A while ago, I posted Madame Vigée Le Brun’s thoughts about her first meeting with the Russian Empress Catherine The Great. The portraitist spent a lot of time in Russia and had the chance to meet the Empress several more times and form her own opinion about this autocrat. Here’s what she wrote in her memoirs:
The Russian people lived very happily under the rule of Catherine; by great and lowly have I heard the name of her blessed to whom the nation owed so much glory and so much well-being. I do not speak of the conquests by which the national vanity was so prodigiously flattered, but of the real, lasting good that this Empress did her people. During the space of the thirty-four years she reigned, her beneficent genius fathered or furthered all that was useful, all that was grand. She erected an immortal monument to Peter I.; she built two hundred and thirty-seven towns in stone, saying that wooden villages cost much more because they burned down so often; she covered the sea with her fleets; she established everywhere manufactories and banks, highly propitious to the commerce of St. Petersburg, Moscow and Tobolsk; she granted new privileges to the Academy; she founded schools in all the towns and the country districts; she dug canals, built granite quays, gave a legal code, instituted an asylum for foundlings, and, finally, introduced into her empire the boon of vaccination, adopted by the Russians solely through her mighty will, and, for the public encouragement, was the first to be inoculated.
Catherine herself was the source of all these blessings, for she never allowed any one else real authority. She dictated her own despatches to her ministers, who, in effect, were but her secretaries.
Catherine II. loved everything that was magnificent in the arts. At the Hermitage she built a set of rooms corresponding to certain rooms in the Vatican, and had copies made of the fifty pictures by Raphael adorning those rooms. She enriched the Academy of Fine Arts with plaster casts of the finest ancient statues and with a large number of paintings by various masters. The Hermitage, which she had founded and erected quite near her palace, was a model of good taste in every respect, and made the clumsy architecture of the imperial palace at St. Petersburg appear to worse advantage than ever by the contrast. It is well known that she wrote French with great facility. In the library at St. Petersburg I saw the original manuscript of the legal code she gave the Russians written entirely in her own hand and in the French language. Her style, I was told, was elegant and very concise, and this reminds me of an instance of her laconic manner of expression which seems to me quite delightful. When General Suvaroff had won the battle of Warsaw, Catherine at once sent him a messenger, and this messenger brought the fortunate victor nothing but an envelope on which she had written with her own hand, “To Marshal Suvaroff.”
This woman, whose power was so great, was at home the simplest and least exacting of women. She rose at five in the morning, lit her fire, and then made her coffee herself. It was even said that one day, having lit the fire without being aware that the sweeper had climbed up the chimney, the sweeper began to swear at her, and to shower the coarsest revilements upon her, believing he was speaking to a stove-lighter. The Empress hastened to extinguish the fire, though not without laughing heartily at having been thus treated.
After breakfast the Empress wrote her letters and prepared her despatches, remaining in seclusion until nine o’clock. She then rang for her men servants, who sometimes did not answer her bell. One day, for instance, impatient at waiting, she opened the door of the room they were in, and, finding them settled down at a game of cards, she asked them why they did not come when she rang. Thereupon one of them calmly replied that they wanted to finish their game – and so they did. On another occasion the Countess Bruce, who was allowed in the Empress’s apartments at all hours, came in one morning to find her alone at her toilet. “Your Majesty seems to be without assistance,” said the Countess. “How can I help it?” answered the Empress. “My maids all went off. I was trying on a dress which fitted so badly that I lost my temper over it, and so they left me to myself. Not one of them stayed, not even Reinette, my head maid, and I am waiting for them to cool off.
In the evening Catherine would gather about her some of the people of her court she liked best. She sent for her grandchildren, and blind man’s buff, hunt the slipper and other games were played until ten o’clock, when Her Majesty went to bed. Princess Dolgoruki, who was among the favoured, often told me with what good spirits and jollity the Empress enlivened these gatherings. Count Stachelberg and the Count de Ségur were invited to Catherine’s small parties. When she broke with France and dismissed the Count de Ségur, the French Ambassador, she expressed deep regret at losing him. “But,” she added, “I am an autocrat. Every one to his trade.”
A few days later I went to a gala dinner at court. When I entered the room the invited ladies were all there, standing by the table, on which the first dish was already served. A moment after, a large door with two valves was thrown open, and the Empress appeared. I have said that she was short, but nevertheless on state occasions, her erect head, her eagle eye, her countenance so used to command – all was so symbolic of majesty that she seemed to be the queen of the world. She wore the ribbons of three orders. Her garb was plain and dignified, consisting of a muslin tunic embroidered with gold and enclasped by a diamond belt, a pair of wide sleeves being turned back in oriental fashion. Over this tunic was a red velvet dolman with very short sleeves. The cap set on her white hair was not adorned with bows, but with diamonds of the greatest beauty. When Her Majesty had taken her place all the ladies sat down to the table, and, according to universal custom, laid their napkins on their knees, while the Empress fastened hers with two pins, just as napkins are fastened on children. She soon noticed that the ladies did not eat, and suddenly burst out: “Ladies, you do not want to follow my example, and you are only pretending to eat! I have adopted the habit of pinning my napkin, as otherwise I could not even eat an egg without spilling some of it on my collar.
I, in fact, observed her to dine with a very hearty appetite. A good orchestra played during the whole meal, the musicians being in a large gallery at the end of the room.
Prince Bezborodko was a man of high ability. He was employed in the reign of Catherine II. and of Paul, first as secretary to the cabinet, and then, in 1780, as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In his desire to avoid the countless appeals by which he was besieged, he made himself as inaccessible as possible. Women sometimes followed him into his carriage. He would answer their demands with “I shall forget,” and if it was a case of a petition with “I shall lose it.” His greatest gift was a thorough and exact knowledge of the Russian language. In addition to this he boasted a phenomenal memory and an astonishing facility of putting his thoughts into words. I give a well-known instance in proof thereof. On one occasion the Empress ordered him to draw up a ukase*, which, however, a great pressure of business caused him to forget. The first time he saw the Empress again, after conferring with him on several matters of administration, she asked him for the ukase. Bezborodko, not the least bit in the world dismayed, drew a sheet of paper out of his portfolio, and without a moment’s hesitation improvised the whole thing from beginning to end. Catherine was so well pleased with this presentment that she took the paper from him to look at it. Her surprise may be imagined at the sight of a sheet that was quite blank! Bezborodko began elaborate excuses, but she stopped him with compliments, and the next day made him Privy Councillor.
The Memoirs of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun