The Sovereign of the North
(Catherine the Great)
On September 23, 1785, the French envoy Louis Philippe d’Agusseau Comte de Ségur was walking fast through the Winter Palace halls heading for his first audience with Catherine the Great. He was in agitation and tried in vain to recollect the words of the official welcoming speech he was to deliver before the empress. Let’s follow the count in order to be there by the time the audience begins.
Having passed through several rooms he found himself in front of a closed door: “all of a sudden the door to the room containing the empress was opened. She was richly dressed and standing up, hand resting on a column; her majestic air, the dignity of her demeanor, the pride of her regard, her rather theatrical pose, in taking me by surprise, succeeded in making an indelible impression,” as Ségur recollected later.1
Many people had a similar experience when they encountered the empress for the first time. Statesmen, diplomats, military leaders would grow pale and feel embarrassed the moment they saw her. The famous French writer Denis Diderot simply went rigid, and Baron Melchior Grimm, Catherine’s old correspondent, became muddled and confused when he first met her in 1774.
No wonder the visitors were overwhelmed when they found themselves standing before this unusually dazzling woman, whose fame had rung throughout the world and whose majestic appearance shining amid the splendor of the Winter Palace was in full accord with this fame. However, after a minute or two, the quiet, cordial, even sweet tone of her voice would change the entire atmosphere. All embarrassment and constraint vanished, and before