Catherine and I

By Celina Colby

The waist on Catherine the Great’s wedding dress is 18 inches. I shift to the side, peering into the glass display case like there might be a fun house mirror back there. My hand drifts to my own belt, which is a bit tighter due to the traditional three course lunches here in Moscow. I thought I knew everything about Catherine’s story, her coup against her crap husband, her groundbreaking art collection, her thirst for war-won territory. But I seem to have missed the part of the biography where they mentioned she was actually an animated Barbie doll.

Catherine the Great wasn’t Russian at all. She was Prussian and she and that 18-inch waist were shipped in to the snowy motherland to wed Peter III. I’m not Russian either. In fact I’m Latina, which I’m pretty sure is the opposite of Russian. She was only 16 when she came to Russia; I have the benefit of being almost ten years older, and apparently the curse of having eaten ten more years worth of chocolate.

But in a way I feel a kinship with this early queen. I imagine that the disorientation I felt when I stepped off the plane into a sea of Cyrillic signage and guttural Russian was similar to what she felt riding across the border. I sat in the back of a taxi praying my hand gestures were enough to get me to my hotel and not to a shallow grave; she sat in the back of her carriage hoping her future husband wasn’t ugly, or, you know, the genocidal type.

I didn’t come to Russia on a whim. I came on a pilgrimage. I was 15 when I fell in with the wintry crowd. One reading of Dostoevsky, so full of angst and nihilism and drama, and I was a goner. From there I moved on to harder stuff. Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy. I started learning Russian phrases to mutter under my breath when the totalitarian regime of high school teachers was too oppressive. I added fur to my wardrobe. I was perpetually in an existential crisis. I still am.

This trip was ten years in the making. I had tried and failed before to arrange something but this year, on the tenth year anniversary of that introduction to Dostoevsky, nothing was going to stop me from getting to Russia. None of my friends would take the trip with me so I found an empty spot on a tour and boarded the plane alone. After a decade of living in the words I arrived, first in Saint Petersburg, then in Moscow. It felt strangely like a homecoming.

Catherine also embraced Russian culture as her own. She converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, changed her name from Sophia to Catherine and consumed Russian history and culture with a rabid appetite. I guess to make up for all those calories she couldn’t eat in her corset. She knew that in order to have any power in Russia she would need to be able to relate to its people. History tells us that didn’t last but she started off on the right foot.

I walk further down the hallway of display cases in the Armory. It’s funny that it’s called the Armory because there are few actual weapons on display. It’s primarily the trappings of society, clothes, crowns, carriages. Women’s weapons. Once Catherine the Great ousted Peter off the throne her 18-inch waist disappears. Her gowns grow and grow. In fact, she famously brought the traditional Russian style of dress back into fashion, not because of patriotism but because of its forgiving silhouette.

I mean, who can blame her? Who has time to go to the gym when you’re the most powerful woman in the world? Plus, legend has it she burned enough calories in the bedroom to check the exercise box off her to-do list. As if her political accolades weren’t enough of a reason to love her, the woman had game. She was bedding men half her age when women were still getting burned at the stake for so much as talking about sex. She was basically the Hugh Hefner of the 1700s.

Traveling across the world to Russia by myself didn’t scare me. It made me feel powerful. When Catherine enacted the bloodless coup where she took the throne from her ineffective husband, she wore a guard’s uniform. You can see that uniform, not here at the Armory but in the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. She got on a horse, rounded up the guardsmen and told her husband he was out. She was fearless. That’s how I felt boarding that plane.

Catherine never wore another wedding dress. In public anyway, there’s some hot eighteenth century gossip that speculates she had a secret wedding to one of her lovers. But she did change Russia forever.

For me there’s no contest between Catherine’s first famous dress and her last. Who needs an 18-inch waist when you’re running the largest country in the world? I smile at the phantom Catherine in that glass display case and raise an imaginary glass of champagne in her honor. Here’s to you soul sister, from one foreigner to another.

About this writer

  • Celina Colby

    Celina Colby

    Celina Colby is a Boston based writer and the blogger behind travel, art, and style site Trends and Tolstoy.

You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

2 Responses to “Catherine and I”

  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    Ahh, to step on foreign soil and feel at home. Great story.

  2. Mary Claire Moloney says:

    Fabulously written story.. lucky me to have been on that unique tour… more about the art than the literature for me…. but reading Aan Karenina afterwards changed that … and now something about Venice, Italy?

Leave your mark with style

Comment in style

Stand out from the crowd and add some flare beside your comment.
Get your free Gravatar today!

Make it personal

avatar versus gravatar Close