Special guest Dana Schwartz tells Sarah about Catherine the Great. Topics of interest include the very not great life of serfs, the accidental flattening of women via the girl-bossification of history, and a very solid Bertie Wooster reference.
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Catherine the Great
Sarah: It's just such a tiny country. I'm like, everyone is just in the Royal family and or Harry Potter, as far as I can tell.
Sarah: Welcome to You’re Wrong About, the show where we do new things sometimes, and here we are with Dana Schwartz.
Dana: The show where sometimes you have to reshape your conceptions of things that already exist.
Sarah: I bet this is going to be relevant. You have a podcast called Noble Blood. Who else have you talked about recently?
Dana: I just did a mini run on Elizabeth Bathory, and then a second part on another murderous, noble woman. I feel like for October, my vibe was murderous noble women. But one of the many maligned women of history, Elizabeth Bathory, is sort of famous for being like a female serial killer. But now, recent scholarship is that she might've been framed.
Sarah: I'm so excited about this theory. I feel like one of the things I love about your show is by examining specific lives, you get into what it was like to inhabit womanhood, historically. And that to me never ceases to be interesting.
Dana: Thank you very much. I really appreciate that. And I try really hard to present history in a way that reminds people that these were people. Because I think that people so often assume that because someone lived a hundred years ago, they were fundamentally different animals. I feel like I've started modeling my approach to research and academic articles that I read with a skepticism and an intellectual rigor that I feel like you and Michael both exemplified.
Sarah: That makes me so happy.
Dana: I think that you approach material with both empathy, but also with the right amount of skepticism.
Sarah: I think empathy and skepticism maybe superficially don't seem like friends, but they totally are holding hands as they walk down the road. Because with the Bathory story, again, that's something you look at and you're like, these are some pretty out there claims and to believe some of what she's accused of it does feel like you almost have to be like, well, it was history times, people were completely different. And it's like, no, we're the same. So that doesn't mean we can't do awful things, but we do awful things in similar ways throughout time, interestingly enough.
Dana: One of the things I sort of got into with Elizabeth Bathory, and then with another woman who actually was a murderer, named Daria Saltykova, who beat serfs to death, she was just physically abusive to most of her serfs and killed a lot of them. Is it so much easier to be like this one woman was a monster? Do you see her? And that’s easier than reckoning with the brutality of history. It's like, no, the entire serfdom was a violent, inherently violent system. And the fact that this woman took it way too far is awful. But we sometimes put all that awful on an individual as a way to absolve an entire system.
Sarah: And I don't think any Barnes and noble coffee table scariest lady murders book I ever looked at in the nineties was ever like, to understand this crime has to understand the nature of serfdom itself. And I would say that for this episode, really the only content warning I can think of is we talk a fair amount about the life of serfs and it was bad.
Dana: Serfs are a weird historical situation, because they're sort of halfway between slaves and indentured servants. But I think it's important to remember they could be gifted to other states, and your life wasn't in your own hands. And that's a terrible, dehumanizing thing. And so even though Catherine, intellectually, was very much part of the Enlightenment and she believed that serfdom was wrong, she didn't think she had the political power to overthrow it.
Sarah: And we talk about this in this episode - we talk about so much stuff - how the terribleness of a time can be replicated, partly because it's hard for people to figure out ways to truly live outside of it or rebel against it or mitigate or end it.
Dana: Really well said. I will say I'm also very interested in Katherine because I think that the girl boss-ification of history is nefarious and we need to fight it. And I think there are things that Catherine does that are very like, yes, girl boss, take lovers, rule Russia, ride a horse. It's very empowering on a surface level. But I also think she's so much more interesting and nuanced than that. And I think sometimes we celebrate female historical figures in a way that flattens them.
Sarah: I'm so glad you brought that up. We're going to go unflatten some people now. All right. See you in history.
Dana: See you in history.
Sarah: My knowledge of Catherine the Great makes me feel like Bertie Wooster.
Dana: Say more.
Sarah: I know enough to embarrass myself, by which I mean I know the legend. My understanding is that there's both a very substantial historical narrative here, and also a lot of what would eventually come to be called ‘tabloid gossip’.
Dana: A ton of tabloid gossip. The story of Catherine the Great works really synergistically with a former You're Wrong About maligned woman, Marie Antoinette. They died only a few years apart. Their lives are very much in parallel. Catherine the Great is older and obviously takes power in her own right. And it'll actually be the French Revolution that kicks off a lot of the propaganda and mythology that people today associate with Catherine the Great. So there is an interesting parallel in their lives. What do you know about Catherine the Great?
Sarah: So when I was in probably like 9th, 10th grade, I spent a lot of time reading The Straight Dope Archives. Did you ever read that?
Dana: Oh yeah.
Sarah: That was such a fun website. And it was a collection of this long running column where people would write in with random questions and they would be answered, sometimes conclusively, sometimes not. And one of them was like, “Is it true about Catherine the Great having intimate relations with her horse?” There are quite a few stories that I encountered first that way or some similar way, and so I first heard of them in the debunking. This is a common incel meme today, too. Right? The idea that if a woman has sex with lots of men, her vagina will get stretched out. But if she has sex repetitively with the same guy, then it'll be different.
Dana: You know, it's like a swipe card. It can recognize the one penis.
Sarah: Oh my God. Yes. It's like a Wi-Fi router. You don't want to overload it. The idea was that Catherine the Great was so sexually ravenous that she needed that horse D in order to have a good time. I think that was the implication of that.
Dana: Whether you consider this a lot, because I don't want to shame anyone, in her life - and she lived until 67, I believe - she had 12 sexual partners. That seems like a fine amount, not to judge her.
Sarah: I feel it's a number where you're like, I've experienced a lot of things. And also, I don't struggle to remember who had what mole.
