This is a creative writing assignment for school, the last moments of Catherine the Great, all facts I think are true as they were painstakingly (and boringly) researched by yours-truly, but any corrections are welcome. Any criticisms before I turn this in are also very, very welcome. Thanks for reading!
There are cracks in my ceiling that I've never noticed before. The off-white plaster is fraught with indentations and discolorations spreading out like spider-webs from a series of deep gouges in the shadowed corners of my chamber. I suppose I've never taken the time to look closely.
It seemed I had all the time in the world, but never a moment to spare to examine my wounded structure, and, like my life, hadn't merited much analysis at the time. I am dying in a room that is alien to me and it is too late for anything of life for myself but my memories. I want to be at peace, but sometimes one realizes their mistakes too late.
Alexandra has come into the room. I haven't the strength to turn my head or focus my eyes but she smells of rose extract and I hear her light footfall as she approaches my bed. Her footsteps falter as she grows closer. She is afraid, I know, as I lie here in my own stench as I have lost control of my own body. I want to comfort her, but I cannot move. Oh! How this body has betrayed me! I was a girl once, small and willow-thin with chestnut hair and sparkling blue eyes. Alexandra reminds me of my former self, before all the scandal and the lies. Yes, the lies. I've been deluding myself since I was crowned Grand Duchess, about my lovers, about my politics, even my values. It's a shame that my epiphany only comes to me as I lie dying. I'm sixty-seven; it's time I was honest with myself.
When I first came to court in seventeen forty-four, I was fourteen and worshiped the ground Elisabeth walked on. It's fortunate I worshiped the Empress so, I was naive and filled with romantic thoughts of a handsome prince, so Peter, needless to say, was a grand disappointment. Back then I was at least honest enough to realize that 'I cared very little for the Grand Duke, but I cared a lot about becoming an Empress.' I didn't need to convince myself that what I was doing was right or good, it was enough to simply do what I wanted.
Such justifications were required when I realized I didn't necessarily have to put up with Peter to retain the throne. I remember that week quite well, excitement mingled with fits or nervous nausea, partly because I was committing thinly veiled treason, and partly because I was six months pregnant with a prolonged bout of morning sickness. Peter had taken personal control of the army and things weren't going well, his pro-Prussian sentiments were dividing the country and Empress Elisabeth who was nearly universally loved by the public died suddenly. Peter was insane from that tragic case of smallpox in our youth, he couldn't have ruled well, even if he had wanted the responsibility, but it is still no excuse for want I did.
Alexis Orlov, the brother of my then-lover, Gregory, roused me at six o'clock in the morning. His blue eyes shone and the left corner of his mouth twitched erratically to hide a nervous grin. He told me to dress quickly, we were to leave for St. Petersburg where I was to be proclaimed empress.
If Peter had been a stronger man he could have crushed my pathetic little rebellion before it got off the ground. However, I knew my husband was weak and scared, I seized my opportunity with sweating palms, shaking hands, and four measly regiments. I'm still amazed at my luck. I stood up on that dias in my carefully selected dress, the one I'd used to mourn Elisabeth on my knees in the cathedral. Let me tell you this, to be seen mourning Elisabeth for hours on end was not easy when heavily pregnant, but it gave we the psychological edge over Peter. I had the adoring public, and he, who had expressed contempt for the deceased ruler and had just signed a treaty virtually guaranteed to make Russia a Prussian state. I was many things in my youth, but never stupid. As I stood there, however, I was afraid. I had Paul up there with me, a small cherubim-faced version of his father, and I realized, in the midst of giving a speech that I could never love my son.
I have always been a jealous woman, even at my most vain it was evident even to me. The crowd cheered for Paul louder than they'd cheered for me, that lingers clearly, with the accompanying flash of bitter disgust at my momentary urge to dangle him over the balcony. I did not, thank the Lord, act on that impulse, but instead ventured into the street to inspect the troops who had newly-sworn allegiance to me. All malicious thought were forgotten when a young guardsman by the name of Potemkin steeped out of the ranks.
He was tall with high, well-formed cheekbones and a generous mouth. Little did I know that I was meeting the love of my life for the first time. I was deliciously shocked at his audacity as he, a lowly guard, stepped up to his sovereign and pointed out that every ruler should have a sword. He held his own out to me, his shoulders back and his chest thrown out in the extreme arrogance of youth. I took it, attempting to hide my smile as I drew my eyebrows together and gave him a stern nod as my advisors gasped. Perhaps it is a foolish childish fancy left over from a loveless teenage marriage, but I have always been helpless in love when it came to strong, confident young men.
Alexandra has overcome her temerity and my reverie is broken by her gently tugging my thick hair off my face and wipes the saliva from my chin with her silk handkerchief. "Oh Grandmama." She whispers, her words are heavy with her own grief as well as my own. My face is slack and unresponsive as I roll my eyes toward her trying to catch a glimpse of her. I want to scream, and cry, and wail dramatically at the unfairness of it all. There is so much I've suddenly thought of, things I've meant to tell my favorite grandchild for a long time as well as things I've only just discovered, but I will never get to tell her. I want to reveal that happiness and utter self-confidence is the secret to beauty, I want to tell her that she should revel in every moment of her life, that even moments are too precious to waste, but above all I want to tell her that she should never compromise her values to please others and to never give up on her dreams, not like I did. All I can do is marvel at the fact that she exists.
