Empress Catherine II of Russia, more commonly known as Catherine the Great, may’ve been among the more enlightened of despotic rulers during the 18th century, but as a mother she was complete shit. Her oldest, and only legitimate, son and heir, the Tsarievitch Paul, later Tsar Paul l, certainly thought so. Given the extent of their mutual antipathy, one wouldn’t be surprised if the unpleasant, and apocryphal, death rumors concerning her demise, either that she died of a stroke while straining on the toilet or that she was crushed to death underneath a horse she was f***ing after its harness broke, originated with him. For no one at the imperial court thought the old empress a greater whore than her own son. She even attended his first wife’s funeral escorted by two of her former lovers. For her part, Catherine regarded Paul as little more than a histrionic weakling, imbecile and eccentric whose only purpose was to provide her with healthier, stronger and smarter grandsons than their father could ever be. In all fairness to them both, at least two external, extenuating factors played a decisive role in the disintegration of their relationship.
First there was the dicey matter of whether or not Catherine’s late husband, Tsar Peter lll, was in fact Paul’s father. While she strongly hinted in her memoirs that he wasn’t, and that instead her son’s pater was her first extramarital lover, Serge Saltykov, the historical jury’s still out on the subject.
Catherine, it’s important to remember, was technically a usurper whose only claim to her throne was that she was acting as regent for her son. By claiming her husband was lazy and impotent, and failed even in his most fundamental duty of banging a kid into her, she not only justified his usurpation and murder, but also justified her replacing him on the throne. The fact that Saltykov was a descendant of the original Romanovs, and far more Russian than Tsar Peter lll, didn’t hurt. As her descendant, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, would write years later in his comedic novel based on his ancestress, The Evil Empress, Catherine remained acutely aware of her lack of legitimacy as a ruler from the moment she was crowned until her dying day, and terrified she’d meet the same fate as her ex-husband. Lying in her memoir about her son’s paternity as a means of strengthening her position as empress wasn’t above her character.
Perhaps the greatest historical monkey wrench one can throw into Catherine’s carefully fabricated scenario that Peter lll didn’t father Paul l was the fact that her husband had no problems claiming paternity of Paul and never once disputed it, even when his wife was leading a rebellion against him and it would’ve been highly prudent of Tsar Peter, had he harbored doubts the tsarievitch had shot out of a nut sack other than his own, to declare said doubts as a rallying cry to inspire his troops to defend they’re rightful ruler from the clutches of a brazen, lying hussy and her bastard heir. If anything, this proves Peter wasn’t impotent, as Catherine claimed in her memoirs, and had to have been amorous with her on at least one occasion for him to believe that Paul was his genuine heir. One should also juxtapose his attitude toward Paul with that which he later took toward the sickly daughter, who died in infancy in 1759, Catherine also birthed during their brief marriage.
According to Philip Sergeant in The Courtships of Catherine the Great, Peter and Catherine were openly carrying on extramarital affairs by then and only in the most technical sense were they still living together. Peter definitely didn’t believe the girl was his, and angrily rebuked his wife when she attempted to convince him otherwise. Once again, Catherine’s attempt at convincing her husband they’d bred this unfortunate little girl together indicates that, even at that stage in their ill fated marriage, they still had an active, albeit probably sporadic and mutually unenthusiastic, sex life.
The Tsarievitch Paul certainly believed Peter lll was his father, and his knowledge of his mother’s role in the coup d’état of 1762 that robbed him both of his dad and his rightful succession as his reputed father’s heir was yet another reason why he hated her.
Another reason for their mutual antipathy was the fact they’d never been allowed to bond as mother and son in the first place. Empress Elizabeth, Peter’s childless aunt and adoptive mother, snatched Paul from Catherine’s arms virtually from the moment the umbilical cord was cut, and only allowed his mother brief visits with him during his early childhood. Although a loving surrogate mother, the old empress was nonetheless too spoiled and self indulgent toward the end of her life not to have emotionally neglected the youngster, and after her death Paul’s parents became too involved in court intrigues, chief among them how best to eliminate each other, to have spared much time for their growing boy. It should come as no surprise that the tsarievitch developed into a socially awkward, eccentric young man. Matters weren’t helped when he nearly died from an attack of Typhus in 1771, and as a result developed a homely pug nosed appearance which only added to his desire to withdraw from the world. Unfortunately for him, his mother would use his maladjustment as one among many excuses to deny him a significant role in matters of state.
