Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Pine Leaf: The Woman Chief and warrior of the Crow people who married four wives

Left photo - Assiniboin Boy, a Gros Ventre man, photo by Edward S. Curtis. Wikipedia/Public Domain, Right photo - Gros Ventre moving camp with travois. Wikipedia/Public Domain

A girl was born in 1806 to the Gros Ventres but in a wave of inter-tribal rage and revenge, she was kidnapped by a raiding party of Crows when she was only 10. A Crow warrior adopted her and raised as one of his people. She seemed quite rebellious toward “girl’s behaviour” and was keen to acquire skills which were traditionally perceived as male ones. Her foster father had already lost his sons in battles or illness and keenly encouraged the pursuits of his daughter – Pine Leaf. She was educated as she was a boy and assisted in gaining her skills in horse riding, marksmanship, and ability to field-dress a buffalo. However, she kept dressing as a girl.
Idealized illustration of "Pine Leaf", possibly identified with Woman Chief, from James Beckwourth's autobiography. Wikipedia/Public Domain
Idealized illustration of “Pine Leaf,” possibly identified with Woman Chief, from James Beckwourth’s autobiography.
After the death of her father, she gained the leadership of his lodge. She got the respect as a warrior after she proved her skills in a riot with the Blackfoots. Pine Leaf was also the most reliable in defending her people whenever there was a need for it. She would answer to any fight in order to protect her people. Also, she formed a group of warriors with whom she reportedly attacked the Blackfoot and stole their horses.
Six Blackfeet chiefs painted by Paul Kane along the South Saskatchewan River in Canada ( c.1851-1856). Wikipedia/Public Domain
Six Blackfeet chiefs painted by Paul Kane along the South Saskatchewan River in Canada (c.1851-1856).
It was natural for her to be chosen as bacheeítche (Chief) in the Council of Chiefs and to represent her lodge. She was given the name Bíawacheeitchish, or “Woman Chief.” Later, she would become third among the Council’s 160 lodges. From all data about her, it is hard to say if she married four wives because she was attracted to them or for the benefits of their dowry to increase her wealth.
She made peace with the Gros Ventres party but after a few years, some of their people killed her.
She met with a number of Western explorers including Edwin Denig and Rudolph Kurz, and they were enchanted by her. All stories written about Pine Leaf praise her bravery, cleverness, and skills.
Crow Indians, c. 1878–1883
Crow Indians, c. 1878–1883.
Most of the information the world has about her come from James Beckwourth who wrote about Pine Leaf – the Crow warrior. In his writings, he seems fascinated by her, which leaves the reader with the question if he used his fascination lead him to an imagination about the things he wrote. Beckwourth claimed that he met Pine Leaf while living with the Crow in the 1820s.
Left photo - James P. Beckwourth, circa 1860, in Denver, Kansas Territory. Wikipedia/Public Domain, Right photo - Beckwourth as Indian warrior, 1856. Wikipedia/Public Domain
Left photo – James P. Beckwourth, circa 1860, in Denver, Kansas Territory.  Right photo – Beckwourth as an Indian warrior, 1856.
He also claimed to have had a romantic relationship with Pine Leaf, which is also not a very reliable fact.
There are a few other woman-warriors beside Pine Leaf, all from the Crow Nation. Two such are Akkeekaahuush and Biliíche Héeleelash who was a prominent war leader.


Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The Empress-Wu Zetian

Wu Zetian (624 – December 16, 705), also known as Wu Zhao, Wu Hou, and during the later Tang dynasty as Tian Hou, referred to in English as Empress Consort Wu or by the deprecated term"Empress Wu", was a Chinese sovereign who ruled unofficially as empress consort and empress dowager and later, officially as empress regnant (皇帝) during the brief Zhou dynasty (周, 684-705), which interrupted the Tang dynasty (618–690 & 705–907). Wu was the only Empress regnant of China in more than four millennia.

Wu was the concubine of Emperor Taizong. After his death, she married his successor—his ninth son, Emperor Gaozong, officially becoming Gaozong's huanghou (皇后, variously translated as "empress", "wife", or "empress consort") in 655, although having considerable political power prior to this. After Gaozong's debilitating stroke in 660, Wu Zetian became administrator of the court, a position equal as emperor, until 705.

