Anna – Welcome again to Minimum Wage Historian, now under my supreme authority. I, Anna Komnene am the unquestionable autocrat of this blog. Zach is still away in Japan and shall be for some time.
Mulan – You know he reads everything we post, right?
Anna – What’s he going to do about it? Send me a nasty E-mail?
Joan – I do not sink zat he will be very happy, quoi?
Anna – Well, my dear Joan D’Arc, I will deal with Zach, one way or another. I shall use my charms against him.
Joan – Ziss is not a good idea.
Gaspar – Just let her have her fun for now. What harm is it doing?
Olga – Anna, did you remember nachos? I like these so-called nacho stuff. Is very good, dah?
Anna – And unlike Zach, I bring refreshments every time.
Mulan – Well, today we have a fitting subject. A woman who launched a coup and successfully took over Russia and led it through its golden age.
Anna – And this will be the golden age of Minimum Wage Historian.
Gaspar – I think she may have lost it. Its a sad day when I have to lead the discussion. Okay, lets begin. Catherine was born in 1729 in the German kingdom of Pomerania. She came from a noble blood line, but had little money. So, they looked to marry their daughter, Sophia, off to the best bidder. Well, in Russia, the daughter of Peter the Great led a successful coup and took over control of all Russia. She was a merciless ruler that reigned with terror and harshness. She also had a nephew that needed a wife. His name was Peter III and he was the heir. They chose Sophia and had her sent to St. Petersburg, the capital of Russia. An offer like that was one her family could not refuse. Empress of Russia? Yes please.
Mulan – Peter the Great had turned Russia into a modern world power and brought it kicking and screaming out of the Dark Ages. Now there were palaces anywhere and Empress Elizabeth had the largest dress collection in Europe. The language at court was French and they tried really hard to be sophisticated. Catherine was underwhelmed by their sophistication.
Anna – Well, Russia was trying to emulate the glory of The Roman Empire. Naturally they fell short but even aspiring to that leaves one with some glory worthy of notice.
Joan – Beware of ze pride, Anna.
Anna – Yes, yes, of course. So, princess Sophia from Germany finally arrives in St. Petersburg and meets her new fiance. He’s a scrawny, sickly thing with all the maturity of an eight year old. All he cares about is playing with his toy soldiers and bragging about how great he is. He also didn’t really like Russia. He was a Lutheran and admired the Prussians, especially Fredrick the Great who at that time was no friend of Russia’s. She also met the future mother in law. Empress Elizabeth was an intimidating figure and Sophia knew that she had to impress this woman and stay on her good side if she was going to succeed in Russia.
Mulan – Sophia knew that Peter was unimportant. She needed to impress the mother in law so she learned Russian as fast as she could. She mastered it in a short time, though she’d have a German accent all her life. She also converted to Russian Orthodoxy.
Anna – Of course she did! Orthodoxy is the one…
Mulan – Anna, please, not now. As I was saying, she converted to Orthodoxy and her name was changed to Catherine. In short, she did everything she could to become a Russian so the people would accept her. she was only a teenager but she knew what she needed to do.
Gaspar – Life wasn’t all expensive clothing and fine meals. There was some odd things in the palace. Empress Elizabeth held weakly balls where everyone had to dress as the opposite sex. It was mandatory and most people hated it. The Empress even commented to Catherine “had I been born a man, it would be you that would receive the apple.”
Mulan – Awkward.
Gaspar – That’s not the worst of it. The court also happened to be flat out dangerous as crap. There were factions all throughout the court and the rivalries were sometimes violent and always dangerous. If Catherine was to survive she would have to navigate through the courtly factions.
Anna – Catherine had no allies and no one to help her. She was an outsider. The fact that she survived was proof that she was both intelligent and charming. Not only could she get people to fall in love with her, but she was also the smartest person in the room.
Joan – When she was seventeen, she got married. Qui, she married ze loser Peter. Zay did not like each other and on… I cannot say ziss part.
Gaspar – I’ll do it. On their wedding night, Catherine went up to the room to wait for Peter. She kept waiting and kept waiting. Five hours later Peter stumbled in, drunk and promptly passed out.
Joan – Sank you, Gaspar. I blush at ze thought. Catherine was insulted! She was very angry. This continued for long time. Peter would just ignore ze poor Catherine. She grew bitter and angry against Peter. Also, Peter continued to be ze child. He played with his toy soldiers and even made ze poor Catherine stand guard for hours with a musket. But Catherine was, as zay say, stuck. If she angered Peter, he could banish her to a convent or worse. Cut off her head!
