The Other 9/11 ... at 225: Twin Towers? A Pair of “9/11s” That Shook the World
The unforgettable images of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York City will doubtless remain haunting, iconic, and traumatic for tens of millions of Americans and for decades to come. And not just for Americans: “9/11” is so universally famous — or notorious — throughout the globe that those numerals can be stated without mentioning the year. Everyone knows the event to which they refer. I have even met young people, not yet 20, who know exactly what the numerals mean, yet can’t immediately pinpoint the year of occurrence.
Contrast that universally recognized world event with another “9/11” that is virtually unknown nowadays — and yet was also another cataclysmic, precedent-shattering event — another historic “9/11.” I refer to an event that rocked the 18th century in its closing years: the “9/11” when Catherine the Great, in an historic (un)confrontation with the soon-to-be King of Sweden, suffered a major stroke that soon led to her death.
In 1796 Catherine II — already hailed by some admirers as Catherine the Great — was in her 35th year on the Russian throne. Political genius and naked ambition had assisted her miraculous ascension from minor royalty in an inconsequential German principality (Anhalt-Zerbst) to Empress of Russia by the age of 32, when in 1762 the erstwhile little " Princessin Sophia" deposed her (arguably deranged) husband, Emperor Peter III, whom she had married at the age of 16. (Her followers murdered him weeks later, thus ensuring no insurgency.)
At 67, Catherine (1729-96) was the preeminent and most powerful royal personage in the world. As Robert Massie notes in his absorbing 800-page biographical portrait, Catherine the Great (2012), she was capable of immense labors of work, rising every morning at 6 a.m. and handling all affairs of state with her ministers and assistants.
Although she was not without physical complaints — periodic bouts of rheumatism and leg sores — all indications were that she would live into her 70s or well beyond.
Her mind was sharp and obsessively focused already on securing her legacy — above all in foreign policy, where she had achieved the astounding feat of a territorial expansion greater than any other European monarch of the century, unseen indeed since the era of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. She wielded greater power than any female monarch in history, exceeding even that of Elizabeth I in England, even that of Cleopatra.
The oldest of Catherine’s granddaughters, Alexandra Pavlovna, had turned 13 that year. The empress decided she was ready to marry. Catherine wanted a marriage to Gustavus Adolphus, the young uncrowned king of Sweden, the son of Gustavus III, a cousin of Catherine's who had been assassinated four years earlier. Just months away from his majority age of 18 and coronation as Sweden’s king, he was the ideal partner, according to Catherine. A marriage to him would moderate the long-standing hostility between Russia and Sweden, providing her with a useful ally in northern Europe and giving her a strategic position on the upper Baltic Sea.
Negotiations began regarding a Russian-Sweden alliance to accompany the marriage, along with a munificent “dowry” — an annual subsidy to Sweden of 300,000 rubles. The diplomats settled the terms; Catherine chose the formal betrothal ceremony for Sept. 11, 1796.
Religion a key negotiating point
Only one negotiating point remained: the bride’s religion after marriage. Catherine specified that her granddaughter would practice Russian Orthodoxy if Alexandra deigned — and of course, Alexandra would obey whatever her grandmother deigned.
Prince Gustavus remonstrated; his wife should convert to the Swedish state religion, Lutheranism. Catherine dismissed this caveat as the juvenile whim of an uncrowned adolescent monarch of a minor power. The notion that a mere Swedish prince would expect a Russian grand duchess, the granddaughter of the Empress of Russia, to abandon her religion was absurd, and could only be understood as a result of his innocence.
As Massie observes, the issue was not really religion: personal and national prestige was at stake — along with economic realities: Russia was extending its largesse to an impoverished Sweden.
Prince Gustavus, under extreme pressure from his uncle, the regent, and other ministers, finally relented. The way was clear for the betrothal ceremony in the royal palace in St. Petersburg on Sept. 11.
