Better living through 18th century chemistry
In 1744, Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst arrived in Russia, a minor German princess plucked from obscurity thanks to her dead uncle. That uncle had once been betrothed to Empress Elizabeth of Russia. Because of Elizabeth’s fondness for her dead fiancé, she selected Sophia as a bride for her heir, Grand Duke Peter.
But once married to Peter and converted to Orthodoxy, Sophia (now rebaptized as Catherine) found life in Russia more Hobbesian than she would have liked: solitary, nasty, brutish, and — if you were unlucky — short.
These early years in Russia shaped her understanding of power, relationship dynamics, and self-worth. At three different periods later in life, she looked back and wrote about these years, explaining how they shaped her destiny as the future ruler of Russia. The last version of these recollections, written a few years before her death, is what historians usually refer to when they mention her memoir.
Today, that memoir is surprisingly readable. It contains funny anecdotes about court life, pranks, mishaps, jokes, and the occasional home remedy for common ailments.
Let’s take a look at two of them.
In December of 1748, the Russian court left St. Petersburg to spend Christmas in Moscow. When they arrived, it was 28 or 29 degrees below zero, and Empress Elizabeth excused Catherine from going to church because of the excessive cold.
While bundled up inside, Catherine reminisced about her first visit to Moscow four years earlier. “I was obliged to remain in my room during my first stay in Moscow because of the excessive number of pimples that had broken out on my face; I was scared to death of being scarred.” ¹
So she sent for Dr. Boerhave, who gave her all kinds of potions — none of which worked. The doctor took pity on…