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Catherine and Peter: The Odd Couple

Russia's Catherine the Great looks on whilst husband Peter plays with toy soldiers.

The daughter of, as a French ambassador called her father, a prince of "quite exceptional imbecility", Catherine the Great faced a number of obstacles on her road to the Russian throne. Through a strange bevy of political marriages she was betrothed to the Grand Duke and potentially future Emperor of Russia, Peter III, and, due to her precocious nature, eventually made the most of it. Before all this, at the age of four, she met Frederick William I of Prussia, and, being a right little snot, refused to kiss the hem of his cloak: "His coat is so short I cannot reach it!" she said. King Frederick responded, "The child is impertinent!" thus condemning Catherine to an evening of beatings administered by her power-hungry mother, Johanna. Obviously, with such an ill-mannered child, the only way to get power in the family would be to marry it. Fortunately for Johanna, such an opportunity presented itself some years later (unfortunately for Johanna, she herself eventually fell out of favor with the court and was cast out of Russia): while Catherine, at the tender age of fourteen, was contemplating a marriage proposal offered to her by her uncle (!), Empress Elizabeth of Russia deigned that she was to marry Elizabeth's nephew, Peter III (Elizabeth was Peter the Great's daughter). The deal here was that Peter III was the Grand Duke, destined to Emperor of Russia, and Elizabeth wanted to see an heir past him before giving up the ghost herself, so she tried to marry him off in hopes of speeding things along. Unfortunately, Peter thoroughly lacked charm and was startlingly ugly. We quote the author of The Comedy of Catherine the Great, Francis Gribble:

Peter was a young barbarian with the manners of an unlicked cub... he was of a temper alternately violent and sulky, addicted to practical jokes in a society of ladies, spent most of his time in playing at soldiers with his valets, and a good deal of the rest of it playing with dolls and toys.[1]

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Consumation...

Desperate for an heir, Empress Elizabeth hurried along the marriage plans despite warnings from the royal physicians that Peter himself wasn't quite ready to sire one. Elizabeth was unconvinced, says Henri Troyat in Catherine the Great: "If Peter was indifferent to the charms of his betrothed it was because he drank too much [Elizabeth felt]. Take away his alcohol and he'd become a real rooster." However, at such tender ages, neither Peter nor Catherine had any idea what to do to consummate their marriage; knowledge of the practical workings of sex had eluded them. Catherine quizzed all of her youthful ladies-in-waiting, who likewise had not yet received the benefit of sex education. Eventually Grand Duchess Catherine gave up and asked her mother, only to be "rebuked for her indecent curiosity."

Peter fared no better. Troyat tells us that "The lackeys who were [Peter's] customary confidants described the mechanics of physical union for him in coarse language. They talked to him as if he were a boon companion, when he was only a backward child. Instead of arousing him they paralyzed him. Listening to them he sniggered and was afraid." While our friend Mr. Gribble never mentions it, Troyat reveals that Peter himself had a physical problem that prevented him from having marital relations, and both he and Catherine remained virgins for the first eight years of their marriage.

Catherine herself, while no doubt politely, if incompletely, containing her disgust for Peter's ungainly appearance soon grew weary of his immature affectations. An excerpt from her memoirs illuminates:

The Grand Duke never entered my room except for the purpose of pacing up and down it, talking to me of matters which, no doubt, interested him, but had no interest whatever for me. He used to do this for hours at a time, and several times a day. I had to pace the room with him until I sank from exhaustion. I had to listen to him attentively and reply to him, though he generally talked the most insufferable nonsense... when he left me, it was a delightful relief to turn even to the most tedious book.[2]

Nothing but a Hound Dog

At another point, she wrote:

Our principal nuisance, morning, noon, and nearly all night, was as follows. The Grand Duke trained his hounds with remarkable perseverance, lashing at them with his whip, yelling at them after the manner of huntsmen, and chasing them from one of his two rooms to the other. Those of the hounds that got tired, and tried to desist from the game, were pitilessly whipped, and so yelled and howled louder than ever. When he wearied of this amusement, which was an unconscionable nuisance to the ears and tranquility of those about him, he used to take a fiddle and scrape it, very loudly and very much out of tune, walking up and down the room the while -- returning ultimately to the training of his hounds, thrashing them in the most cruel style.... Once, hearing a poor hound yelling horrible, I opened the door to my room, which adjoined that in which these proceedings were taking place, and pleaded for the poor beast; but that only caused the blows to be rained with redoubled vigor. Unable to bear the cruel sight, I withdrew to my bedroom, crying; but my tears, instead of moving the Grand Duke to pity, only made him more angry. Pity was an emotion for which there was no room in his soul.[3]

These tidbits are a fairly amusing contrast to Zoe Oldenbourg's Catherine the Great, in which she purports the couple were the best of friends, complete with idyllic descriptions of them swinging on the porch together[4] and sharing intimate whispers. While those moments may have existed, they certainly weren't representative of the union. The court soon realized that Peter the lunk was such a thorn in its diplomatic side that he must be tutored in the ways of public conduct such that he might not offend with his boorish behavior and rowdy indiscretions. Fortunately, the memorandum dictated to his tutor still exists, and Mr. Gribble was kind enough to reproduce some of it:

His Imperial Highness, the memorandum sets forth, must be taught not to make ugly faces at people, not to hold indecorous conversations with his inferiors, and not to empty his wine-glass over the heads of the footmen who wait at table.[5]

Quite the Trooper

One might imagine the marital difficulties that might ensue when married to such a lout. If one cannot, suffice it to say that the court did, and, with an aging and occasionally ailing Empress Elizabeth, was rather anxious to get an heir under way. Catherine herself received a little memorandum requesting that she "be more tolerant of her husband's tastes; to make herself more agreeable to him; to display affection and even passion; and, in short, to employ all means in her power to win his tender regard, and accomplish her conjugal duty."