The diplomatic earthquake of the century
Massie’s narration of the palace events that evening is nothing less than riveting. At 7 p.m., Catherine entered and assumed the throne. The entire imperial family and Russian royal court, along with Swedish royalty and diplomats, were present. Alexandra stood by her grandmother's throne, waiting for her fiancé to enter the room.
Time passed, first half an hour, then a full hour.
Uneasy glances were exchanged; all eyes were on Catherine, famed for her insistence on punctuality. At last double doors to the throne room opened.
But Gustavus did not enter; instead a Swedish emissary handed a note to Catherine's leading minister. He rushed out of the room.
Catherine retained her composure; the assembled guests continued to wait. Another hour passed; her face reddened. Alexandra was in tears. The hands of the clock reached 10 p.m.
At last the double doors opened again.
Catherine’s senior minister entered alone and handed Catherine a note.
Gustavus would not relent.
He would not sign the marriage contract as long as it contained the clause that Catherine demanded. Shaking 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. “His majesty is not well,” she announced. “The ceremony is postponed.”
Her entourage assisted her as she hobbled out of the room.
The Swedish regent and ministers apologized profusely on behalf of the prince, bemoaning his immaturity.
Yet no amount of subsequent pressure would change Gustavus’ mind. 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 her family, two royal courts, and indeed the entire civilized world.
Still in denial of the events of the last 24 hours, she insisted that Gustavus and his uncle and ministers extend their visit and accede to reason.
But the prince would not budge. There would be no marriage.
In the weeks that followed, Catherine’s exertions to suppress her anger damaged her health. Seven weeks later, soon after rising as usual at 6 a.m., she was found unconscious on the floor in the royal bathroom.
She never regained consciousness; 15 hours later, she was declared dead.
Catherine and the Golden Age: après moi, le déluge
Just as “our” 9/11 of the 21st century casts an ever-lengthening shadow in which we today still dwell uneasily, so too did the 9/11 of 1796 generate a dark, 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 19th century, but arguably also even the 20th century, too. The greatest queen in modern history — the greatest monarch in Russian history along with Peter the Great and now known throughout the empire as Catherine the Great — was dead. And with her death died the march of Russian expansionism and the success of the imperial ambitions that she ruthlessly pursued.
Not that she let her professed admiration for the writings of French philosophes such as Baron de Montesquieu, who warned against despotic monarchy and advocated the separation of powers and the rule of law, determine her conduct of policy, especially in international relations, which he would scarcely have described as “enlightened”: her shrewd combination of diplomatic dictates and rapacious wars of conquest — against Sweden and Poland-Lithuania — vastly expanded the size of Imperial Russia, engorging huge expanses of territory to the south and west. Her biggest booty was gained from the Ottoman Empire, from whom she acquired Crimea and took control of the north coast of the Black Sea as a result of her victories in the Russo-Turkish Wars (1768-74; 1787-92). In the east, Russia also colonized Alaska, thus gaining a foothold in North America. In all, Russia grew by more than 1.2 million square kilometers during her reign.
By the time of her death, Russia was indisputably a “great power” — and Catherine was well positioned to seize Persia and reclaim Constantinople for (Russian) Orthodox Christianity.
Catherine, the 'Enlightened Despot'
Catherine’s reign was perhaps most distinguished by her bringing the Age of Enlightenment to the halls of St. Petersburg. “Russia is a European state,” she famously declared in her Instruction, the Nakaz, a high-minded public policy treatise (borrowed heavily from Montesquieu’s l’esprit des lois) that established a code of law for the Empire, whereby she aimed to streamline and reform Russian law as had the Napoleonic code.
An “enlightened despot,” in the French phrase, Catherine brought European moral political and judicial philosophy, literature, art, architecture, sculpture, medicine, and education to Russia. Not only did she establish the “Russian Enlightenment” by introducing the ideas and ideals of the French Enlightenment to the Russian aristocracy, she also corresponded regularly with Voltaire, the preeminent French intellectual who was regarded as Europe’s foremost man of letters, and even hired as her personal palace tutor Dennis Diderot, editor of the famed Encyclopédie.
