Catherine saw her son as her rival, and she never gave him a role in government. Despite this, he and his wife were required to appear at official ceremonies. He and his mother had very little contact otherwise. Catherine even began to consider skipping Paul all together and making her eldest grandson Alexander her heir. Paul began to suspect this, and it made their already bad relationship even worse. For now, he could do nothing but wait though he had instructed his wife to secure Catherine’s papers in case she died while he was away.
By the early 1790s, France was close to a revolution, and Catherine feared Europe would follow suit. She issued a memorandum suggesting measures as to how to suppress the revolution and re-establish the monarchy as “The cause of the King of France is the cause of all Kings…”1 In January 1793, King Louis XVI was executed by guillotine and when Catherine was informed, she became physically ill. She ordered the court to go into mourning for six weeks and a total break in relations with France. Six months later, his Queen Marie Antoinette was also guillotine. Fearing that the ideas might cross into Russia, Catherine ordered all bookshops to register their catalogues with the Academy of Sciences, and she ordered the confiscation of a complete edition of Voltaire’s works. Private printing presses were closed, and all books had to be submitted to a censorship office before they could be published.
By now, Catherine also began feeling the years. She had grown heavier, her hair had turned white, and she had dentures. She had also begun to use reading glasses. For years, she suffered from headaches and indigestion. She also began to suffer from rheumatism, and sometimes she had open leg sores.
Nevertheless, she kept going strong. Her favourite summer retreat was Tsarskoe Selo, where she was surrounded by her grandchildren. She had not taken her grandchildren from Maria and Paul as Elizabeth had done with her son, but she had regular contact with them. As a child, Alexander often spent hours playing on the floor next to her. She wrote, “I have said it to you before, and I say it again, I dote on the little monkey… In the afternoon, my little monkey comes as often as he likes and spends three or four hours a day in my room.”2 She also wrote pages of instructions for the education of Alexander and his younger brother Constantine. Her granddaughters were left to their parents choice of education.
She pushed Alexander to marry early, and in 1792, he married Louise of Baden, renamed Elizabeth Alexeievna. They were 15 and 14 years old respectively at the time of their wedding. Unfortunately, their marriage produced only two short-lived daughters. Constantine would not leave any legitimate children (and he also refused the throne in 1825), and so the throne was destined to pass to her third grandson Nicholas, born the year she died.
On 15 November 1796, Catherine appeared in public for the last time. The following morning, she awoke as usual at six, had a cup of black coffee and sat down to write. At nine, she went into her dressing room and did not come out again. Attendants waited and waited, but she did not return. Eventually, they found her unconscious on the floor of the water closet. She was carried into her bedroom, but she was too heavy to lift into bed. A mattress was brought in so that she could lay on it. Her personal physician was called, and he bled her from a vein in her arm. Her eyes remained closed, and she did not talk. Her son was sent for immediately. Paul and Maria arrived in the evening and were greeted by Alexander and Constantine. It was suspected that she had suffered a stroke, and she remained motionless as Paul kissed her hands. They held a vigil for the entire night. In the morning, the doctor told Paul that there was no hope, and he ordered his mother’s papers to be sorted and sealed.
By the late afternoon, Catherine began having trouble breathing. She was administered the last rites, and she died on 17 November 1796 at 9.45 pm without having regained consciousness. Two days later, the new Emperor Paul retrieved the coffin of his father from the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, and it was placed next to Catherine’s for her lying-in-state. They were buried together at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul.
In 1788, Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm, wrote to her and called her “Catherine the Great.” She replied to him, “I beg you no longer to call me Catherine the Great, because… my name is Catherine II.” After her death, many Russians began calling her Catherine the Great. She had come to Russia as an obscure German Princess; she would be remembered for bringing a Golden Age to Russia.