It was discovered that all Peter did at night in bed with Catherine was play with wooden soldiers, miniature cannons and toy fortresses. Peter would make little cannon-firing noises with his mouth and shout orders to the inanimate armies on the bed, beg Catherine to join him, and hurriedly stash the playthings under the sheets whenever members of the court happened by to check on the odd assortment of noises emanating from behind their chamber door. "Often I laughed," Catherine wrote, "but more often still I was exasperated and even made uncomfortable. The whole bed being covered and filled with dolls and toys, some of them quite heavy." The Great Duke took his toy soldiering very seriously. Later in their marriage, Peter executed a large rat in their bedroom for devouring two toy soldiers made of starch. Peter claimed that the rat was clearly guilty according to military law, and that, after one of his dogs broke its back, he had hanged it in public view "for three days, as an example." Catherine, thinking he was joking, burst into hysterics. Peter's face darkened. He was twenty-five.[6]

Shooting Blanks?

There had been some suspicion up to this point that Peter himself had been sterile (eight years of marriage had passed with no child), and, trying to get to the bottom of the matter, the Empress decreed one day that the Grand Duke was to receive a bath (during which he would have been surreptitiously examined for anatomical defects). "He had never had a bath in his life," says Gribble, "and he did not mean to have one now. He was quite sure a bath would be bad for his health; it might even be fatal; at any rate, he proposed to run no risks. The lady-in-waiting insisted, declaring that, if he did not have a bath, the Empress would cause him to be imprisoned in a fortress; but Peter burst into tears of rage, declaring that he would show the Empress that he was not a baby, and must not be treated like one."

Peter had probably suspected what this was all about, and managed to avoid the tub for the rest of his life. Gribble suspects the couple's lack of fecundity came from nothing other than a lack of interest on Peter's part. "On the contrary," he writes, "[Peter] had preferred to regale his wife with talk about the superior charms of other women." Among others, the Princess of Courland allegedly lured Peter away from Catherine, and it may be safely said that his stated desire for her, more so than any other, characterized a martial infidelity untrammeled by reason or even conventional attraction. Catherine herself elucidates:

His preference for her was so notorious as to shock my vanity at the thought that such a hideous little monster was my successful rival. One day, when I rose from the dinner-table, Mme. Vladislava told me that every one was distressed to see this hunchback preferred over me. "What am I to do?" I replied; and I went to bed in tears. Hardly had I got to sleep when the Grand Duke came to bed too. Being drunk, and not knowing what he was doing, he proceeded to entertain me with talk about the superlative attractions of his mistress. I pretended to be fast asleep, hoping this to induce him to keep quiet. He only spoke the louder, in order to wake me up; and when I showed no signs of waking, he banged me in the ribs with his fists, grumbled at me for sleeping so soundly, and then turned around and began to snore.[7]

Get you Some!

Fortunately, Troyat has dug a little more deeply into this sterility issue and cleared up the matter. In a French governmental report, it was revealed that "The Grand Duke was unable to have children because of an obstacle which the Oriental peoples remedy by circumcision, but for which he thought there was no cure.... So ashamed was he of his misfortune that he did not even have the courage to reveal it, and the Princess, to whom his caresses had become repugnant... tried neither to console him nor to make him seek a remedy that would bring him into her arms." Thus, we may conclude that Peter himself wasn't actually cheating on his wife but merely putting on airs. This imposes a curious moral judgment on the casual observer: is a man who tells his wife he's sleeping around when he's not more repugnant than one who actually is? We think so.

Fortunately, around this time Catherine gave up completely and took her first lover, one guardsman named Sergius Saltykov. A shrewd character, Sergius realized that a pregnant Catherine with a virgin husband might not be a good thing [It wouldn't really matter; Empress Elizabeth, desperate for an heir, had given Catherine the nod to have the affair], so he got Peter drunk enough to consent to the circumcision. Troyat continues:

To make sure that the operation had made the Grand Duke effective, the Empress ordered Madame Chonglokova [a court crony] to find a woman to initiate him. Madame Chonglokova "bestirred herself greatly" to obey Her Majesty and... finally located a certain Madame Groot, the "pretty widow of a painter," who agreed to make a man of the Grand Duke. "She [Madame Chonglokova] expected great rewards for her pains, but on this point, she was mistaken, for she was given nothing."[8]

Catherine gave birth to a son some time afterwards (September 1754), albeit almost certainly Saltykov's. Despite Catherine's clever construction of a bedsheet designed to prove her virginity that was displayed following her marriage's belated consummation, Peter continued to heap abuse on her because he was suspicious of the child's origin. Nobody in the contemporary court really believed the child was his, but nobody cared, because the Empress finally had an heir.

Next time, Catherine gets the throne, and Peter dies suddenly of a 'hemorrhoidal cholic'.

Footnotes

  1. Gribble, 17
  2. Gribble, 35, repeated in Troyat, 59-61
  3. Gribble, 24, repeated in Troyat, 61
  4. Oldenbourg, 71
  5. Gribble, 26
  6. We're not kidding. This one really happened. Troyat, 75
  7. Gribble, 28-29
  8. Troyat, 72

Bibliography

  1. Francis Gribble. The Comedy of Catherine the Great. E.P. Dutton & Company, 1942. [Out of Print]
  2. Henri Troyat. Catherine the Great. Meridian, 1980.
  3. Zoe Oldenbourg. Catherine the Great. Random House, 1965.

 
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