“Madame Orlov Could Never Be Empress of Russia”

IN THE FIRST YEARS of Catherine’s reign, Gregory Orlov was always at her side in his scarlet uniform, wearing on his chest the emblem of the empress’s favor: her portrait set in diamonds. The empress loved him as a man and as the hero who, with his brothers, had put her on the throne. He was also, of the four men with whom she had slept, the one who had given her the most physical satisfaction. He rode in the imperial carriage, sitting next to the sovereign, while men of great aristocratic families rode escort outside on horseback. People wishing to make their way at court sought his ear.

Not everyone was fond of him. Some, like Princess Dashkova, complained of his common origins, his sudden rise, his unpolished manners. Catherine was aware that eminent members of the nobility avoided him and his brothers. Knowing this, she did what she could to smooth Gregory’s rough edges and transform him into a grand seigneur. She gave him a French tutor to teach him the language used by cultivated Russians; the effort had little success. Writing to Poniatowski, she tried to explain her situation. “The men who surround me are devoid of education,” she said, “but I am indebted to them for the situation I now hold. They are courageous and honest and I know they will never betray me.”

Her position on the throne complicated her relationship with Orlov. She showered titles, decorations, and wealth on him and his brothers, but Gregory wanted something else. She was a widow now and he sought the prize he considered his service had earned: he wanted her to become his wife. This was more than political ambition. Orlov was a fearless soldier, the same man who, with three bullets in his body, had stood by his cannon at Kunersdorf, and who later had dared to elope with his general’s mistress. Vanity had played a part when he pursued Catherine as a grand duchess, but there was passion, too. Courage was not required; being her lover had not placed him in jeopardy. These relationships, when discreet—and sometimes when indiscreet—were accepted at the Russian court. Empress Anne had had Johann Biron; Empress Elizabeth had had Alexis Razumovsky; Catherine’s husband, Peter III, had had Elizabeth Vorontsova; and Catherine herself had already been the lover of Sergei Saltykov and Stanislaus Poniatowski. In western Europe, royal liaisons were common. Charles II, George I, and George II of England, as well as Louis XIV and Louis XV of France, had officially recognized mistresses. Orlov, therefore, was in no danger because of his relationship with Catherine until he became involved with her in a conspiracy to overthrow the sovereign. For him and his brothers, this was a capital offense. On the other hand, during the months their plot was taking shape, he and Catherine had shared the danger as equals. The fact that he was risking his life for her leveled the difference in their stations; in truth, he had been in a position to do more for her than she for him.

This situation had appealed to Orlov. Men can be attracted to women whom they believe need help. Orlov may have mistaken Catherine for a needy women; she was not. She was brave, proud, and confident. While still a grand duchess, she may have seemed and even felt politically and emotionally vulnerable, but she concealed it well. She was Orlov’s mistress and had borne his child; he had faced death for her sake. She was on the throne because he had helped put her there. He knew all this, believed it balanced out, and was not disposed to play the role of a subordinate. He wanted Catherine to belong to him during the day, in public, not merely for a few nocturnal hours behind silk curtains.

For Catherine, this was impossible. She was no longer a grand duchess and could not remain simply a loving mistress. She was empress of Russia. The role, as she played it, was demanding. She rose every morning at five or six and worked fifteen hours a day. This left perhaps a single hour between the time her official duties ended—usually late in the evening—and the time she fell asleep, exhausted. This was all the time she could spare to be a man’s plaything. She had no time for elaborate lovers’ games, for teasing, for weaving and sharing dreams of the future. She knew she was depriving him of what he wanted, but in her mind, she had no choice. Because of this, she carried a burden of guilt, and it was to lessen this burden that she loaded him with titles, jewels, and estates. They were meant as compensation for not being ready to marry him.