The Great Wild Goose Pagoda, originally built in 652, it collapsed and was rebuilt in 701-704 during the reign of Wu Zetian; the present structure is largely the same as it was in the 8th century, although it used to be three stories taller before the damage caused by the 1556 Shaanxi Earthquake

The importance to history of Wu Zetian's period of political and military leadership includes the major expansion of the Chinese empire, extending it far beyond its previous territorial limits, deep into Central Asia, and engaging in a series of wars on the Korean peninsula, first allying with Silla against Goguryeo, and then against Silla over occupation of formerly Goguryeo territory. Within China, besides the more direct consequences of her struggle to gain and maintain supreme power, Wu's leadership resulted in important effects regarding social class in Chinese society and in relation to state support for Taoism, Buddhism, education, and literature. Wu Zetian also had a monumental impact upon the statuary of the Longmen Grottoes and the "Wordless Stele" at the Qianling Mausoleum, as well as the construction of some major buildings and bronze castings that no longer survive.

Despite the important aspects of her reign, together with the suggestions of modern scholarship as to the long-term effects of some of her innovations in governance, much of the attention paid to Wu Zetian has been to her gender,[citation needed] as the anomalous female sovereign of a unified Chinese empire officially holding the title of huangdi (皇帝). Besides her career as a political leader, Wu Zetian also had an active family life. Although family relationships sometimes became problematic, Wu Zetian was the mother of four sons, three of whom also carried the title of emperor, although one held that title only as a posthumous honor. One of her grandsons became the renowned Emperor Xuanzong of Tang.

Maitreya statue from the reign of Wu Zetian.
According to Buddhist tradition, Maitreya is a bodhisattva who will appear on Earth in the future, achieve complete enlightenment, and teach the pure dharma. According to scriptures, Maitreya will be a successor to the present Buddha, Gautama Buddha (also known as Śākyamuni Buddha).The prophecy of the arrival of Maitreya refers to a time in the future when the dharma will have been forgotten by most on the terrestrial world.

Monday, 7 November 2016


Αγάπη που διαπερνάει το φακό

 Η ομορφιά, η σκανδαλώδης -για την εποχή της- σχέση με τον Ροσελίνι, ο ορμητικός χαρακτήρας της κορυφαίας Σουηδέζας σταρ μέσα από ένα νέο ντοκιμαντέρ

 Είναι δύσκολο ακόμη και να φανταστεί κανείς στην εποχή μας το μέγεθος του σκανδάλου που προκλήθηκε όταν η Ίνγριντ Μπέργκμαν έμεινε έγκυος στο παιδί του Ρομπέρτο Ροσελίνι και όσο ήταν ακόμη παντρεμένη με τον Πίτερ Λίντστρομ. Εκείνη την περίοδο, ήταν σύζυγος και μητέρα μιας κόρης, της Πία, που άφησε πίσω της, όταν βρέθηκε στην Ιταλία για να συνεργαστεί με τον Ροσελίνι. Η κατακραυγή ήταν τεράστια, οι εφημερίδες του 1949 έκαναν λόγο για βόμβα στο Χόλιγουντ.   Στις Ηνωμένες Πολιτείες, φανατισμένες θρησκευτικές ομάδες έφτασαν ακόμη και να ζητούν να απαγορευθούν οι ταινίες της, με το αιτιολογικό ότι προωθούσαν τη μοιχεία. Στην Ιταλία, παπαράτσι έτρεχαν πίσω από την ίδια και τον Ροσελίνι και αυτό θα συνέβαινε μέχρι το τέλος της κοινής τους ζωής και της θυελλώδους σχέσης τους. 
  «Ήμουν κίνδυνος για τα ήθη των Αμερικανίδων», είχε πει η ίδια αρκετά χρόνια αργότερα σε συνέντευξη της. «Ακόμη και ο ήχος της φωνής μου στο ραδιόφωνο αποτελούσε κίνδυνο.  Φυσικά και με πλήγωνε όλο αυτό, αλλά δεν μπορούσα να φανταστώ ότι αυτό που είχα κάνει ενδιέφερε τόσο πολύ τους άλλους. Αν δεν σ’ αρέσει μια παράσταση, ένα έργο, μπορείς να αποχωρήσεις, αλλά το να κρίνεις τις ζωές των άλλων είναι λάθος». Αυτή η προκλητική –για την εποχή- δήλωση της Μπέργκμαν έχει εξέχουσα θέση στο νέο ντοκιμαντέρ με τίτλο Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (σ.σ.: Η Ίνγκριντ Μπέργκμαν μέσα από τα δικά της λόγια), τη σκηνοθεσία του οποίου υπογράφει ο Stig Björkman, με πρόθεση να αφηγηθεί τη ζωή μιας γυναίκας – θρύλου του Χόλιγουντ.   

