Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

How a Woman Dethroned a Man

We have told bow one Catharine, of lowly birth and the captive of a warlike raid, rose to be Empress of Russia. We have now to tell how a second of the same name rose to the same dignity. This one was indeed a princess by descent, her birthplace being a little German town. But if she began upon a higher level than the former Catharine, she reached a higher level still, this insignificant German princess becoming known in history as Catharine the Great, and having the high distinction of being the only woman to whose name the title Great has ever been attached. We may here say, however, that many women have lived to whom it might have been more properly applied.

In 1744 this daughter of one of the innumerable German kinglings became Grand Duchess of Russia, through marriage with Peter, the coming heir to the throne. We may here step from the beaten track of our story to say that Russia, at this period of its history, was ruled over by a number of empresses, though at no other time have women occupied its throne. The line began with Sophia, sister of Peter the Great, who reigned for some years as virtual empress. Catharine, the wife of Peter, became actual empress, and was followed, with insignificant intervals of male rulers, by Anne, Elizabeth, and Catharine the Great. These male rulers were Peter II., whose reign was brief, Ivan, an infant, and Peter III,, husband of Catharine, who succeeded Elizabeth in 1762. It is with the last named that we are concerned.

Peter III., though grandson of Peter the Great, was as weak a man as ever sat on a throne; Catharine a woman of unusual energy. For years of their married life these two had been enemies. Peter had the misfortune to have been born a fool, and folly on the throne is apt to make a sorry show. He had, besides, become a drunkard and profligate. The one good point about him, in the estimation of many, was his admiration for Frederick the Great, since he came to the throne of Russia at the crisis of Frederick's career, and saved him from utter ruin by withdrawing the Russian army from his opponents.

His folly soon raised up against him two powerful enemies. One of these was the army, which did not object, after fighting with the Austrians against the Prussians, to turn and fight with the Prussians against the Austrians, but did object to the Prussian dress and discipline, which Peter insisted upon introducing. It possessed a discipline of its own, which it preferred to keep, and bitterly disliked its change of dress. The czar even spoke of suppressing the Guards, as his grandfather had suppressed the corps of the Strelitz. This was a fatal offence. It made this strong force his enemy, while he was utterly lacking in the resolution with which Peter the Great had handled rebels in arms.

The other enemy was Catharine, whom he had deserted for an unworthy favorite. But her enmity was quiet, and might have remained so had he not added insult to injury. Heated by drink, he called her a "fool" at a public dinner before four hundred people, including the greatest dignitaries of the realm and the foreign ministers. He was not satisfied with an insult, but added to it the folly of a threat, that of an order for her arrest. This he withdrew,—a worse fault, under the circumstances, than to have made it. He had taught Catharine that her only safety lay in action, if she would not be removed from the throne in favor of the worthless creature who had supplanted her in her husband's esteem.

Events moved rapidly. It was on the 21st of June, 1762, that the insult was given and the threat made. With in a month the czar was dead and his wife reigned in his stead. On the 24th Peter left St. Petersburg for Oranienbaum, his summer residence. He did not propose to remain there long. He had it in view to join his army and defeat the Danes, his present foes, with the less defined intention of gaining glory on some great battle-field at the side of his victorious ally Frederick the Great. The fleet with which Denmark was to be invaded was not ready to sail, many of the crew being sick; but this little difficulty did not deter the czar. He issued an imperial ukase Ordering the sick sailors to get well.

On going to his summer residence Peter had imprudently left Catharine at St. Petersburg, taking his mistress in her stead. On the 29th his wife received orders from him to go to Peterhof. Thither he meant to proceed before setting out on his campaign. His feast-day came on the 10th of July. On the morning of the 9th he set out with a large train of followers for the palace of Peterhof, where the next day Catharine was to give a grand dinner in his honor.

It was two o'clock in the afternoon when Peterhof was reached. To the utter surprise of the czar, there were none but servants to meet him, and they in a state of mortal terror.

"Where is the empress?" he demanded.



No one could tell him. She had simply gone,—where and why he was soon to learn. As he waited and fumed, a peasant approached and handed him a letter, which proved to be from Bressau, his former French valet. It contained the astounding information that the empress had arrived in St. Petersburg that morning and had been proclaimed sole and absolute sovereign of Russia.

