Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

Catherine's Glory and Shame

The relations of Russia and the Porte were growing every day more critical. Catherine's lover, Potemkin, Prince of the Taurid, was making the Crimea a shield for Russian operations on the Black Sea; arsenals and fortresses bristled with guns; a powerful fleet was ready at an hour's notice to sail for the Golden Horn. Catherine herself visited her new provinces; arches inscribed "The Way to Byzantium" welcomed the victorious Empress. She had already agreed with Joseph II. of Austria to make a division of Turkey, expel the Ottomans from Constantinople, and re-establish the Greek Empire, with her grandson Constantine on the throne.

The old relations were reversed: England, Prussia, and Sweden were arrayed in policy against Russia, Austria, and France. Suddenly the Porte declared war. Potemkin, taken by surprise, proposed to evacuate the new port of Sevastopol. "I beg you to take courage," said Catherine's letter, the brave soul can mend even disaster." The Swedes took advantage of the crisis to claim South Finland; their guns were heard at the Winter Palace; a quick march would have brought them to St. Petersburg, which was defenceless. Catherine rose to the occasion; while Gustavus III. was wasting his time she got together twelve thousand troops to protect the capital; the Russian fleet met the Swedish fleet at Hogland; the Swedish king was recalled by a conspiracy to Stockholm; the Danes invaded Sweden, and Catherine was enabled to give all her attention to Turkey. She sent eighteen thousand men to the Caucasus, thirty-seven thousand to act on the Dniester, while Potemkin had eighty thousand with which to capture Otchak6f and protect the Crimea. At the same time Joseph II., with two hundred thousand, threatened the Danube.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


While the Russian fleet defeated the Turkish fleet Potemkin tried to starve out Otchakof, but winter came on; his soldiers suffered from lack of shelter, scanty clothing, and starvation. At last, in desperation, he gave them brandy seasoned with Spanish pepper, and ordered the assault. A galling cross-fire raked the columns, but after a fearful struggle the place was won. The Turks lost eight thousand, the Russians even more. In this war Suvorof was the hero: he defended Kinburn against fearful odds; he annihilated the remains of the Turkish fleet; he twice saved the Prince of Coburg from overwhelming disaster; he carried the stronghold of Ismail on the Danube, defended by forty thousand Turks. "Never was a fortress stronger than Ismail," he wrote, "and never was a defence more desperate! But Ismail is taken!" The loss of the Turks was thirty thousand men.

Catherine's unfortunate ally, Joseph II., died and was succeeded by Leopold II., who signed a peace at Sistova. Catherine kept up the war for some months; the Russians captured the mouths of the Danube, again scattered the Turkish fleet, and cut off the Grand Vizier from Constantinople. The Sultan begged for peace, which Catherine granted. She kept only Otchakof and a short line of sea-board which brought the Russian frontier to the Dniester.

While Russia was occupied with her Northern and Southern wars, Poland had been making desperate efforts to take its rightful place among the nations; a Diet of patriots drew up a new constitution. The nobles forgot their quarrels, an era of glory seemed to be at hand. But the hopes of the Poles were doomed. After the Turkish war was ended Catherine denounced the reformers as Jacobins, and sent her army to restore the old anarchy. King Stanislas was weak enough to yield. The King of Prussia, claiming that the safety of his states was threatened by Polish troubles, crossed the western frontier, and in conjunction with Catherine proceeded once more to maim Poland.

Catherine's artillery and bayonets obliged the king and the Diet to ratify the "Second Partition," which added three million inhabitants to the Russian Empire and sent a million and a half of Slavs under the hated yoke of Prussia.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


The Polish patriots were not willing to yield their liberties without a struggle. Thaddeus Kosciuszko organized the national plot; Krakof, the second city of Poland, "the capital of the ancient kings," expelled the Russian garrison; the population was called to arms; Warsaw and Vilno followed the example of Krakof; a government of patriots took control of public affairs. But Russia, Austria, and Prussia soon drew their toils about the unhappy Poles. France, occupied with its own revolution, was unable to give any aid. The Prussians entered Krakof, the Austrians took Lublin, the Russians defeated Kosciuszko on the Vistula and captured him; Suvorof took Prague, opposite Warsaw, by assault; the Poles defended themselves "with desperate recklessness." "The streets are covered with corpses; blood flows in torrents," was Suvorof s message.

The revolt was crushed. Poland was divided among the three Powers; Stanislas II. died a state prisoner at St. Petersburg; the very name of Poland was wiped from the map of Europe. The "Third Partition" gave Russia all Lithuania east of the Niemen, all Volynia, Kurland, and Samogitia.

Catherine, who had once declared that "the nation was not made for the Sovereign but the Sovereign for the nation," that "liberty is the right to do everything not forbidden by law," was vastly irritated by the French Revolution; she refused to recognize the Republic; forbade the tricolor flag to be displayed in her ports, and finally hastened to welcome Louis XVII. to the throne of the Bourbons.

Catherine's reign was distinguished for her conquests and her reforms. Her conquests in the South and the West brought Russia "into the heart of Europe;" her Persian conquests, which followed the others, opened the way into the heart of Asia.

Her reforms were no less glorious: she "pillaged the philosophers of the West" to form a new code of laws; she subdivided the Empire into fifty governments; she founded two hundred new cities; she devoted the surplus revenues of the Church to the foundation of schools and hospitals; she tolerated all forms of religion; she founded schools for young women; she encouraged art and science; she spent a million rubles in a single year for the purchase of celebrated pictures; at her order the great sculptor Falconet made his famous bronze statue of Peter the Great.

Catherine especially affected the friendship of French writers. She entertained Diderot with royal magnificence and bought his library; she gave the education of her grandsons, Alexander and Constantine, to the care of the republican Laharpe; she kept up a constant correspondence with Voltaire, the hermit of Ferney, "telling him of her victories, her reforms, and her plans to colonize the steppes." The great Empress also wrote history for her grandsons, and dramas for the stage, and made herself the patroness of Russian literature. It was said of her: "She was born in Germany; she had the mind of a Frenchman and the heart of a Russian."

The personal character of Catherine the Great was not blameless. "I know," said Voltaire, "that she is reproached with some trifles about her husband; but these are family affairs with which I do not meddle." Her lovers were countless; her lavishness toward them almost incredible; she distributed among them more than one hundred and fifty thousand serfs and nearly ninety million rubles. Prince Potemkin received in two years nine million rubles and thirty-seven thousand serfs. But if she thus threw away the treasure of the Empire, "no monarch since Ivan the Terrible had extended its frontiers by such vast conquests." She was planning other enterprises when she died, suddenly, at the age of sixty-seven, and was succeeded by her son Paul.