Here too, however, she concluded that it was one thing to philosophize with courtly Parisian hommes des lettres and quite another to rule an empire — especially an imperium largely populated by rival factions of nobles and by illiterate savages (more than one third of the Russian population were serfs). Her “enlightened absolutism” preserved absolute autocratic power for the empress over her subjects. She was bound by no constitution — nor by any other countervailing state power. (Not until 1810 did Russia even have a functioning Council of State.) She stood firmly against the spirit of the French Revolution, or even the American Revolution, gaining a hold over the Russian masses. She justified giving no more than lip service to the ideals of Montesquieu and Diderot by considerations of Realpolitik. Such freedoms as might be worth entertaining in civilized Europe were dangerous fancies in barbaric Slavic lands.
Catherine had no hesitation, however, about “westernizing” Russian culture. In St. Petersburg she assembled the largest art gallery in the world, the Hermitage Museum, along with opening hospitals, orphanages, and schools. (Among the latter were the first schools for girls, both for daughters of nobility [the Smolny Institute] and of commoners.) These cultural and artistic achievements gained her the name of “the Minerva of the North,” immortalized in the famous painting of Catherine as the goddess Minerva by Dmitry Levitsky in 1783.
Catherine’s cultural offspring in the next century — a flowering of Russian culture that reversed the direction of cultural influence from east to west — included Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, Stravinsky, Diaghilev — and countless others.
If she had lived another decade or more — so do the scenarios of the counterfactual historians proceed — imagine how she might have extended Russia’s geographical and cultural influence even further.
Indeed: imagine the faceoff between Catherine and Napoleon! Imagine too how she might have outmaneuvered or even crushed Metternich and shaped the Congress of Vienna!
And on and on.
Russia’s “Twin Tower” monarchs
Nonetheless, however significant and long-lasting her cultural legacy, the aftermath of Catherine’s reign in the political and military sphere is largely a story of decline and fall — into ruin and disaster.
In the history of imperial Russia, the two 18th-century “Greats” — Peter and Catherine — tower over the other 14 czars in the 304-year Romanov dynasty. Their reigns bookend the century, regarded as the Golden Age of Russia and culminating with Catherine’s rule; after “the Catherinian Era,” Russia was never a great power on the 18th-century scale again. In the annals of some romantic historians, Peter and Catherine are the Julius and Augustus Caesars of the Imperial Age of Russia.
Catherine was succeeded on the throne by her unloved son, Emperor Paul, who was assassinated in March 1801; the grandson on whom she doted, Emperor Alexander I, died in 1825 in mysterious circumstances (possibly also assassination). They were followed by the repressive czarist regime of Nicholas I, and shockingly, the humiliating defeat of Russia in the Crimean War in 1856; even the decision in 1861 by Alexander II, temporarily hailed as the “Czar Reformer” to liberate Russia’s 30 million serfs, soon issued forth in countless new recruits to anarchist conspiratorial groups, the massive expansion of the secret police and government spy networks, public fear and domestic chaos, and eventually his own assassination (by an anarchist suicide bomber) in 1881. Pogroms against the Jews during the brutal regime of Alexander III swept Russia in the 1880s, and an (unsuccessful) attempt by anarchist rebels was also made on his life. Among them was Lenin’s older brother, who was hanged — and his death inflamed Vladimir with a burning hatred for Russian autocracy and Czarism. Lenin and the Bolsheviks would soon enough have their revenge.
Little more than two decades later, the Bolsheviks under Lenin murdered not only Nicholas II but also the empress and the entire imperial family. Russia sued for peace in World War I, surrendering large parts of the former empire; its geopolitical clout, which had witnessed Catherine’s feat of reshaping and extending the boundaries of the Russian Empire, ended with its collapse in 1917.
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 tomorrow.