They were not the rewards Gregory wanted. He wanted to marry her, not because he desired the role of prince consort but because he wanted to play the dominant marital role of an eighteenth-century Russian husband. He resented that her work stole hours during which he burned to display and satisfy his passion. He was angry that she spent these hours with men like Nikita Panin and Kyril Razumovsky, whose superior education now seemed to trump his passion and military courage. They advised her on matters about which he was completely ignorant. His sense that she was withdrawing from him drove him to clumsy efforts to force her to remember the debt she owed him and his brothers. He sometimes burst out in public and asserted himself with deliberate rudeness to Catherine. One evening before she left to be crowned in Moscow, at a supper of her intimate circle in the Winter Palace, the conversation turned to the coup a few months earlier. Gregory began boasting about his influence with the Guards. Turning to Catherine, he said how easily he had put her on the throne and how, if he wished, he could remove her with equal ease within a month. Everyone at the table was shocked; no one but Orlov would have dared to speak to the empress this way. Then Kyril Razumovsky spoke up. “Perhaps you are right, my friend,” he said, smiling coolly. “But long before the month was past, we would have you hanging by the neck.” Gregory was stung; it was a reminder that, essentially, he was no more than Catherine’s lover, a handsome, muscular pawn.

Catherine looked for a way to restructure and continue the relationship. When she came to the throne, she believed that she could happily spend the rest of her life with Gregory Orlov. He had been her lover for three years; he was the father of her infant child, Alexis Bobrinsky; he and his brothers had risked their lives for her. Further, atop the pinnacle to which ambition had brought her, she felt the loneliness of power. She needed company and affection as much as passion. For this reason, Catherine considered marrying him.

Orlov became insistent, demanding. He declared that he would prefer going back to being a subaltern in the army rather than acting the role of a “male Pompadour.” Catherine sorted through her own feelings. She dared not refuse him outright. She was not blind to Orlov’s faults. She exaggerated his qualities in front of others, but she knew exactly what he was worth. She knew that there was nothing of the intellectual or man of culture about him and that he was not qualified to participate in the serious business of government.

Orlov could not understand, or would not accept, Catherine’s hesitation. He did not comprehend the years of ambition beginning in childhood; the years of waiting, of hungering for power, of always knowing that she was superior in intellect, education, knowledge, and willpower to everyone around her. Through all of this, she had been forced to wait. Now the waiting was over. If she had to choose between having Orlov as a husband or wielding imperial power—if she could have only one—it would not be Orlov.

Yet the marriage question still tantalized her. There were moments when she thought she might have both Orlov and the throne. For a while, she considered saying yes. Later, she did not know how to say no. She could not afford to alienate the Orlovs; at the same time, she could guess the anger and dismay such a match would unleash in other quarters, particularly in Nikita Panin, who was essential to her in administering the government. To all Russians, but to Panin especially, an Orlov marriage would be seen as jeopardizing Paul’s right of succession in favor of her younger son by Orlov. Indeed, Panin, who was permitted to speak honestly to Catherine, reacted to marriage talk by coldly declaring, “A Madame Orlov could never be empress of Russia.”

At one point, hoping that she might find a precedent for a marriage to Orlov, Catherine decided to explore the rumors that Empress Elizabeth had married her peasant lover, Alexis Razumovsky. She sent Chancellor Michael Vorontsov to call on Razumovsky and tell him that if he would provide proof of his marriage to Elizabeth, he would have the right, as a widower prince consort, to all the honors due a member of the imperial family, a position that would entitle him to a substantial pension. The chancellor found Razumovsky sitting by his fire reading his Bible. The older man listened silently to what the visitor said and then shook his head; already one of the richest men in Russia, he was not interested in honors and did not need money. He rose, went to a locked ivory cabinet, opened it, and took out a scrolled parchment document tied with a pink ribbon. Making the sign of the cross, he touched the scroll to his lips, removed the ribbon, and threw the document into the fire. “Tell Her Imperial Majesty that I was never anything more than the humble slave of the late Empress Elizabeth Petrovna,” he said.

Orlov refused to consider this a significant setback. Razumovsky had been only a handsome peasant with a superb voice, whereas he, Gregory Orlov, and his brothers had raised his mistress to an imperial throne. His attempt to arrange a marriage continued. In the winter of 1763, Alexis Bestuzhev, now aligning himself with the Orlovs against Panin, began circulating a petition to gather support from the high nobility, the members of the Senate, and the clergy, requesting that the empress marry again. The petition’s argument was that, given the frailty and frequent illnesses of Grand Duke Paul, Russia must be provided with another heir. Whether Bestuzhev alone or the Orlovs or Catherine herself were behind this effort, no one knew. But the petition elicited strong opposition, and when Panin got hold of the document, he took it to Catherine, who refused to authorize Bestuzhev to circulate it.