Dana: Yeah. She had one marriage in her young life, I would say an unsuccessful marriage. And then you know, about a dozen partners after that, over a few decades. So she wasn't sexually ravenous by any stretch of the imagination, I would argue. Unless you're one of those one penis per person, people. But there are a ton of rumors about her being sexually promiscuous, not only the famous horse rumor, which we'll address, but also claims that she had penis shaped furniture. There's no actual historical record of. The only historical record of Nazis coming into the palace claiming they've seen, you know, during World War II.
Sarah: Well, who's more trustworthy than a Nazi? What was her lifespan? What time period is this?
Dana: So this is the 1700s. So she was born in the 1720s and died in 1796, just a few years after our friend Marie Antoinette. She lived through the height of royalty in Europe, and then she really saw its decline quickly, or the beginning of its quick decline. The two things I think people know about her is that her name is Catherine and that she was Russian are both untrue.
Dana: She was born a little German princess named Sophie, in what became Prussia, but then was the little princedom of Anhalt-Zerbst. And she sort of had this 18th century equivalent of a stage mom, in that her mom was from a good family. Her mom didn't have stellar prospects. Her mom grew up in a ducal court. Her aunt sort of adopted her. And so the mom grew up in the court of her much richer and much more esteemed godmother and aunt, and sort of got this taste for finery. And then when she made her marriage, which was to a nice well-placed prince who was a middle-aged guy, they got married and they went to live in a quiet, sleepy, gray town. Joanna, Catherine's mother, was sort of like, “I was beautiful and lived in court. And like, now this is all I have?” So she was, I think, really resentful of where she ended up as a young woman. And then when she had a daughter instead of a son, she hated her little Sophie and just basically ignored her. And then they did have a son and Joanna put all of her maternal instincts onto the son. And it was only when other people were like, “Oh, Joanna, you realize your daughter is really charming and smart and cool, right?” She'd be like, “Oh, her? Oh yeah. I guess.”
Sarah: That reminds me of how apparently Grace Kelly's father was like, she's not pretty. And you're like, what?
Dana: Yeah, she’s fine or whatever. She's my daughter over there. And then basically they went and visited a court, they visited the court of the Prussian king when she was 10 or 11. And he was like, this little Sophie girl, she's really smart and funny and she's firing off zingers. And the mom was like, oh yeah, I guess I did have a daughter. What about that?
Sarah: And I feel like feeling forgotten and passed over can create some of the need for greatness.
Dana: I really do feel like Sophie/Catherine felt she was destined for greatness from a really young age. We only have her memoirs to base that feeling on. And of course it's like hindsight 20/20, but she does right with a real self-awareness of like, “No, I was going to get out of that small Prussian town and move on to bigger and better things.”
Sarah: And you said her father's a prince, because I know that sometimes you get just princes all over the place. And sometimes it means they're in direct or pretty close to direct line to some kind of actual power. What's his situation?
Dana: He's the ruler of this little principality. It's a little bit of power, but it's more like a duke. I don't know, like someone who rules over a pretty small land, it was like one of the principalities of the Holy Roman empire. And then in Catherine's lifetime, it gets absorbed into Prussia by the kKng of Prussia.
Sarah: He was like a middle-management prince.
Dana: Yeah, he's a middle-management prince.
Sarah: And is this period, the period we're talking about, is this going to be a time when there's a lot of churn with these little, tiny countries consolidating or unconsolidating and stuff?
Sarah: The most churn. The most possible churn between the Holy Roman empire and what's happening with Prussia, Saxony, and all these tiny names of things that don't matter now because they've just been absorbed into bigger things. All this churning. And that's why Russia is particularly exciting at the moment, because it's like taking new Baltic territory and we're still in living memory of Peter the Great, who really expanded Russia to the Baltics. The current empress right now of Russia is named Elizabeth, and she's Peter the Great's daughter.
Sarah: Where do you start to see her agency as a person, as you're watching her grow up? Are you able to express that?
Dana: The cliff notes version of her coming to Russia is Elizabeth is the current empress chooses her nephew, Peter, to be her heir because she didn't have any children. And so she imports this little nephew, this little princeling from Holstein. He's the Duke or future Duke of Holstein and brings him to Russia at age 13. He is going to be pro-German his entire life, loves Germany and Prussia, and pretty much hates everything that's Russian. Hates Russian orthodoxy, hates the religion, hates the language. It's not going to be great for him. But you also, if you're trying to set up a dynasty, you need another heir after that. And so empress Elizabeth was concerning herself with who her little nephew would marry. And lo and behold, she gets word of this very charming German princess. And not just any princess. She hears Catherine/Sophie is the niece of a man that empress Elizabeth herself was once about to marry, and then he died. Empress Elizabeth feels this sort of kinship with Sophie/Catherine's family because she was engaged to her uncle, and she loved him, and he died before they got married. But she's still like, “Oh, well, you're part of my family. You should be part of my family.” She summons her secretly to Russia. It's this top-secret exciting thing for the future Catherine and her mom.
Sarah: And again, with the Marie Antoinette parallel, it's interesting to think about this road to power involving moving to a place you've never been to be married into something far beyond the station that you've experienced before.
Dana: And you asked about Catherine's agency, and I think we get a glimpse of that and her personality really young when she comes to Russia. Before she’s even married, or immediately after she's married to Peter, but fairly young she really endears herself to the Russian people by throwing herself into learning Russian and wanting to learn about Russian orthodoxy in a way that Peter, her fiancé, absolutely did not. There's a story of her staying up all night and walking barefoot in the cold palace hallways, where it's like really cold stones, practicing her Russian at night. And then she gets sick. It's that old thing of like, oh, if you're out in the cold, late at night, you get sick. They thought that she might die. And her mom and people were like, do you want us to send a Lutheran minister? And she asks for her Russian Orthodox teacher instead. And they fall in love with her because, you know, she gave a little effort.
