Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia

“I like to praise and reward loudly, to blame quietly”

Catherine the Great

 

The ornate door creaked ever so slightly, just enough to alert the empress. Too many tense days and sleepless nights…

—Your Majesty, the Commander has arrived.

—Let him in.

Grigory Potemkin, commander of the Russian army, came vigorously marching in, with the excitement still visible on his congested face. His vim and vigor of years past had given way to a more stern, aged countenance and the long rides were now rather taxing for him.

—Your Majesty, we have resisted in Kazan. Pugachev's army is fleeing in disarray.

He slowly approached, catching his breath with every step. He had missed her, every day, every hour... But she was the empress now. She was no longer simply Catherine. He had to restrain himself…

—Have we captured the false czar?

—Not yet. But his own men will soon turn him in: We are offering a fortune to whoever does.

—Good. I want him to be tried and executed in public. We shall kill that phony in front of everyone, to put to an end to this fable…

Yemelyan Pugachev, her nemesis in recent years... A humble Cossack from the Ural Mountains had put her back against the ropes. It was the violent manifestation of the Russian peasantry's deep discomfort with the czarist administration and their living conditions. She fully understood them but, unfortunately, they were the pawns in a much larger conflict.

Catherine had scratched and clawed her way to the top. She had brushed off those who despised her first and feared her later. But she had also wasted energy trying to be accepted and loved by the Russian people, learning their language and customs from the day she arrived from her native Prussia to marry the heir Peter... grandson of Peter the Great.

What a disappointment, their wedding night... and every night thereafter for the eight years it took to consummate the marriage; and all the other nights, too. She now felt only contempt for her husband, but she had managed to keep up appearances. The whole court knew of her lovers, but no one could reproach her for a single outburst until the coup d'état of June 28, 1762.

That was the day she met Grigory Potemkin, upon his arrival at the St. Petersburg Palace. He offered her the tassel of his sword, as a sign of respect and personal support. The loyalty of a military man in command is priceless. A man like Potemkin, or the Orlov brothers, her main supporters for the coup; who would later covertly execute her deposed husband, Peter III.

That is why she had a moment of panic upon learning that the leader of the peasant revolt that extended throughout the country claimed to be Peter III, the deposed czar. Had Orlov lied? Had her husband had escaped the attack? Not a chance. But the people didn't know (nor should they!) the truth about the death of the monarch; and that was the ploy of this Cossack, an army officer, to attract much of the peasantry to his cause.

But the rebellion was already stifled, thanks to Potemkin's efforts. Now he would have a way to triumphantly end the Black Sea campaign against the Ottoman Empire, and the war in the Baltic; now she could focus on restructuring the laws for the nobility; now she could modernize Russia with the principles of the Enlightenment.

Grigory was already in front of her, much too close... Soon she would give herself to him, but not before taking care of her imperial duties.

—When Pugachev is executed, do not torture him. Let all of Russia know that I am inflexible in war, but merciful in victory.

—As you wish, your Majesty.

Catherine the Great teaches us that:

  • The most harmless-looking player is not necessarily the least prepared to win the "game of thrones."
  • Personal skills and seduction are levers of power to form decisive alliances.
  • Powerful allies and an impeccable image are often keys to achieving power.
  • If we spoke of staying in power and confronting the magnanimity of a ruler against the conspiracies of third parties, magnanimity would prevail.