This is not my story.
This was never my story.
This will never be my story.
But I will tell it anyway.
I was young. Only nineteen years old. Too proud to call myself naive. Too intelligent to call myself ignorant.
To learn what she had already known: there is only room for one powerful woman in the history books.
The bells rung hollow across the opulent, cavernous room, echoing off handcrafted wooden staircases, the ivory sculptures, the vases painted with stories, the gold stitched books pressed together as stars from squinted eyes. I shifted in my skirts self-consciously. My fingers grazed my book protectively, its leather soft like the cheek of one of my young children. I hunched over the Historical and Critical Dictionary, startling as if I had been caught doing something illicit. I considered Pierre Bayle an old friend, although we would never meet, stranded by death and distance. I imagined we could have had marvelous discussions. I folded the book down carefully, many considered Bayle controversial, as he readily criticized the church, I enjoyed simmering in the skepticism, like an eau emanating from its pages, both as a burgeoning philosopher and a supporter of the church. I retrieved the letter at my side, delivered by a courier this morning.
Father had sent me one of his rare letters: a year late. General Roman Illarionovich Vorontsov of the noble Vorontsov family, “Roman the Slasher”, had scarce contact with his third daughter, that being me, of course. I had been propelled into the hands of my uncle, Mikhail Vorontsov, at a young age, now the Imperial Chancellor. My mother passed before my third birthday. All I had left from her were the memories, not my own, imparted to me from half-minded ramblings of my father, long after the guests had left.
I read over the elegant text, congratulating me on the birth of my daughter Anastasiia, who has already surpassed a year in age. I thought of my husband, of his would be sly quirk at my father’s convenient delay. I had fallen quickly and hopelessly in love with Prince Mikhail Ivanovich Dashkov, becoming Princess Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova-Dashkova before my sixteenth birthday. My hand cramped while writing out my full name. Our two children were born before my nineteenth. The children were both with Mikhail back in Moscow with his family. I was relieved to be out of the scrutiny of my in-laws, parsing out my poorly spoken Russian, yielding a disproportionate amount of time to the care of my children and forced to carry out card games, instead of perusing philosophical texts. I fancifully thought my books missed my company as I felt misplaced among my extended family. The prim princess they expected, apt at small talk, party planning, and pleased ignorance, was not found within me.
One thing my father did excel in was granting me an education. As a woman of the 18th century, I was lucky to be fluent in French, Russian, German and Italian, with a passion both for math and philosophy. After I attended the funeral of my godmother, Tsarina Elizaveta, I planned to return to Moscow to study mathematics at the University of Moscow. In many regards, I felt separated me from the fellow woman. Sometimes when stranded from my library, from academic society, I felt isolated.
She was one of the first to know of my imminent marriage with Mikhail, the first to congratulate me. I remember the sway of the carriage, Mikhail’s gentle hand at my back, as we broke the news to her. Her smile was much wider than the public ever saw. I was still new to life, knowledgeable, but innocent to politics. It was a time before. Before I became a wife and a mother when I had yet to experience the world, to know its tragedies.
It felt thrilling to be back in Saint Petersburg, so strongly reminiscent of my childhood, free of expectations, free of duties to husband and child. Here, I was only little Yekaterina darting between and striking up a conversation with members of the Russian Court. Yet, I could feel their perception already change, the shift in their tones, the adult respect that I clutched after as a child. It was Princess Dashkova now, with the mighty families of Vorontsov and Dashkov behind me.
I was curious to see Catherine, although 14 years my senior, she was one of the only ones who I remember, at 15, who held my opinion of importance. I found a kindred spirit in her ambition, in her disregard of the limits of gender. Catherine and I were often confused in conversation, the older Catherine and the younger Catherine. But while she, originally Prussian, went by anglicized version, and I by Yekaterina. Catherine was married to my godfather, Peter III, who was soon to be the Tsar, and the nephew of the deceased Tsarina Elizaveta. The last time I saw her was at my wedding before I was whisked to Moscow. But my return, although without my husband, signaled my reinstallation in the Russian Court.
The Court was renown around the world. It was the diamond onto a bracelet, the lion among gazelles. My memories of the Court ring clearly in my mind. The ridiculous lavishness of our affairs, the balls, and masquerades that would swing into the morning, the stars joining the guests in dance, the food sumptuous and laid out like a gown. I had already attended several of these events since arriving back in St. Petersburg, learning quickly that the vodka went straight to my head, and had me revealing the most dastardly things, but thankfully it seemed to be the case for all the guests, along with the collective amnesia the next morning. In the future, I hid under the guise of drunkenness, to procure the secrets from the highbrow ladies of the court. Catherine had been away on travel, Peter consorting with different women at each event. I saw how the ladies mocked him behind his back, saw how their husbands nodded infinitesimally in agreement.
A maid sidled into the room, hesitant of a prospective harsh remark. I folded up the letter neatly, tucking into a square to fit within my corset. My dark hair pooled around my shoulders, I had slipped out of my chambers before my maid could do my hair into the torturously uncomfortable fontanges. Mikhail hypothesized they were invented to keep women from thinking by inducing searing headaches. Since then, I’ve refused to wear them on principle. I did usually tie my hair back with a pin, preferring it out of my face.
It was time to join my godfather, the Grand Duke Peter III, and the Grand Duchess Catherine II for breakfast. I set my book back on its shelf, unfurled my dress, and marched as confidently as could down the halls. I tried to capture the stride of the men I saw traipsing across the halls, the innate authority in their step that was deliberately polished out of the ladies of the court. I was a curiosity without my husband beside me. I had heard the whispers, but I would regain my place, I would earn my place.
I soon arrived at the Green Dining Room, delicately ornate, white walls intricately carved. In the absence of color, the texture of the room propelled out from the walls. Peter and Catherine stood at the sight of me. Peter was already inebriated at this early hours, his eyes slow and glassy. He stumbled to me, her face almost a sickly pale, his eyes large and pronounced. He took my hand, which he hastily pressed his lips to. “Kat, I see you’re looking-” his eyes lazed over me, “healthy.” I flushed, although I was never known for looks, his dig still flustered me.
“And you, dear godfather, are looking positively wretched. Drunk at what? Nine o’clock in the morning. Once were the days when you would remain sober until 10.”
A tense pause. Then Catherine laughed, a full belly laugh strangled by her corset. Peter smiled, patting me absentmindedly on the shoulder, “Still the indecently witty young lady I remember. Mikhail hasn’t yet reformed you yet?”
I bristled, “If one needed to be reformed, it would be you.” I glanced over at Catherine, “but I’m afraid that’s too mighty a job to wish upon anyone: man or woman.” I walked over to Catherine, before I could respond with anything else incendiary. Peter could only take my insults so far, before his temper was revealed.
“Grand Duchess Catherine,” I greeted, curtsying. Peter huffed as I paid greater courtesy to his wife than him.
“Princess Dashkova,” she tilted her head, mirth softening her strong figure. She was smaller than you’d expect, but this was negated by her head held high, her all observing eyes, shoulders straighter than soldiers. “I look forward to your presence on the court.” She sat, disregarding her still standing husband, “Join me as I make the final arrangements for the funeral and coronation.”
I could see Peter wince, stumbling back into his seat. Grief thick as his fur coat curdled around him.