Το ντοκιμαντέρ εστιάζει στα ημερολόγια, τις επιστολές και τις συνεντεύξεις της, διανθισμένες από στιγμές κινηματογραφικής δόξας της ηθοποιού: από το ντεμπούτο της στη Σουηδία το 1935, μέχρι το απόγειο της δόξας που γνώρισε στο Χόλιγουντ τη δεκαετία του ’40, μέχρι και τους τελευταίους ρόλους της ζωής της, περίπου 40 χρόνια μετά. Πρόκειται για μία αποκαλυπτική, διεισδυτική ματιά στη ζωή μιας γυναίκας που μονίμως περιφρονούσε τους κανόνες και τις μεγάλες προσδοκίες των γύρω της.    To πόσο διέφερε από κάθε ηθοποιό της γενιάς της, γίνεται σαφές από το πρώτο screen test που κλήθηκε να γυρίσει επί αμερικανικού εδάφους: αμακιγιάριστη, σε ασπρόμαυρα βωβά πλάνα, να λάμπει. Είναι σα να διακατέχεται από μία μυστική, εσωτερική γνώση που την κάνει να ακτινοβολεί καθώς κοιτά απευθείας στην κάμερα ή χαμογελά με τόση ζεστασιά που θα μπορούσε να λιώσει τον σουηδικό χειμώνα.   Αυτό το δοκιμαστικό είναι απλώς ένας προάγγελος των όσων θα ακολουθούσαν. Στα φιλμ "Casablanca", "Notorioys", "Gaslight" αυτή η λάμψη είναι αυτό που θα θυμούνται για πάντα οι σινεφίλ. 

Ο Daniel Selznick, γιος του γνωστού κινηματογραφικού παραγωγού, που πρώτος «έκλεψε» τη Μπέργκμαν για να την καθιερώσει στο Χόλιγουντ είχε αποκαλύψει στη βιογράφο του Charlotte Chandler ότι δεν είχε γνωρίσει άλλη γυναίκα σαν τη Μπέργκμαν: "Δεν γνώρισα ποτέ καμιά, οποιασδήποτε ηλικίας, που να μπορούσε να σε συνεπάρει κάθε φορά που τη συναντούσες, όπως εκείνη. Η επιδερμίδα, τα χείλη, τα μάγουλα, τα αυτιά, η μύτη, τα μάτια ανήκαν σε μία θεότητα. Και ήταν σα να μην το γνώριζε...». Μια άποψη που έβρισκε απολύτως σύμφωνο και τον συμπρωταγωνιστή της στο φιλμ “Spellbound” του Χίτσκοκ, ότι, τόσο μπροστά και κυρίως μακριά από τις κάμερες, ήταν μια γυναίκα έκπαγλης ομορφιάς, κάτι που αποδεικνύεται από ερασιτεχνικό υλικό και βίντεο γυρισμένα στο σπίτι της, μαζί με την οικογένεια και τους φίλους της. 

