Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Death of Catherine the Great

Many myths surround the life and death of Catherine II of Russia - whom we know best as Catherine the Great; born of misogyny and the willingness of the public to believe any old falsehood no matter how logic-defying it might be, simply because it's about a powerful person, these half-truths, falsehoods, and outright damn lies form most of the core of the public knowledge about the enlightened despot who brought the Renaissance to Russia.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBorn in May 1729, the daughter of a Prussian general and Prince, her birth name was Sophie; it changed after her engagement to the Tsar of Russia's heir, the future Peter III, when she converted to the Russian church.

Her new husband was among the weakest Tsars ever, unable to even consummate their marriage for a dozen years; in lieu of a functioning husband, in the style of her day and class she took a series of lovers including Sergei Saltykov, Charles Hanbury Williams, and Stanislaw Poniatowski.

Becoming Tsarina in January 1762, she didn't have to wait long for her husband to make the necessary misstep; in July of that year the Leib Guard revolted, deposed her husband, and proclaimed her Empress in her own right. 3 days later her husband was dead, and in short order the only other credible claimants to the throne (Ivan VI and Princess Tarakanova) had perished as well. Whether or not she had any foreknowledge of any of these killings is a matter for speculation. What is known, though, is that over the next 34 years of political turmoil, scientific and philosophical progress, and a general flowering of the arts, Catherine the Great earned her honorific, even though in later years she tended towards intolerance, especially toward serfs.

She died on this day in 1796, following a stroke she'd had in the bath, and not as a result of being crushed beneath a horse with which she was having sex, which was a French myth oft-repeated about any number of powerful women who'd both preceded and followed her.

Catherine the Great was renowned in her lifetime for her support of the arts, and the arts, in return, have been very good to her; she's been portrayed on the silver screen by such legendary beauties as Elisabeth Bergner, Marlene Dietrich, Julia Ormond, and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
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