I lifted my eyebrows. While I was close with the Tsarina, the physical distance between us shortened our connection. Her death was no great sorrow to me, similar to mourning the ending of a season. It was predictable. All humans must die. Tsars were not excluded. As the future Tsar, Peter needed to be strong, a formidable force to guide mighty Russia, not beguiled by grief and drink. Silently, I compared the two future leaders seated before me. One slouched, intoxicated, hazy with emotions. The other back straight, eyes sharp, mind clear. I ruminated on the discrepancies as I fielded questions about the well being of Mikhail, my young children: Pavel and Anastaiia. We were served bliny, and chai.
Peter was softer when drunk, the cruel callouses the court had left on his countenance caroled away by drink. When sober, he would fling insults, shield himself off, attempt to humiliate those considered close to him. The vodka made him manageable.
I was never gladder for my marriage to Mikhail than while watching the strained interactions between Peter and Catherine. The way she would tense when his arm brushed past hers, how their conversation was stilted, how silence, while their modus operandi, still felt uncomfortable between them. I hoped the desolate state of the union was not a result of time, but a true disparity of spirits.
A courier scurried into the room, holding a long scroll. “Grand Duke, Grand Duchess,” he bowed deeply, “I have been sent to inform you that Prussia requests Russia’s assistance against Sweden in Pomerania.” His words were fast, stumbled over each other, like toddlers curious for the last sweet.
Catherine stood at once, while Peter barely registered the arrival. “Prussia requests?”
The courier nodded quickly. “Yes, Grand Duchess, considering you and the Grand Duke are Prussian.”
Although not possible, it felt as if Catherine grew larger. Her hair changed from stylish to menacing. Her eyes from welcoming to cold. “It would do you well to understand that we are no longer Prussian. That regretful title does not belong to me. It belonged to Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst. Do you know my name, courier?”
“Grand D-duchess Ca-Catherine,” he repeated nervously.
He nodded spastically, exiting from the room, forgetting he was supposed to bear a response.
A faint horn sounded to announce another guest’s arrival. My older sister of four years appeared in the doorway. While neither of us were lauded for our looks, I at least took care of my appearance. I kept myself clean and respectable, while she, as I remembered from the last time we talked, left noses curled in her wake due to her distaste of washing. She also employed a discourteous vocabulary, filled with words never a lady should speak. I feared we both adopted a brashness from our father, but I was surprised at her galeness to show up, uninvited from the forced smile on Catherine’s face, at the Royal Palace.
“Yekaterina,” she called out. I stood to greet her, her arms grappled around me in a clumsy hug. “You look well, sister of mine.” Spittle flew from her mouth as she spoke.
I patted her gently. Although, I was four years her junior, it was I who held the court’s respect. Intelligence wins out over age many times over. “It is nice to you see you again Eliza.”
“Semyon and I have been looking forward to you visit,” she noted. Semyon was our younger brother. The brother between us in age Alexander, was off in London, representing Russia at the Court of St. James.
“We will have to all have dinner during my visit.”
“Yes, we must. Perhaps Uncle Mikhail as well.”
I nodded, then respectfully tilted my head to the Catherine and Peter, who Eliza had failed to acknowledge.
Peter lumbered over, his eyes clearer than before. Eliza draped herself over him, pressing a kiss to his cheek. He casually wrapped an arm around her waist.
I sipped on the scene: tensed Catherine, Peter, and Eliza comfortable in each others’ arms. Breakfast continued on with Peter and Eliza babbling to each other, their intimacy mocking Catherine. Finally Catherine stood, distaste shuddering her stance. “Princess, I must show you where we intend to host the parade for the Tsarina Elizaveta.”
As Catherine and I exited the room, our footsteps echoing down the long hall, wisps of our breath visible in the frosty air, I spoke, “I didn’t realize you regularly dined with my sister.”
Her laugh was light, “I do not dine with her, my husband though…dines with her often.” She raised her eyebrows.
“You must not mistake our marriage for one of love like yours. Ours has been purely political.” She raised her brow, “Although his continual, blatant disrespect in front of guests, drives me...bonkers.¨ Her lips lifted upwards at the unfamiliar word. “How are your studies?”
“Excellent. I’m rereading Bayle and Boileau while I’m here, taking advantage of your extended library. I’ve also been reinforcing my Italian and German. After the coronation, I plan on continuing to University of Moscow.” My words were rehearsed, waiting for the remark distasting how a girl of my promise was wasting her time on education, but Catherine surprised me.
“What are you intending to study?”
“You were always such a bright girl.”
“Thank you Grand Duchess.”
Her eyes narrowed, “Don’t you think we are beyond that? With Peter and Eliza, we are practically related, no?” A barely imperceptible pain splintered her words. “Catherine will be fine when it’s just the two of us.”
“Now I want to hear more of Bayle. I believe I’ve read half, but I lost my copy and have not yet retrieved the palace copy. My duties of late have not left much time for reading.”
We got lost in conversation discussing the different philosophers I had been studying. Catherine was quick with her wit, possessing surprising knowledge of thinkers both popular and obscure.
“May I speak frankly...Catherine?”
“I have not known you to speak anything but.”
“I think Peter will be a woefully inadequate King. I know my godfather. He is unsuited for the throne.”
She froze, stunned by my bluntness. “Tsarina Elizaveta picked him out,” she repeated back rotely.
I nodded, “Do you agree with her choice?” I continued when she stayed silent, ¨Because from what I´ve seen I think you would be a better Tsarina.¨
¨I will be Tsar Consort,¨ she contended.
¨-which is nothing more than a pretty face at the Tsar´s side. We need a Tsar like you. One who knows politics, one who actually possesses intelligence.¨ My age gave me an unhesitant brashness in pursuit of her concession. ¨Peter need not ruin the Russian Empire, playing with his toy soldiers.¨
She smiled, a bitterly fond twist to her lips.
“It is you who takes charge of the situation like you did the courier in there.”
¨And how do you suppose launching such a…coup?”
“Details can always be worked out later. First, we would have to make you regent, the sole heir, for your son and dispose of Peter. ”
She raised her eyebrows. “You are only nineteen Yekaterina. You should be learning, not plotting overthrows.”
“What better way to learn?” I commented somewhat upset. I crossed my arms. “I thought my age didn’t matter. You told me it didn’t matter, that if I was capable nothing could hold me back.”
Her eyes narrowed, “Your confidence is admirable, but it may cross you one day. Not many men tolerate a confident woman; they would call her arrogant, they would tell her she was filling a place meant for a man.”
“How others perceive me does not matter.” I shook off her words.
“We both know that untruth. Unfortunately it matters very much so.”
I sighed, “Good thing I don’t want to be Queen. I want you to be.”
“Yekaterina, I will think about it.”
“See, you’ve managed to appease even me. What better ruler could there be?” I joked.
She laughed. I can remember still, how weighty a pride it was to have Catherine’s attention focused onto me. “Let’s keep in touch, Yekaterina. I could use a young woman like you to keep an eye on the court.”
The cold Russian winter persisted. I celebrated the New Year at the castle. Alternating between reading, writing, eating and sleeping with content.
Peter and Catherine returned to St. Petersburg from Moscow, no longer Grand Duke and Duchess, but as Tsar and Tsarina. I waited for them rather anxiously in the entry hall. Eliza had accompanied them to Moscow for the coronation at the Cathedral of the Dormition, but I resisted traveling back and forth once more, knowing I might be convinced to stay in Moscow to care for my children. I had already extended my stay once Catherine requested I help her corral respect of the court, but I would have stayed regardless of if she asked. There was this addicting quality to the politics of the court. Every step was a game, a ground that kept shifting beneath your feet. But this did not scare me, it invigorated me. I felt alive for once.