   Όμως, δεν ήταν μόνο η ομορφιά. Μια άλλη μυστηριώδης δύναμη εκλυόταν από κάθε της δουλειά. Κάτι που είχε να κάνει με την αυτοπεποίθηση της μπροστά στην κάμερα και γι’ αυτό είχε μία καλή εξήγηση η Πία Λίντστρομ, η κόρη που άφησε πίσω της η Μπέργκμαν, όταν σχεδόν το ‘σκασε με τον Ροσελίνι. Η Λίντστρομ δίνει μία μάλλον ψυχολογική εξήγηση για την επιδραστική λάμψη της μητέρας της στον κινηματογράφο. Η μητέρα της Ίνγκριντ είχε πεθάνει, όταν εκείνη ήταν μόλις δύο ετών και έτσι μεγάλωσε με τον πατέρα της, τον οποίο λάτρευε και ήταν φωτογράφος στο επάγγελμα. Μέχρι τα 13 της, οπότε πέθανε και εκείνος, η Μπέργκμαν είχε μάθει να ποζάρει τέλεια, όχι, όμως, φιλάρεσκα, αλλά ως μία άλλη εκδήλωση αγάπης προς τον πατέρα της.   «Η αγάπη πήγαζε κατευθείαν μέσα από τον φωτογραφικό φακό», λέει η Λίντστρομ, «κοίταζε τον φακό και ήταν σα να κοιτούσε τον πατέρα της που λάτρευε, έπαιζε και πόζαρε για εκείνον. Ήταν απολύτως άνετη με τις κάμερες και ήξερες πώς να ποζάρει».   Η Μπέργκμαν έμοιαζε να έχει πλήρη επίγνωση αυτού της του χαρίσματος. Ήταν ένα μικρό, ορφανό κορίτσι, στερημένο και μόνο του, μια γυναίκα που τα γυρίσματα την έκαναν να νιώθει ζωντανή.   Από τον πατέρα της κληρονόμησε ακόμη την επιθυμία να μαγνητοσκοπεί τον κόσμο και τους ανθρώπους που βρίσκονταν κοντά της. Βιντεοσκόπησε τον μήνα του μέλιτος της με τον Λίντστρομ και όταν τον εγκατέλειψε του άφησε ένα σημείωμα, στο οποίο του έλεγε ότι δεν θέλει πολλούς από τους «θησαυρούς» που άφησε πίσω της. «Το μόνο πρόβλημα θα είναι αυτό το 16άρι φιλμ μας. Ίσως, μου το δανείσεις κάποτε για να δω πώς ήμουν στη νιότη μου».  

 Αυτή η επιθυμία να διατηρεί αναμνήσεις από κάθε πλευρά της ζωής της σε φωτογραφίες και βίντεο ήταν που τροφοδότησε και τον σκηνοθέτη του ντοκιμαντέρ με αρκετό υλικό. Σ’ ένα τέτοιο βίντεο την παρακολουθεί κανείς να ερωτεύεται τον Ροσελίνι, χαϊδεύοντας τρυφερά το κεφάλι του και ενώ μιλούν ή τα τρία παιδιά που μεγάλωσαν μαζί. Φαίνεται ο φόβος τους, καθώς ο γάμος των γονιών τους καταρρέει ή η θλίψη στο πρόσωπο της Μπέργκμαν, όταν ένα ασθενοφόρο παίρνει την κόρη της Ιζαμπέλα, η οποία είχε διαγνωστεί με σκολίωση.    

   Τόσο και περισσότερο ειλικρινής υπήρξε στις επιστολές και τα ημερολόγια της. Γεμάτη αυτογνωσία και απολύτως έντιμη με τις αντιφατικές πτυχές του χαρακτήρα της, γράφοντας σε έναν φίλο, όταν ήδη απολάμβανε μια πρώτη γεύση της επιτυχία της στο Χόλιγουντ, περιέγραφε τον πανικό της προοπτικής του να μη δουλεύει για 4 ολόκληρους μήνες. Βρισκόταν τότε στο σπίτι της με την Πία και τον Πίτερ και έγραφε χαρακτηριστικά: "Είμαι ζωντανή κατά το ήμισυ. Το άλλο μισό μου είναι πακεταρισμένο σε μία βαλίτσα και ασφυκτιά. Τι πρέπει να κάνω;".    