Sarah: It's beautiful. Again, one of the Marie Antoinette problems was that she was a foreign princess who was married to a local prince who was like, yes, I've been here this whole time, you know me. And in this case, she doesn't have the same kind of competition because she’s affianced to someone who's not really going to make her look bad in comparison.
Dana: That's exactly it. It's like a foreign princess, that's just like the way it goes in these European marriages. Because that's the whole point of a princess. But she's a foreign princess married to a foreign prince. And unlike her husband, she actually seems to give half a shit about Russia and the Russian people. Which, I would argue that if you're a teenager who’s sent to be the future empress of a country, doing a little homework is like a pretty good thing to do.
Sarah: Yeah. I feel like that's part of my princesses, why we love them as a topic. No one is up to that job. It's so clear that no human being has the capacity, especially at quite a young age. Because part of the point is that they're virginal and inexperienced and they don't have the context to really, you know, it's not like when you become President you have to at least pretend to go to law school or whatever. I don't think anyone has ever been prepared for that role.
Dana: It's also, like you said with the Marie Antoinette thing, it's very damned if you do, damned if you don't. There are no rules for that role, and the only thing you can do right is have a son as quickly as possible. Which Catherine, off to such a good start, does really bad on that one count. She gets the name, ‘Catherine’ when she's, I'm not Christian, what's it called when you join a church? Baptized? Anointed?
Sarah: Oh, that sounds right. Baptized, confirmed.
Dana: Confirmed. I'm so sorry. I don't know the right word. But when she's formally introduced to the Russian Orthodox faith, she takes the name ‘Catherine’, which is a nice nod of the hat, tip of the hat, to the Empress’ mother who was a former commoner, who was raised up to be the Empress. She does a little, thank you for having me. I'm honoring your mother. I'm Catherine now.
But she doesn't have a son, which is probably because she and her husband don't consummate the marriage. Her husband, Peter III, the future Tsar Peter III is the worst. He's just a full weenie. It was actually advised, his tutors told the Emperor to push back his marriage. They're like, he is not ready for a marriage. And the Emperor was like, no, no, I need a grandchild. I need a son to be born. I need an heir as quickly as possible. He was like a big case of arrested development. There's, of course as you know from this podcast, it's a sad situation where he was physically and mentally abused by his tutor growing up, his awful tutor did corporal punishment on him. Probably beat out any shred of sympathy and interest in learning in him. And instead he became like a very petulant, awful child. And from a young age he definitely saw Catherine as a friend, but delighted almost like maniacally and taunting her by telling her that he has crushes on other girls in court.
Sarah: And how old is he when they get married?
Dana: I think they're both 16.
Sarah: Oh yeah. Oh my God. 16-year-olds getting married.
Dana: Oh, it was too young for him. And the fact that they continue to not get pregnant makes her life a living hell. Because Elizabeth, the Empress, the one in power, is basically always being like, “Okay, well, why aren't you pregnant? Who's fault is it? Clearly, it's your fault for not attracting your husband enough.” Even though she's like really cute and shares a bed with him and is like, please have sex with me. And she makes herself amenable at every account. What he does famously is every night he sets up elaborate military toys and plays on their bed.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Dana: And Catherine describes it as like, she'd be in bed, and she couldn't move. And if she moved, she would ruin it.
Sarah: Or like she's Gulliver and there's like little Lilliputians all around her. Wow. Yeah. It's like he's got his Legos or whatever. And then you have to report back on why and you're like, well, he'd rather play with his little army guys. So I don't know what to do about that.
Dana: He literally would rather play with his toys.
Sarah: That's the most relatable thing I've ever heard, also.
Dana: Right. That her husband that she's with really for her own political future. Because even if you're married, until you have a son, and really until the relationship is consummated, you're very vulnerable. You could just be disposable. And she just can't because he's so oblivious.
Sarah: It's so hard to speculate and I'm sure there's so much going on. But it feels like if I were him, I would be that kind of a shithead as a form of rebellion, because I have one job and I'm not going to do it.
Dana: I think that's definitely true. I think he also really resents that he loves Prussia, the Germanic order of things, and he really resents. He was like, I was a Duke and I had to sacrifice that to come here and take orders from the Empress. And Empress Elizabeth isn't the most perfect person. She’s sort of flighty and she throws a lot of these masquerade balls and makes people crossdress for her amusement because she looks really good in men's clothing.
Sarah: That's wonderful.
Dana: This is a true historical fact, she famously had really good legs and would show them off in big dresses and throw balls where everyone had to dress in the opposite gender's clothing.
Sarah: Truly only as an eccentric Royal, could you have any fun ever in history I'm convinced.
Dana: And also, she was really mercurial, especially with Catherine and Peter. Sometimes she'd be like, “I love you. You're my children.” And then there are actual historical anecdotes that if Catherine showed up at a ball wearing something sort of nicer than what she was wearing, she would throw a hissy fit. And one occasion when Catherine just wore a plain white shift dress, the Empress was like, what modesty at like showered her with gifts. She loved someone not upstaging her. And it was really hard, I think for a good 10 years while Catherine was living in this court before she had a son. Because it's like, if you have an assignment at work that you haven't turned in yet, and sometimes your boss bugs you about it and sometimes they don't and you're just hoping it's going to be a day where someone doesn't bug you about it. You don't know if the Empress is going to explode at you because you didn't have a baby yet.
Sarah: You’re treated as if you have power. But again, how real is it if you could lose it at any moment.
Dana: Catherine has almost no power at this point, especially after the Empress gets so mad that she and Peter aren't having kids, that she basically installs two spies to be their governesses, like a royal couple to oversee them. And they sort of systematically kick out any members of their court that they were friends with or had relationships with to try to make it like they're the only people they can spend time with. So they isolate them and kick their friends out of court. It's a really powerless position for Catherine, even though her title is ‘Grand Duchess’.
