My love affair with Catherine the Great began in high school. I was in, what we called, an academy for biomedical sciences and on the path to become a doctor (we all know how that turned out) and I was taking several health-science-technology courses. We were learning about vaccines. Or maybe we learned about vaccines in freshman biology. Or maybe it was AP biology? Whose to know at this point? Are any of my high school science teachers reading this?
We learned about Catherine’s decision to go forward with inoculating herself with smallpox virus in order to prove that inoculation worked and therefore not have to keep burning people who had contracted this insipid illness. She was the first person to receive, what we call now, a vaccine. My little bit of Russian blood was so proud to be maybe, possibly related to her (but probably not really. She was, as you know, German. Oh, and royal, so there’s that). Since then, I have always been fascinated by her.
Last year, not one, but two shows came on television at the start of the pandemic about Catherine the Great. How’s that for timing? And I began to find myself obsessing over this woman who was the longest reigning female monarch in Russia. Was she actually as great as I thought she was? Was she just another horrible Russian dictator who did one cool thing with her life?
I started a Catherine the Great mood board and began to add everything I could find about her. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to plan an editorial for a photography conference called The Hybrid Collective, and I made the decision to base my entire shoot around Catherine the Great.
Now, I could have just based the wardrobe and models off the loose interpretations of her that I have found in portraits or in the two beautiful shows that I watched several times last year. But I wanted to go deeper. I wanted to take this opportunity to learn more about her, to build an editorial off of personality details and not just aesthetics, to give the model or models a story they could channel. And so, I started reading. I’m about 100 pages into Catherine the Great by Henri Troyat, translated by Joan Pinkham, and guys.
Catherine totally holds up.
Catherine was not just interested in science and culture and the arts. She was also smart, manipulative, completely in love with Russia, which is far more than can be said for her husband Peter III who would have rather stayed Prussian. She was strong-willed, fashionable, unapologetically romantic, and she was a dreamer. She knew that she could make Russia a better place. She looked around and she saw crumbling buildings, illiterate members of the court. She saw much of the country in decay as it was built on serf labors, and the serfs were treated miserably.
Catherine was also a human. I just came across a passage that made me connect with her on so many levels.
“To keep calm she told herself, “Happiness and unhappiness lie in one’s own heart and soul; if you feel unhappiness, rise above it, and see to it that your happiness is not dependent upon any outward event.” Despite these brave precepts, she was so worried and exhausted that she sank down on a sofa and fell asleep…”
Just read that little section again. In this passage, Catherine is the Grand Duchess. She has lived a life being controlled by Czarina Elizabeth. Her husband is an idiot (I don’t use that word lightly), she has never met her children, she is not allowed to write letters, and everyone she gets used to is stripped away from her and replaced with someone else. Her lovers have either left her or are about to be sent away. She feels she cannot tolerate this life anymore, but she has a plan to fix it. And even with that plan, even in trying to boost herself up, the mantra itself does not help much.
But that’s what makes it so perfect. That’s what makes it so relatable. To read her words, I wanted to run out and make myself happy, fill up my cup with joy. How many times have I wanted to do that? And then I read the next part, that she was so exhausted and worried that even her words could not keep her spirits high. I’ve felt that exact same way.
Catherine the Great really was great. And she was human. She made mistakes. She lived a life that was not tolerated by the church and still isn’t. She waged wars and craved power, and I’m sure she did far worse. But she also did so much good. She wanted better for her people. She had big plans to free serfs and bring science and culture to the country. She had fears about the end of the monarchy. She stumbled and she rose up. She chose love for herself, but above that she chose Russia. She accepted the circumstances life dealt her, and she did the best she could.
And that’s all any of us can strive for.