I had gathered support among the other noble families. I made small talk when necessary, attending balls as the winter stretched on, turning my ear whenever Peter was mentioned. I saw how they viewed Peter, son of the duke of Holstein, raised by German Lutherans. Peter was an outsider. His newfound status as Tsar would not change that.
Arms slipped around my waist, I startled. Mikhail began laughing in my ear. I believe I let out the most unladylike gasp.
”Mikhail!” I swung around to throw myself into my husband’s arms, ”How are you here?¨
He let out that laugh I love: the laugh that managed to engage his whole body. His brown eyes open and carefree. ”I came back with the Tsars.” He said it in a whisper, in faux awe.
”The coronation went well?”
”Well,” he leaned his head affectionately against mine, ”Peter will have quite a challenge in proving himself to the Russian people.”
”Hmm.” I did not comment on what I already knew as I fixed his coat, ”And how are the children?”
Mikhail squinted, ”Small and loud.”
I smiled, ”A painfully accurate description.”
”And how has it been being back with actual adults?”
”I’ve become quite useful here in St. Petersburg, you know.”
”Hmm,” his eyes twinkled, “Well, the royal Dashkovs have given permission for their son, and his lovely wife,” he looked to me meaningfully, “to move to St. Petersburg for an indeterminate period, while the children remain in Moscow.”
I let out a squeal most revealing of my young age.
”Already in Moscow, people are talking about the princess who has charmed the court,” he continued over my glee.
”It is obvious your place is here.” It is these memories that make me miss him most: how he supported me unconditionally, un-bewildered by his pride.
A grand commotion reckoned at the doors. ”Shall we greet our lieges?” He held out his arm for mine to rest on. The familiar cadence of our steps converging comforting. The doors of the Winter Palace were pulled open abruptly. The fur capped soldiers lining the steps. Catherine looked regal in a long, blue gown, Peter covered in various furs. Eliza tottered behind them, her dress lavisciously low.
Catherine’s son was usually smuggled somewhere in the palace, being taken care of by palace caretakers, but tonight he walked between his parents, well one parent. It was common knowledge that he was not Peter’s son, but the son of Gregory Orlov, an artillery officer. Orlov now crossed his arms as he leaned against the wall, his stern lips pursed.
We walked down to greet them. Peter looked flushed and pleased with himself after his first military parade, preening at the small crowd waiting for him by the palace. I suppose this was the first time Peter was lauded. He had been a poor student, ridiculed by his teachers, gossiped about around the court. He gobbled respect like a beggar who had found a wallet.
He cleared his throat, efficiently hushing the crowd. “I have a declaration to make.” I rolled my eyes at his dramatics. Several of the nobles of the court filtered around the room, her faces lifted to hear from their Tsar. “I have decided to withdraw from the Seven Years’ War.”
Pilfered surprise echoed across the room. It was not as if we, the Court, were particularly invested in this distant war, but his decision did seem to favor the Prussians, our enemy of sorts. We waited for more, but this was all he said as he swung into the ballroom to a waiting crowd, gelling his ego with their cheers.
Mikhail took my arm as he led me into the tall room. My neck craned for a glance of Catherine, I wondered if she had been kept informed of her husband’s decision, but Mikhail swung me into a rowdy dance, shocking the genteel nobles around us. Laughter floated into the high chambers like bubbles propelled by children’s lips.
But when I returned to the curves of the room, face rosy from dance. Catherine broke the crowd to join my side. Her arms primly clasped in front of her. “How was St. Petersburg in my absence?” Her words held almost as many layers as the cake my old maid used to make for me.
“Prince Menshikov and Count Rymniksky are displeased with Peter. His statement tonight aided to their cause. Several more nobles are shifting their loyalties away from him,” my voice was hushed as I folded my napkin obsessively in my lap. I glanced up at her meaningfully. “Remember what I told you.”
“How wonderful,” she tittered with such gaiety as if I had revealed the most scintillating of jokes. It was only a brief flick of her eyes that revealed her understanding. “How about your Uncle?”
I followed her gaze. My uncle, Count Mikhail Vorontsov, was making his entrance. His wife, Countess Anna, clutched his arm. I let my eyes settle on them, taking in the couple who raised me. My uncle reminded me of clay, moldable to whoever held power, as long as he was surrounded by the power he was settled. My aunt likely spent the most time with me out of my relatives in my childhood. While not retired with my governess, the Countess would take me to the theatre, to dinners where she would dress me up like a doll, brushing my porcelain face. It was one of those moments, when her touch was maternal, that I slipped and called her Mama. My cheek stung long after the pink outline of her hand faded from my face.
The last time I saw them had been dinner shortly before they left for the coronation. Eliza, Semyon and I huddled outside their manor. I had wrapped my arm around Semyon to cease his shivers. Out of the four siblings, we were the closest in age. But I teased him that the year between us made all the difference. He stayed at Eliza’s residence until he left for University. I squeezed him as Eliza knocked solidly at the door. “So, tell me, have you decided what you are going to do with your life?”
He shook his head, “Kat, you sound like Papa.”
The brisk cold alighted a giddiness in me, surrounded by my family. Eliza glanced at us critically. “Settle you two. He is our uncle, but he is a Count first.”
She held herself higher than usual, her four years seniority finally making an appearance. A maid pulled open the door, her hands almost aggressively reaching for our coats. I winked at Semyon as the coat was yanked from my arms.
Our aunt and uncle awaited us at the end of the long hall. They walked towards us with the slowness only befitting someone of higher rank.
I was surprised when my Uncle reached for Eliza first. I was usually his favorite, the young girl who surpassed even her brothers in the knowledge of the court. Alexander and Semyon were always lost in their heads with dreams of Europe and diplomacy. Eliza was off trying to charm nobles.
I curtsied, somewhat of a stranger in the home I had grown up in.
We were seated along a long, furiously polished table; the dimly lit room alluding to expensive liquor, and stately conversation. My Uncle at the front, Elizaveta, and Aunt Anna at his sides, my brother and I filling in the following seats.
“How is our soon to be Tsar doing, Eliza dear?” he asked as if she was the one staying at the castle, not me. His eyes twinkled as he spoke.
“Well,” her voice was soft now, mimicking, what she presumed, a true ladylike disposition.
“You’ll let him know, the Vorontsov family supports him. It was my best decision to introduce the two of you now that you’re back in St. Petersburg”
I glanced between them, my Uncle heady with the power of his matchmaking. It was easy to discern that my Uncle’s plan all along was to have the ear of the Tsar, whether that meant his niece being his mistress or otherwise.
“I think Catherine will make an excellent Tsarina,” I interrupted.
“Pssh, she is not empress material. I think our Elizaveta would be a much better Tsarina, much better suited for the throne, coming from a proper Russian family.” He smiled at her.
Elizaveta blushed prettily.
I tapped my fingers on my knees under the table in frustration. “But Uncle, you know Peter as well as I do. He is not fit to lead.” Unfortunately, my frustration leaked into my words, reverting me to the fifteen-year-old who had left his house several summers ago.
“Yekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova, you must not speak ill of our future Tsar,” it morphed in a yell, but he quieted himself quickly, “The Vorontsov family is loyal to the king above all.”
I bristled. I despised being lectured down to as if I was dull-witted. “Even with an inadequate one?”
“You are treading close to treason, Yekaterina.”
“It was you, was it not, who helped Empress Elizabeth I, may she rest in peace, stage the coup?”
His eyes raised slowly to me. Semyon slurped rather loudly on his water. Elizaveta’s knife veered across her plate, yielding a high pitched squeak. The silence made the noises commonplace to dining resounding until he spoke. “It is different. I was not a young girl of your delicate sensibilities, nor was I attempting to place a German princess onto the Russian throne.”
