Sleeping your way to the top…
… is not a recommended approach to career building. But it has proven itself quite effective through history, and in societies where talented and intelligent women were restricted by their gender from pursuing a career under their own steam, what was a young girl to do? After all, if you can’t be the power on the throne, second best is being the power behind the throne, right?
Mind you, in some cases this sleeping-your-way-to-the-top thing happened quite without premeditation. The lady in question had no desire to end up at the top, things just sort of developed in that direction. Like if you were living in the 18th century and had plump white thighs that just drove men crazy. Even more so if you were considered spoils of war by said men, so those plump white thighs of yours were essentially your only asset. What was a girl to do? Rephrase: what COULD a girl do? It’s not as if her captors were about to take “no” for an answer.
Let me introduce you to the lady with the delicious thighs. These days, of course, this her main point of attraction would be dismissed as being “fat”. Not so in the first years of the 18th century, when Marja Skavronska had the misfortune (or not) of becoming a Russian prisoner of war. Marja was married to a Swedish soldier, but she was from Livonia (an area settled by Finns in present day Estonia/Latvia). At the time of her capture, she was about seventeen, and the area she lived in was being fought over by the Russians and the Swedes in the so called Great Northern War.
Russia under its expansive Tsar, Peter the Great, was flexing its muscles, while Sweden under Charles XII was defending its crumbling empire. Two talented generals, two very stubborn men, and the Russians and Swedes clashed over and over again. In 1700, 10 000 Swedes defeated 32 000 Russians at Narva, leaving a battlefield strewn with (mostly) Russian dead (12 000 Russians died. 600 Swedes hit the dust) This was not a humiliation Peter the Great had any intention of forgiving. Ever. Back and forth, the fortunes of war went, and so it was that in 1703 Marja ended up as war booty.
Sources disagree as to what Marja looked like. Some say she was an exceedingly beautiful girl – but uneducated and illiterate. Others say she was quite ordinary – and uneducated and illiterate. Whatever the case, sources agree that she had delicious thighs and a generous bosom, but more importantly she was a cheerful young woman with the capacity of seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty. A valuable characteristic when one was bartered as cattle between one general and the other… Yet again, here some sources describe a young Marja being pushed half naked into the bedroom where a Russian general lay waiting, while other sources don’t mention this incident at all.
What is beyond dispute, however, is that she ended up in the household of the Russian prince and general Alexander Menshikov, a close friend to Peter the Great. And when the Tsar visited, he was offered the company of buxom Marja, an offer the Tsar jumped at. A night or two of bedsport followed. The Tsar enjoyed the company of this young woman who aspired to little beyond ensuring her own safety and comfort. Plus, she had the most soothing manner, her generous breasts just the pillow he needed when his head ached and throbbed after one of his recurring rages or epileptic fits.
The Tsar decided to keep Marja (I know! How does that sound to a modern woman?). He ensured she received training in basic comportment, he urged her to convert to the Russian Orthodox faith, and some years after their first meeting, he secretly married little Marja – now baptised Catherine. Where the Tsar went, there went Catherine, always with welcoming arms, always with that round bosom for him to rest his weary head upon. Should he need variation in bed, Catherine wisely did not object. If he required counsel, she would offer it, and while Catherine was uneducated she was far from unintelligent – plus she had a huge amount of common sense.
The Tsar was happy, Catherine was happy. While St Petersburg was being built, they lived a simple life in a three room cottage, with Peter gardening while Catherine cooked and had babies. (In this department, they were dogged by misfortune: she gave Peter twelve children, of which only two survived beyond childhood) When Peter rode off for yet another major encounter with the Swedes, Catherine came along, and at the battle of Poltava in 1709 she was right in the midst of things, cheering the Russian soldiers on while offering them vodka and bread.
Poltava is one of those words Swedish children grow up hearing a lot. It is the place where the dream of a permanent Swedish Empire burst apart, where the flower of an entire generation of Swedish soldiers and noblemen met their death or were whisked away into humiliating Russian captivity. It is the battle at which Peter the Great once and for all made it clear to the world that Russia was a power to reckon with – so powerful, in fact, that it crushed the hitherto victorious Swedish army under its heel. Charles XII was forced to flee to Turkey – without a pair of welcoming arms in which to drown his sorrows. But then, Charles XII showed markedly little interest in such pleasures, he was all about war (and so the defeat at Poltava was all the heavier…but we can return to Charles XII in a later post) But I guess Peter and Catherine met somewhere on the battlefield and did some adequate happy dancing.
Some years later, Catherine was credited with saving Peters life. She downplayed the whole thing, he most definitely didn’t. In fact, so grateful was he to his little wife for buying their way out of a tight spot with her jewelry that he married her again. Openly. Extravagantly. Plus she was now officially the Tsarina. And just like that, Catherine had gone from being a potentially pretty but unimportant young woman, to being the second most important person in Russia – such was her influence over her husband. Not bad, for a girl who mostly had her thighs going for her. And her breasts. And her soothing bedside manner. And the fact that she loved her man for who he was, despite him being the Tsar.