The person we’re going to talk about today is not Victorian, but she did have a huge impact on many Victorian lives. Plus, the story’s just really cool. I learned about it on the recent BBC documentary series on the Romanovs (hosted by Lucy Worsley, who’s cute as a goddamn button).
You guys have probably heard of Catherine the Great (1729-1796), who was famous for having loads of lovers and maybe having sex with horses. The first one is true, the second one is a bunch of sexist poppycock (sexual females = delinquents, perverts, etc. etc.).
But what Catherine SHOULD be famous for is being an all-out baller. Considering she’s one of Russia’s greatest monarchs, it’s surprising to learn that she wasn’t Russian at all, let alone a Romanov. She was a German princess who married Tsar Peter III, and kept a white-knuckle grip on his throne after he was assassinated, despite the fact that they had a son (“No, hush, darling, you can rule when mummy’s dead, I don’t care if I’m not in the line of succession“). She came in as his “Regent”, but, to be honest, some historians consider her a straight-up usurper.
Oh, did I forget to mention that her husband was assassinated in HER attempt to seize the throne from him? Yeah. Her husband was a weird, harsh guy and people were generally having none of his shit. In her early 30s, Catherine took Count Grigory Orlov as a lover, and it got very serious between them. The two lovers agreed that Peter, when he inherited the throne from his mother, would not be up to the job.
Within six months of Peter’s ascension to the throne, Catherine was already knee-deep in plots to stage a coup. Even though she was already the Empress consort, she thought she could do better as the sole ruler of Russia. She wasn’t wrong.
So within 6 months of him becoming Tsar, Catherine managed to get a butt-load of people on board (because Peter had a real talent for annoying important figures), had her husband arrested, and forced him to formally abdicate before he was murdered in jail by one of her fellow conspirators.
She was, of course, not in line to inherit anything, so a few other potential heirs to Peter III’s throne showed up. She had them quickly dispatched. Sister was prepared.
With Peter and the other claimants dead, Catherine named her son (who probably was the rightful Tsar) her heir and rushed her own coronation. She commissioned this BITCHIN’ (and very vaginal) crown, which was made in a record two months–pretty remarkable, considering it had 5,000 diamonds and pearls that had to be set.
Now let’s not forget that Catherine, in addition to stealing the crown from her own husband and son, was also not even Russian. So how do you, a foreign female usurper, gain legitimacy among your own people? Through some very, very clever branding.
Now, to all of you out there who say that clothing, fashion, and material culture are trivial: y’all need to listen up. Catherine became (and maintained her position as) the most powerful woman of the world through the time-tested magic of fabulous dresses.
She dressed extremely carefully during her public appearances and in portraits, because she knew that clothing has the power to convey ideas and shape reputations. Specifically, she chose outfits that combined aspects of Russian military uniforms, like officer’s collars and buttons (to show her prowess as a military leader and connect her to her own army), but also were in a feminine cut (which showed that she was still conventionally female, desirable, and nonthreatening to the masculinity of her subjects). Just as significantly, she only used Russian silk for her gowns, but the styles of dress contained a few European elements (like panniers, for example). This was REALLY important at this time, because Russia was struggling to decide if it was European or not, and to get out from under its reputation as an uneducated backwater. So she tied together Russian industry with fashions from the European Enlightenment, blended masculine and feminine, power and domesticity, Russian identity and Russian aspirations.
I don’t have pictures of the gowns they show, but if you watch the episode, it’s around minute 14.
But just in case you think she’s a push-over or a silly lady who was more concerned with fabulous dresses than with ruling the country, keep in mind that this portrait of her was kept at her court (and in the documentary, it appears to be right over her throne):
Catherine did a lot of important stuff during her reign, but I’m only going to concentrate on one specific thing: her expansion of Russian territory. In 1768, Turkey declared war on Russia. In terms of soldiers and land battles, it was probably an even match.
