Enlightened Sovereign, Catherine II is one of the most famous tsarines in the history of Imperial Russia. It is through a work straddling the novel and the historical biography that Paul Mourousy depicts the childhood and reign of this extraordinary monarch.
Sophie Frédérique Augusta of Anhalt Zerbst was born on April 27, 1729 in Settin, in Pomerania (according to her memories). She is the daughter of Prince Christian Auguste of Zerbst-Dornburg and Princess Jeanne-Elisabeth of Holstein. She received very early a Protestant education, austere, rigid and received little affection from her mother. It is Babette Cardel, a French Huguenot, who is in charge of her education and receives the affection of little Sophie. She also taught him the French language and introduced him to the literature of his time. With a mischievous character and a bit of a tomboy, his mother introduced him to the highest courts in Germany where she stood out for her charisma.
Empress Elisabeth Petrovna wanted to make Sophie the wife of the future Peter III, her nephew, and she invited Sophie and her mother to Russia in January 1744. The Empress knew that Peter III had low prestige and wanted to avoid diplomatic complications. or extravagant claims and sees no danger in the person of Sophie who, from the top of her 14 years, yet understands very well what is at stake. At first hesitant, she accepts the marriage and takes a passion for the people and the Russian language that she takes care to learn during her journey which takes her in a large procession to Moscow where she meets the empress and his nephew. The ascent to the status of Grand Duchess went smoothly, she was also in the good graces of the Empress and during her conversion to the Orthodox religion on June 28, 1744, she spoke in Russian to the people who l 'soon adopts and officially takes the name of Catherine Alexeïvena. The next day, the engagement with Pierre is celebrated. However, the future emperor contracted pleurisy and an attack of smallpox. Disfigured by his illness, he is also seized with violent moments of madness during which he expresses to his fiancée all the disgust he has for her.
The marriage was nevertheless celebrated on August 21, 1745, Catherine spent her wedding night alone.
Ascension to the throne
Catherine and Pierre have been married for several years and still have no children in sight. The marriage was not consummated and the Empress Elisabeth was desperate to have a little nephew who would consolidate her succession in the long term. Pierre's setbacks also put the monarchy in great danger and he was recognized as incapable of fulfilling his role. It is therefore recommended that Catherine turn to other men in order to conceive a child as quickly as possible. She falls madly in love with Serge Saltykoff, Pierre also returns at this point in her life and a child is conceived. It will be considered as that of Peter even if today still doubts about the paternity of the child. On September 20, 1754, after nine years of marriage, Catherine gave birth to a son, Paul, who was immediately "stolen" from her by the Empress. Catherine no longer gets along with the Empress, who does everything to make her life as hard as possible. Other children and other lovers will come next, but it is also the time for conspiracies. Empress Elisabeth finally died in January 1762. Pierre III was overjoyed to succeed him, he was only waiting to be able to repudiate his wife and marry the young lady Woronstoff. It also makes Prussia, the former enemy of Russia, its greatest ally, which not everyone likes.
On June 28, 1762, a revolution commanded by Catherine dethroned Pierre III. It is carried out without incident as this tsar is hated by his army and the Russian people. Catherine uses her lover Grigory Orlov to raise the Imperial Guard. The emperor is thrown in prison (probably to exile him later) and assassinated, probably strangled by Alexeï Orlov. Whether premeditated or not, Catherine had the chancelleries of foreign countries published that the emperor had succumbed to hemorrhoidal colic. She then reigned under the name of Catherine II in an exclusive manner.
The reign and the fall
Enlightened sovereign, Catherine II allowed the development of the arts, the Enlightenment and town planning in Russia. Knowing the great philosophers of the Enlightenment, she regularly invites them to her court. She also had the Hermitage converted into a museum, created a Russian Academy and had different love experiences, including that with Potemkin (whose figure is presented at greater length in another work by Paul Mourousy). She marries her son Paul, who has not forgiven her for the assassination of his father, Natalie de Hesse-Darmsadt with whom he falls madly in love but who will cheat on him and finally die in childbirth in April 1776. Paul falls into great despair and Catherine remarried him to Sophie of Wurtemberg and the Empress stole their first son, born in 1777, Alexander, whom she cherished as if he were her own son. Several children of the couple will come next and will also be "given" to Catherine II.
On November 16, 1796 Catherine collapsed in her wardrobe in the grip of a stroke. She died for several days and died at the age of 67 after having reigned over Russia for more than thirty years.
The Tsarina had planned to disinherit her son Paul for the benefit of her grandson Alexander but Paul got hold of his will and burned it. Having become tsar, he decided to open his father's tomb and crown his skeleton before burying his parents side by side in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.
It is important to underline the strong links of the Mourousy family with the history of Russia which does not make this book totally impassive and certain “embellished” or hypothetical passages are always for the benefit of the Empress. It is also important to note that the work is also mainly based on the Memoirs of Catherine II, without criticism and again leaving no room for impassiveness when we know that the love story of the great Catherine was quite controversial and sometimes embellished but the interest of the work also lies in the fact that we have the point of view of the main interested party.
Despite everything, Paul Mourousy's book reads with great pleasure. The romantic aspect helps us to enter more easily into the intimacy of this great empress. The writing is beautiful, the sources remain interesting and it is a work that will delight those curious about the great Catherine.
Catherine II Empress of All Russia, by Paul Mourousy. Editions France Empire, 2015.