Anna – Yes, she was stuck with Peter. She was his wife and that gave her some status and that meant some protection.
Gaspar – Oh, and just to make things worse, Peter got small pox that disfigured is already unremarkable face.
Mulan – Now that she was ignored by her husband and the court, she found that she had plenty of free time on her hands. So, she began to read. And read and read. She read the philosophers of the time and believed in the ideals of the Enlightenment. Especially Voltaire. She even began writing letters to Voltaire and though they never met, they considered each other friends. She wanted desperately to be the enlightened Monarch that the Enlightenment spoke of.
Gaspar – She also really liked history.
Anna – A woman after my own heart. We need to get her here.
Olga – She was born German, but I like her. She can be Russian.
Gaspar – How charitable of you, Olga.
Anna – But there was another problem. Her one and only duty was to bear children. Elizabeth had seized power in a coup and to legitimize her claim, she needed heirs to cement the dynasty. Though Elizabeth was highly promiscuous, she had no heirs of her own.
Joan – What is ziss word, “promis-cu-us?”
Gaspar – Um… it means, she eats a lot.
Anna – Nice save, Gaspar.
Gaspar – I live to serve.
Anna – No you don’t.
Gaspar – You’re right. I just didn’t want to hear another sermon. At least she’s Catholic though.
Joan – What are you talking about?
Gaspar – Nothing.
Anna – So, Catherine had to produce an heir, but Peter would not…um…do his duty. So, a “Plan B” was developed by Empress Elizabeth. After eight yeas, Elizabeth noticed that a certain young nobleman was paying Catherine a lot of attention. She encouraged this and hinted to Catherine that she had a higher duty to the crown that martial fidelity. This was a green light for Catherine and for the first time, she fell in love. Soon after, Catherine found herself pregnant.
Joan – So, Peter finally did his duy, quoi?
Gaspar – Sure….
Mulan – She gave birth to a boy and Elizabeth took the boy away to raise herself.
Olga – What a rude woman! I would never let someone else take my child!
Anna – She had no choice. If Elizabeth got angry with her, she’d throw her in a cell and lose the key.
Mulan – She was trapped and had no say. Then her lover was promptly shipped away to a far corner of the Russian Empire. Catherine was also forgotten about. Having provided an heir, she was no longer important. No one questioned who the father was. So, she was completely alone. Catherine did not sit around, write vampire poetry and bemoan her station, she got to work. She began building alliances and making friends at court. She befriended the English ambassador who gave her a gift of a lot of money which she used to buy informants at court.
Anna – She also became pregnant again. It was certainly not Peter’s child and Peter, though he didn’t care about Catherine, started to grow unbearable and angry. He began to anger everyone at court with his immature and rude behavior. He also estranged the Russian nobles by remaining close to the Prussians, Russia’s enemy at the time.
Joan – One of her new friends was a man named Orlav. Dis Orlov was captain of ze Guard and a very dashing man. He and two brothers were very popular and had power. Orlov was ze soldier, and a dashing man. Catherine became friends with him.
Gaspar – And by friends we mean…well…you get the picture.
Joan – What picture?
Anna – Orlov was no great thinker or political strategist, but what he was was muscle. Karl Mark said “power comes from the barrel of a gun.” The Orlov brothers were her gun.
Mulan – But then Elizabeth died and her great protector was gone. At the funeral she wore black and meant it. Peter on the other hand giggled throughout the ceremony. Also, now that he was Tzar, he withdrew Russia’s armies from Prussia, gave back all the territory they had won and he even dressed his soldiers in Prussian uniforms. I for one could not tolerate this! That would be like dressing me up as a Mongol! I’d die first.
Anna – Or me as a Frank.
Joan – Pardon? What iz wrong with ze Franks?
Anna – Nothing at all. Let’s get back to Catherine, shall we? Peter was busy angering every class, faction, group and organization in Russia and people were growing tired of his idiocy. So, Russian nobles started talking. The wanted to get rid of Peter in a hurry and the only other person they could think of that they all could agree on was Catherine. She was smarter than them and they finally realized it.
Mulan – This was a very dangerous time for Catherine. One word to the wrong person and her plots would become known to Peter and she’d be executed. She made careful plans and took a long time in gathering the people she could trust. Then one night, Orlov came and woke her up in the middle of the night. One of their conspirators had been arrested and it was a matter of time before he cracked and gave away the plan. If they were going to survive, they had to launch the coup right then and there. Catherine agreed. It was all or nothing.