Sarah: This is me speaking personally, but like, I would always assume that Royal lives had to be unrelatable because obviously you're talking about people who are in charge of countries and can like choose to go to war or mitigate a famine, or what have you. The fact that people have the ability to have social dramas and that they were chronicled because they affected Europe, I find all of this so humanly relatable. Because what humans do whenever they have the time and resources, which I guess what I'm saying is that a lot of people are living more like Royals now, because even if we're like very time and cash poor, the kind of technology available still allows us to have social intrigues with each other. Makes me feel much closer to these people to hear about them ruining each other's lives all day long.
Dana: If you want to hear the most relatable thing that I've read about the lives of Peter and Catherine, aside from having to be married to this guy who just won't touch you, And you're like, “Why?” And he objectively keeps having crushes on uglier girls and keeps going out with girls that everyone else is like, “No, Katherine's prettier than her.” And he just doesn't care. Peter, he's going to get overthrown in six months, he is just a terrible choice to rule this empire.
He gets way too drunk at a dinner and calls a pretty high ranking official ‘a son of a bitch’ in a jokey way. Like, ah, this son of a bitch over here, in a way that's not angry, in a way that's drunkenly. And then years later when Catherine is the Empress, that same general will come to her and kneel and be like, remember when your shitty husband called me a ‘son of a bitch’. That's why you can't insult people. They’ll remember.
Sarah: That's one of the wonderful stories where like a shitty husband is forced out of the picture, and then everyone comes to his ex and is like, we always liked you better.
Dana: Yeah, that's really what it is. So I feel like that's a good segue to fast forward these really boring years, mostly of her feeling really controlled, looking over her shoulder at all times. They eventually have a son, nine years into their marriage. Good job, Catherine.
Sarah: He finally wins that war he was waging on the bed that whole time.
Dana: He finally finished it. Now we can have sex. And then a little bit after that, they're in their thirties now and the Empress dies. And Peter becomes Emperor Peter III, and he's truly awful. He makes people dress up. He hates Russian military costumes and so he basically replaces them with Prussian style. And when I say Prussian, it's Germanic. I always hated how Prussian and Russian sound the same, but they're totally different.
Sarah: It feels like it was designed to confuse 20th century middle schoolers. Although I know it was not.
Dana: Probably, we don't know it wasn't.
Sarah: True. Yeah. And this feels almost Trump-ian, like ‘I'm daring you to challenge me’ type behavior. Look at what I'm doing to you. Doesn't this suck. I'm not touching you.
Dana: So even though I’m fully aware that it's Frederick of Prussia at the time, I'm going to say German just because I think it paints a clearer picture. He loves German uniforms. He makes people just run drills all the time. That's his favorite thing in the world, having these high-ranking generals who are like, we have important things to do, making them be his real-life toy soldiers.
Sarah: My God, right. He's graduated in power. And they're like, “What are you going to do with all this power?”, and he's like, “Well, I think I'm going to make real human beings be my toy soldiers now.”
Dana: I just want to say if you're a new leader, I think one of the main things you don't want to do is make all the generals mad at you and hate you and all the military hate you, because you're condescending to them.
Sarah: That seems tactically unwise.
Dana: I don't want to get into boring military history, but there's this long war between Russia and the Germanic holdings in Prussia. And because he'd spent the first 13 years of his life in Prussia, he basically concedes the entire Russian victory that they've been working towards this entire time, for a shitty treaty that goes nowhere. And everyone's like, are you kidding me? You just undid everything we've been doing and working really hard on and sacrificing for. His loyalties are elsewhere.
Sarah: So he's actually behaving a little bit treasonously.
Dana: Against the interest of Russia as an empire. And hates the Russian Orthodox church. Because another thing you want to do, if you're a new leader, aside from just turning all the generals into your living human toys, is insult all the religious leaders. The long story short is, everyone hates him. Catherine has taken a lover at this point, Grigory Orlov, who with his brother are pretty connected in the military world. And Catherine has always made a really good impression on the military leaders, by riding on her horse through the barracks and making friends. Basically doing the equivalent of being like the mom who drops off cookies.
Sarah: And she's playing the cookie long game.
Dana: And remembers everyone's name. I think it's a great sign when one leader is educated and smart and has a basic interest in the country they're running. And the other one is like, I hate doing posthumous diagnosing, but strikes a lot of people as mentally unfit to be the emperor of a giant swatch of land.
Sarah: How many people are, to be fair?
Dana: It's a kind of a comedy of errors how the actual coup happens. Just because Peter, who's the emperor at this point, is so incompetent. He's given so many warnings. He's literally playing his violin when a letter is delivered, being like, hey, there might be a coup happening.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Dana: And he keeps finishing playing his violin in a Nero moment.
Sarah: Nero and Titanic. It's like violins are just the ultimate we're all doomed instrument, apparently.
Dana: He's just with his mistress at this palace outside of the city, while Catherine in the city is doing this entire overthrow. To an almost comical degree, he ignores the possibility that anything might be happening. I think he knows that there's an event that night and he goes to the palace to see his wife. And he's like, “Why isn't she getting ready?” And he doesn't realize that a few miles away, she's like riding on horseback with military leaders behind him.
Sarah: Good. That's amazing. So there's a coup being led against him by his wife. I just want to make that crystal clear, because what a wonderful thing, honestly,
Dana: Yes. Six months after he became emperor, basically.
Sarah: Oh my God. She threw all his shirts onto the lawn and that was it.
Dana: She threw all his shirts onto the lawn, and she and her lover went to a regiment in the city, in Moscow, and gives this great speech that's like, “I love Russia. I'm Russian. I should be on the throne.” The guards are all for her, the military. And it's the easiest coup in history. Her husband just does nothing.
Sarah: It's amazing.