It is a marvel, too, that I have any grandchildren by Peter. After getting over my initial disappointment with his looks and his sullen manner we began to slowly warm to each other. He realized that I was more political-minded than he and I knew he was my only chance to become Empress. We were becoming friends, and that impending friendship may have even grown to love if not for a single, near-fatal bout of smallpox during the winter of 1745 that not only rendered him even more unattractive, but ravaged his mind and cost him his sanity. After we were married, our tentative friendship soon soured into bitter hate. Her used our marriage bed to conduct mock battles with his toy soldiers and trying to humiliate me with tales of his conquests among the women of the village. In reality he was born with a genital defect that resulted in us remaining virgins after marriage for nine years until one of his aides convinced him to undergo the simple procedure to correct it. We never made love in all the years of our marriage. He did his duty a few nights a month until it became evident that Paul was on his way. He much preferred his lover, one of my handmaidens, Elisabeth, to anything I would offer. Humiliating, yes, but I could hardly say that I honestly missed his presence in my bed.
I cannot think of two people that suited each other worse than Peter and myself, or two people more completely opposite as my first and second husbands. It was many years after my coronation that Potemkin, the pretentious young guardsman, and I were re-united. Gregory Orlov, the first man I had ever truly loved, had begun to dally outside our relationship and had fallen in love with his thirteen year-old little tramp of a niece. I did love him, but my own needs were no longer being met. I sent Gregory to Turkey and summoned Potemkin to court. He was moody, and eccentric but possessed of a mind bordering on genius, extravagant and spoiled, but with a deep understanding of base human nature. When we made love he would whisper my original name over and over into my ears like a private caress and though I have never truly possessed classic features and he was now fat and missing an eye, in those stolen moments we were beautiful and at peace. We married in secret and it did not, could not, last; but how I long for him to hold me and whisper once more in my ear as I pass. "Sophie, Sophie, Sophie."
I could have well used Potemkin's good advice early on in my reign it's strange that I only regret my decisions now, like I was in a room full of fog that has suddenly cleared. I was idealistic to the point of being unreasonable when I first came to court, but to survive in the political world opinions and morals soon become liquid, molding to fit the popular views. Oh, I did try, with my pitiful Nakaz, a legal code mostly stolen from the French philosophers, meant to be my greatest triumph. It was just too far for Russia to leap at the time, leaning close to the abolishment of slavery, it was, of course, overturned, but then, soon they were as well. I believe my moral decline began with my murder of Peter, I can finally admit that now that it wasn't just convenient coincidence, but my greatest failure was after the great serf revolt of seventeen seventy-four, Pugachefschina. The revolt was started by a disgraced noble, Emelian Pugachef, claiming to be my dead husband, encouraging the peasant to rise up against their masters and fight for their freedom. I didn't want to admit it, but he was right. I tried to dismiss Pugachef's army as a simple band of Cossack highwaymen, but by early spring, tens of thousands of peasants had joined Pugachef's 'army'. Frustrated peasants rose up, and landlords who couldn't run fast enough, or were to arrogant and stupid to run, were murdered in bed, or hung from the nearest tree after watching their wives and children be raped and slaughtered. It seemed the end, but after seizing the throne for myself, I was over-confident and felt I could take on anything. With my lucky star shining brightly on my face, I bribed and manipulated officers of Pugachef's army to turncoat and hand over their leader. The death of Pugachef was the first public execution in nearly fifty years, yet that is not what I regret.
I regret the aftermath, when I finally realised the enormity of the threat I had disposed of through luck and sheer chance. For the first time in my life, I was too scared to take any more chances, too utterly tired and terrified to give my empire the nudge it needed, to go in the right direction. The landlords were scared, even more so than I was, and were now finally willing to listen to whet I had been preaching all those years about equal rights, but I let the moment pass. I could have abolished the enslavement of many million souls, yet I did nothing. My inaction is the greatest regret of my life, and in those few months I gave up my claim to ever attaining true greatness.
Is this the meaning of life then? To realize you are only the good you've left behind in the world? I'm terrified, but my heart is slowing, rather than speeding up. My vision goes black and blurry around the edges and the cracks in the ceiling grow darker as the walls seem to flex toward me. I began my reign with death, so it is fitting that it ends with death as well. There is a priest garbling something in latin near my head, when did he come in? No matter, he cannot absolve me of my sins, which lie on me like the heavy stench Alexandra was valiantly trying to wash off my body. One last thing comes to me as the time grows longer between my heartbeats: I ruled well, even through my intrigues and regrets, I loved deeply, though not always for the best reasons, but I want to be clean again. Will I never be clean?
My heart struggles as the walls close in: ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-