Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Semiramis of the North

Feb 08, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller



     Individuals trapped in an unhappy reality, in a bid at reinvention, long for a tabula rasa, “a clean slate.” While many attempt escape from a life where there seems to be no exit, few fared as well as the woman whose metamorphosis made her a world-renowned empress.   

    In his play Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare wrote, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” The lines from the play apply to Princess Sophia Augusta Frederica, (historically known as Catherine), in Stettin, Prussia, currently Poland. She was the daughter of an embittered, pushy, sixteen-year-old mother, Johanna. Eighteen months later, a son arrived who passed away at age twelve. Catherine’s father was a German soldier, Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst, whose regiment referred to him as “that idiot Zerbst.” Despite his title, the family was impoverished.

      The princess had greatness thrust upon her at age fourteen when Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, went on a quest to find a wife for her nephew, (her designated successor as she was childless), the future Emperor Peter III. Karl Peter Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp had grown up in Germany, as his father was a German prince; upon the early deaths of his parents, his care had passed to his sadistic tutor who contributed to his lifelong psychological issues. Peter was far from pleased when his aunt plucked him from his native Holstein and transplanted him to Saint Petersburg. 
      Johanna dangled her daughter as a potential imperial bride, a fact that did not delight Catherine who had already met Peter-her second cousin-when she was ten, and he was a year older. She recalled he was a buffoon with bulging eyes, a weak chin, and lank hair, who enjoyed torturing his pets. The Empress was taken with Catherine who saw in the spirited girl a version of herself. She also admired the teenager’s beauty; a gown preserved in the Kremlin Armory is testimony to her waspish waist. Believing anything better than living with her domineering mother in straitened circumstances, Catherine acquiesced to the betrothal. Determined to start afresh, Catherine traded her Lutheran faith for Eastern Orthodoxy, exchanged her German language for Russian, and shed the name Sophia for Ykaterina, in honor of Elizabeth’s mother, anglicized as Catherine. Post marriage, she became the Grand Duchess Catherine Alekseyevna.

        Life in the imperial court did not prove the longed-for panacea. The mother of the bride became pregnant by one of the court’s couriers. Moreover, Catherine’s relationship with Peter was a match made in hell. The seventeen-year-old groom, adept only in alcoholism, was obsessed with dressing his servants in military uniforms for indoor parades. For their wedding night, Catherine wore a pink nightie made in Paris; Peter was only interested in playing with his toy soldiers, which he took to bed. In her memoirs, Catherine wrote of her unconsummated union, “Matters remained in this state without the slightest change during the following nine years.” The first time her husband mentioned the word love it was to inform Catherine he had fallen for one of her ladies in waiting. The lack of an heir threatened the Romanov dynasty and military officer, Sergei Saltykov, assumed horizontal husband duty. Empress Elizabeth, thrilled with the birth of Paul, took charge of the nursery, a pattern repeated with Catherine’s three other children. Emotionally adrift, Catherine wrote, “The trouble is that my heart is loath to remain even one hour without love.”

      Catherine achieved greatness at the passing of Empress Elizabeth that turned her husband into Tsar Peter III. Not a subscriber of “less is more,” for her coronation, the Tsarina commissioned an imperial crown of unimaginable bling. Deigned to represent two hemispheres, the crown held 5,000 diamonds, (nineteen of which weighed over five carats), bordered with thirty-seven pearls.

       Peter was not made of the stuff of his famous Romanov forebearers. Military mishaps-playing with toy soldiers did not make for adequate preparation-led to his plummeting popularity as did his allegiance to Germany over Russia. When Catherine learned that her husband was plotting against her, she enlisted the help of her lover, Grigory Orlov, and staged a counterattack. Dressed in a guardsman uniform with sword at her side, astride a white stallion, the Tsarina led 14,000 soldiers to arrest her husband and force his abdication. The bloodless transition of power led Frederick the Great of Prussia to remark, “Peter allowed himself to be dethroned like a child being sent to bed.” Eight days later, the dethroned Tsar died in prison in Ropsha Palace near Saint Petersburg, likely at the hand of Grigory’s brother, Alexei. The official cause of death was hemorrhoidal colic, which most viewed as a euphemism for murder. Catherine was in Grigory’s debt for handing her the throne and because he was adept in the boudoir. After she tired of him, in a desperate attempt to regain her affection, Grigory gifted her an almost 200 carat diamond from India that had once been used as an eye of an idol in an ancient Brahmin Temple. The present did not regain the royal favor, but it did become the centerpiece of the Romanov crown jewels.

