Magazine article The Spectator

The Heart and Stomach of a King

Magazine article The Spectator

The Heart and Stomach of a King

Article excerpt

CATHERINE THE GREAT : LOVE , SEX AND POWER by Virginia Rounding Hutchinson, £20, pp.592, ISBN 0091799929 . £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

When Princess Sophie of AnhaltZerbst arrived at the Russian court in 1744, one of the many daughters of minor German royal houses who came to St Petersburg in the hope of an advantageous marriage, she was just 15 and 'as ugly as a scarecrow' after a severe illness. Her future husband, the heir to the throne, Grand Duke Peter, was a bizarre character whose main interests were his toy soldiers and 'romping' with his valets.

No one, unsurprisingly, recognised in her the future Catherine II, one of Russia's greatest rulers, who was to preside over a vast expansion of Russian territory, the flourishing of St Petersburg, the huge collection of European art and sculpture that formed the basis of the Hermitage, the reform of local government, law and education, not to mention a procession of ever younger and more delectable lovers. How did she do it? In this entertaining new biography, Virginia Rounding explores 'Catherine as a woman', the character and passions that sustained this extraordinary life.

Sophie, who took the name Catherine on being baptised into the Orthodox Church, was first of all patient. Eighteen years passed before she came to the throne, years of which she later wrote, 'After the dogs, I was the most miserable creature in the world.' After seven years of marriage, her 'child-husband' had still not got round to the business of consummation. Finally an attendant arranged that Catherine take her first lover, bloodlines being less important than healthy little heirs.

A son duly appeared.

Discreet, determined, and with all the innate understanding of politics that her husband lacked, Catherine made it her business to charm everyone. A year after the ascendancy of her husband, Peter III, she was already plotting to overthrow him. In June 1762, she was woken in the middle of the night by the news that one of her conspirators had been arrested and the coup must take place at once. She left the palace in such a hurry that only a lucky meeting with her French hairdresser, who jumped into her carriage and arranged her hair as they sped towards the Ismailovsky regiment, avoided the scene of Catherine, Empress of All the Russias, receiving the oath of allegiance in her lace nightcap.

Peter did not resist. Arrested in his palace of Peterhof, it was said of him later that he 'allowed himself to be dethroned like a child being sent to bed'. A week later Peter was dead, strangled by his guards. …

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