Catherine the Great: translatio imperii and translation of Gender

Vera Proskurina, Davis Center, Harvard University

The eighteenth century was, for the most part, a time of female rule in Russia. However, in order to attain the throne and maintain power, the female monarchs had to display masculine behavior. The medieval formula of "the King's two bodies" (Ernst Kantorowitz' term which implied the notion of the Emperor as God-Man) had a peculiar development on Russian ground. Traditional Russian ideology, influenced by Russian Orthodoxy, assumed the opposition "men—women" to be one of "sacred—profane." Women, according to Russian traditional beliefs, were associated with "earthly" attributes and considered dependent and subordinate creatures. The Russian mind always connected the "sacred," "divine" nature of kingship with masculinity.

Russian female rulers of the eighteenth century inherited this medieval role distribution, and had to reckon with it. Notably, the usual scenario for palace revolution in the eighteenth century involved a ritual transversion: a female pretender dressed up as a man (or having some significant elements of male attire), took off female orders and decorations and substituted masculine attributes of royal Authority.

The paper focuses in particular on the period of Russian eighteenth-century history when Catherine the Great established and exhibited her image as Emperor (rather than Empress), as she strove to justify contemporary judgment that she was indeed Catherine Le Grand. Political and ideological challenges provoked a novice Russian female ruler to develop Gender transversion in order to secure and strengthen her successful, but illegitimate accession. The former German and Protestant princess had to prove she was entirely Russian, sincerely devoted to Russian Orthodoxy, absolutely legitimate, and even more masculine than her recently overthrown and murdered husband, Peter III. She successfully accomplished first two tasks while still Grand Duchess, wife to the heir apparent. Moreover, she also completed the prerequisites for the last two goals—establishing her legitimacy and masculine attributes. Given the situation, her main function (as far as establishing her legitimate position in the Russian royal family) was to produce a male heir to the throne. At the same time, as Grand Duchess Catherine inverted her gender role: she created an image of herself as a strong, intelligent and independent political figure, and one who appeared far more masculine than her weak, politically incompetent, and even sexually impotent husband. Thus even before his overthrow she began to claim Peter III's place as regards both power and gender.

I will analyze a variety of historical and literary documents which demonstrate Catherine's strategy to present herself as Russian Emperor (not Empress), for example, her refusal to accept the title "Mother of the Fatherland," the production of medals and engravings with tricky abbreviated inscriptions which omitted grammatical marks of gender, her encouragement of the mythology concerning Amazons that was developed in literary works, especially by her poetic spokesman, the politically perceptive court poet Vasilij Petrov.

The popularity of Amazonian mythology involved both gender and power. First, the image of an Amazon-like Russian Empress riding a horse in front of loyal regiments became an immutable political emblem in eighteenth-century Russia. Second, the Amazon myth linked Russian Imperialism with the Roman Empire. According to the legend, Amazon detachments had supported the Trojans, and Virgil in his Æneid, the cornerstone of imperial mythology, connected the brave Amazons with Æneas who left the demolished city of Troy to establish the future Rome.

Later European nations, at early stages of imperialism, also claimed descent from noble Trojan refugees. The "translation of empire" (translatio imperii) in Russia also followed this pattern: Catherine II ordered the translation of the Æneid into Russian and attentively followed Petrov's progress. Like Virgil, who read fragments of the poem to his highest patron, the Emperor Augustus, in Russia Petrov had to read his translations to Catherine. He even played with the apparent similarity of the situation when he recalled, in the introduction to his poem, one of German names of Catherine the Great: Sophia Augusta Fredericka.

The Russian Empress was obviously striving to find an appropriate ideological rationale for her political strategy. The classic Virgilian paradigm looked very attractive: Æneas was the father of the Empire, and the Emperor Augustus established the Golden Age, the peak of prosperity, for the Roman Empire. In Russian context Peter the Great received the place and the significance of the founder, while Catherine II acquired the characteristics of Augustus. She also claimed to have brought a Golden Age to Russia. Catherine the Great, with her broad legislative activity and extensive expansionism in foreign policy (wars with the Ottoman Porte, seizure of the Crimea, Poland's partition), attempted to associate herself with classical masculine models of imperial power, inherited by European monarchies, in order to sanction her rule.