    Catherine turned her empire into a world power and ushered in the golden age of Russian history. During her long years of her loveless marriage, Catherine had immersed herself in the works of enlightenment philosophers and had carried on a correspondence with Voltaire. He signed his letters “the old hermit.” Under the influence of liberal ideals, the Tsarina instituted the first state-funded school for females, humanized the penal system, and founded orphanages. She was also the first European monarch to decree civil equality for Jews. Her massive country expanded with her annexation of the Crimea, Poland, the Ukraine, and Lithuania. The Empress erected the Hermitage near the Winter Palace to house her acquisitions of paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, and Van Dyck. She also used the museum as a venue for intimate parties where she mandated that “one must never groan over one’s own problems or inflict boredom on others.” Through the infusion of culture and reform, Catherine altered the European perspective of her nation as one that consisted of snow, wolves, and vodka. And, in one instance, she proved herself even more advanced. Under the threat of a smallpox epidemic, Catherine set an example by becoming one of the first to receive an inoculation that other rulers shunned as far too dangerous.

      Although intellectually opposed to serfdom, when Yemelyan Pugachev, an illiterate Cossack, fought to alleviate their oppression, she ordered his execution. After the French Revolution, Catherine held ever tighter to her bejeweled scepter, fearful that Russia might also be ripe for a constitutional republic. Although perceived as one of the greatest of monarchs, what she accomplished was at the cost of the peasants, who comprised half the country’s population, and their status diminished under her leadership. Equally manipulative with her family, Catherine had a contentious relationship with her son, Paul, fearful he would make a bid for the throne when he came of age. However, the Empress held onto her scepter with a grip of steel, and he only assumed the throne-as Paul I- upon her death. As with his grandfather, he met his end through assassination.

     Although Catherine the Great, Empress and Autocrat of all the Russias, also known as Rossiya-Matushka, mother of Russia built her empire into a world power and amassed one of the world’s greatest art museums, her prevailing image is of a royal nymphomaniac who died having intercourse with a horse. A joke circulated that that the busiest thoroughfare in Saint Petersburg was Catherine’s Canal. In actuality, the only mention she made of a horse in her memoirs was, at age thirteen, lying in bed with a pillow between her legs, she imagined herself astride a stallion that she rode “until I was quite worn out.” Despite her reputation for bedding innumerable men, Catherine had twelve lovers and was at heart a monogamist. During her marriage, she had confided in her memoir, “Had it been my fate to have a husband whom I could love, I would never have changed towards him.” When tired of her paramours, generous gifts followed.  One received 1,000 indentured servants; another lover, Stanislaw, was made the king of Poland. Her heart’s most significant other was Gregory Potemkin. The Tsarina described him as “one of the greatest, most bizarre, and most entertaining eccentrics of the iron age.” He was also the possessor of “elephantine sexual equipment.” In a letter to Potemkin, she wrote after a fight, “Precious darling, I took a cord with a stone and tied it around the neck of all our quarrels, and then I tossed it into a hole in the ice.” At his passing, Catherine wrote a friend, “You cannot imagine how broken I am.” The tsarina’s rule lasted for thirty-four years until she had a stroke, went into a coma, and died at age sixty-seven.

      Upon viewing the prism of Catherine’s life, divergent images appear: the good, the bad, and the sexual. Voltaire’s take was to dub her after the legendary Queen of Babylon, a woman who succeeded in an age when men traditionally held the reins of power, “Semiramis, (the Shining Star), of the North.”