Empress Catherine II of Russia, utilized fashion and style as she did everything else, for politics. Her memoirs have been decided by some historians as flagrant use of primal justification for the death of her husband, Peter III, who she is rumored to have assassinated. Though, she really isn’t justifying anything. She is telling.
Catherine the Great, monarch and ruler of Russia for a golden age, was born a German princess: Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst in Stettin on April 21, 1729. Princess Sophie was culled at the age of 15, to be the Grand Duke Peter's bride by Empress Elizabeth of Russia. The Grand Duke, was Princess Sophie's second cousin. Princess Sophie, renamed as Duchess Ekaterina Alekseevna upon entering Russian court life, was everything her husband was not; athletic, intelligent, patient, and a creature of calm and consistent political voracity. She was a fair and strong woman, though not distractingly beautiful, with a fine mind, conversational nature, a physical endurance, and ability to withstand pain.
Catherine describes the pulling of a tooth; “I have never felt anything but pain of that moment. It was so violent tears streamed down my nose as though water had been poured from a teapot…I then learnt by experience that pain one suffers often gives rise to a grudge against whoever caused it. Boerhave, who obviously realized this, began to laugh and begged me to allow him to examine the spot. He then discovered that one of the roots had remained, while together with the tooth, a piece the size of a shilling had been wrenched from the jawbone. I was put to bed and suffered for about 4 weeks…I did not leave the seclusion of my room until January 1750, because at the bottom of my cheek I had Gyon’s five fingers imprinted in blue and yellow bruises.” The daily physical pains of life at the time are not comparable to many peoples’ today.
Russian court life could also be emotionally brutal and Catherine’s marriage to her husband is a depressing one, as she refers to him in her memoirs, as “The Grand Duke.” Neither party remained remotely faithful to the other and Catherine wept over The Grand Duke's affairs (at least initially) while keeping discreet about her own. The Grand Duke is depicted within the memoirs as an emotional maladjusted man-child of limited intelligence and questionable sanity.
Catherine, overcomes the environment by utilizing an awareness of her own powers and makes clear her self regard in her memoirs. Catherine considered herself better than her mother in maintaining a proper hold over the intricacies of court life and international domination, (her mother lacked the sophistication to keep multiple powers astride in relation to each other, with oneself as an individual ahead. And beside, since Empress Elizabeth was in want of sole control over Catherine, there was no room within the Russian courts for Catherine’s mother anyway) as well as better than her husband as a person entirely.
Catherine was recruited at an early age, as an unknown princess, by Empress Elizabeth, a calculating political machine. Whereas Catherine was a political woman, the Empress was pure machinery. The memoirs imply Elizabeth knew her nephew as useless, early on, and trained Catherine, from the start, to rule in her husband’s stead. The Empress repeatedly took from Catherine those she loved, her servants, Catherine’s own children, and raised Catherine to be one thing: Empress.
Court life and gearing toward empire control also came with great financial costs. Catherine was often in considerable debt to keep up with court life. It was not a capitalist economy, and as rulers they were not kicked out if they had to pay back debts at such and such a time and could not. Catherine wrote, “…and the next day I requested my accounts. They showed that I owed seventeen thousand rubles; before leaving Moscow for Kiev, the Empress had sent me fifteen thousand rubles and a larger coffer of simpler cloths, but I had to be richly dressed. In sum, then, I owed two thousand rubles; this did not seem to me an excessive amount. A variety of causes had forced these expenditures upon me. Primo, I had arrived in Russia very poorly outfitted, I was at the end of the world, and at a court where one changed outfits three times a day…” Catherine spends politically, for gifts and for clothing.
Catherine, though she spent well on fashion and gifts made sure of one thing - never to outdo The Empress. Catherine writes in her memoirs, "At that time, I loved to dance. At public balls I usually changed costume three times. My jewelry was always very fine, and if the costume I wore attracted everyone's praise, I was sure never to wear it again, because I had a rule that if it had made a big impression once, it could only make a smaller one the next time. On the other hand, at court balls that the public did not attend, I dressed as simply as I could, and so I paid my respects to The Empress, who did not much like anyone to appear overdressed," as well as to remain true to her own calling, "I did not make beauty or finery the source of my merit, for when one was gone, the other became ridiculous, and only character endured."
Notes: All quotes are taken from The Memoirs of Catherine the Great, 2005 Modern Library Edition. The Memoirs are written to depict life before Catherine became empress. Images are found online.
By Sarah Bahl