March 8. Catherine the Great, empress of Russia from 1762-1796, was in the headlines yesterday. News reports said she founded Odessa – though the master-builder behind the development of South Russia, aka Little Russia, was Grigory Potemkin, her right-hand man and likely her husband.
Catherine’s dream was to make Russia the greatest empire in Europe, as it was for Peter the Great, who ruled 50 years before her. You could say "again," since back in the 11th century “Kieven Rus” (note the linking of Kiev and Russia) dominated Europe. Can we imagine someone else saying that today? Though the goal might now be bigger than Europe?
For Catherine, making Russia great meant lifting up all her “children” by giving them education, justice, prosperity (or simply enough to eat). Russia needed a way to sell the riches of their mines, forests and fields. They needed international trade. They needed a warm-water port, one not frozen over for half the year like the Baltic, which they had already fought a war to access. They needed the Crimean Peninsula and the Ukraine. Once they got it, they built cities like Odessa.
They also needed to be safe. Russia has no natural borders – no sizable mountain ranges or rivers to keep invaders like the Vikings and Mongols out. Catherine wrote, “The only way to defend my borders is to extend my borders.” She overcame her horror of war to add 200,000 square miles to the country during her 34-year reign.
Catherine wasn't even Russian, she was German (to be exact: from a part of Europe that would one day become Germany). At 14, she was brought to Russia to marry the heir to the throne, which she did at 15. She had one purpose only: to deliver an heir to the throne. Her mother-in-law, the fickle and often cruel Empress Elizabeth, had not been permitted to marry for political reasons and had always longed for children. When Catherine gave birth to a baby boy, her dream came true. But for Catherine...
Here is that moment, as imagined in the musical Catherine the Great. Words by me, music by Sergei Dreznin, whose Russian musical about Catherine has been a hit there since 2008. Vocal by Austrian actress Valerie Luksch.
The Set-Up: after eight long years of unconsummated marriage to Peter, Catherine is ordered to take a lover. She finally conceives and gives birth.
Listen here as you read (below):
(Catherine lies on a mattress on the floor, spent. Elizabeth holds a newborn baby, sings.)
AND YOUR MATUSHKA WILL HOLD YOU,
IN HER ARMS SHE WILL ENFOLD YOU.
AT LAST YOU’RE HERE, AND HERE YOU’LL STAY.
(weakly) My baby. May I hold him?
(CATHERINE is alone. A glacial gust of wind rattles the window. SHE struggles to close it, fails, falls to her pallet.)
WINTER PALACE, PALACE OF ICE,
FROZEN CELL WHERE NO SOUL WILL COME NEAR ME.
WINTER PALACE, MALICE AND VICE.
I CAN SCREAM BUT NOBODY WILL HEAR ME.
FIRST THEY FILL YOU WITH LIFE, THEN THEY RIP IT AWAY.
AND WHAT CHOICE DO YOU HAVE BUT TO BOW AND OBEY?
I WAS HUNGRY FOR LOVE AND THAT MADE ME A FOOL.
NOW I’VE LEARNED THAT THE WORLD CAN BE CALLOUS AND CRUEL.
WINTER PALACE, PALACE OF LIES,
IT’S A MAZE WHERE I’M LOST AND FORGOTTEN.
WINTER PALACE SWALLOWS YOUR CRIES.
GOLD FACADES THAT CAN’T HIDE WHAT IS ROTTEN.
WHAT THESE PEOPLE HAVE DONE I COULD NOT EVER DO
TAKE THE WARMTH OF THE SUN AND SAY NO, NOT FOR YOU.
IF I COULD I WOULD RUN FROM THIS PALACE OF FEAR,
I WOULD MAKE A NEW HOME
ANY PLACE THAT’S NOT HERE.
BUT I KNOW THERE’S NOWHERE ON THIS EARTH I COULD GO.
I MUST HARDEN MY HEART TIL IT’S COLD AS THE SNOW.
I WILL NEVER BE LOVED -
LOVE I CAN LIVE WITHOUT,
BUT I CAN’T BE A SLAVE IN THIS PRISON OF WOE!
WINTER PALACE, CAST OFF YOUR SPELL
I’M SO TIRED OF THE PAIN AND THE YEARNING.
WINTER PALACE, DAMN YOU TO HELL
WILL I FINALLY BE WARM WHEN YOU’RE BURNING…
(Fever overwhelms her.)