Gaspar – This is when Catherine pulled the ace out of her sleeve.
Joan – I sink Gaspar is lying. You know where liars are thrust down to, no?
Olga – Oh! What happened next?
Gaspar – There was a terrible fight in the streets of St. Petersburg that saw half the city destroyed.
Anna – Or Catherine fled her villa where she had been staying separate from her husband and gathered the palace guard in St. Petersburg. Catherine knows that if she does not overthrow Peter, he would eventually get rid of her. She also knew that she would be a much better ruler than him and also knew that the nobility were desperate to get rid of Peter. It was a perfect storm of opportunity that she grabbed without hesitation. So, Catherine jumped in her royal carriage and had her hair done on the way. She had to look good for her revolution!
Joan – It is important to look ze part when a person is in charge. I changed my hair and put on ze men’s clothing to command my soldiers.
Mulan – I can relate to that.
Gaspar – I don’t need clothes to prove I’m awesome. I have this ferocious beard to do that for me.
Olga – I have my flame thrower.
Anna – The pen is mightier than all of those. Even the beard. Catherine arrived at the guard barracks to St. Petersburg at dawn and tells the men there that Peter is a threat to Russia and if they wanted Russia not to fall into the hands of Prussia, they needed to support her. The guards fell to their knees and pledged their loyalty on the spot. Then Catherin dresses in a palace guard’s uniform, big hat, coat, riding boots and all. Yeah, she looked awesome.
Mulan – The army when they see her, proclaim her Catherine II, Empress of Russia. She promptly had Peter, who was clueless, arrested and a few days later he was strangled to death by his guards. There is no evidence that Catherine ordered the hit. He had a long list of enemies. Peter III had reigned for only six months.
Olga – He was no Russian. (spits)
Anna – They called her “Empress Regent” and assumed that she’d hold power until her son was old enough to reign.
Gaspar – Yeah, that didn’t happen.
Anna – No, she reigned until her death. Technically, she was an usurper and had no legal right to the throne and there were factions within the court that wanted the throne as a kind of constitutional monarchy. Catherine had to keep her throne and head during the first few trying years. she had to show that she was strong enough to lead.
Joan – So, a German woman usurper took ze throne and she managed to keep it?
Gaspar – Not bad, huh?
Anna – That was not all she did. Catherine began a program of expansion. She conquered weaker neighbors and spread the Russian Empire westward and southward. She took territory on the Black sea, most of it belonging to the Ottoman Empire. I say, good! They took my beloved city of Constantinople. They can crumble for all I care.
Gaspar – Easy there, Anna. We’re supposed to be neutral as historians.
Anna – Of course we are. Thank you, Gaspar.
Gaspar – That’s why I’m here.
Mulan – Catherine conquered the Ukraine and defeated the Turks so bad that she had Russian proclaimed in a legal sense, the protector of all Orthodox people in the Ottoman Empire.
Anna – And here’s why: she thought of Russia as a third Rome. She wanted to create the pan Orthodox sphere that Byzantium once ruled. She wanted to recreate the Byzantine Empire and this thought would guide Russia all the way to the Crimean War. It was a golden age for Russian. And, true to Russian tradition, she partitioned Poland with Germany.
Joan – She also loved ze arts. She patronized writers, actors, artists and musicians. Her private collection is now a museum. Why, she even wrote many plays and books herself. Catherine paid for scientists to come to Russia to help Russia modernize. Little by little she made laws to modernize Russia and bring it out of the Middle Ages. She even worked to create a middle class. Her key for this was education. She stressed education and even started a school for the daughters of nobility.
Joan – Catherine made religious equality a goal and allowed Muslims free practice of zer religion. But of course, Jews, Muslims and Catholics had to pay more taxes. She was not perfect, quoi?
Gaspar – Now, I Gaspar, Bearer of Truth need to discuss a certain matter. There is a rumor which I shall not say aloud in mixed company, about Catherine the great and how she died. She died of a stroke. Any other rumors about how she died were created by her enemies after her death. There, that matter is put to rest.
Anna – Thank you Gaspar, what ever would we do without out you?
Joan – What were ze rumors?
Gaspar – I’ll tell you when you’re older.
Anna – Catherine ruled Russia with more competence and authority than any ruler before or since. She was the most powerful woman in the world during her lifetime and the model of an enlightened monarch.
Anna – Also, don’t forget to “Like” us on Facebook.
Gaspar – Also, don’t forget to look at Zach’s book, “Fearless: Powerful Women of History.”