I stood, my napkin fluttering to the floor. “Then you’ll excuse me, I’m afraid my appetite has fled along with my delicate sensibilities.” I stirred in my righteousness, empowered by my shield against respectable social standards. My brother reached out for me, “Kat, sit down with us.”
I gathered my skirts, “Semyon, I will see you tomorrow for breakfast. Eliza, Aunt Anna,” I nodded in lieu of a formal goodbye.
My shoes click-clacked down the hall, impeding my dramatic removal from the dining room. The anger felt satiating, consuming. The door slammed solidly behind me as I found myself in the streets of Russia. In my haste, I knocked into a young gentleman, presumably taking a late night stroll. He had collected the familiar coating scent of vodka, a stamp of belonging among the nobility. Dangerously close to splattering into the freshly frozen ice, the young man took hold of my waist to keep me upright. I secured myself, a ruddy blush staining my cheeks. I glanced him over, he wore practical clothing, nothing particularly audacious common among the members of the court, I didn’t recognize him. He held out his hand with the confidence of someone of higher status. “Grigory Potemkin...Miss…”
“That would be Princess. Princess Romanovna Vorontsova-Dashkova.” I hesitated before including Vorontsova in my name, not feeling particularly prideful of my heritage at the moment.
“Ah, the young Princess of the court.”
“You have heard of me?” I yielded with a coyness drilled into me by years of etiquette classes.
“I take it upon myself to know of the powerful players of the Russian Court.” He winked at me.
Suddenly uncomfortable, “My husband will be arriving from Moscow soon,” I mumbled nervously, weary of his compliments.
He laughed, “Do not worry Princess. I know of Prince Mikhail as well, I am also from Moscow.”
“Is that so?”
“I grew up by Smolensk, but I attended the University of Moscow, but... I was expelled.” He whispered this last detail, with the smile of an old friend.
I stayed quiet. It felt inappropriate to pry.
“Ask. I know you wish to know.” He had an easy manner to him, one that yielded more conversation. I wished I could capture this power in a bottle, to sip from when I struggled in social gatherings.
“Well after winning the Gold Medal in 1757,” Grigory brought in arrogantly, a self-aware air, a tease, dampening his brag, “and my visit to Moscow, I realized studying in school was no longer of use to me. I joined the Guards. I knew I could learn all I needed in St. Petersburg. Which is why I am here now.”
“Ah. Then you must be heading back to the palace. You must join me.” I gestured at the snow-laden streets. “This is not the night to make the walk yourself. Travel with me in my troika.” I felt unusually generous, eager to prove that I could be genial.
My troika, a type of carriage type rambling drunks until we reached the brightly lit turrets of the palace. Grigory held out his hand, to let me descend from the troika. He offered to escort me up to my rooms as his duty as the Imperial Guard, all light and teasing.
Catherine encountered us on one of the many staircases. One might have taken it as midnight stroll, but I noted her tensed shoulders, the rapid curl and uncurl of her fingers as she exited from her chambers.
“Catherine,” I called out, then cautious of Grigory’s presence I repeated, “Duchess Catherine?”
She turned, ever the Empress she would be, chin tucked up high. “Yekaterina, you’re back so early. And you’ve brought a guest?”
Grigory fell into a deep bow, completely bent forward at the waist. Then leapt up the steps, with the theatrics of the court jesters who entertained the court, to kneel with one leg at her feet, sweeping her hand to best ow upon it a kiss. “My queen,” he said in a low voice.
Catherine shook her head and laughed. “And who are you?”
“Grigory Potemkin,” he stood, boldly meeting her eye. “Poet. Musician. Architect. Member of the Imperial Guard.” he puffed out his chest.
“So you will be protecting me?” she forwarded coquettishly.
It was clear, to both of them, I was no longer present. I watched their interaction briefly before I exited, skirting to my rooms.
The memory, the dinner, the encounter with Potemkin, drifted over me as I watched my uncle walk into the grand ballroom. I turned to Catherine, “My Uncle is undecided,” I finished my long pause, noting how my sister wandered the perimeter of Peter as he moved about the room. I declined to reveal the depth of my uncle’s addiction to power.
Potemkin walked up then to both of us, “Catherine and Catherine,” he teased, “the two most beautiful women in this room.” The tail of his coat fluttered behind him.
Mikhail returned to my side, wrapping his arm around me possessively, “I would agree.” He stared down Potemkin, but Potemkin had turned his complete attention to Catherine.
“Dance with me, my Tsarina.” Her smile was genuine as she joined him on the dance floor.
My eyes followed Orlov as he moved in to intercept their dance. Peter would also soon reach out to dance with her as was custom.
I turned to my own husband, “What do you think of Potemkin?” We swayed together gently.
“In what regard?” Mikhail wondered, gently touching my side to lead us into the fray, “Do I wish he would stop regaling my wife with compliments, maybe. Do I trust him, yes. He has proven himself loyal and he has made a name for himself with only a distant thread to nobility to cling onto. It is admirable.”
He squeezed my hand lightly, “I can see that you’re scheming. Care to fill me in?”
I leaned my head against his shoulder, “No more politics tonight.”
Peter rose to the stage again, this time tilting unsteadily from the steady supply of vodka fitted into his hand, guards stood nervously at his side. He began a slurred
speech explain why he’s choosing to withdraw from the Seven Year’s War, the crowd half-ignored him until he started spouting his admiration for the Prussian king, Frederich II.
I knew my Uncle, even despite our current animosity, well enough to know he despised the Prussians. But his eyes were on Eliza standing behind the Tsar. I then found Catherine, her chin held tensely by her palm, but she didn’t save him from his copious faux pas as she had done in the past. This time, she let him ramble. I detached myself from Mikhail and quickly crossed the room to her side. “When he finishes, you must stand up and make sure they know where you stand,” I whispered quickly into her ear, pretending to present her with a new glass of water, then crossed back across the room nonchalantly.
Finally, when he wandered to the side, she stood, clapping her hands twice. Instantly the room quieted. Unlike her husband, her words held great sway over the room. “Despite my husband’s admiration of King. I would like to reaffirm my commitment to Russia and the Russian people. I serve the interests of the people.” It was apparent how she switched from plural to singular, separating herself from Peter. She was further proving how well she’d excel as queen. I pictured how she would rule, with me as her advisor, by her side always. But I know now that was little more than a childish fantasy. Power corrupts women too.
Catherine took charge of my arm as we herded out of the room, intent to ‘powder our noses’. She stopped abruptly in the hallway, causing me to almost trip over my skirt. “Kat, I think you were right.”
“I’m afraid I’m unsure what of the many things you are referring to.” I was in a light, teasing mood.
She straightened, “I want to be Queen. ”
“Why?” I shot back, needing her answer.
“I don’t want to spend the rest of my time cleaning up Peter’s messes from his side. I want to be in front. I want to guide the Russian people. I, Catherine Alekseyevna, want to be Queen.”
It was then I knew she’d be queen. It was then that I knew I would follow her, support her anywhere.
It was then she earned my respect.
I lifted my head, knowing this was my first real test of the court, “Vashe Imperatorskoye Velichestvo My Imperial Majesty.” I bent my knees, sweeping out my skirt in a curtsy, using the acknowledgment for the highest position in the land.
It was this moment, I replay when I read about the coup d’etat of 1762, when they never mention me. It was at this moment.
We entered the room to a long long, portentous speech. I was heady with a new responsibility.
