Twenty years ago today, the world witnessed a series of convulsive events, the impact of which on global travel and international relations endures.
Ironically, on this same date, another cataclysmic event —another historic “9/11”— rocked the 18th century in its closing years.
In 1796 Catherine II — already hailed by some admirers as Catherine the Great — was 67 and in her 35th year on the Russian throne. Political genius and naked ambition catapulted her from minor German royalty to Empress of Russia by 32. She wielded greater power than any female monarch in history, exceeding even that of Elizabeth I in England, even that of Cleopatra.
Catherine (1729-96) was the preeminent royal personage in the world. Her health was robust; she expected to live into her 70s or well beyond.
Her mind was sharp and focused on securing her legacy. The oldest of Catherine’s granddaughters, Alexandra Pavlovna, had just turned 13. Catherine decided she was ready to marry. She wanted a marriage to Prince Gustavus Adolphus, soon to be crowned king of Sweden. The union would moderate the long-standing hostility between Russia and Sweden, giving her a useful ally in northern Europe.
Negotiations proceeded smoothly; only one technical point remained: the bride’s religion after marriage. Catherine specified that Alexandra would practice Russian Orthodoxy. Prince Gustavus remonstrated; his wife should convert to his religion, Lutheranism. Catherine dismissed this objection: the notion that a mere Swedish prince would expect the granddaughter of the Empress of Russia to abandon her religion was absurd.
Under extreme pressure from his ministers, Gustavus relented. The betrothal date was set: Sept. 11 in Catherine’s royal palace.
At 7 p.m. Catherine entered and assumed the throne before the entire Russian and Swedish royal courts. Alexandra stood by her grandmother’s throne, awaiting her fiancé.
A half hour passed, then a full hour.
At last the double doors to the throne room opened.
But Gustavus did not enter; instead a Swedish emissary signaled Catherine’s leading minister to follow him. Another hour passed; Alexandra was in tears. The clock reached 10 p.m.
The double doors opened; Catherine’s minister returned alone and handed Catherine a note.
Gustavus would not relent.
He would not sign a marriage contract mandating Alexandra’s Russian Orthodoxy. Apoplectic with rage, Catherine rose unsteadily from the throne. Her words were unintelligible. The guests realized that she had suffered a stroke.
Moments later she recovered herself. Sweden’s ministers apologized profusely, bemoaning the prince’s “immaturity.” Assisted by her entourage, Catherine hobbled out of the room.
Catherine could not believe that a 17-year-old Swedish prince could defy the Empress of Russia — in her own palace, no less! — and thus humiliate her before two royal courts, and indeed the entire civilized world.
She summoned Gustavus to an audience. The prince refused to budge. Nor would Catherine.
The marriage was off.
Catherine’s subsequent exertions to suppress her outrage damaged her health. Seven weeks later, she was found unconscious in the royal bathroom; that evening she was declared dead.
Just as “our” 9/11 of 2001 casts an ever-lengthening shadow in which we today still dwell, so too did the 9/11 of 1796 generate a massive penumbra that enveloped Russia (and Europe) long thereafter. Indeed the Sept. 11 confrontation between the Empress of Russia and the future King of Sweden changed the course of history — not only in the Europe and Eurasia of the nineteenth century, but arguably also even the 20th century, too.
With Catherine’s death died the march of Russian expansionism and the success of the imperial ambitions that she ruthlessly pursued. In all, Russia had grown by more than 1.2 million square kilometers during her reign.
Catherine’s reign was also distinguished by her bringing European philosophy, literature, art, architecture, sculpture, medicine, and education to Russia. She established the “Russian Enlightenment,” assembling the world’s greatest art gallery, along with opening hospitals, orphanages, and schools. European admirers hailed her as “the Minerva of the North,” associating her with the goddess of wisdom, science and the arts.
However significant and long-lasting her cultural legacy, however, the aftermath of Catherine’s reign in the political sphere is tragic. Her successor as emperor — Paul I — was assassinated. Her grandson disappeared under mysterious circumstances (perhaps also assassinated).
And on and on, as the decline and fall proceeded.
Within little more than a century, the 304-year Romanov dynasty ended in 1917 when the Bolsheviks murdered Nicholas II and the entire imperial family.
Such was the heritage of Catherine the Great — and of the fateful “other” 9/11, the “other” historic “tremor in September” that shook the world 225 years ago today.
John Rodden is a retired historian who taught at the University of Texas and University of Virginia and in Hungary and Taiwan.