Catherine’s plans were carefully laid and then swiftly executed. The Emperor was arrested and his abdication demanded. He submitted as quietly as a child. Catherine writes: “I then sent the deposed Emperor in the care of Alexis Orlof and some gentle and reasonable men to a palace fifteen miles from Peterhof, a secluded spot, but very pleasant.”
In four days it was announced that the late Emperor had “suddenly died of a colic to which he was subject.” It is known that he was visited by Alexis Orlof and another of Catherine’s agents in his “pleasant” retreat, who saw him privately; that a violent struggle was heard in his room; and that he was found lying dead with the black and blue mark of a colossal hand on his throat. That the hand was Orlof’s is not doubted; but whether acting under orders from Catherine or not will never be known.
This is what is known as the “Revolution of 1762,” which placed Catherine II. upon the throne of Russia. Her son Paul was only six years old; and in less than two years Ivan VI., the only claimant to the throne who could become the center of a conspiracy against her authority, was most opportunely removed. It was said that his guards killed him to prevent an attempted rescue. No one knows or ever will know whether or not Catherine was implicated in his “taking off.” But certainly nothing at the time could have pleased her better.
PARTITION OF POLAND—DEATH OF CATHERINE
European diplomacy at this period was centered about the perishing state of Poland. That kingdom, once so powerful, was becoming every year more enfeebled.
It was a defective social organization and an arrogant nobility that ruined Poland. There existed only two classes—nobles and serfs. The business and trade of the state were in the hands of Germans and Jews, and there existed no national or middle class in which must reside the life of a modern state. In other words, Poland was patriarchal and mediaeval. She had become unsuited to her environment. Surrounded by powerful absolutisms which had grown out of the ruins of mediaeval forces, she in the eighteenth century was clinging to the traditions of feudalism as if it were still the twelfth century. It was in vain that her sons were patriotic, in vain that they struggled for reforms, in vain that they lay down and died upon battlefields. She alone in Europe had not been borne along on that great wave of centralization long ago, and she had missed an essential experience. She was out of step with the march of civilization, and the advancing forces were going to run over her.
The more enlightened Poles began too late to strive for a firm hereditary monarchy, and to try to curb the power of selfish nobles. Not only was their state falling to pieces within, but it was being crushed from without. Protestant Prussia in the West, Greek Russia in the East, and Catholic Austria on the South, each preparing to absorb all it could get away—not from Poland, but from each other. It was obvious that it was only a question of time when the feeble kingdom wedged in between these powerful and hungry states must succumb; and for Russia, Austria, and Prussia it was simply a question as to the share which should fall to each.