Once the speeches ceased, I casually wandered over to Gregory Orlov, lover of Catherine and father of her child according to the gossip of the court. “Orlov,” I greeted, stepping around a frenetically dancing couple.
“Princess Dashkova,” he returned, his eyes not leaving Catherine on the dance floor, who dancing with yet another man. Orlov was an imposing man, tall and portly, armed with a seemingly permanently ingrained glare. I thought he was more stubborn than he was worth, but Catherine favored him. He had captured her attention as an artillery officer, and she had been semi-besotted since. Orlov and I had crossed paths several times before and after my return to St. Petersburg. He disagreed with my uncle on several counts and therefore seemed to harbor a ridiculously persistent grudge against me.
“What did you think of Peter’s…speech.” I leaned forward, “If one could call it that.”
His lips turned up, but his smile was not directed at me, “Peter is the idiot he has always been. There is no news here.”
“Hmm. And you are willing to serve under such an unsatisfactory Tsar,” I challenged him.
Now he turned to me; I had conquered his attention. “Young Dashkova, I am surprised. It seems you possess the courage your uncle lacks.” He downed his drink.
“What is it you propose?”
The days folded together like silks from ballroom dresses. Twice a week, I would dine with Catherine, Grigory Potemkin, and Mikhail. Our talks shifting from philosophy to politics, to languages, to culture and always back to politics. Laughter abounded for our small luncheons, Grigory procuring dramatic imitations of each of us.
It was I who became the ear of our operation. For whom suspects the Princess reading a book. Only one who looks closer would realize she has not turned a page. It was I who infiltrated conversations, I who embellished Catherine’s accomplishments.
I realize now, that I regarded the whole affair as nothing more than a game. I was mired in my own intelligence, in my own confidence that I was pulling the strings of the Russian empire. I positioned myself into every event at the palace, meeting diplomats, foreign prince, and princesses, writing countless letters to friends in Europe. Catherine and I met at least once a day, strolling the carefully, manicured grounds. I bubbled around her, always circling around her step, my excitement effusive. The gossip about Catherine and I rose, cluttering the court. For a semicircle of the sun, I was christened ‘Catherine the Little’ and she, ‘Catherine the Great’.
The tension percolated between Catherine and Peter. They were rarely seen in the same room unless necessary. Peter refused to integrate with the court, mainly residing in his rooms, litigating his way out of meetings by sending Catherine, again. He praised Frederich the II at random, frequent intervals. His loss of the favor of the court felt as inevitable as the sand slowly piling out of the hourglass Peter kept on his desk. He spelled his own demise; it would do history well to remember that.
My sister, Eliza, hounded me for attention whenever Peter was forced to partake in one of his royal duties. It was from her, the surprising source, that the coup d’etat was launched. Summer unfolded purposefully, heat like the punctuation to winter’s run on sentence. It was one of those days where the grass begs you to sit on it, where the sun presses on your skin, drawing close, but never actually crossing to un-comfort, where you could imagine your entire life spent outdoors. Even for a bookworm like myself.
Eliza persisted in drawing me out to the lawns. “Sister, you remain far too wrapped in your books. Look,” she flicked at my chin, forcing my eyes to the sun, “this is what you need.” Her voice is the lightest I remember hers being. She never found love again after Peter. I could disparage him all I liked, but not the love he shared with my sister. It is true, our lives reach their pinnacle, never to be reached again.
Eliza extended herself on our blanket, presuming the most unladylike stance. “Peter has said he wishes to make me his wife,” she said suddenly, almost like a tic.
I straightened, smile waning, “Eliza, you know that does not mean much. Peter is Tsar. Catherine is Tsarina consort” Whenever I spoke to her, I fell into the rhythm of speaking to a child, a fragile child.
She shook her head, a coat of pride slipping over her, for once, she knew something I did not. She reveled in it. “Catherine will not be an issue.” She preened.
I almost laughed, “I’m sure our Tsarina consort will let go over her husband so readily. Nor will the court approve of such a callous move.”
“Peter said he doesn’t care what the court thinks,” her voice was still sickly happy.
“I knew that,” I muttered beneath my breath. “What about Catherine? Where will she go?”
Eliza stretched on the grass contentedly, “Peter mentioned something of a monastery. Honestly, I couldn’t care less. All that matters is Peter and I will be together at last.” I read the honesty in her eyes.
I wish I could write how I kept my calm, how I took in the information with an unrevealing smile, then rushed off to reveal it to Catherine, but unfortunately, life never folds out exactly the way we wish.
“Are you daft?” I yelled at her. Again, it was as if I had raised my hand to a child; fear waltzed in her eyes. My voice quieted, “Eliza, let’s not forget who you are to the Tsar…” venom curled within my mouth, “nothing more than...a whore. You will never become Tsarina. Ever.”
Her shoulders rose, haunches stretched upwards like taffy. “And you are nothing more than…” her voice cracked.
I laughed harshly. The moment echoes, like a psychological vomit destined to arise again.
Eliza stood, her skirts stained from the grass, “Goodbye sister.” ‘Sister’ spat out like a curse.
The gravity of her anger didn’t strike me as I marched towards the palace, weaving through the halls systematically until I came upon Orlov, Catherine, and Potemkin. Both men’s faces were soft towards Catherine, but stances aggressive towards each other.
“Catherine,” I called out urgently. I was out of breath. Unfortunately, books didn’t yield a healthy cardiovascular system.
“Princess,” Orlov and Potemkin echoed after her.
I pulled open one of the overtly grand doors, suitable for welcoming giants. “Inside, all of you.”
They followed me, eyes raised.
“He’s going to send you to a monastery.”
Catherine laughed nervously, “Peter wouldn’t dare. He doesn’t have a strong enough backbone.”
“He may not have a backbone, but he does love my sister. Enough to make her queen.”
Her lips curled down.
Potemkin instinctively reached out, “Tsarina, you know you have the support the military. We must take action. You belong as Queen. You already are mine.”
I rolled my eyes, knowing behind his verbose sweetness, lay an intelligent mind.. “I agree with Potemkin. Catherine, our plan must be put into action now.”
“It is impatient men who get overthrown. Mind you, I will wait until opportunity. What was it Rousseau said, ‘Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.’ Patience...all of you.”
And wait we did. Patience did not become me as it does now. At nineteen, a year stretches far longer in perspective, than a year in old age. Those months felt as if sculpted with honey. But slowly they did pass.
It was at breakfast one day when Peter announced he was to leave for Oranienbaum.
“Why?” Catherine inquired politely, stirring her food half-heartedly.
“I wish to visit some relatives born in Holstein.”
Catherine dragged her eyes up. I watched her movements carefully. It felt in those days, I was a scholar studying the animal that was Catherine. I felt compelled at any moment to defend her. It is how I have empathy to those who follow blindly. Sometimes you can follow blindly with both eyes wide open.
Catherine reached for her glass, “The court does not like to be reminded you are from Holstein. It would do you well to at least pretend you are Russian,” her words were biting, bored.
Catherine turned towards me, “Oranienbaum is a royal residence in the Gulf of Finland, just West of her.” She tilted her head towards her husband, “When do you intend to leave?”
“Within the week, the weather will be nice for travel.”
Eliza tittered on his shoulder, her eyes still avoided me; wounds heal slowly on small minds, “How long will you be gone Peter?”
I cringed; I had mentally antagonized her to the point where her very voice grated on me.
He shrugged, “I’m not sure.”
“Surely,” she lifted her shoulders, “you wouldn’t mind another traveler. It has always been my dream to see the Gulf of Finland.”