Είχε συνάψει δεσμό με τον πολεμικό φωτορεπόρτερ Robert Capa και το ατίθασο πνεύμα της μοιραζόταν ανάμεσα στις προσπάθειες να είναι καλή σύζυγος και μητέρα και στην επιθυμία της να ακούσει τις δικές της Σειρήνες, να κάνει το δικό της. Με τον Ροσελίνι, ήταν αλλιώς. Ερωτεύθηκε πρώτα τη δουλειά του. Θαύμαζε τη Ρώμη, όταν του ταχυδρόμησε μία τολμηρή πρόταση: "Αν ποτέ χρειαστείς μία ηθοποιό από τη Σουηδία που να μιλά πολύ καλά αγγλικά και λίγα γερμανικά, που μιλά βασικά γαλλικά και στα ιταλικά το μόνο που ξέρει να λέει είναι σ' αγαπώ, τότε θα έρθω να κάνω μια ταινία μαζί σου".    

Χρόνια αργότερα θα αποκάλυπτε ότι ήταν ο συνδυασμός πάθους του Ροσελίνι και ο άνυδρος γάμος της με τον Λίντστρομ που την έκανε να ερωτευθεί τον Ιταλό σκηνοθέτη. "Ερωτεύθηκα έναν άντρα που ήταν τελείως διαφορετικός από κάθε άλλον που είχαν γνωρίζει και μετά ήταν κι η πλήξη που ένιωθα στο Χόλιγουντ - ήθελα να κάνω κάτι που κανείς δεν θα περίμενε από εμένα". Όταν η σχέση της με τον Ροσελίνι έληξε, σκέφτηκε να επιστρέψει στο "βασίλειο της πλήξης της", στο Χόλιγουντ. Και, ναι, την ενδιέφερε η επιτυχία της, αλλά όχι με κάθε τίμημα.    

Στο ντοκιμαντέρ γίνεται επίσης σαφές ότι νοιαζόταν για τα παιδιά της, όμως ήταν προετοιμασμένη να εγκαταλείψει τα πάντα για να κυνηγήσει την καριέρα της. Οι προτεραιότητες της δεν ήταν αυτές που θα ανέμενε κανείς, πόσω μάλλον η κοινωνία της εποχής της. "Αν σταματήσω την υποκριτική, σταματώ να αναπνέω", έλεγε. "Μετανιώνω", έλεγε όταν παραδεχόταν ότι άφησε τα παιδιά της να τα μεγαλώσουν άλλοι, "αλλά δεν νομίζω ότι υπέφεραν κιόλας".     

Η περιπλοκότητα του χαρακτήρα αυτής της γυναίκας, μιας γυναίκας που γνώριζε τα τρωτά σημεία της, το τι πιθανώς έχασε, αλλά ποτέ δεν παραπονέθηκε γι' αυτό, κάνουν την Μπέργκμαν (που πέθανε από καρκίνο στα 67 της το 1982), μία περίεργα ακαταμάχητη χολιγουντιανή σταρ.  Μια ποικιλία ρόδων φέρει το όνομα της και έχει τα ίδια περίεργα χαρακτηριστικά μ' εκείνη: ανθίζουν για πολύ καιρό και αργούν να χάσουν τα πέταλα τους. Δεν θα μπορούσε να υπάρξει ωραιότερος φόρος τιμής σε έναν πραγματικό θρύλο του σινεμά.   


Sunday, 6 November 2016

WOMEN OF POWER: Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, led her country into the political and cultural life of Europe

Catherine II, often called Catherine the Great, was born on May 2, 1729, in Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland), and became the Russian empress in 1762. Under her reign, Russia expanded its territories and modernized, following the lead of Western Europe. She died on November 17, 1796 in Tsarskoye Selo, or what is now Pushkin.