Once Catherine was on the throne, it did not take long for Gregory Orlov’s relationship with the new empress to arouse jealousy in the institution from which the soldier had come. Gregory had always believed that his popularity in the army would be permanent. Now, even as he and his brothers were mounting in imperial favor, they were losing their standing in the army, and even with old comrades in the Guards. The Orlovs’ rise had been too rapid; success had led to pride; pride nourished arrogance; arrogance bred jealousy. It was in October, only a month after her coronation in Moscow, that Catherine’s relationship with Orlov had aroused the discontent of a group of young officers who had taken part in the coup, and had led them to talk of dethroning her in favor of the deposed emperor Ivan VI. Although this mini-conspiracy was quickly snuffed out, this kind of antagonism remained. What if Catherine should decide to marry the tall, handsome soldier? Six months later, the answer came.

In May 1763, Catherine traveled from Moscow to the Monastery of the Resurrection, in Rostov on the upper Volga, making the pilgrimage she had postponed when the struggle with Archbishop Arseniy Matseyevich was nearing a climax. Unfortunately for Orlov, this visit coincided with Bestuzhev’s circulation of a petition asking Catherine to marry again. The result was a rumor that the empress had gone to the monastery in order to marry Orlov in secret. The rumor, spreading through Moscow and greeted first by disbelief, then consternation, triggered a fervent reaction in a young Guards officer, Captain Fedor Khitrovo.

The empress was still in Rostov when she first was told that Khitrovo was plotting to murder all of the Orlovs in order to eliminate them from Catherine’s life. Khitrovo was arrested. Because there also were rumors that people like Nikita Panin and Princess Dashkova were involved, the empress demanded to know who had conceived the conspiracy and who else was implicated. General Vasily Suvorov was directed to investigate.

Khitrovo, Catherine was surprised to learn, had been one of the forty Guards officers rewarded for their services in the coup that put her on the throne. Under interrogation, the young officer declared that he had joined in the coup believing that Catherine was to be proclaimed regent for her son, not reigning empress. In any case, he and his comrades had done for Catherine exactly what the Orlov brothers had done: all had risked their lives to overthrow Peter III. In gratitude, each of the forty had received a decoration and a few thousand rubles. But Gregory Orlov had been ennobled, granted an annual income of 150,000 rubles, become the empress’s favorite, and was strutting about as if he were already prince consort. Khitrovo believed that Catherine’s pilgrimage to Rostov was to permit her to marry her lover. He felt that this would be a national calamity and that it must be prevented.

Under interrogation, Khitrovo told the examiners that his plan was inspired solely by love of country. He insisted that he had acted of his own free will and swore that he had no accomplices. At the same time, he declared that he was not at all opposed to the empress marrying again; in fact; that he was wholeheartedly in favor of Catherine remarrying, provided she chose someone worthy of her throne. As the investigation proceeded, it proved beyond doubt that Khitrovo was not an eccentric madman but was voicing the opinion of many in the Guards and the army. His bearing and his replies under questioning made a strong impression, and he earned the support of his examiners, who decided that they were dealing with an honest, determined patriot whose concern was to save Russia from disaster.

Once it was clear that the investigators sided with the prisoner, no charge could be laid against Khitrovo. Far from being a potential assassin, Khitrovo was now regarded as a hero who wished to save his sovereign. Although the investigation had been conducted before a supposedly secret tribunal, everyone in Moscow knew what was happening. All blamed the Orlovs and exonerated Khitrovo. With public sympathy so obviously on Khitrovo’s side, even the Orlovs did not dare insist that the case be brought; the interrogation lapsed, and there was no trial. Catherine herself recognized that Khitrovo was not her enemy but an honorable officer who was voicing the opinion of the court, the Guards, the army, and the entire city. Privately, she was grateful to the young captain. By demonstrating the almost universal opposition to a marriage, even Gregory would be forced to acknowledge that it was out of the question. She would be able to evade the painful business of having to reject him personally.

