Catherine enforced her success by rewarding those who helped to put her on the throne, including the church and the army. She also cancelled the unpopular alliance with Prussia but assured them she had no wish for a new war. She also called on Russia’s two most experienced statesmen. She settled into a routine; she received ministers in the morning and drafted decrees, at 11 am, she did her toilette and entertained Orlov, at 1 pm she had lunch and then worked in her apartments until 6 pm. In the evenings, she held court, went to the theatre or held balls. She often worked 15 hour days.
In 1764, the man known as Prisoner Number One, the child Emperor Ivan VI, son of Grand Duchess Anna Leopoldovna of Russia, was part of a plot to set him free, and he was killed during it. There was now just one clear heir to the throne – Catherine’s son Paul, and he was still a child – Catherine was free to do as she wished.
Russia was revitalised under her reign. Catherine became a patron of the arts – the current Hermitage museum began as her personal collection. She wanted to modernise Russia but faced difficulties as the economy depended on serfdom and serf-labour. She often relied on her favourites, such as Orlov and later Potemkin. She also pioneered the use of inoculation against smallpox in Russia. Both she and Paul were inoculated. She also kept in touch with intellectuals and began a correspondence with Voltaire in 1763. Catherine rejected torture and wrote, “The use of torture is contrary to sound judgement and common sense. Humanity itself cries out against it, and demands it to be utterly abolished.”1 She believed punishments should fit the crime and detailed this and many other ideas in the so-called Nakaz.
In addition to her ideas on inoculation, she also decreed that the capital of every province should have a general hospital and that every country within it should have a physician, a surgeon, two surgical assistants, two apprentices and an apothecary. This still often meant that there was just one physician for many thousands, but before this, these areas had nothing.
From 1774, Catherine was involved with Gregory Potemkin, and he was a powerful figure by her side until his death in 1791. He was not only her lover, but he also became her advisor, governor and viceroy of half of Russia. They may have even been married. Despite this, Catherine also had other lovers, probably around 12 total. They were often young officers, selected by Catherine to “love and be loved.”2
The relationship with her son Paul was never easy. He had been taken from her at birth, and when she ascended the throne, the damage had been done. The question of his paternity hung over him, and when she was proclaimed Empress, she made sure to proclaim him as her heir as he was definitely related to her. The general public knew little of his assumed paternity and over the years as Paul became to resemble Peter, even many of those at court began to believe he was really Peter’s son. Paul believed himself to be Peter’s son and grew up idolising him. He also began to question why his mother was on the throne instead of him. After a severe bout of influenza in 1771, Catherine knew it was time to secure the succession for another generation.
Catherine invited the three unmarried daughters of Louis IX, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt; Amalie (18), Wilhelmina (17) and Louise (15), to Russia so that Paul could choose between them. They arrived in the spring of 1773, and Paul picked Wilhelmina. In August 1773, Wilhelmina was received in the Russian Orthodox Church as Natalia Alexeievna. They married the following month. Though Catherine initially praised her new daughter-in-law, she was soon irritated with her. She wrote, “There is neither grace, nor prudence, nor wisdom in any of this and God knows what will become of her… Just think that after more than a year and a half, she still doesn’t speak a word of the language.”3
Natalia finally fell pregnant in the fall of 1775, and she went into labour in the early hours of 21 April 1776. Catherine hurried to be by her side. It was to be a long and difficult labour. On the third day, the doctors agreed that there was no possibility of saving the child – it was most likely already dead. On the fourth day, Natalia was given the last rites. At six in the evening of 26 April, Natalia died after five days of agony. Catherine and Paul had stayed with her. The child had been too large to pass through the birth canal; it had been a “perfectly formed boy.”4 Paul was devastated and initially refused to have his wife’s body moved. He did not attend her funeral. Catherine had to find a way to break his grief so that he would marry again. As she had expected, she found letters that Natalia had written to her lover – who was also Paul’s best friend. Paul was enraged and declared himself ready to be married again immediately. Catherine wrote, “I have wasted no time. At once, I put the irons in the fire to make good the loss, and by so doing, I have succeeded in dissipating the deep sorrow that overwhelmed us. The dead being dead, we must think of the living.”5 Of Natalia, she wrote, “Well, since it has been proven that she could not give birth to a living child, we must not think about her anymore.”6
A new bride was found in Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg, later renamed Maria Feodorovna, and they were married later that same year. Just fourteen months later, Maria gave birth to a healthy boy. Catherine finally had her heir, and Maria would give birth to ten children, of which nine survived to adulthood. Despite Paul’s newfound happy family life, he remained frustrated and was left out of the loop. While his mother lived, he would not have any power.