The tale was beyond his powers of belief. Like a madman he rushed through the empty rooms, making them resound with vociferous demands for his wife; looked in every corner and cupboard; rushed wildly through the gardens, calling for Catharine again and again; while the crowd of frightened courtiers followed in his steps. It was in vain; no voice came in answer to his demand, no Catharine was to be found.

The story of what had actually happened is none too well known. It has been told in more shapes than one. What we know is that there was a conspiracy to place Catharine on the throne, that the leaders of the troops had been tampered with, and that one of the conspirators, Captain Passek, had just been arrested by order of the czar. It was this arrest that precipitated the revolution. Fearing that all was discovered, the plotters took the only available means to save themselves.

The arrest of Passek had nothing to do with the conspiracy. It was for quite another cause. But it proved to be an accident with great results, since the Orlofs, who were deep in the conspiracy, thought that their lives were in danger, and that safety lay only in prompt action. As a result, at five A.M. on July 9, Alexis Orlof suddenly appeared at Peterhof, and demanded to see the empress at once.

Catharine was fast asleep when the young officer hastily entered her room. He lost no time in waking her. She gazed on him with surprise and alarm.

"It is time to get up," he said, in as calm a tone as if he had been announcing that breakfast was waiting. "Everything is ready for your proclamation."

"What do you mean?" she demanded.

"Passek is arrested. You must come," be said, in the same tone.

This was enough. A long perspective of peril lay behind those words. The empress arose, dressed in all haste, and sprang into the coach beside which Orlof awaited her. One of her women entered with her, Orlof seated himself in front, a groom sprang up behind, and off they set, at headlong speed, for St. Petersburg.

The distance was nearly twenty miles, and the horses, which had already covered that distance, were in very poor condition for doubling it without rest. In his haste Orlof had not thought of ordering a relay. His carelessness might have cost them dear, since it was of vital moment to reach the city without delay. Fortunately, they met a peasant, and borrowed two horses from his cart. Those two horses perhaps won the throne for Catharine.

Russian Drosky


Five miles from the city they met two others of the conspirators, devoured with anxiety. Changing to the new coach, the party drove in at breakneck pace, and halted before the barracks of the Ismailofsky regiment, with which the conspirators had been at work.

It was between six and seven o'clock in the morning. Only a dozen men were at the barracks. Nothing had been prepared. Excitement or terror had turned all heads. Yet now no time was lost. Drummers were roused and drums beaten. Out came soldiers in haste, half dressed and half asleep.

"Shout 'Long live the empress!'" demanded the visitors.

Without hesitation the guardsmen obeyed, their only thought at the moment being that of a free flow of vodka, the Russian drink. A priest was quickly brought, who, like the soldiers, was prepared to do as he was told. Raising the cross, he hastily offered them a form of oath, to which the soldiers subscribed. The first step was taken; the empress was proclaimed.

The proclamation declared Catharine sole and absolute sovereign. It made no mention of her little son Paul, as some of the leaders in the conspiracy had proposed. The Orlofs controlled the situation, and the action of the Ismailofsky was soon sanctioned by other regiments of the guard. They hated the czar and were ripe for revolt.

One regiment only, the Preobrajensky, that of which the czar himself was colonel, resisted. It was led against the other troops under the command of a captain and a major. The hostile bodies came face to face a few paces apart; the queen's party greatest in number, but in disorder, the czar's party drawn up with military skill. A moment, a word, might precipitate a bloody conflict.

Suddenly a man in the ranks cried out, "Oura! Long live the empress!" In an instant the whole regiment echoed the cry, the ranks were broken, the soldiers embraced their comrades in the other ranks, and, falling on their knees, begged pardon of the empress for their delay.

And now the throng turned towards the neighboring church of Our Lady of Kasan, in which Catharine was to receive their oaths of fidelity. A crowd pushed in to do homage, composed not only of soldiers, but of members of the senate and the synod. A manifesto was quickly drawn up by a clerk named Tieplof, printed in all haste, and distributed to the people, who read it and joined heartily in the cry of "Long live the empress!"