Nonetheless, Paul was Catherine’s sole legitimate heir to the throne, and once he came of age her first task was to find him a suitable wife so he might propagate the dynasty. Robert K. Massie writes in Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, her first choice was Princess Sophia of Wurtemburg. Sophia, alas, was only 14 at the time and deemed too young to make a successful breeder. Although Catherine looked elsewhere, that wasn’t the last she’d hear of Sophia. Of this, more later. In the meantime, the empress soon alighted on the three age appropriate daughters of the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt. Not able to choose which one she liked most, she dispatched Paul’s best friend, Andrei Razumov, to Germany to escort the trio back to St. Petersburg where the tsarievitch would have the final choice. On the journey back Serge struck up a flirtation with the middle sister, Wilhelmine, that in short order would blossom into a full blown romance. Unfortunately for Paul this same princess was the one he selected for his wife, and her ongoing affair with his best friend after they married became an open secret to everyone at court, including Catherine, except for Paul.
For reasons that are still unknown, Catherine took pains to hide his wife’s cuckolding of him with his BFF from Paul, and even remained silent when he interceded on Razumov’s behalf to prevent him from being exiled to Siberia over a trumped up charge that, in reality, was just an excuse to get him away from the tsarievna. She also approached her daughter-in-law, who was now known as Natalia Alexievna, when she felt the baby making process wasn’t occurring fast enough. Echoing the sentiments of the previous empress, who confronted Catherine early in her marriage when it became common knowledge that she and her spouse were cheating on each other and that the then tsarievitch even preferred breeding greyhounds in their bedroom suite rather than f***ing his wife, Catherine assured Natalia that, regardless of her baby’s paternity, as long as she produced a healthy son, he was sure to become heir to the throne.
With such assurance, Natalia soon became pregnant. On Sunday, April 10, 1776 Catherine was awoken in the morning and told her daughter-in-law had gone into labor. Rushing to her side, she and Paul watched as Natalia oscillated between vainly trying to birth her child and drifting into exhausted bouts of sleep. By Tuesday it was obvious the baby had died in the womb. Natalia lingered on till Sunday when she, too, expired. The autopsy revealed the child to have been a perfectly formed boy that was simply too large to pass through his mother’s birth canal. A simple Caesarian might’ve solved the problem, but the antiquated Russian doctors apparently judged that too risky!
While somewhat mourning the loss of Natalia, Catherine’s real grief was at losing the all too precious heir presumptive to her throne. Finding a new fertile wife for the tsarievitch was now her only priority. Paul, unfortunately still unaware that his marriage was a one sided love affair and that there was a good chance he wasn’t the baby daddy, was in no mental position to remarry. Erupting into hysterical fits of grief immediately following his wife’s demise, he refused to be separated from her corpse, and when he was torn away he started threatening suicide and trashing furniture. Clearly, he’d lost his shit. While there was still no love lost between mother and son, Paul was the only viable heir she had, and shaking him out of his depression so he might live to marry and procreate again was crucial. Catherine decided it was time for Paul to wake the f**k up regarding who and what his dead wife really was.
She ordered the bureau in Natalia’s bedroom Catherine suspected as being where she stored her diaries and Razumov’s love letters opened. When it was discovered it indeed contained the cache of billets doux Catherine presumed, she ordered them given to Paul and him being forced to read them. Unsurprisingly, his grief turned to blinding rage, he became more than happy to have Natalia’s body disposed of forthwith, and wanted his former best friend permanently banished to Siberia, if not executed. Friendly with his father, and probably being fonder of Andrei than she was of her own son, Catherine took pity on Razumov, and instead of imprisoning him had Andrei advised to beat a hasty retreat from the imperial court. The empress now turned back to the task of finding her son a new mail order bride.
Fortunately, Princess Sophia of Wurtemburg wasn’t only still available, but now at 17 was of marriageable age. She was duly shipped over to St. Petersburg; married Paul; they wound up being pretty happy together despite her occasional concerns for his sanity; and produced many heathy, non-paternity disputable children together, several of them boys, with two of them eventually becoming tsar. Empress Catherine died happy in the knowledge the imperial line of succession was secure.
Speaking of her death, the author thinks it only appropriate to end this sordid little tale with a macabre anecdote. For Karl Show writes in Royal Babylon that Tsar Paul’s first act upon inheriting the throne was to have his reputed father’s corpse exhumed, mounted in full regalia on the throne, then made the entire Imperial Court, particularly his mother’s surviving retainers, pay obeisance to the “true tsar.” He then had a special tomb built to house both Empress Catherine and Peter lll laying side by side so that their earthly dust might forever peacefully mingle. At least Catherine didn’t suffer the fate of being murdered by her son, or at least with him being complicit in her demise. Such a fate would, however, befall Tsar Paul l. That however, is another story. 🙂