In 1762, Catherine the Great organised a coup d’état against her husband Peter III, taking the throne as Empress of All Russia – but she didn’t do it alone. Unlike her abrasive husband, Catherine soon realised that maintaining the love and support of her nobles was paramount to her success, and rewarded those who helped her generously.
She ruled over an enlightened court like no Russian monarch before her, and surrounded herself with a number of fascinating characters. Meet 6 such characters, whose stories of bravery, intellect, and romance coloured the halls of the Winter Palace for over 30 years.
1. Grigory Orlov
One of Catherine’s most famous lovers, Grigory Orlov was a leading figure in the fateful coup of 1762. The pair had been lovers since 1760, when after returning from the Seven Years War, Orlov’s boisterous presence at court caught the attention of the then-Grand Duchess.
By April 1762 they had an illegitimate child named Aleksey, and a mere 3 months later Orlov’s troops took St Petersburg, securing Catherine as Empress.
Following this, Grigory was made Major-General and given the title of count, soon becoming one of Catherine’s leading advisors. He later became president of the Free Economic Society, seeking the improvement of the condition of serfs in Russia.
At one time the Empress even considered marrying him, yet was dissuaded so by her advisors. Their relationship began to falter as rumours of his infidelity swirled the court, and in a last ditch attempt to win her back he presented her with a vast diamond that was placed in her sceptre. The Empress had however already moved her affections on to Grigory Potemkin.
2. Alexei Orlov
Grigory’s younger brother Alexei was a fierce character at court, and unafraid to get his hands dirty. Standing over 6 ft 6 tall, he donned a battle scar across his face earning him a fearsome nickname – ‘scarface’.
Upon the fall of Peter III, he travelled to Peterhof Palace to retrieve Catherine and, upon finding her in her bed, informed her:
‘the time has come for you to reign, madame.’
When Peter III mysteriously died 6 days later, Alexei was largely supposed to have poisoned him either on the orders of the Empress or of his own accord. Though this marred her initial reign, he too was rewarded for his role in the coup and went on to have a successful military career.
In another curious anecdote from the younger Orlov’s time at Catherine’s court, in 1775 he was sent on a mission to seduce and capture a pretender to the Russian throne, Princess Tarakanova. Clearly his rugged charm was enough to enthral her, as she was at last enticed aboard a boat in a harbour near Tuscany and arrested.
3. Grigory Potemkin
Grigory Potemkin is perhaps one of the most well-known courtiers of the eminent monarch. Beginning his career in the Horse Guards regiment, by the coup of 1762 he was Sergeant and represented his troops in the overthrow. Here Potemkin caught the attention of Catherine who, enjoying his colourful personality and excellent imitation skills, made him a gentleman of the bedchamber.
Though now a favourite at court, Potemkin was eager to return to the military. Catherine granted his request and he went on to serve as Major-General of the cavalry, taking part in a host of military successes and bringing general renown to his name.
In 1774, he returned to court and was quickly installed as Catherine’s chief lover, with the Empress describing him as
‘one of the greatest, the most comical and amusing, characters of this iron century’
The pair are rumoured to have discreetly got married, and even as their relationship eventually began to fizzle out, he remained at the court as a hugely influential friend and occasional romantic tryst.
4. Princess Yekaterina Dashkova
Princess Dashkova moved to the court of Catherine and Peter at just 16, having married Prince Mikhail Dashkova in 1759. At the time of Catherine’s coup she was a mere 19 years old, yet credits herself with a central role in the event.
In her memoirs, she writes of disguising herself in men’s clothes to travel unnoticed, and liaising with the Orlov brothers on their movements.
Following the coup, Dashkova’s outspoken nature caused friction between her and the Empress. When her husband died in 1768, Dashkova left court aged 25 to travel Europe in the pursuit of cultural and intellectual growth.
In Paris, she became acquainted with Voltaire and Diderot, and struck up a lasting friendship with Benjamin Franklin, discussing with them philosophy, politics and literature. The charismatic princess also lived in Edinburgh for 2 years, where she is interestingly recorded undertaking a sword-fight with a Scottish lady.
Having grown her vast well of knowledge and Western culture, when she returned to Catherine’s court the Empress received her with open arms and much enthusiasm.
She was made Director of the Imperial Academy of Arts and Sciences – the first woman in the world to preside over an academy of science – and 2 years later she was also made President of the newly established Russian Academy. Under her guidance both institutions flourished.
5. Countess Alexandra Branitskaya
Alexandra Branitskaya was first introduced to Catherine’s court in 1775 as a niece of Grigory Potemkin, yet a number of theories surround her birth. One such theory places her as Catherine’s illegitimate daughter by either Potemkin or another lover, Sergey Saltykov, yet this is largely unfounded.
She soon became Catherine’s chief maid-of-honour and one of the most admired women at court, and through her closeness to Potemkin was widely treated as a member of the Imperial family.
Though Branitskaya had not received a full education, her confident and wilful personality reportedly made up for this. One British ambassador commented on her ‘talent for creating plots’, and interestingly her willingness to provide him with intel in exchange for gifts.
One such ‘plot’ involved the removal of two of Catherine’s favourites – her lady-in-waiting Praskovya Bruce and then-lover Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov – by leading her to walk in on them in a compromising position.
The countess retained her influence and respectability for decades to come, and continued to play a significant role in the courts of Catherine’s successors.
6. Gavrila Derzhavin
Gavrila Derzhavin resided at the court of Catherine the Great for 20 years in various different stately roles, from Minister of Justice to personal secretary to the Empress. He was politically astute and a skilled soldier, yet his legacy lies in the realm of Russian literature.
Today revered as one of the first great Russian poets, Derzhavin wrote a vast array of magnificent verse for Catherine and her courtiers.
His work was allowed to flourish at the increasingly enlightened Russian court that, while inspired by Western courts such as Versailles, took on a Russian flair of its own.
He playfully compared his poetry to lemonade, and hailed Catherine in the epic ‘Ode to Felitsa’ as the saviour of the unruly Russian court through her enlightened ideas, writing:
‘To you alone is it proper,
Tsarevna! to create light out of darkness;
Dividing Chaos into harmonious spheres,
With a union of wholeness to strengthen them.’
As one of the first Russians able to express his ideas in written work, he paved the way for the eminent poets of the 19th century, and truly encapsulated the changing world of Catherine the Great’s Russia – now considered a ‘Golden Age’ for the country.