Is there a bookish young girl out there who hasn’t gone through a phase of ripping through stories of female monarchs, royal mistresses, or executed would-be queens? While my friends found their inspiration in Queen Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots, Anne Boleyn or other major players of the British Tudor dynasty, I was always obsessed with Empress Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia from 1762 until her death at 1796.
I first grew interested in her sometime during high school, poring over any mention of her in history books, and watching good and terrible movies about her (Julia Ormond? Catherine Zeta-Jones?), but I didn’t pick up her Memoirs until about ten years ago. Her wry, no-nonsense voice instantly spoke to me, like an old friend reaching across time. Her prose strained for biographical objectivity, but her tart observations rose to the surface nonetheless. Writing about Peter III before their marriage: “I saw clearly that [my betrothed] would have left me without regret; as for me, seeing his feelings, I was more or less indifferent to him, but not to the crown of Russia.” I couldn’t help but admire how she moved past rejection by situating herself at the historic forefront. Even as recently as 10 years ago, it felt like this was something women didn’t get to do.
Besides, Catherine and I had a lot in common. I was an immigrant to the United States from Russia. She was an immigrant to Russia from Prussia. We both had to assimilate to our new cultures by learning a new language and immersing ourselves into our homelands. She changed her name from Sophie to Catherine, got baptized and gave up Lutheranism for Russian Orthodoxy. I changed the letters of my name from Cyrillic, became more Jewish by attending yeshiva and discovering bagels. I moved to Queens, and she would... become a queen?
Our similarities did have a limit. She was a princess from birth who was aware, as soon as she stepped foot in the Russian court, that her primary task would be to produce a male heir to the throne. When she first encountered her husband-to-be, she must have realized that producing any heirs with the guy would prove to be a challenge. According to Catherine, the future Peter III was an alcoholic since age ten, childish, naive and petulant, obsessed with elaborate pretend battles and scatology, had “a delicate and sickly appearance,” and “ a contradictory spirit.” No one was sure if he was physically capable of sexual intercourse and whether he and Catherine ever consummated their marriage is up for debate. He was certainly not anyone’s first choice for ruling a vast empire. What was Catherine to do in face of an incompetent king who was contemplating locking her up in a tower or having her exiled or killed while installing one of her ladies-in-waiting in her place? She had absolutely no dynastic right to the Russian throne. She was a foreigner. So she met the challenge head-on, exercising a coup to seize the throne for herself to become “Empress of All the Russias.” Afterward, she got rid of her ineffectual husband, by which I mean directly or indirectly got him murdered.
But that was royal divorce for you back then, so you couldn’t blame her. And she did a pretty decent job of ruling, reforming and Westernizing Russia for over thirty years during a time of bloody executions, uprisings and coups. Now that is an eighteenth-century immigrant success story!
When I sat down to write my second novel, The Imperial Wife, I knew that Catherine had to play some kind of role in it. Once again, I immersed myself in her Memoirs. But on this reading, I was drawn to the how of her Greatness. What I discovered was that many of the secrets to her success overlap with documented practices of today’s successful CEO.
So, call this the “Seven Habits of One Highly Effective Monarch.”
Catherine’s first meeting with her fiancé, the future Peter III, was far from promising. He was physically unattractive, immature, needy, and lacked any political tact. He too had been yanked from a comfortable life in Prussia to serve as heir to the Russian throne but kept blubbering about missing home, hating Russia and being in love with one of the Empress Elizabeth’s maids of honor. Instead of being discouraged, Catherine understood that playing the long game meant keeping her true feelings to herself. She recalled her role in their first conversations: “I listened with a blush to these family confidences, thanking him for his ready trust, but deep in my heart I was astonished by his imprudence and lack of judgment in many matters.”
When she first arrived as a possible consort to the future king, the court was still unsure if they made the right choice in this unglamorous, plain-looking, small-time Prussian princess. 10 days after her arrival, she came down with a life-threatening illness and a Lutheran priest was offered to her for last rites. But even as she was being bled as much as 16 times a day, savvy Catherine understood that it would be advantageous to reject the priest of her home country’s religion and ask for the attendance of the Russian Orthodox tutor instead. The Empress was so impressed with this tact and eagerness to embrace all things Russian, she greeted Catherine’s recovery as if it were her very own daughter’s.
Even though the Empress discouraged the young Grand Duchess Catherine from reading unnecessarily difficult books (she herself relied on advisors to summarize the relevant ones), Catherine spent a lot of her free time self-educating through classics and contemporary literature. She painstakingly learned Russian and how to play the harpsichord. Once married, she read novels for a year before embarking on books like Madame de Sévigné’s letters, the ten-volume History of Germany, Plato’s books, Plutarch, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau.
Never particularly modest, Catherine the Great loved jotting down aspects of her personality. She felt her strengths were good judgment, a cheerful disposition, politeness, fairness, and brilliant precocity. Rereading her own teenage musings she had titled “Portrait of the Philosopher at Age Fifteen,” the older Catherine was, “astonished by the depth of self-knowledge it contained… nor in thirteen years had I made any discovery about myself that I had not already known at age fifteen.” These qualities would serve her well in her reign. Politically, her tact won over enemies and created unlikely alliances, her attention to detail meant she had a firm grip on delegated tasks and the ever-shifting changes sweeping the land, and her passion for art would lead to the founding of the Hermitage Museum. Throughout her long rule, she continued to write every day, manifestos and codes, as well as letters to French philosophers like Voltaire and Diderot.
On the eve of her marriage to the repugnant Peter III, Catherine wrote, “My heart did not foresee great happiness, ambition alone sustained me. At the bottom of my soul, I had something, I know not what, that never for a single moment let me doubt that sooner or later I would succeed in becoming the sovereign Empress of Russia in my own right.” This single-minded goal-setting comes up often in her Memoirs. “When I have promised myself something I cannot recall ever having failed to do it,” Catherine writes.
Catherine was extremely adept at engaging the help of powerful allies to see through her own aims. When Peter proved incapable of providing her with an heir, she not only found lovers to complete the task, she figured out a way to have them sanctioned by the Empress. Catherine maneuvered herself to such a powerful position at court that the desperate Empress was forced to legitimize any heirs, even if they were clearly no offspring of Peter’s.
Like many successful CEOs interviewed today about the secrets of their productivity, Catherine the Great had a strict daily routine. She got up at 6 am and read and wrote alone until 8 am or until her first appointment (which was usually someone reading the news to her). She held her meetings in the morning and dressed afterward. She sometimes ate while she worked, went to the theater or played cards until dinner, and went to bed early. Unlike her predecessor, she tended not to host late balls or enjoy amusements that kept her up past eleven. “I… do the same thing tomorrow, and this is as fixed as the lines on a sheet of music,” she once wrote to a famous hostess of Enlightenment salons.
And one last thing about Catherine the Great: She certainly did not die while having sex with a horse. That this myth would linger centuries after her death has much to do with our enduring distrust of female power and sexuality. But even Catherine attributed her own success to inhabiting “male” qualities. The epigraph for my novel comes from Catherine herself, who once announced, “If I may dare to use such terms, I take the liberty to assert on my own behalf that I was an honest and loyal knight, whose mind was infinitely more male than female.”
So who knows? The horse rumor might have amused her. If she were alive today, she might have even retweeted it.
THE IMPERIAL WIFE moves between the rarified art world in contemporary New York to the glittering eighteenth-century Russian court to examine the ambitious lives of two unforgettable women: a contemporary Russian Art expert at a top auction house and the future Russian Empress Catherine the Great. When the woman is the more powerful spouse, can a marriage— whether today or three hundred years ago— survive an “Imperial Wife”?