Reputations: Catherine the Great

Enlightened Empress

“Catherine II in Her Coronation Robes”, attributed to Vigilius Eriksen, after 1762

A search engine is no reliable source of truth, but it is an indicator of perception. Type the phrase “Did Catherine the Great…?” into Google, and instantly the predictive search fills in the blank with the same tired sexual smears trotted out (ha!) for centuries since the Russian empress died – of a stroke – in 1796. Even the algorithm, apparently, has absorbed the lurid lies invented to discredit the world’s most powerful woman over two centuries ago.

Recent scholarly analysis of the long and transformative reign of Catherine II is – after centuries of under-appreciation – far more sophisticated, but myths cling on in the popular imagination, especially when it comes to sex. That’s why, when I first came across the story of the empress’s extraordinary decision to have herself inoculated against smallpox in order to promote the life-saving procedure to her sceptical subjects, I was determined to tell it. In place of derogatory falsehoods about Catherine’s body, I hoped to show how she had deployed it as a scientific exemplar, offering herself as a one-woman medical trial to persuade others to follow.

My book, The Empress and the English Doctor, reveals in detail for the first time the full context and unexpectedly thrilling circumstances of Catherine’s inoculation, and in doing so acts as a kind of pinhole camera, focusing on one remarkable event to project a clearer image of her character and leadership style. In 1768, as the latest of many smallpox epidemics swept St Petersburg and threatened her court, the Empress shuttled around her countryside estates, desperate to shield herself and her thirteen-year-old son, the Grand Duke Paul, from the deadly virus. Six years after seizing the throne from her unstable husband, Peter III (murdered shortly after the coup), she had secured her grip on power and embarked on an ambitious programme of domestic reform. Nevertheless, smallpox was no respecter of rank, and any threat to her sickly heir represented a risk to her own legitimacy.

To help her repel the “Speckled Monster”, as smallpox was known in eighteenth-century Europe, Catherine turned to England, where inoculation – barely in use in Russia thanks to popular superstition – was well-established. The procedure, brought to Britain from Turkey and in use for centuries as a folk practice in parts of Asia and Africa, involved deliberately giving a healthy patient a mild dose of the disease by inserting a drop of infected matter into a minute puncture in the arm. This “fighting fire with fire” technique, the forerunner of vaccination emerging at the end of the century, conferred lifelong immunity.

The doctor Catherine chose for the imperial inoculations was Thomas Dimsdale, a Quaker-born physician from Hertford with a lengthy safety record and a new treatise sharing his successful methods. Fighting back his anxiety over the secret mission, the English doctor travelled 1,700 miles by coach to St Petersburg, where he and the charismatic Empress forged a remarkable bond of mutual trust and a common respect for science. Thomas’s own accounts of their regular meetings reveal Catherine as highly informed and – unlike so many patients then and now – entirely able to put aside fear and rely on the clarity of comparative data. There was no need for her doctor to conduct trials on women of her age and size, she told him: smallpox was almost unavoidable and killed one in five sufferers, while he had safely inoculated some 6,000 patients. Pausing only to have a yacht moored in the Gulf of Finland to whisk Thomas to safety if things went wrong, she urged him politely to get on with it, proclaiming: “My life is my own”.

Inoculation was, in competent hands, a highly reliable procedure, but Catherine’s decision was nevertheless a remarkable act of courage. Other royals, including Maria Theresa of Austria and George III of England, had their children inoculated, but the Empress was the only reigning monarch to opt to undergo the treatment herself. Aside from the danger to her life had things gone wrong, her three-week absence from court at a time of mounting tensions with Turkey represented a considerable political risk requiring skilful management.

Catherine’s no-fuss endurance of the fevers and dizziness prompted by her inoculation (all recorded in the doctor’s careful notes) was followed – once Paul too had safely recovered – with an energetic promotional campaign. A barrage of cannon-fire, fireworks and the church bells marked their return to St Petersburg. Next came a celebratory Orthodox mass and inoculation-themed entertainment, from a specially-composed ballet (Prejudice Defeated) to poems, a play and the announcement of an annual public holiday. The goal was two-fold: to use the royal example to extend inoculation across the empire (improving health and boosting the population), and to promote the usurping German-born empress herself as a caring “little mother” of the Russian people.

Abroad, Catherine’s messaging was brisker. She fired off letters to Voltaire and to Frederick the Great, highlighting her rational weighing of risks and her swift recovery with barely a day in bed. Here was the robust, enlightened leader of a forward-looking European state, personally demonstrating the benefits of cutting-edge science and beating back superstition. Voltaire congratulated her with characteristic wit: “You have been inoculated as easily as a nun taking an enema.”

In reality, of course, there was nothing simple about the inoculation at all. It was a powerful and complex act of personal bravery and astute statecraft, performed by a woman using her own body to convey her message. For Catherine, there was particular resonance: from girlhood, she had endured an array of brutal and often ineffective medical treatments, from having her crooked back smeared daily with a servant girl’s saliva in an attempt to straighten it to being bled so often for pleurisy she almost died. With Thomas’s help, she could regain control of her health, and then offer her example to her subjects.

This true story can, I hope, replace the tired lies about Catherine’s alleged libidinous appetites

This true story can, I hope, replace the tired lies about Catherine’s alleged libidinous appetites. She did, undoubtedly, love men and sex (good for her), though – as her masterly biographer Isabel de Madariaga points out – she only had a dozen well-documented lovers in around 44 years. Her lifelong relationship with her English doctor shows she also relished affectionate, entirely platonic friendship. She invited Thomas to sit on her bed alongside her and her lover Count Orlov, but, rather wonderfully, they spent the time discussing inoculation. The health questionnaire her physician gave her shows that, far from being a pleasure-seeker, she ate and drank abstemiously (most of the time), rose before dawn, and suffered from headaches caused by overwork.

Likewise, Thomas’s account demonstrates her consummate skill as a political operator, swiftly recognising the wider potential of inoculation not only to protect herself and her son but to project her desired image as a leader at home and abroad. She was unique in doing so: Louis XV of France rejected the technology outright and died horribly of smallpox (Catherine caustically observed he had no one to blame but himself), while George III inoculated all his fifteen children but never actively sought to extend it to his country. The Empress not only talked but acted: she commissioned inoculation hospitals across Russia and promoted the procedure throughout her reign. Though she could never fully overturn suspicion among the poor, she left a country far readier than it would otherwise have been to accept vaccination when Edward Jenner made his breakthrough in 1798.

Back in St Petersburg after her inoculation, Catherine lost no time in declaring war on the Ottoman Empire. Letters show the two events were closely linked in her mind: her recovery seems to have bestowed a sense of invincibility. Soon, her troops were marching south to Kiev and on to Turkey, where Russia would win first one and then a second war, gaining Crimea and strategically critical access to the Black Sea. As Russian territory expanded, European neighbours reacted with alarm, and political attacks on the victorious Empress stepped up accordingly. A British satirical print published in 1791, The Imperial Stride, shows an aggressive Catherine standing with one foot in Russia and the other in Constantinople, while the (all male) leaders of Europe look up her skirts and made lewd sexual jokes.

Today, as all eyes are once again on Russia, there are many reasons to re-examine Catherine the Great’s legacy, domestic and beyond. She was a woman of inordinate complexity. But, over two centuries on, it’s time to drop the knee-jerk misogyny and tired clichés and take her seriously, as a woman and as a ruler.

Lucy Ward is a former Guardian Political Correspondent. She first visited Russia in 1987 and lived in Moscow from 2010-2012. “The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great defied a Deadly Virus”(Oneworld), is out now

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