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by Oleg IVANOV, Cand. Sc. (Hist.), Moscow State University of Mining
Epoch-making events hold the greatest attraction to historians. Some events touch off controversies, others-do not. Documents that we find in state archives often run counter to opinion stereotypes. This is especially true of the eighteenth century and the myths around it. Take the rule of Catherine II (1762-1796), often described as a golden Catherinian age. Or the rule of her son and successor Pavel I in 1796 to 1801, with "bayonets abristle" throughout Russia. There's no lack of documentary evidence about that time. But there are documents and documents. Some prove to be frauds. Like, for instance, an eyewitness account by Count Fyodor Rastopchin on the last day of Catherine and the first day of Pavel's rule. Or the "third" letter of Count Alexei Orlov on Peter Ill's death.
Emperor Peter III, deposed late in June of 1762, died a tragic death on the third of July of the same year in his country estate Ropsha*. Forty years later, when Catherine II (Catherine the Great) was no longer among the living. Count Fyodor Rastopchin "confided" the mystery of Peter's death - the whodunit - to Princess Yekaterina Dashkova. He told her about Count Alexei Orlov's letter to Catherine II in which he, Count Orlov, confessed to a crime he had committed-the killing of the emperor and Catherine's spouse. Princess Dashkova did not fail to mention this testimony in her Notes, or reminiscences. And in a few decades Alexander Herzen, a prominent Russian writer, philosopher and public personality of the mid-nineteenth century who published her memoirs, said in his comments that Princess Dashkova had held the exposing document in her hands.
Here's the text of a copy of that sensational letter cited by many scholars-a letter whereby Count Alexei Orlov, one of the most brilliant among the cohort of the "Catherinian eagles",
Articles in this rubric reflect the opinion of the author. - Ed.
* See: O. Ivanov, "Emperor Peter Ill's Death: Whodunit?", Science in Russia, No. 5, 2001.-ЕУ.
was branded as regicide for generations to come.
"Our dear mother and merciful mistress, I know not how I should explain what hath come to pass. \\brds fail me, thou may not believe thy faithful slave, but I shall tell, Lord love thee, the very truth. - Our dear mother, I would rather die, but I cannot tell how this misfortune hath transpired. We are good and dead should thou not pardon us.-Our dear mother, he is gone. no one could ever think of that and dare lift up his hand against His Majesty; but our dear Mistress, a misfortune hath occurred. We were drunk and so was he, and he began to argue at table with Prince Fyodor, and we were unable to separate them before he was no more. We do not remember what we were doing, but we are guilty, all of us. We deserve to be punished by death. Have mercy upon me, be it for my brother's sake only. I own up, there is no need of any further inquiry-pardon me or order to do it over with me the soonest. I wish I were dead, for we have transgressed against thee and ruined our souls forever.
Copied on 11 November of the year 796, five days after the demise of Catherine II."
This letter, supplied with Count Rostopchin's brief commentaries, was first published in 1881 under cover of the 21st book of Count Vorontsov's Archives, which, in its turn, was an appendix to Princess Dashkova's Notes. In 1911 Pyotr Bartenev, an eminent historian and the publisher of The Russian Archives, had this letter printed in this journal of his. The phrase "...We were drunk and so was he" was absent in the previous edition.
There were other readings and interpretations too; but so far as I know, no one has ever made a critical study of these two publications. It was only Kazimir Waliszewski, a Polish author and scholar, who questioned the authenticity of Count Orlov's letter, though he did not prove his surmise.
Now, how did this letter get to Count Rostopchin? Why was it made public as late as that? And where is the original? Count Rostopchin answered these and other questions. In the custody of the Russian State Archives of Old Acts (RAGDA) is a document which, I think, must have prompted the publication of Count Orlov's third letter and Count Rostopchin's commentaries. In the second part of his Commentaries Fyodor Rostopchin says that, upon Catherine II's death, he sealed up her study with his own hand. The new emperor, Pavel I, commissioned Prince Alexander Pavlovich (the future Emperor Alexander I) and
Count Alexander Bezborodko to look through the papers of the late-lamented empress. "On the very first day," Rastopchin reminisced, "Count Alexei Orlov's letter was found and brought to Emperor Pavel. Upon being read by him, it was returned to Count Bezborodko, and I had it in my hands for a quarter of an hour or so. Count Orlov's hand is known to me, and the sheet of paper was gray and not clean, while the style betrayed the condition of the soul of this villain and showed clearly that the assassins feared Her Majesty's anger and therewith exposed the slander cast on the life and memory of this great Czarina. Next day Count Bezborodko told me Emperor Pavel wanted Count Orlov's letter again and, having read it, he threw it into the fire and thus destroyed the proof of innocence of the great Catherine, which act he regretted overmuch afterwards."