Catharine next reviewed the troops, who again hailed her with shouts. And thus it was that a czar was dethroned and a new reign begun without the loss of a drop of blood. There was some little disorder. Several wine-shops were broken into, the house of prince George of Holstein was pillaged and he and his wife were roughly handled, but that was all: as yet it had been one of the simplest of revolutions.

Catharine was empress, but how long would she remain so? Her empire consisted of the fickle people of St. Petersburg, her army of four regiments of the guards. If Peter had the courage to strike for his throne, he might readily regain it. He had with him about fifteen hundred Holsteiners, an excellent body of troops, on whose loyalty he could fully rely, for they were foreigners in Russia, and their safety depended on him. At the head of these troops was one of the first soldiers of the age, Field-Marshal Munich. The main Russian army was in Pomerania, under the orders of the czar, if he were alert in giving them. He had it in view to annihilate the Danes, to show himself a hero under Frederick of Prussia; surely a handful of conspirators and a few regiments of malcontents would have but a shallow chance.

Yet Catharine knew the man with whom she dealt. The grain of courage which would have saved Peter was not to be found in his make-up, and Munich strove in vain to induce him to act with manly resolution. A dozen fancies passed through his mind in an hour. He drew up manifestoes for a paper campaign. He sent to Oranienbaum for the Holstein troops, intending to fortify Peterhof, but changed his mind before they arrived.

Munich now advised him to go to Cronstadt and secure himself in that stronghold. After some hesi- tation he agreed, but night had fallen before the whole party, male and female, set off in a yacht and galley, as if on a pleasure-trip. It was one o'clock in the morning when they arrived in sight of the fortress.

"Who goes there?" hailed a sentinel form the ramparts.

"The emperor."

"There is no emperor. Keep off!"

Delay had given Catharine ample time to get ahead of him.

"Do not heed the sentry," cried Munich. "They will not dare to fire on you. Land, and all will be safe."

But Peter was below deck, in a panic of fear. The women were shrieking in terror. Despite Munich, the vessels were put about. Then the old soldier, half in despair at this poltroonery, proposed another plan.

"Let us go to Revel, embark on a war-ship, and proceed to Pomerania. There you can take command of the army. Do this, sire, and within six weeks St. Petersburg and Russia will be at your feet. I will answer for this with my head."

But Peter was hopelessly incompetent to act. He would go back to Oranienbaum. He would negotiate. He arrived there to learn that Catharine was marching on him at the head of her regiments. On she came, her cap crowned with oak leaves, her hair floating in the wind. The soldiers had thrown off their Prussian uniforms and were dressed in their old garb. The were eager to fight the Holstein foreigners.

No opportunity came for this. A messenger met them with a flag of truce. Peter had sent an offer to divide the power with Catharine. Receiving no answer, in an hour he sent an offer to abdicate. He was brought to Peterhof, where Catharine had halted, and where he cried like a whipped child on receiving the orders of the new empress and being forcibly separated from the woman who had ruined him.

A day had changed the fate of an empire. Within little more than six month form his accession the czar had been hurled from his throne and his wife had taken his place. Peter was sent under guard to Ropcha, a lonely spot about twenty miles away, there to stay until accommodations could be prepared for him in the strong fortress of Schulusselburg.

He was never to reach the latter place. He had abdicated on July 14. On July 18 Alexis Orlof, covered with sweat and dust, burst into the dressing-room of the empress. He had a startling story to tell. He had ridden full speed from Ropcha with the news of the death of Peter III.

The story was that the czar had been found dead in his room. That was doubtless the case, but that he had been murdered no one had a shadow of a doubt. Yet no one knew, and no one knows to this day, just what had taken place. Stories of his having been poisoned and strangled have been told, not without warrant. A detailed account is given of poison being forced upon him by the Orlofs, who are said to have, on the poison failing to act, strangled him in a revolting manner by their own hands. Though this story lacks proof, the body was quite black. "Blood oozed through the pores, and even through the gloves which covered the hands." Those who kissed the corpse came away with swollen lips.

That Peter was murdered is almost certain; but that Catharine had anything to do with it is not so sure. It may have been done by the conspirators to prevent any reversal of the revolution. Prison-walls have hidden many a dark event; and we only know that the czar was dead and Catharine on the throne.