Dana: There are all these exit ramps for him where it's like, okay, well you just need to make sure you can maybe capture this island and you could maybe do this, and you could maybe do that. And instead he chooses to do absolutely nothing.
Sarah: Coup me baby, just coup me.
Dana: They capture him. I think the official autopsy is like, oh, he dies of an undiagnosed injury. But he's almost certainly killed about a week after they capture him.
Sarah: An undiagnosed bullet.
Dana: They're like, oh, it was a severe *cough cough*. But you know, there's an autopsy, and the autopsy says definitely not murder.
Sarah: So it is interesting whenever historical circumstances create a scenario where people are going to align themselves politically with a woman.
Dana: Yeah. She really knew how to play her cards right. She was really good at flattering the right people and not overplaying your hand ever and making friends with people in the military. Which is an important thing to do if you want to be a leader.
Sarah: What do the Russian people need out of a leader at this point, what's going on?
Dana: I think it depends on who you ask. I think if you asked to serf, I want to talk about serfs for a bit, because there are slaves. It's not racially based like it was in the United States and across the British colonies, but serfs, even though in text, maybe it's like, oh no, they belong to the land. They don't belong. But they could be sold separate from the land. They could be forced to marry or forbidden to marry.
Sarah: And the land itself doesn't give orders or anything.
Dana: Exactly. The whole purpose of serfdom was because when industrialization happened in Russia, so much of the land was going untended. And so they just basically force people to stay like, “No, you cannot move. You have to make vegetables grow on this land to feed the Russian people.” And then over years, that devolved into basic slavery where some serfs were working the field, but some serfs were domestic servants in the household. And some nobles would even have entire theater companies of serfs who would be like singers and painters. But then you think like, oh, well that life is better. But no, it's like if a musician missed a note, they could be tortured.
Sarah: Oh, good God.
Dana: You technically weren't allowed to kill a serf, but you could torture them or punish them within an inch of their lives. A quote that I pulled out of this Robert K. Massie book, Catherine the Great; Portrait of a Woman and that's just so vivid is that an ambassador in Russia notes that he saw how strange it was that a bearded man would be spanked, and that some really sadistic masters would have the serf's own son do the punishments to their dads. Which is just horrible. So serfdom exists and it's awful, and I don't want to gloss over that at all.
Sarah: History is filled with both gossip and this very sort of in the minutiae relatable, human narrative. And then also it's filled with the most fucked up things you can imagine people doing to each other. And that's just such a consistent presence. And it's always going to be any empire, any reign we talk about, there's that corollary to look at.
Dana: And I think some people put serfdom in a different category because they're ethnically Russian.
Sarah: It's not like they've gone to another continent and found people to kidnap.
Dana: Yeah. For context, this is the 1700s when the West Indies slave trade is booming.
Sarah: They’re like, why would we bother going far away? Let's just oppress people who are at hand, and over time destroy the idea of autonomy or humanity for them.
Dana: So, Catherine the Great is sometimes called an ‘enlightenment leader’. She loved reading Voltaire, and she loved philosophy. She loved French philosophy of the enlightenment, the ideas that then would inspire our founding fathers. And perhaps unsurprisingly like our founding fathers, who had these really idealistic notions that all men are created equal, but also I have slaves.
Sarah: Except the person who’s sharpening my quill.
Dana: Catherine is someone who idealistically had these big ideas for how to get rid of serfs in Russia and had plans for it. She's like, okay, when you sell an estate, you have to release all the surfs. And so then over time, they'll just be no serfs. She sort of had college freshmen ideas for how to get rid of the serfs.
Sarah: She’s like, just release the serfs when you're ready, when you happen to be selling something, but not before you want to. It's fine. Just, when you have a moment.
Dana: Yeah. Wait, if it's not too much trouble, if you don't mind, maybe. I'll pay you back. So Catherine has a lot of contradictions that I think historians have, I was going to say fun with, but that interests historians because she's someone who really did hold herself to this ‘enlightenment’ philosophical standard. But she gave serfs to nobles to reward them. The nobles who helped her rise to the throne, she's like, “Thank you. Here's a title. And here are several hundreds of thousands of serfs.” But that's the system that existed and she had these sort of idealistic plans for eventually dismantling serfdom that she never got to and eventually served them would finally be eliminated in Russia, I think just a few years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States.
Sarah: Oh, wow. One of the things this makes me think of is how today, I can really want to divest myself of a system that is poisoning the environment, but it's very hard to live a life today where you're not doing some of the category of things that involves having a smartphone, driving in a car that uses fuel or that uses a battery of some kind that also is extractive, or just using power, wearing fast fashion. All of the things that we know are bad, but the problem is not that we don't know, but that it's incredibly time consuming to actually extract yourself from that to any significant degree.
Dana: And sometimes expensive.
Sarah: Yeah, exactly. And the financial barrier to ethical behavior is quite high. And so for this, I'm curious about, could you look at the serf situation and be like, I have ideals about this, but also the economic system that we have set up would need to be completely reinvisioned to not include serfs and maybe even people lacking the ability to so vastly reconstruct a system of governance or of economics.
Dana: I sort of equate the Catherine the Great situation to, you know that classic story about an idealistic young politician who gets elected and then realizes you have to be beholden to all these interests or they'll fund your opponent, and you'll never get elected again. Catherine very much came to power on the backs of a lot of loyal noblemen.
Sarah: So it's like the 18th century equivalent of the oil lobby and stuff like that.
Dana: Yeah. You know, all these noblemen and all these wealthy landowners and powerful people put her in power. And so she felt, and I think actually was, beholden to them to some degree.
Sarah: They put her there. And what she seems to have going for her at this point, more consistently than anything else, is that she's figured out how to make the right people like her.
Dana: I think honestly what she has the most consistently, is that her husband absolutely sucks, and everyone hates him across the board. She was great, but also the other team had an error.