So, the new emperor destroyed the letter. But why then does Fyodor Rostopchin make no mention of the other two letters which Count Oriov sent to Catherine II? The more so as Count Dmitry Bludov (subsequently President of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences), ordered by Emperor Nikolai (Nicholas) I to sort out the state archives in 1825, supplied the inventory of the Ropsha- related documents with this note: "Two letters of Count A.G. Orlov to Empress Catherine, in the latter one he tells her about the death of Peter III." Not a word about any third letter or its copy Its very existence thus looks dubious.
The details cited by Count Rostopchin in his comments are a real puzzle. Besides, the originals of Orlov's letters are always written on good white paper made abroad. But what about the third, missing letter-why did he write it on poor gray paper? Was it because of the miserable "conditions of the soul of this villain"? We could have it taken for granted had it not been for the results of expert examination carried out in 2001 at the request of the magazine Science in Russia. The experts' verdict was that Orlov's psychological condition was normal. Both letters were written by one and the same person at a regular pace and under customary conditions. The script did not betray and signs of aberration caused by poor coordination of body movements, the hand was firm and steady. There were no errors in the spatial orientation of the text fragments. In plain English, the "villain" was sober.
Count Orlov's "third letter" to Catherine is odd enough. Numerous letters he wrote to Catherine have survived. Each time the Count signed his name and date. He would never "thee-and-thou" Her Majesty But he does it in the third letter attributed to him. At first glance the three letters sent from Ropsha look alike. Yet a hard second look reveals important differences, especially in the syntax, and in the use of conjunctions and connectives, or link-words.
Next, we have noticed certain contradictions between Count Rostopchin's comments and what he told Princess Dashkova. According to the princess, Rostopchin said that the next day the emperor had read the letter aloud in the presence of Count Bezborodko, the grand princes, empress Maria Fyodorovna, and his paramour ^Kfekaterina Nelidova. But somehow - as we can judge from Dashkova's words - Rostopchin did not tell her about the burning of the document. In her Notes, by the way, she said it came out soon after Emperor Pavel's death that the Orlov letter had not been destroyed. Well, this is a case of rather loose interpretation of the same events, isn't it?
Had that letter been really in existence, there should have been another witness, someone else who had seen it. That would be a reliable proof. Alexander Herzen and then other people pointed at Princess Dashkova - allegedly Catherine II had shown her that letter. But in all the various editions of her Notes Dashkova never said she had seen it.
Princess Dashkova never saw the original of Orlov's third letter, as we can also judge from her commentaries to Claude Rulier's book History and Anecdotes of the Revolution in Russia in 1762, in which the author hinted at Catherine's implication in the murder of her husband Emperor Peter III. True, this is an indirect bit of evidence. At any rate Princess Dashkova, it seems, ought to have heaped her righteous anger on the foul abuse and slander "spread about Catherine by some French authors". Dashkova always took up the cudgels for the good name of the late empress.
And yet this did not happen. Princess Dashkova made no mention of Court Orlov's letter exculpating the empress. What she, Yekaterina Dashkova, says is that Grigory Teplov, Secretary of State and Counselor of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, was not implicated in the Ropsha happenings. It appears she did not know anything about Count Alexei Orlov's first letters to the empress, though she must have heard something about two or three letters sent by Peter III to his wife, Catherine II. All things considered, I make bold to state Princess Dashkova never saw Orlov's third letter. I suppose that Rostopchin told her about the document and its contents only after he had read her memoirs.
Count Rostopchin was well aware of the possible impact of his communication and the fertile ground it could find. "I know of only two subjects," Dashkova wrote to C. Hamilton, an Irish lady she was acquainted with, "capable of stirring my fervent instincts not alien to may nature, and these are the husband's infidelity and the black stains on the radiant crown of Catherine II." Consequently, any material exonerating the late empress should have been welcome to her. Count Rostopchin thus proved her friend indeed. The count, finding himself on the shelf, had a stake in making friends with the first lady-in-waiting of His Majesty's court who had a pull owing to her kinship ties and acquaintances. The new emperor, Alexander I, did not regard with favor Rostopchin: Alexander knew that during the reign of his father, Pavel I, the count had censured his behavior. In
1806 Alexander got hold of Rostopchin's letter in which he said that the Russian defeat in the battle of Austeriitz (in 1805 French troops led by Napoleon I routed the Russian and Austrian armies) was a "God's punishment" for the killing of Pavel I where his son, Alexander, had a finger in the pie.
Grateful to Rostopchin for his communication about Alexei Orlov's penitential letter, Dashkova presented the count to Princess Yekaterina Pavlovna, the granddaughter most dear to Catherine II.