I believe I snorted. We had made trips to the Gulf as children on the rare occasion our father turned up, always boisterously drunk. Eliza glared at me, but I barely noticed.
Breakfast ended anti-climatically until Potemkin found Catherine and I, his usually slicked hair ruffled, his coat wrinkled, skin greyer than usual. “I am to go with Peter to Oranienbaum. My superior informed me, not-” he glanced up at the foreboding clock on the wall, “-ten minutes prior. I regret leaving you-” his head lowered, “-my queen, but alas if I am to stay on the Imperial Guard, I cannot disobey. You understand?”
She shrugged, “Perhaps, your trip shall yield knowledge that shall assist us in our….plan.” It felt ridiculous now to think we were so ill-informed, even though it is silly to think one should know the future, but still it felt peculiar that we did not.
The first few days were uneventful, it felt like a present of the summer to have Peter out of the Palace. He was something of a dead weight around the castle. Someone we all stepped around, silencing the click of our shoes. Catherine showed me with great giddiness the majesty of the poetry Potemkin wrote her while they were gone. One arrived each day, white doves bursting the confines of paper. It became something of a habit to wait with Catherine each morning as we watched the courier run through the palace grounds, dodging gardeners and maids. Until one day, the poem did not arrive.
I could see immediately the disappointment that marred her face. Like I remarked above, at this point, I believed I knew Catherine better than anybody. The courier cowered in front her. “I…there was not a letter. I checked-I double checked.” He swiped at his forehead nervously, heat was overwhelming the palace, enunciating his anxiety.
Catherine drew herself up to chastise him for no fault of his own, but I placed my hand on her shoulder, “Catherine, leave it,” I said gently.
She sighed, turning around, thoroughly dismissing him.
The rest of the day was tense. The air even felt pulled taut. It was not until the following morning that we got word. Grigory Potemkin was arrested by the King. It was July 8th, 1962. The day we launched the coup that would change Russian history forever.
I was by her side as she was informed. It felt as if I was always by her side. Catherine had become my older sister, my confidante, my closest friend. She did not speak, but to call Orlov to her chambers. Her voice was cold. It seemed Peter had finally retrieved his backbone.
Orlov rushed in, already dressed as general. “My queen, you must seize this moment. The power of Russia stands to be taken by your hands.” He bowed deeply, spastically as if compelled by seizure.
Catherine’s shoulders seemed to expand, her neck elongating, her back pulled straighter: the crown belonged onto her head. “Orlov, if we are to do this. I will not have Russian blood spilled.”
I smiled, “You are of the most kind, my majesty,” I swept into a curtsy.
She nodded at me, half queasily and I steadily took over. “Orlov, send someone down to prepare our horses.” I pointed at a maid, head tilted up, ears unhearing, in the corner of the room, “You, go down at procure two sets of mens’ clothing.” I fiddled with my fingers, “We must first go to the Izmailovsky regiment, the Royal Imperial Guard. They will need to be there to protect you, if Peter decides to do anything drastic.” The words were as rehearsed as the soldiers making rounds around the castle.
Orlov tensed. He could never take orders from a woman well, unless it was one he loved. But he nodded, “She’s right, we need to secure the support of the Imperial Guard.” The fond, secondhand vertigo from power pulsed.
“If Potemkin was here-” I mused.
“He’s not. I will convince the guards on my own right.” She clasped her hands together.
Orlov and the maid left on their respective tasks, leaving Catherine and I alone. I crinkled my eyes thoughtfully, “Are you ready Catherine?”
“For what?” her voice was hollow. “Do you muse Kat, like I do, that I must be here for a reason, beyond the will of God? There is a reason for my being here? And if I am to be here, there is nothing less expected of me than greatness. That sometimes, we awake in a body, in a name, that cannot possibly be our own. We become confined to a certain title, to a culture, to restrained excellence. I was born Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, but how could I live in a name, that I knew could do nothing be hold me back from my destiny.” She turned to me sharply, “This is my destiny. This is my greatness. I will be great.”
I bowed my head, “Empress Catherine...the Great.”
“You may call me that again if you wish,” her intensity shifted rapidly to mirth, then back to seriousness, “Do you know what I speak of?”
I yielded to her questioning, rubbing my cheek thoughtfully, “Do you ask if I dream of power? Then, my answer would be no. Remember, I am Catherine the Little,” I chuckled, “I do not need to be great.” I told her the truth, I did not thirst for power, but I do not think she ever believed me. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to write to Mikhail to inform him of our departure.”
She nodded absently.
I pulled out parchment, a pen and an inkwell, drafting two letters, one to Mikhail, one to the clergyman who would later crown Catherine queen.
The mens’ clothes were far more comfortable than the dresses we forced ourselves into daily, the dresses that required two to yank and tighten into form. I was pleasantly surprised with the great ease I could dress myself. I tucked my bountiful, brown hair into a tight bun, matted to my head, then pulled over a cap. I glanced in the mirror, my harsher features suited a man’s disposition. I slouched my shoulders, and furrowed my brows, much better. Catherine fared less in her new clothes, but she shrugged off her discomfort, raising the curve of her chin.
One is never aware of their heart until they’re nervous, until the heart truly becomes a tangible thing, swearing against its confines, but the heart does not seem to stir in one spot, when enamoured with emotions, the heart enlarges, swelling to the size of your entire body, until your whole being is beating, and pulsing. This is how I felt then, as if my heart had consumed me.
It was a strange sensation to wander the halls without the servants paying you deference at every step. I had to remind Catherine of this, as she glared at every servant who dare not show her the proper attention. Orlov met us by the back entrance to the castle. A smile begged his face, as he fought to control his mirth.
Catherine glanced at his half-smile, “Go ahead, laugh, will you. Your face will freeze that way if you stay like that any longer.”
Orlov had risen a small contingent of men and guards. I nudged Orlov, “Do they know who we are?”
He ignored me, staring forth, “They have all declared their allegiance to the Queen,” he spoke, the words like a ventriloquists’ dream.
The regiment had its barracks a little ways off from the castle. We rode, a solid unit down the cobbled streets of St. Petersburg. Catherine and I hung somewhat in the middle of the pack of horses and men. I imagine our fierceness, the seamless blend of what people conceived us to be, and what we were.
I made the pack halt at my uncle’s house, climbing off my horse, and running up the steps to his house. A maid greeted me by the door, but I bypassed her quickly, my feet knowing the way to my uncle’s office by years of darting through the halls, intent on demonstrating to my uncle my latest capability. I knocked unsteadily, breath coming in short bursts. My uncle opened the door, his lip curling in distaste. I wondered briefly if I had let our relationship suffer so that the sight of me induced distaste, but then I remembered, I was dressed in men’s clothes, hair tucked into a cap. “It’s me, Uncle. Yekaterina.”
He narrowed his eyes, “I see that now. Why are you dressed like one of the soldiers I yell at?”
“Uncle, you must help us. One of the Queen’s…” I struggled to find the right word to describe Potemkin, “was arrested by Peter. Peter wants to send Catherine off to a monastery, but you know as well as I,” I rolled my eyes, “barring recent lapses in judgment, that Russia will be in a far worse place with only Peter at the helm.”
He pulled off his glasses, wiping them across his sleeve. “I do not respect traitors. Peter must have had a reason to arrest her associate, and it seems like it was a suitable choice, given he had partaken in treason like you are,” he tipped his chin down, “Yekaterina, you are delving into dangerous territory. What does Mikhail think?”
“What does it matter what my husband thinks?”
“I think he would not look highly with your dirtying his family name with torture.”