Sarah: Right. And also it's like now that he's gone, that can be a hard transition because now people aren't seeing her in comparison to this complete dipshit all the time anymore.
Dana: Again, she very much did not take this empire because she had the blood to do so. It was a coup, and she rules at the behest of the noblemen that she has to make happy, including gifts of serfs sometimes. She writes and a lot of her writing and reading are these very enlightenment ideals, but ultimately, she is unsuccessful in undermining a system that maybe she idealistically opposes but couldn't actually oppose.
Sarah: It’s frustrating to me when we try to rebrand women in history as bad-ass or whatever.
Dana: I hate that. I hate bad ass the most.
Sarah: Yes. Or like just the sort of ambiguous positive, some kind of a role model if they're like a princess or a queen or an actress or whatever, because If you're a holder of any kind of royal power or of hereditary power, that person is agreeing to a system where they are much more important and valuable than almost all other human beings. And you can't really reclaim that as a totally ethical rain or career or whatever. It is what it is from the beginning. And then from there, it's easy for the ethical compromises to get much worse.
Dana: Yeah. God has chosen me to be in charge. And if I shouldn't be in charge of making all the decisions, then God wouldn't have put me here.
Sarah: And like, maybe I want to help people, but not enough for me to not have way more money and stuff and power than them. Why would I do that? And tell me your thoughts on the bad ass women of history paradigm.
Dana: It’s just so flattening. If you try to make people like, oh, big heroes, then someone just needs to be like, oh, well she owned serfs. So checkmate. And I think history is so much more interesting. And if you look at everyone with nuance, she can be a smart, interesting person. And she was also petty and exploited the labor of other people to get where she was. And I don't think she should be lionized or demonized any more than any other individual. And just, she's an interesting person to read and learn about.
Sarah: Yeah. And I think one of the painful things about recognizing how almost everyone you learn about as part of history is ethically compromised, at least if you're talking about examining the history of people in power.
Dana: Anyone with power in the 1700s is ethically compromised, almost without exception.
Sarah: Yeah, which means if we have any power, then history will reveal us as ethically compromised, too. It probably already has. Again, I don’t know why, but I find it reassuring that all the really difficult aspects of being a human are just so timeless. They just recur infinitely, and yet they never get boring, they're always weird.
I think to me, one of the interesting things about studying women in positions of great power historically, is that a lot of the time, they're using that great power just to try and have a nice life and like, yeah, they're in charge of a country, but it's really like how many countries does a woman have to be in charge of to get people to fuck off?
Dana: It's like more female jailors, that thing. Why aren't there more female guards at Guantanamo Bay?
Sarah: Yeah, it's like that brand of feminism where it's like, okay, so it's not really for other women. It's just like, everything sucks and I got mine.
Dana: As a leader, it feels so anachronistic to be like, was Catherine the great feminist?
Sarah: Did the term exist?
Dana: But she was really good for Russia. She brought a lot of Western culture and modernized Russia in a lot of ways. She built a lot of towns. She built this sort of center of enlightenment and did bring about a Renaissance in Russian culture that would then lead to all of the great Russian artists of the 20th century. When you think of the tradition of great Russian literary artists, if we’re weighing the scales of whether she was a good or bad Empress, she ruled for three decades and was a really successful Empress. She expanded Russia, she brought sort of a second golden age. And she's called Catherine the Great, because she started the spiritual success to Peter the Great, you know, expanded Russia through the Baltics.
Sarah: Can I give you my middle-school summary of what I think of the Enlightenment as being about? So my understanding of the Age of Enlightenment is that until then, we had not really had a big historical period dedicated to being excited about science. And suddenly everyone was putting birds and hot air balloons, putting candles in vacuums, and just screwing around. And noblemen were all doing science and it was very exciting. And I feel like there was this idea and kind of emergent fields of the natural sciences and in philosophy. We could really get a hold of this knowledge thing. We could really figure this world out. That it was really almost like I imagine the sixties being like, we've had some technological advances recently and we're feeling really optimistic about stuff.
Dana: You nailed it. ‘A’ on your middle-school report. I think to me, one of the funniest things about the Enlightenment is when someone writes, like, I feel bad for a scientist in the future because we've solved it all. We found it all.
Sarah: And they were doing a ton of stuff. They were super busy, but it's like, yeah, well we did some stuff later, don't worry.
Dana: The enlightenment, I feel like, is this sort of perfect confluence of the written word becoming cheap and popular and also the idea of the scientific method. Oh, by doing a series of tests, we can figure things out. The world is ultimately knowable, both the scientific world and also the social world, philosophy is solvable. We have the answers, and we can solve all these problems.
Sarah: It really reminds me of the kind of Silicon Valley startup mentality of, get a bunch of guys. And they're in their twenties to mid-thirties and let them just sit around drinking coffee or beer and getting really big ideas together. There's going to be some similarities across different centuries.
Dana: This is where Catherine really excelled. She did make minor improvements to serfs. She installs an HR, but it does sort of feel like, you know, the ‘me too’ people being like, well, here's a number you can call if you want to complain.
Sarah: She’s like a serf reformer.
Dana: She sort of tries to help a little bit.
Sarah: Maybe torturing your serfs horribly is frowned upon.
Dana: It’s a step. It'll be her grandson, I believe. It's either grandson or great-grandson, that'll ultimately eliminate serfdom completely. But where she really excels is the arts, and she has a huge personal art collection, literature and education. She's big on importing things. The Shahnazari style, I might be pronouncing that wrong. The very Western interpretations of Chinese culture, I would argue by the metrics set out by political history, is a really successful Empress.
Sarah: What metrics do you value as a historian?
