sex”.