6/29/12 - the strong women of russia

In today's excerpt - strong women of Russia -- the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna and her nephew Peter III's wife Sophie, who became known as Catherine the Great:

"Elizabeth had reigned for twenty years over relative domestic calm during an age of nearly nonstop European war. She was widely beloved, both at court and in the populace at large. She was, nevertheless, every bit a Russian czarina too. Her extravagances were legend: 15,000 ball gowns and thousands of pairs of shoes. And not a few lovers on the side. She also brooked no personal criticism. In his memoirs of [his] Siberian voyage, [astronomer Jean-Baptiste] Chappe tells a chilling story of Elizabethan retribution against courtly ladies who had conspired against the empress -- although some historians suspect the women were in fact only guilty of talking too freely of Elizabeth's amorous activities. In a riveting story that was cited and re-recounted for generations to come, including in the legendary Life of Samuel Johnson, Chappe wrote:

'Madame Lapouchin was one of the finest women belonging to the court of the Empress Elizabeth . . . [and] was condemned by the Empress Elizabeth to undergo the punishment of the knout. She appeared at the place of execution in a genteel un­dress, which contributed still to heighten her beauty. . . . One of the executioners . . . then took a kind of whip called knout, made of a long strap of leather prepared for this purpose. He then retreated a few steps, measuring the requisite distance with a steady eye. And leaping backwards gave a stroke with the end of the whip so as to carry away a slip of skin from the neck to the bottom of the back. Then striking his feet against the ground he took his aim for applying a second blow parallel to the former. So that in a few moments all the skin of her back was cut away in small slips, most of which remained hanging to the shift. Her tongue was cut out immediately after, and she was directly banished to Siberia.'

"Despite a brutality that matched her vanity, the empress had endeav­ored to make St. Petersburg a European capital of high culture -- graced with her characteristic enchantment of French culture, in particular. ... [Upon her death] the late empress had also left behind an empire apprehensive of its future. Now holding the scepter of power in Elizabeth's wake was her reviled nephew Peter [III] -- 'the most imbecile prince that ever ascended the throne of a vast empire.' ...

"In July, when Chappe would be in transit to Paris, conspirators plot­ting with Peter III's German-born wife (and second cousin) Sophie would overthrow her husband and crown Peter's bride the new autocrat of Russia. Peter III's captors thereafter relieved their prisoner of his pulse. And the preternaturally canny foreign empress -- who'd learned the Russian language and converted to the Orthodox religion -- soon cast off her widow's weeds to rule Russia under her assumed name, Catherine the Great."


Mark Anderson


The Day the World Discovered the Sun


Perseus Book Group


Copyright 2012 by Mark Kendall Anderson


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