Dana: So I think good or bad are unhelpful sometimes because like we said, they all exploited people just by virtue of being autocrats, but successful as in she reigned uninterrupted for 30 years. Improved the state of Russia for most, didn't make things worse for even the lowest people. Even though they were still serfs, half step up for them, but big steps up for everyone else.
Sarah: For Americans, the whole Enlightenment thing, it's really baked into our founding documents, this idea of like, we're just going to keep getting better and better until we become pure energy, I guess. And now having been rather humbled, I'm like, yeah, a ruler, not making things incredibly worse. That's fantastic. Great job.
Dana: A ruler that just valued education and arts.
Sarah: And then as her reign continues, what to you, are the moments that you find most interesting?
Dana: I honestly feel like the most interesting, you're wrong about, comes about after her death.
Sarah: Take us there.
Dana: Her son really resented his mother, I think, in the way a boy might resent like a really powerful, single, working mom. She had so much power and was such a larger-than-life figure that he felt very overshadowed. And also, he really resented his mom for the way she treated dad.
Sarah: Because you can have a lot of resentment for your mom even if you had a divorce that was totally the dad's fault but didn't know at the time. And then he had to move out by the airport, let alone having a coup that ended in his somewhat unexplained death.
Dana: So he basically becomes a mini me to his deceased father that he never knew, he was an infant, but starts wearing that Germanic uniform and tries to undo a lot of Catherine's more progressive advances. And what also happens almost immediately after Catherine's death and during her later years is the French revolution. I think, as you might be able to imagine, Catherine wasn't particularly sympathetic to the revolutionaries.
Sarah: I’d be stressed if I were her.
Dana: Like a celebrity who retweets ‘eat the rich’, but then the eating actually starts, the celebrity stops re-tweeting.
Sarah: I don't taste good. Don't worry.
Dana: So it's, it's a situation where I think she had a lot of these French enlightenment ideals. And then when the actual revolution happened of people overthrowing monarchy, she's like, okay, all this is good except me being an Empress. That's also good.
Sarah: The French revolution had to be, first of all, such a strange thing to try and get a handle on if you were in another country the entire time, because it's confusing enough to try and understand the news if you have Seaspan about it. But also, I feel like that was such an uncontrolled burn and a revolution that really was about taking out, not just the monarchs, but also every signifier of them and of their power. And I feel like if you're Catherine the Great, you're like, but what about all this art and stuff?
Dana: I think I can go on the record as saying that the French revolution went a little far, in murdering people. I tend to be anti-murder.
Sarah: It's like that perfect little gooey area, right? Between Liberty, egality, fraternity and let's kill everybody.
Dana: There was a moment where they're doing the tennis court oath, where it didn't have to go random tear and it did, but for Catherine she espoused support of a lot of these philosophical ideas but withdrew her support when it came to beheading noblemen. The same infrastructure that took down Marie Antoinette, the propaganda and pornography, and these broadsheets that are incredibly sexist and you're like, even if you're making a good philosophical point, you're ruining it by being like a monster, those start attacking Catherine. And this is where she begins to get her more public reputation for being licentious. Even during her reign, there were people who hated that she had sexual partners, but what Catherine tended to do, her partner would always be someone that she's worked with in a political capacity, like her friend at work. And then she would give him a good promotion. And then she would tire of him as like a sexual partner, but they'd still be friends and she'd keep him in place.
Sarah: I mean that seems like a good way to consolidate power. I’m reminded of the part in Veep where they're talking about a banking task force as a euphemism for Selena having sex with somebody.
Dana: It really does, and that's a good way to keep loyalty if you're friends with all your exes.
Sarah: I don't know. If I were having to basically appoint cabinet members, if it were someone who I had been with and then the romance had fizzled, but then you still have that remaining kind of trust, you can tell when someone's bullshitting you when you know them that well for one thing.
Dana: And also when you're the emperor, things always end on your terms. You have to assume that these things are ending by her. It's not like she's ever going to be dumped by someone.
Sarah: Honestly, democracy is great. And I'm very happy that we live in a country where we at least claim to want to have one. It does remain true that one of the main points of being in power is just sheer nepotism.
Dana: 100%. I saw a breakdown that's not entirely even, but a rule of thumb is basically she had a partner for two years.
Sarah: She’s like a serial monogamous Empress.
Dana: She’s a serial monogamous. I think trust is a really important thing that you picked up on, especially when you came to power in a coup you recognize that coups can and do happen. And like, especially when you don't have a blood claim to the throne, your power is precarious. So surrounding yourself with people that you trust intimately proved an effective strategy. And also on this scale of leaders in France and England would have multiple official mistresses at one time. This is a situation where if you're a ruler, there were rules you would have had like 12 mistresses at one time.
Sarah: Right? I think one of the key things too, that you brought up in our Marie Antoinette episode was the fact that Maria Antoinette as a queen consort, her job is to be a well-dressed baby machine. And then in terms of political relevance, it's very bizarre etiquette wise for her and unprecedented for her to do anything. There's already a job called that, it's the mistress. And the King's mistress is supposed to be the one who reads and gets ideas because she's not busy making babies.
Dana: It's very like when Hillary Clinton had an office in the west wing and people got mad at it. So the sacredness of the monarchy, especially in Western Europe, Is collapsing, which then leads to a popularization of propaganda against Catherine the Great. It's amazing in retrospect that the ‘great’ stuck.
Sarah: Because she had such a huge rebranding posthumously.
Dana: Yeah. Because her son hated her and tried to undo everything she did. I think our pop culture also says, you know, American people like our popular understanding of a lot of figures came from a more Western European interpretation of them.
Sarah: It's very seditious to literally lead a murderous coup against your husband and then take over a country as a foreigner. And that could be the headline of why she was this scary history lady, but we're like, no, you know, what's scary? Having a lot of sex is scary.