Early Years

Catherine II of Russia, sometimes called Catherine the Great, started out as a minor German princess. Her birth name was Sophie Friederike Auguste, and she grew up in Stettin in a small principality called Anhalt-Zebst. Her father, Christian August, was a prince of this tiny dominion, but he gained more fame for his military career. He served as a general for Frederick William I of Prussia. Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, Catherine II's mother, had little interest in her daughter. Instead, Johanna spent much of her time and energy on Catherine's younger brother Wilhelm Christian, but the boy died at the age of 12. Catherine on the other hand was  nurtured by her governess Babette.
As Catherine grew up, her mother eventually came to see her daughter as a means to move up the social ladder and improve her own situation. Her mother had relatives in other royal courts in the region, and brought Catherine with her on visits to seek out possible suitors. Catherine on the other hand saw marriage as a way to escape from her controlling mother.
Educated by tutors, Catherine had religious studies with a military chaplain, but she questioned much of what he taught her. She also learned three languages: German, French and Russian. The Russian came in handy when Catherine's mother wrangled an invitation to St. Petersburg from the Empress Elizabeth; Elizabeth had once been engaged to Johanna's older brother, who died of smallpox, and she felt a connection to Johanna's family. She wanted to see if Catherine would be suitable for her heir, Grand Duke Peter (later Peter III).

Becoming Russian Royalty

In 1744, a teenage Catherine traveled with her mother to Russia. She soon fell ill, and her treatment created conflict between her mother and the Russian Empress, Elizabeth. Elizabeth insisted on numerous bloodlettings, while Johanna protested the procedure. When Catherine recovered, she moved forward with her relationship to Grand Duke Peter. The pair became engaged, and Catherine converted to the Russian Orthodox faith, despite her deeply Lutheran father's objections. Along with her new religion, she also received a new name—Yekaterina, or Catherine.
On August 21, 1745, Catherine II married into the Russian royal family, becoming a grand duchess. She and Peter proved to be anything but a happy couple, however. Peter was immature and juvenile, preferring to play with toy soldiers and mistresses than to be with his wife. Catherine II developed her own pastimes, which included reading extensively.
After years of not having children, Catherine II finally produced a heir. Her son, Paul, was born on September 20, 1754. The paternity of the child has been a subject of great debate with many scholars, who believe that Paul's father was actually Sergei Saltykov, a Russian noble and member of the court. Others have claimed that Paul looked a lot like Peter, leading them to believe that he was actually Paul's father. In any case, Catherine had little time with her first-born son; Elizabeth took over raising the child soon after his birth.

Taking the Throne

After Empress Elizabeth's death in December 25, 1761, Catherine's husband assumed the throne, becoming Peter III, while she received the title of Empress Consort. The pair were leading separate lives at this point, and she had little to do with his rule. Peter was openly cruel to his wife, and often discussed pushing her aside to allow his mistress to rule with him. He soon alienated other nobles, officials and the military with his staunch support for Prussia. A purveyor of what would be seen today as progressive domestic reforms, he also angered the Orthodox Church by taking away their lands. After six months, Peter was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by Catherine.
Catherine II had conspired with her lover, Gregory Orlov, a Russian lieutenant, along with several others in order to unseat Peter. She was able to get him to step down from power, and assumed control herself. A few days after Peter's resignation, he was strangled while in the care of her co-conspirators at Ropsha, one of Peter's estates. The exact role Catherine played in her husband's death is unclear.
Concerned about being toppled by opposing forces herself, Catherine sought to appease the military and the church. She recalled troops that had been sent by Peter to fight Denmark, and promoted and gifted those who had backed her as the new empress. Early in her reign, she returned the church's land and property. Catherine even styled herself after the beloved ruler Peter the Great, claiming that she was following in his footsteps. Catherine II had a sculpture made later, known as the Bronze Horseman, built to honor him.

Ruling Russia

While Catherine believed in absolute rule, she did make some efforts toward social and political reforms. She put together on document, known as the "Nakaz," on how the country's legal system should run, with a push for capital punishment and torture to be outlawed and calling for every man to be declared equal. Catherine had also sought to address the dire situation of country's serfs, workers who were owned by landowners for life. The Senate protested any suggestion of changing the feudal system. 
After finalizing the Nakaz, Catherine brought delegates together from different social and economic classes to form the Legislative Commission, which met for the first time in 1767. No laws came out of the commission, but it was the first time that Russians from across the empire had been able to express their thoughts about the country's needs and problems. Ultimately, the Nakaz became more known for its ideas rather than its immediate influence.
Later in her rule, with the Charter of the Nobility in 1785, Catherine made an about-face on policy and greatly augmented upper-class power, with a large amount of citizens forced into the oppressive conditions of serfdom. 
A religious skeptic, Catherine sought to contain the power of the Orthodox Church. She had given them their land and property back initially, but she soon changed her mind. The wealth of the church should belong to the state, Catherine thought. To that end, she made the church part of the state and all of its holdings, including more than one million serfs, became state property and subject to taxes.