“Like you dirtied ours when you lead the coup to make Elizabeth Empress.”
“Yekaterina, that is enough. You came here looking for my support, and you have my answer. I support the Tsar.”
I called him a few choice words, including hypocrite before I rushed out the door, unable to stomach him any longer. I climbed onto my horse without a word, shaking my head quickly at Catherine.
Izmailovsky regiment had barracks nicer than most, given they were the Royal Imperial Guard. The building, built like a grey block, speckled with openings for windows. The horses neighed uneasily as we approached them. Soldiers uniformly ten yards apart rationed the border. I swallowed, prodding my horse to the front of the pack to speak with the guard approaching us. I leapt off my horse gracefully, swiftly pulling my hat off. Surprise lightened my eyes as my femininity became revealed. He stammered.
“Princess Vorontsova-Dashkova,” I answered for me, “You may know of my father, General Roman Illarionovich Vorontsov.”
Recognition filtered in like the sun alighting a forest canopy.
“My father sent me. He wants to speak to the entire regiment.”
He opened his mouth to question me, then thought better of it.
“Off to it then,” I gestured vaguely behind me, “My father is an impatient man.”
The guard scurried off, and moments later bells sounded through the windows. Catherine disembarked from her horse, a hand laid on my shoulder, “Well done, Kat.”
Orlov’s face turned this purplish color. “Princess,” he intoned demeaningly, “You should have let me do that.”
“And what would you have said?” I questioned, my arms crossed tightly. “Is your father also General Vorontsov? I wasn’t aware we were siblings. But maybe I’m not so surprised, my father’s standards lowered after my mother.”
He was flustered, “The guard would have listened to a man better.”
“Is he not collecting the entire regiment as we speak? Did my words unequal the efficiency, the wherewithal, that yours might have possessed?” My shoulders were clenched tightly together.
I marvel at the scene now. At my youth that had handed me this moxie, as a nineteen-year-old girl to stand tall to an artillery officer, mocking his level of authority.
A gate lifted to welcome us into the courtyard, it rivaled the size of the palace’s, but instead of magnitude for the purpose of ostentatiousness, it was purely functional. I could see the descendance of soldiers like raindrops, fleeing the clouds. Their uniforms were crisp, an amalgamation of the colors of Russia. Our horses clipped to the middle of the courtyard, where another soldier took them, and lead them off. Catherine clasped and unclasped her hands: the only acceptable nervous tic of royalty; I was well aware. I cleared my throat, suddenly, in a courtyard clamored with voices, full of soldiers, silence invaded. “Catherine, you know what you need to do.”
She laughed coldly, “If I did not, what use were those midday meetings, huddled over bliny.” Her hand curled, “Do you think I can do this? That I am, truly capable of being Queen, of leading Russia.” Her eyes flicked around at all the men around us, “Do you think they will follow me?” Doubt felled her voice, like a poison.
“You already lead Russia. They already follow you, whether they are aware of this or not. Your husband has not been king since the day he was crowned. Today, yesterday, and all the days ahead of us are just giving you the proper title, so you are not the master behind the puppet, but the director in charge of the stage.” I preened at the smile induced by my metaphor.
A royal salute launched through the air, indicative of sword fights, and festivities, Catherine looked to me first, reaching out to quickly squeeze my hand, “Wish me luck,” she said lightly, her eyes determined.
“Good luck,” I called, but she was already stepping onto the platform, facing her constituents, facing her new country.
I stepped back, falling into the leagues of soldiers, hearing them clap and hoot. I eyed the generals standing in front, several I had corresponded with myself.
“Today,” she began, “I come humbly before all of you...to ask for your support, for your protection. Russia is floundering beneath the leadership of my husband, thus today, I tell you that I am seeking the Russian throne for the purpose of expanding Russia’s borders, of developing our arts and culture, of spreading the majesty of mother Russia. My husband,” she glanced to the side, borrowing my words, “is woefully inadequate to be your king, but I need your protection until he abdicates the throne.” There were rumbles among the audience. “I am not asking you to make a decision straight away, but I expect your answer by morning when we depart for the Semenovsky Barracks.” We had discussed this next level of the plan, as we rode to Barracks. She stepped firmly, and confidently offstage, as the soldiers saluted her.
Her hands shook as I guided her into the barracks, into the rooms saved for visiting generals. There was a strangeness to the cleanness of the walls, to the lack of audacity. I helped her redress in clothes fit for a queen.
“Dinner is being held now,” I said quietly, “Do you wish to go down and eat with them?”
She shook her head quickly, “No, have them bring food up here, for both of us.”
The food was only lukewarm when it was brought up to us, but Catherine was far too distracted to yell at the poor girl as she would ordinarily. She just pushed her food, then walked over to the bed, flopping herself down rather with a rather unladylike humph. “Catherine, are you okay?”
“Today is the day before the rest of my life,” she revealed almost drunkenly. I glanced back at her glass, untouched on the table.
She pulled her knees up to her chest, ever still a girl at heart. It was this movement that allowed me to move closer, sit beside on the bed. “I suppose it is. But I meant what I said, Catherine.”
“Hmm,” she waved off my words, “It’s going to be difficult, you know.”
“No, being baker.” The wry humor returned to her eyes. She yawned, stretched out onto her pillow, “It would be easier to forget it all, right, to live the proper lady’s life, to think no farther than table setting and etiquette. It would be easier, wouldn’t it, to not strive any farther than that.”
I leaned back, the bare ceiling promising to hold answers. I briefly imagined my life back in Moscow right now, in my own bed, doting onto my children, not hunched down with the future Queen of Russia in utilitarian barracks. Would it be easier to craft dinner parties instead of coups. The thought hadn’t occurred to me.
“It would be easier,” she answered herself, she turned to me, eyes larger than I ever remember them being. “But that’s the thing: it wouldn’t ever be enough. The world is too large, and we are too small to not expect more of life. I think you, my kindred spirit, must understand. A man is born with the mindset that he must conquer the world. For us, we must learn it, we must master it, be the master of our own universe.” Her voice rose, her hand waving about in the air. She closed her eyes, then opened them, turning to me, “I know what happened with your sister, you sacrificed your relationship for me.” She clasped my hand, “You are my sister now. Sestra.” That’s how I remember her. When word of Catherine the Great reaches me from abroad, the first image, flickering like an anxious candle, is her face then. The promise she made to me then, sestra, even all we went through after. She will always be. Sestra.
The morning made itself scarce to the barracks, little light streaming into the room. I ended up passed out on the couch by Catherine’s bed, my neck ached from the awkward angle, my hands tucked under my head. Catherine remained asleep and I could not discern the time, so I sought the hour to write a letter to my dear husband, Mikhail. Once my pen met the unfurled parchment, the words tickled out of me.
Once Catherine rose, we quickly recalibrated into the men’s clothes. Again, I marveled at the utility of their attire. A soldier awaited us by the door. His hand shaking as he pulled off his hat respectfully. Orlov walked up to us quickly, the smudge of a smile plucked on his lips, as if my son had smeared on a smile with his pudgy fingers. “It looks good, my queen.”
With an entourage of soldiers, we made our way to the Semenovsky Barracks. There was this excitement growing, one familiar to the scribe in pursuit of writing history, one that accompanies greatness, or one that spells victory or defeat.
But the fiercest memory that returns from the trip is the tumble in my stomach as if someone had taken a whisk to my innards. The rest, the clomping of the horses' hooves, the swell of the wind against my skin, the mumble of voices, dissolves into the blurred encases of my mind.