Dana: The myth of the horse is kind of historically very interesting and very specific because horse riding has a lot of connotations. It has a very sexual connotation. And Catherine the Great was famously a really good rider. She was amazing as a horseback rider; she was a great horse woman. So the myth that a horse was in a harness so that it could be lifted and penetrate her, and then the harness collapsed and fell on her and crushed her to death. That is a story that came about decades after her actual death. Which was boringly of a stroke, which is sometimes how 67 year old people died in the 1700s. But it was sort of like a body joke, not a joke, but like a thing to mock how good she was at horseback riding.
Sarah: Right. It's like taking away something she's good at. And also, it's like, painting her is very dumb because it's like, why would you want or need the horse to be on top in the scenario? That's not necessary.
Dana: It doesn’t hold up for a minute of scrutiny. You and Michael talked about in the McDonald's coffee episode, but when there's just like a blurb, that's so appealing to be repeated, people just love repeating.
Sarah: We’re real oysters with the news, you know, we find a little piece of grit that kind of lodges in the brain. And then it's like, we, without even knowing we're doing it, do so much fill in work. And especially if it's something that confirms our worldview or that we're ready to believe, and like, clearly this is one of those things. And even if you don't think it's literally true, you're showing the amount of respect you believe is reasonable to show to someone who is in charge of an empire for 30 years.
Dana: It very much dehumanizes people that actually existed. Cause then it's like, oh no, people in the past are just wild, bestiality, circus freaks.
Sarah: It's like, no, you just, you went to a party that the king of France threw where he had servants dressed as trees and you would have orgies with humanbeings, and everyone had a nice time.
Dana: If you actually want to interrogate deviant sex in the 1700s, it's people raping enslaved people.
Sarah: Yeah. The fact that sexual violence is because the obvious shadow side to any history of enslavement and also something that history has been not in denial off, but just ignoring, just not willing to, really just the trend historically where those who write and convey history are men that I feel like has left that subject matter in the dark much more than makes any sense in terms of statistical reality. What do you think are the warning signs of a historical meme story being fake?
Dana: I wish I knew, because I feel like sometimes I read things and I'm like, this is wild and you're like this can't be true. And then it is true.
Sarah: That's the thing. The books that Casino and Goodfellas are based on like a lot of the stuff in those movies are toned down from reality, because I think they assumed audiences would have a hard time believing some of the stuff that actually happened.
Dana: It's like the apple falling from the tree is a fake story, but penicillin actually was invented by accident.
Sarah: That’s right. People now I think online are very eager to call out each other's stories as fake and to be like, yeah, and then everyone clapped. But then again, a lot of fake sounding stuff happens every day.
Dana: I think maybe one of the markers of like a fake historical thing that's caught on is if it's rhetorically useful. ‘Let them eat cake’ is a philosophically useful thing to have a name.
Sarah: I would say that if it's about a woman being ostentatiously useless, that is always going to fit someone's agenda. And therefore, if you're motivated to lie, you're just more likely to, and people are always going to find reasons to need to render female rulers apparently incompetent. Yeah, that seems like a theme.
Dana: Probably if it's mean about women, it's fake.
Sarah: Or just be like, oh, let me think about this for a second.
Dana: But you know, like the, let them eat cake is really useful to like dunk on Ivanka Trump.
Sarah: I know, but it's like, she's created so many of her own horrible on point displays of not caring-ness that we should just create her own terminology based on her, like the famous Melania coat that says like, ‘I don't really care. Do you?’ It's like, okay, why are we still bothering people who have been dead for 200 years if people are just performing such beautiful metaphors right in front of us.
Dana: I feel like if there is a moral to this it's that we should embrace the metaphors in front of us.
Sarah: So Catherine the Great gets rebranded as basically a terrible, sexually voracious evil. And yet also basically out to lunch and, and competent ruler because her kid sucks.
Dana: She's so busy having sex with all these men that she didn't notice all the good things that happened to be done in her kingdom by accident.
Sarah: Does she have a period after that or some kind of historical reclamation, or do you think that she's still stuck in that horror story jail?
Dana: She's stuck in horror story jail for people who maybe don't know a second thing about her. But I think ‘the great’, the name does a lot of work for her. And I think that she gets a reclamation because her writing and philosophy was on the right side. She is still sort of seen as a foremother for the more progressive movement that would happen in Russia over the next few centuries.
Sarah: And I feel like one of the morals is don't worry too much about your legacy as an ethical actor or someone who used the power that you had as meaningfully as possible, because a lot of people will just remember something that never even happened and that you never would have done. So don't stress about the historical memory. Just do your best, right now. So we are going to be talking again soon. I'm going to tell you a story of historical intrigue from my own archives.
Sarah: I can't wait. I'm so excited.
Sarah: Dana. I feel like I'm so happy that you are coming here to do so many different things. I know that there is so much to take from this episode and the other episodes you've done with us, but to me, what's most precious of what you bring is feeling like we were talking about all these historical personages, as if they are here as if they are relevant to our lives as if we were just looking at their Instagram and are like, did he see what Catherine the Great put in her stories today? Because I just feel like I'm trying to be less on social media and trying to read books again more. It's interesting. You’d think books would be intimidating and yet the thing about a book is that like at a certain point, it ends. With the internet it never does, they do all end, even the really long ones. I am not for or against social media. Live your life, be happy, do whatever. But I think that, especially at this juncture, it makes sense that a lot of us are really starved for human contact and aren't getting it in the ways that would be ideal and are having to really use more parasocial means than we're used to. And I think if Instagram is bumming you out, you can get gossip at Antonia Fraser. It's very scandalous. There’s that sense of connection there too. And maybe it will make you feel less weird about the cleanliness of your home, because guess what? In history, everyone was just covered in filth, especially the rich people somehow.
Dana: Covered in filth. Peeing in hallways. And also there they're rich. The same thing with Instagram, you get to ogle at rich people.
Sarah: You got to judge them and love their clothes.