However, the Ottomans had a metric fuck-ton of boats. Russia had one fleet, and it was in the Baltic Sea. And since the Ottomans were fighting in the Mediterranean and Black Sea areas, and trying to push upwards into Russia, Catherine kinda needed boats there YESTERDAY.
This shows where her boats were, and where she needed them to be. More than a thousand miles apart:
So the Ottomans were kind of laughing, going, “Wow, sucks to be you, huh?” Only they didn’t anticipate that Catherine would send half of that fleet on a year-long voyage around THE WHOLE OF EUROPE to surprise the Ottomans in the Mediterranean:
And they were very fucking surprised, indeed. The Russians managed to wipe out the Turkish fleet in the Battle of Chesma Bay, one of the most celebrated battles in Russian history. Just to give you an idea of the scope, the Ottomans lost 9,000 sailors. The Russians lost 30.
This was some exceptionally good PR for Catherine (at least in Russia). However, as she expanded territory and proved herself to be a more than capable military leader, it caused some concern in other nations. Over the years, her empire expansion was, as the documentary says, “extraordinary in its speed and its scale“. She took big chunks of Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine, and the Caucuses. Poland became a Russian dependent. She took hundreds of thousands of square miles, including vast territories down to the Crimea (which now gave her a foothold in the Black Sea, in case the Ottomans started another war).
This, of course, is very significant to my Victorian interests, as this conquest directly affects the Crimean War (1853-1856), when Russia lost the Crimea to an alliance of the Ottoman Empire, the UK, France, and Sardinia. However, at the time of its conquest by Catherine, the Crimea seemed to be firmly in hand.
The question was: where would her expansionist tendencies end? See the below British satirical cartoon from 1791:
In this picture, she has one foot in Russia, but is striding right over to Constantinople, passing over all the other crowned heads of Europe (who are looking up her skirt in the process).
George III of Britain (third from the right) says in the drawing, “What what what a prodigious expansion!”
Louis XVI of France (in the middle) says, “Never saw anything like it!”
The Sultan of Turkey (on the far right) says, “The whole Turkish army wouldn’t satisfy her!”
Because, of course, the way to declaw a powerful woman is to lambast her for her sexuality. She’s rapacious in the sheets and rapacious in her empire. *sigh*
Not that she wasn’t promiscuous. By all accounts, she was a lady who liked sex, and a lot of it, and with many different people. In fact, this blog post talks about her kinky-ass sex furniture and calls her “a horny goddess of filth”, which she really was. HOWEVER, sexuality isn’t really used as a weapon or as a detractor for men in the public eye in the same way.
Her reign was characterized by a great many successes and leaps forward for Russia, but her relationship with her only son, Paul, was a bit strained. He was obsessed with religious and military ritual and wasn’t very concerned with learning or education (which had been at the forefront of Catherine’s concerns and had informed many of her decisions). Paul took after his lame-ass father, who Catherine and much of the country had participated in dethroning. However, Paul’s son, Alexander, was much more like Catherine.
She was terrified that Paul would undo all of her work in Russia when she died. She died of a stroke at 67 and Paul (who was very bitter towards his mother) immediately changed the law so no woman could ever sit on the throne again. Much like his father, Paul quickly alienated everyone at court and made some poor decisions.
It became clear fairly early on that he was a loathed monarch and he grew paranoid. Thankfully, he only reigned for 5 years before he was deposed. He had built a formidable castle surrounded by cannons and a moat, but conspirators still managed to break in. Paul tried to hide behind a fire screen, but left his feet sticking out. He was spotted instantly. They tried to arrest him, but a struggle ensued and he got bashed over the head, only to die moments later.
The conspirators woke up Alexander and went, “YAY, YOU’RE THE KING!” He was horrified by what had happened to his father only a few rooms away, but the conspirators told him to get over it. And he did, and he went on to be the true heir of Catherine, being a great reformer and an even greater military power (rebuffing Napoleon’s attempts to invade Russia).
The moral of the story is: moxie skips a generation. It’s science.