The proceedings, far from secret, had aroused intense public discussion—far more than Catherine liked. To end this chatter, she issued, on June 4, 1763, a so-called Manifesto of Silence. To beating drums, people across the empire were summoned into the public squares to listen to heralds reading her proclamation, which declared that “everyone should go about his own business and refrain from all useless and unseemly gossip and criticism of the government.” This had the desired effect, and the Khitrovo affair faded away. Because Khitrovo came from a wealthy family, he suffered no punishment beyond being deprived of his military rank, dismissed from the army, and banished to his country estate near Orel. He died there eleven years later.

Before disappearing completely, however, the Khitrovo affair had repercussions. In the investigation’s first phase, Princess Dashkova’s name had appeared as being among Khitrovo’s alleged accomplices. It was untrue, as Khitrovo himself subsequently made clear, but the Orlovs, knowing how much Dashkova despised them, demanded that she be interrogated. Catherine quashed the idea, but nothing involving Catherine Dashkova could ever remain a secret. The princess publicly declared that she knew nothing about the plot, but she added that if she had known, she would have refused to tell anyone. Then, characteristically, she went on to announce, “If the empress wants me to lay my head upon a block in reward for having placed a crown upon her own, I am quite prepared to die.” It was the kind of flamboyant, exhibitionist remark that Catherine found impossible to tolerate. When Dashkova made certain that her statement was repeated everywhere in Moscow, an exasperated empress wrote to Prince Dashkov and asked him to exercise some authority over his wife. “It is my earnest desire,” she said, “not to be obliged to forget the services of Princess Dashkova, by her forgetfulness of what she owes herself. Remind her of this, my prince, as she gives herself, I understand, the indiscreet liberty of menacing me in her conversation.”

The end of the Khitrovo affair settled a larger problem: there would be no more talk of an Orlov marriage. The public demonstration of how much the Orlovs were hated had shaken Catherine, and she had no desire to further inflame public opinion. There was no further talk of marriage, but Catherine still kept Gregory by her side for another nine years, putting up with his moodiness, his jealousy, and his petty infidelities. “There would never have been anybody else,” Catherine would later tell Potemkin, “had he not grown tired.” The relationship took on an odd psychological balance: she controlled him because she was his sovereign and far superior in intelligence and culture; he, in turn, had power over her because he knew that she was fond of him, was indebted to him, and that she felt a permanent guilt because she would not marry him. For almost a decade, he was the only man in Russia who could make her suffer. The fact was that Catherine had no time for suffering and little enough for passion; she was simply too busy. To compensate, she made Orlov a prince of the empire; she gave him a palace in St. Petersburg and another at Gatchina, set in the middle of an enormous park. He became lord of vast stretches of land in Russia and Livonia. As always, he alone was privileged to wear the empress’s portrait set in diamonds. Officially, he remained one of the empress’s advisers. To please her, he attempted to enter the world of scholarship and intellect the empress admired. He supported the scientist Mikhail Lomonosov. He was interested in astronomy and had an observatory constructed on the roof of the Summer Palace. He offered to become the patron of the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and wrote to persuade Rousseau to come to Russia:

You will not be surprised at my writing to you, as you know everyone has his peculiarities. You have yours; I have mine. This is natural and the motive of my letter is equally so. I see that for a long time you have been living abroad, moving about from one place to another.… I believe that at the moment you are in England with the Duke of Richmond, who no doubt makes you very comfortable. But I have an estate [at Gatchina] which is … [forty miles] … from St. Petersburg where the air is healthy and the water good, where the hills and lakes lend themselves to meditation, and where the inhabitants speak neither English nor French, still less Greek or Latin. The priest is incapable of arguing or preaching and his flock thinks they have done their duty when they have made the sign of the cross. Should you think this place would suit you, you are welcome to live in it. You will be provided with the necessities of life and find plenty of fishing and shooting.

Catherine was probably pleased when Rousseau declined. Her taste in Enlightenment philosophers ran to Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot, who believed in benevolent despotism, rather than to Rousseau, who advocated government administered by thevolonté générale—the “general will”—of the entire population.

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