The Semenovsky Barrack was a pale yellow with uniform, rectangular windows across from the famous Semenovsky Bridge. Night had befallen Saint Petersburg, stars like punctured parchment. My legs ached as I adapted to the ground after the steady pattern of the horse.
The silhouette of a hooded figure mired the wooden door. There was a procession towards him. It felt recogniscent of a wedding march, or perhaps a funeral march. The faint sound of a candle striking, then light illuminated his face. The members of the clergy revealed themselves: scrawled apparitions of human. Catherine’s hands were tightly clasped in front of her, footsteps rhythmic. As soon as our voices no longer echoed, the priest stepped forward to speak, “Good evening, Grand Duchess Catherine.”
She nodded, “Good evening Father.”
Then he turned, his shadows a step behind him, in a small grey room. Before, it had slightly vaulted ceilings, streaks of black on the walls: the telltale remembrance of furniture that once stood. After, all of these things were still true, but it was the room where Catherine the Great was crowned the only heir to the Russian throne. Beyond everything else, I remember the shadow of the interim crown on her head as if she was no longer human, a new creature: a Queen.
The hushed festivities after that were indistinct, the vodka like was the culprit of my stilted memory. The merriment continued until the sun became a stubborn reminder of the what the festivities were meant to be rejoicing.
The journey was long, the longest I had ever traveled with a group of this size. Every evening was a party, and every meal was a feast. Catherine remained as confident as I ever saw her, the soldiers took to calling her Queen even though it was premature.
It was the second to last evening from when we arrived that Catherine spoke to the troops again. When we arrive at Orianbeaum, I am ordering you to arrest Peter III. If your lives come into danger, retreat. Your blood will not touch the ground of the Oranienbaum estate.” She touched the document in her satchel nervously. I believe I was the only one who knew what it contained, as I had helped draft it myself: a document of abdication, waiting for Peter’s signature. The darker, less moral side of me relished the impending look on my sister’s face when she realized her beloved king was not to be king any longer.
We arrived there early morning, the castle rising. Catherine stood taller, me to her right, Orlov to our left. “First,” she conducted to the servant by the front gate, “take us where you keep your...prisoners.” Orlov and I shared a glance. I had assumed we would take care of Potemkin after securing Catherine as Queen, but she was set in her ways. She was always stubborn, her heart guided her more than she would have liked to believe.
Potemkin was gaunt. His uniform looser, it rippled over his shoulders. As soon as the click of the doors sounded behind us. Catherine rushed to him, circling an arm under his, to support him standing.
“Catherine, my queen, long time not see,” his voice was ever jovial, but there was a rasp to it now, that I do not think ever faded.
Potemkin turned to make eye contact with us all. “I assume the plan has been put into action.” He held his eyes on Orlov as he nodded gravely.
“Well then. It would be my pleasure to hold the sword to Peter’s neck as he signs away his throne.” His tone was cheerful, but Peter was echoed like a curse word.
Catherine laughed lightly, “You may.”
We walked an an odd quadruplet, the queen, the soldier, the poet, and me: the teenage girl at the heart of a coup.
Peter did end up signing the form. The relief on his face as he swirled the last letter lasted for only a moment, but I could see the way his shoulders lightened. Peter, the boy who never intended to be King. I never saw my sister again. When Peter heard of our arrival, he had sent her off. I have not seen her since. This induced a modicum of sadness until I realized it was she, who betrayed Potemkin. Now, years later, I think of her now and again: sometimes just a particular turn of phrase, a pause where our childhood envelopes our silences, where the memory of her swallows me like a wave.
After the coup, when Catherine was firmly instated on the throne, awarding me the Star of the Order of St. Catherine, already making changes for the benefit of the Russian people, did our visits become less frequent. Her disinterest grew like mold, slowly enough that it was noticeable, then uncomfortably evident, demanding your notice. At the time, all I felt was hurt. The slow dismantling of a friendship I had given everything for. It is years, and years later, that I understand why she distanced herself from that nineteen-year-old girl, a girl too similar to herself, a girl whose intelligence threatened her power, who threatened her legacy.
After her coronation, the whispers of me, Catherine the Little, rose to their peak. At first, Catherine laughed when I regaled her with the stories, exaggerated tales of heroics and intelligence. I was too blind to see how her lips downturned, her eyes grew less bright. She exchanged time with me for Potemkin. Too often did I wait outside her meeting rooms eager to discuss my books, my writings, my recent correspondence with this new, brilliant thinker in the West, Voltaire, but all I received was the swish of her gowns as excuse after excuse balanced up precariously like the books in my study.
I sometimes wish women conducted friendships like men, where they spoke their minds simply, rather than edging away from each other in the form of polite niceties, maybe then, the end wouldn’t hurt as much. Catherine had always been insecure before she was Queen, but then I was her confidante, it was I who was able to assure her of her place, but my role had changed: I was the threat. Power had made two intelligent women enemies.
But Catherine did not begin as just my friend, she was my mentor, my hero, my sister, sestra.
The court is a different place when you are not in the favor of the Queen. It was a painful decision to leave St. Petersburg, but I had no place there any longer. Mikhail and I departed to Trotskoye, where we raised our children for two years until Mikhail acquired a cough. That dreaded, stricken cough. The cough that labors far into the night, louder than the owls, deeper than the stars, the one I could not love to health again. Mikhail died, holding my hand, in 1964.
He was twenty years old.
I fled to Europe with my children. Russia held no hold on me any longer.
It is today that I return to St. Petersburg to come face to face with Catherine again. I am a different woman, twenty years later: a mother of two grown children, a widow, an author, a philosopher in my own right. It was only months ago that I received the letter from Catherine, the handwriting as familiar as my own, inviting me back to St. Petersburg, back to the Palace: Catherine the Great had a request.
The rhythm of tying up my hair, slipping into the formal dress of the court after so many years preferring men’s breeches back in Europe, sent me right back to being that nineteen-year-old, that girl with so much to learn of the world. I strode down their halls, no longer self-conscious of my step. I did not owe them anything anymore.
There were new faces in the court, but otherwise, it was as if walking into a mirror, a mirror I gazed into twenty years ago.
The doors swung open to the throne room. And there, at the end of the longest carpet, sitting on her throne: Catherine.
She stood when she saw me, granting me the same respect, as a visiting dignitary. Her eyes were older now, darker, more tired. “Kat,” she called out, the nickname she had once called me, long ago.
I curtsied. “Empress Catherine.” My voice was guarded, shielded by the hurt her words had caused.
She smiled, “Don’t you think we are beyond that?” Her words were an echo of a conversation from years past. Stepping off her pedestal, she walked toward me. Her next words were spoken louder, meant for the nobility to our left and our right, hyenas for gossip, for the return of the princess. “Princess Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova-Dashkova, I would like to appoint you the director of the St. Petersburg Academy of Science.” Each word was a statement in and of itself. There had been no female director of an Academy of Science–ever. I studied her like an old, favorite book I had picked up again.
“To live, again, in St. Petersburg?” I questioned hesitantly.
“I think that would be most efficient,” a smile outlined her words. “What do you say?”
Maybe, it was that Catherine wasn’t threatened by me any longer, maybe she trusted my intelligence, and the depth of my knowledge, maybe she knew directing people, projects, coups, was a skill I relished, but maybe, maybe it was because Catherine the Great made a mistake many years ago, maybe history does have room for two powerful women, maybe our legacies do not have to cancel each others’ out, and maybe, we can lift each other up, together.
I nodded slowly, then surely.
Catherine the Great hugged me tightly, “Welcome back. Sestra.”