Perilous Royal Biography: Representations of Catherine II Immediately after Her Seizure of the Throne

Article excerpt

On July 24, 1762, the German poet Anna Luise Karsch wrote to her friend Gleim about a piece of news terrible to her Prussian sensibilities: a rebellion had occurred in Russia, and the tsar, Prussia's friend Peter III, had been deposed. It had taken two weeks for word of this event to travel from Petersburg to Berlin. On July 29, five days after Karsch got the news, the first accurate and detailed accounts for readers further west were being produced in The Hague, although a garbled version was already appearing that same day in the London newspapers (Gentleman's 1762: 341). A few months later the American colonists were devouring the scandal in their newspapers too, and the next year a pamphlet reporting about the coup was published in Peru (Carta). Among the urgent questions was the issue of whether Russia would again change sides in the hostilities that were surging across many parts of central Europe and far around the world in the conflict later called the "Seven Years War." Another question was how soon it would be before the usurper was herself deposed. Karsch in her letter to Gleim indicated that an informal biography of the new empress was already in circulation. This biography, or composite of proxy biographies, deployed familiar images of immoral and sexually voracious women to locate Catherine in the terrain of illicit female craving for power. "About the tsarina, people tell a whole novel comparing her to the Roman Livia and putting her alongside Mary Stuart," Karsch reported: "The tsarina deserves to be eternally loathed if she had the slightest part in the plot against her husband" (138). Clearly, a woman with a biography so varied and unconventional that it was called a novel could not rule legitimately.

When Empress Elizabeth of Russia had died a few months earlier, her nephew had come to the throne, and to the shock and dismay of Russia's allies, had concluded a separate peace with his hero, Friedrich II of Prussia. By the time Karsch wrote her letter, Peter III was dead, although it would take another week for the news to reach Germany. His wife, dubbing herself Catherine II, had seized power on July 9. (1) She had intimidated her husband into abdicating on July 10, and Peter III had died on July 17, 1762.

Two years after her first remarks, Anna Luise Karsch offered an entirely different account of Catherine in another letter to Gleim, and to explain Peter III's death, invoked entirely different terms of biographical comparison: "meanwhile I am not so disinclined toward the ruler of Russia as at first. She seems not to be at all bloodthirsty, and maybe she was forced to that cruel step just as I had to make it happen that the man whose name I carried was laden with weapons and put in danger of [death, struck through] war" (236-37). Karsch's circumlocution for the word "husband" as "the man whose name I carried" clearly distanced her from him, and seems intended to make her organization of his impressment into the army less shocking. Karsch too had put her husband in mortal danger, and thus indicated a parallel between herself and the formerly reviled empress.

In addition to biographical comments about Catherine that appeared in private letters, an examination of the initial published accounts of the coup d'etat in official manifestos, in newspapers, broadsheets, and journals, and in the first biographies of the vanquished Peter III shows how Catherine's life history was portrayed at this earliest and extremely perilous stage of her reign. Biography, even the brief biographies within newspaper articles or in private letters, can serve as a record, faded and torn in spots, but legible nonetheless, of the creation and dissemination of a public image that legitimizes or delegitimizes a public figure. Catherine's coup, freighted as it was with political and military significance for West European countries and their far-flung colonies, stirred up vigorous press discussion outside Russia, and created demand for biographical information about the usurper. …