It is owing to Dashkova and Yekaterina Pavlovna that Fyodor Rostopchin was introduced to Alexander in December 1809. Then and there, at Yekaterina Pavlovna's intercession, the emperor commissioned the count to inspect Moscow's charitable institutions. Rostopchin turned to the job with great zeal. Promoted to chief chamberlain, he was entitled to a leave of absence and did not have to stay in St. Petersburg. Yet the ambitious count wanted more. He would make frequent visits to Princess Yekaterina Pavlovna in the town of Tver where he let her into certain inside information, also concerning Count Orlov's third letter. In his letter of March 24, 1810, Rostopchin proffered his humble thanks to Her Highness for her favors. "Acting on Your orders, I forward to Your Highness a political memorial and a manuscript copy of Count Orlov's letter." This means Her Highness was in the know about the document which all of her brothers, mother and Madam Nelidova had seen.
Yekaterina Pavlovna, enjoying the favors of her crowned brother, "as good as made" Alexander I appoint Rostopchin Moscow's governor-general.
Now could Count Fyodor Rostopchin indite that hapless letter? There are all signs that he could. He was endowed with literary talents. As to the morals, he scoffed at them. Prince Pyotr Vyazemsky, a noted poet and writer of the 19th century (and one among Alexander Pushkin's friends), described him as a bilious, testy man who scorned humankind from his tender nail. This lamentable, morbid vice intensified with time, as he made broader contacts and got embroiled in many conflicts.
A pertinent description! This is how the count tipped off Nikolai Pestel, Moscow's chief postmaster, much in favor with Emperor Pavel I. Rostopchin wrote an anonymous letter to a friend allegedly living abroad about a conspiracy against the emperor, and he closed his letter with this subjoined: " Don't be surprised that I am sending this letter by post, out postmaster is with us." The count had this letter dispatched to postal chiefs for opening and inspection. He knew Pavel and his suspicious ways quite well and so did Pestel, who did not have the heart to show this message to the emperor. A few days later Rostopchin reported the gist of the matter to His Majesty, and explained that his only motive was to test the postal chiefs loyalty. The emperor thanked the slanderer for his zeal. But Pestel's fate was sealed as a result.
This incident may help understand what goaded Count Rostopchin in inditing Alexei Orlov's third letter. Rostopchin was all set to insinuate himself into Alexander I's favor (Alexander, let's recall, succeeded Pavel on the Russian throne), and he managed it partway. At first sight it looks like an attempt to protect Catherine II's good name. And yet we find a few innuendoes there about Her Majesty's sins as well.
That third letter mentions the name of Prince Fyodor Baryatinsky. Was it by chance? I believe there were covert "slings and arrows" here too. This very name lent credence to the letter. Pavel I banished the prince to his country estate where he was put under police surveillance. Foreign sources named Baryatinsky as one of the culprits in the assassination of Peter III. Yet Rostopchin had a personal ax to grind.
As gentleman of the bedchamber at Grand Prince Pavel's (future emperor), Fyodor Rostopchin squabbled with other gentlemen of the same rank and lodged a complaint calling them villains. High society got wind of that. The gentlemen demanded that the count bring his apologies, which he did not. Then they challenged the offender to fight a duel. Count Rostopchin said in a letter to Semyon Vorontsov, a diplomat, that only two showed up, and they were loath to fight. Yet rumors spread that Rostopchin got scared and even begged pardon on his knees. We know that afraid to fight a duel, Rostopchin then had to disown the authorship of that notorious complaint. Fyodor Baryatinsky's nephew, by the way, happened to be among those who were calumniated. The secretary of Grand Prince Alexander (future Emperor Alexander I), K. Masson, recalled that Catherine II, on learning about Ros- topchin's slander and ensuing duels, sent Baryatinsky's nephew for a tour of duty in the army, and banished Rostopchin from the court for a year. The sly count remembered that of course.
Alexei Orlov takes most of the beating in the cooked letter: a miserable wine-bibber and villain (not a direct assassin though). But why did Rostopchin lay it on thick? In what way could Alexei Orlov wrong him? In no way! And yet.
There are several possible reasons for such spite. One is his personal intrigue against Count Nikita Panin married to Sophia Orlova, a woman related to Count Alexei Orlov. To get rid of his enemy, Rostopchin sent a counterfeit letter, even though Count Panin fell from grace then and Pavel I banished him to Moscow, away from the St. Petersburg court. The emperor was indignant as he learned about the counterfeit, and called Rostopchin a monster who chose him as a vehicle of personal vengeance. The schemer was stripped of all his offices and exiled to his country estate near Moscow. After Pavel's death (1801) the new emperor, Alexander I, summoned Count Alexei Orlov to St. Petersburg from his bamshment in foreign parts; he did it largely thanks to Panin's solicitations.