Foreign Affairs

During Catherine's reign, Russia expanded its borders. She made substantial gains in Poland, where she had earlier installed her former lover, Polish count Stanislaw Poniatowski, on the country's throne. Russia's main dispute with Poland was over the treatment of many Orthodox Russians who lived in the eastern part of the country. In a 1772 treaty, Catherine gave parts of Poland to Prussia and Austria, while taking the eastern region herself.
Russia's actions in Poland triggered a military conflict with Turkey. Enjoying numerous victories in 1769 and 1770, Catherine showed the world that Russia was a mighty power. She reached a peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire in 1774, which brought new lands into the empire and gave Russia a foothold in the Black Sea. One of the war's heroes, Gregory Potemkin, became a trusted advisor and lover of Catherine's.
Potemkin proved to be a great supporter of Catherine and an accomplished statesman in his own right. Ruling over newly gained territories in southern Russia in her name, he started new towns and cities, and built up the country's navy there. Potemkin also encouraged Catherine to take over the Crimea peninsula in 1783, shoring up Russia's position in the Black Sea. A few years later, Catherine once again clashed with the Ottoman Empire. The two countries battled each other from 1787 to 1792.

Education and the Arts

At the time of Catherine's accession, Russia was viewed as backward and provincial by many in Europe. She sought to change this negative opinion through expanding educational opportunities and the arts. Catherine had a boarding school established for girls from noble families in St. Petersburg, and later called for free schools to be created in towns across Russia.
Catherine was devoted to the arts, and sponsored many cultural projects. In St. Petersburg, she had a theater built for opera and ballet performances—and even wrote a few librettos herself. She also became a prominent art collector, and many of these were displayed in the Hermitage in a royal residence in St. Petersburg.
An avid reader, Catherine was especially fond of the philosophers and writers of the Enlightenment. She exchanged letters with the French writer Voltaire, and writer Denis Diderot came to Russia to visit with her. In fact, Diderot was the one who gave Cathering her nickname, "Catherine the Great." With literary aspirations of her own, Catherine also wrote about her life in a collection of memoirs.

Romantic Life

The love life of Catherine II has been a topic of much speculation and misinformation. The rumors of bestiality have been debunked, but the royal did have numerous relationships during her reign. Catherine could not remarry, as it would jeopardize her position, and she had to appear chaste to the public. Behind the scenes, however, she seemed to have quite the sexual appetite.
According to most accounts, Catherine had around 12 lovers during her life. She had a system for managing her affairs—often bestowing gifts, honors and titles on those she liked, in order to win their favor. At each relationship's end, Catherine usually found a way to get her new paramour out of her hair. Gregory Potemkin, perhaps her most significant lover, spent many years as her favorite, and remained lifelong friends after their passions cooled.
In addition to her son Paul, who may or may not have been Peter III's son, Catherine had three other children.

Final Days

By 1796, Catherine had enjoyed several decades as Russia's absolute ruler. She had a strained relationship with her son and heir, Paul, over her tight grip on power, but she enjoyed her grandchildren, especially the oldest one: Alexander. In her later years, Catherine continued to possess an active mind and a strong spirit. In mid-November of 1796, however, she was found unconscious on the floor of her bathroom. It was thought at the time that she suffered a stroke.
Catherine, Russia's great empress, lingered on until the following night, but never regained consciousness. She died on November 17, 1796. At the Winter Palace, her coffin lay in state next to that of her late husband, Peter III. Her son, Paul, ordered the remains of his father to placed there, giving Peter III the funeral honors that he had not received after his assassination. Catherine II and Peter III were both laid to rest at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul.
Catherine is often better remembered for her romantic liaisons than her many accomplishments. Historians have also criticized her for not improving the lives of serfs, who were the majority of the Russian population. Still, Catherine made some significant contributions to Russia, bringing forth educational reforms and championing the arts. As leader, Catherine also extended the country's borders through military might and diplomatic prowess.

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