Meanwhile our hero, Count Rostopchin, founded a stud farm in
his country estate Voronovo for breeding saddle horses. He had another stud at Voronezh on the river Bityug. Making the grade in this undertaking, the ambitious count considered himself a great authority in this field. However, twenty-five years before that Alexei Orlov had set up a stud farm of his own where trotters were bred with much success. Orlov's accomplishments disgruntled Rostopchin the horse-breeder, all the more so as his rival was back home.
In 1803 our count was in for yet another disappointment. He asked the Russian diplomat Semyon Vorontsov to send him a few local sheep and rams from England, though that was a criminal offense punished most severely, even by death. Rostopchin knew that. But he also knew that cases of illicit trade in sheep were taking place nonetheless. Vorontsov did not comply with this request, and the correspondence between the two counts broke off. But Vorontsov had helped Orlov in purchasing English fast horses (racers) for his stud. Their friendly relations likewise rubbed Rostopchin the wrong way Therefore the forged letter ostensibly penned by Alexei Orlov was meant as a reminder to the Russian diplomat as to what his friend and possible relative really was (Orlov's daughter Anna was thought to be the best match for \brontsov's son Mikhail).
Meanwhile Alexei Orlov raised a militia detachment largely on his and his daughter's money; appointed head of this detachment, the count was in for favorable mention in an edict issued by Alexander I. Count Rostopchin had to gulp it down the hard way too.
Nor could Fyodor Rostopchin look quietly at the erstwhile sworn enemies, Yekaterina Dashkova and Alexei Orlov, mending their fences. How dared she visit him? Drink his health and even glide with him in a polonaise? Outrageous! Concocting the notorious third letter, the scheming count destroyed the fragile bridges of reconciliation between the two.
Last but not least: as a forceful and courageous person-strong, hospitable and charitable withal - Alexei Orlov obviously eclipsed Rostopchin and his "Russian ways" he was making so much of. Count Orlov, though he did not make as much of it, was a genuine Russian, Russian to the marrow of his bones.
Count Rostopchin was always motivated by selfish, ulterior motives, always eager to take care of the number one, so to speak. His letter sent to Princess Yekaterina Pavlovna, Alexander I's sister, on March 24, 1810, was the first step toward a high office. In a few weeks the pesky count sent another epistle to Her Highness. Pledging his loyalty and allegiance to the late emperor Pavel, Rostopchin felt it was an opportune moment for sending his notes to Her Highness on events he had witnessed at first hand. - Here nothing has been omitted and nothing added, the picture of that terrible day is portrayed from real, true events, Rostopchin subjoined.
He means another concoction readily quoted by scholars- The Last Day of Catherine and the First Day of the Reign of Emperor Pavel I. The date, 15 November 1796, is indicated at the end. Yet manuscript copies in the archives indicate a later date. The style of the document is also telltale - so smooth, even and dispassionate. But this does not square with the dramatic happemng of the day. Besides, we cannot tell apart what the author has seen from what he has heard from other witnesses.
Besides, the author made some factual errors pertaining to Catherine II's stroke, the time of her demise (she expired on November 6, 1796, at 21.45, not at 22.15), and other things. A real eyewitness could hardly permit such inaccuracy. Which means that the account on the empress's last day was written much later and the author, being in a hurry, had no time to check it up with documents. Second, the facts sited in the Last Day were deliberately distorted.
Now, why did Rostopchin send his manuscript to Her Highness Yekaterina Pavlovna? Unlike Count Semyon Vorontsov, she could learn some of the inside information from her relatives (directly involved in those events) and, above all, from her crowned brother. It is inconceivable that Rostopchin knew more than the emperor did.
It was, no doubt, a risky move on our count's part. Said he: he knew the "veriest" truth. The smart count did his best not to rile Alexander I and his mother, Maria Fyodorovna. Bent on career, Rostopchin wanted no negative reaction at the court. Quite the contrary, he wanted to ingratiate himself with the emperor and his family. Describing the brief illness of Catherine II and her death, Rostopchin smoothed over acute issues related to the problem of succession. There is nary a word on this problem.
Rostopchin's writing have one thing in common: in them he sidesteps certain delicate issues of infighting at the court on the first and last days of Catherine's reign, in particular, the death of Peter III; this is true of Pavel's death in 1801 too. The sly courtier hoped such "historical anecdotes" would be much to Alexander's palate who pledged on his accession to the tMone to abide by the laws of his "most august grandmother Her Majesty our Empress Catherine the Great." Our count played his cards right and won-he became Moscow governor-general.
And the last point. Both documents (Orlov's "third letter" and The Last Day of Catherine ) are dated 11 and 15 November 1796. Actually, however, they must have been written in 1810, for Rostopchin informed Princess Dashkova about Orlov's letter between 1804 and 1806, he did it by word of mouth.
Our critical study of these "documentary sources" has significant implications and may prod Mstorians to revise the conventional interpretations of events bearing on the Catherinian age.
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