Princess Catherine Dolgorukova (November 14, 1847 – February 15, 1922), also known as Catherine Dolgorukova, Dolgoruki, or Dolgorukaya, was the daughter of Prince Michael Dolgorukov and Vera Vishnevskaya. She was a long-time mistress of Emperor Alexander II of Russia and later, as his morganatic wife, was given the title of Princess Yurievskaya.
Alexander and Catherine already had three children when they formed a morganatic marriage on July 18, 1880, after the death of the Emperor’s wife, Marie of Hesse and by Rhine, on June 3, 1880. A fourth child had died in infancy. Catherine became a widow with the assassination of Alexander II on March 13, 1881 by members of Narodnaya Volya.
Catherine first met Alexander when she was twelve and he paid a visit to her father’s estate. At the time, he saw her only as a little girl and probably forgot their visit. After the death of her father, who had left his family without resources, Catherine and her sister were sent to the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens in St. Petersburg, a school for well-born girls.
The Emperor paid for their education and that of their four brothers. Alexander met the sixteen-year-old Catherine there on an official visit to the school in the fall of 1864 and was immediately attracted. The Emperor was 45 and with Catherine being 16 there was an age difference of 29 years, 6 months, 16 days.
One contemporary described the young Catherine as “of medium height, with an elegant figure, silky ivory skin, the eyes of a frightened gazelle, a sensuous mouth, and light chestnut tresses.” Alexander visited her at the school and took her for walks and on carriage rides. Catherine had liberal opinions, formed in part by her time at the school, and she discussed them with the Emperor . He later arranged for her to become a lady-in-waiting to his wife, who was suffering from tuberculosis.
Catherine liked the Emperor and enjoyed being in his company, but she didn’t want to become one of a series of mistresses. Though her mother and the headmistress of the Smolny Institute both urged her to seize the opportunity to better her circumstances and those of her family, Catherine and Alexander did not actually become intimate until July 1866, when she was moved by her pity for the Emperor after the death of his eldest son, Nicholas Alexandrovich, Tsarevich of Russia, and after an attempt to assassinate him. Her own mother had died two months before. That night, she later recalled in her memoirs, the Emperor told her: “Now you are my secret wife. I swear that if I am ever free, I will marry you.”
They had four children, 2 boys and 2 girls, born between 1872-1878. The Emperor insisted that Catherine and their children remain nearby. He saw her three or four times a week when she was escorted by the police to a private apartment in the Winter Palace and they wrote to one another every day and sometimes several times each day, often discussing the pleasure they found in making love. In one 28-page letter, written when Catherine was pregnant, she asked the Emperor to remain faithful to her “for I know you are capable in one moment when you want to make it, to forget that you desire only me, and to go and make it with another woman.”
Alexander sketched Catherine in the nude, rented her a mansion in St. Petersburg, and thought of her constantly. Still, great secrecy was required. They never signed their letters to one another with their real names and used the code word “bingerle” to refer to the sex act. When she went into labor with her third child, Boris, in February 1876, Catherine insisted on being taken to the Winter Palace, where she gave birth in the Emperor’s rooms, but the baby was taken back to Catherine’s private residence while Catherine recovered from childbirth in the Emperor’s rooms for nine days. Boris caught cold and died a few weeks later.
The children of Emperor Alexander II and Princess Catherine’s children were given the title Prince/Princess knyaginya:
* Prince George Alexandrovich Yurievsky (May 12, 1872 – September 13, 1913); married Countess Alexandra von Zarnekau, a morganatic daughter of Duke Constantine Petrovich of Oldenburg and Agrafena Djaparidze, Countess von Zarnekau.
* Princess Olga Alexandrovna Yurievskaya (November 7, 1873 – August 10, 1925); married Georg Nikolaus, Count of Merenberg, a morganatic son of Prince Nikolaus Wilhelm of Nassau by his wife, Natalia Alexandrovna Pushkina, daughter of Alexander Pushkin.
* Boris Alexandrovich Yurievsky (February 23, 1876 – April 11, 1876).
* Princess Catherine Alexandrovna Yurievskaya (September 9, 1878 – December 22, 1959); married, firstly, Prince Alexander Vladimirovich Baryatinsky; married, secondly, Prince Sergei Platonovich Obolensky.
The relationship met with tremendous disapproval from the Emperor’s family and from those at Court. Catherine was accused of scheming to become Empress and of influencing the Tsar towards liberalism. She was said to associate with unscrupulous businessmen. Some members of the family feared that Catherine’s children might supplant the Tsar’s legitimate heirs. The Tsar tired of hearing veiled criticisms from relatives and wrote to his sister Queen Olga of Württemberg, (wife of King Charles I of Württemberg) shortly after their marriage that Catherine never interfered in affairs at court, despite the ugly rumors about her. “She preferred to renounce all social amusements and pleasures so desired by young ladies of her age…and has devoted her entire life to loving and caring for me,” the Tsar wrote. “Without interfering in any affairs, despite the many attempts by those who would dishonestly use her name, she lives only for me, dedicated to bringing up our children.”
Fearing that she might become the target of assassins, the Tsar had moved Catherine and their children to the third floor of the Winter Palace by the winter of 1880. Courtiers spread stories that the dying Tsarina was forced to hear the noise of Catherine’s children moving about overhead, but her rooms were actually far away from those occupied by the Empress. Though the Tsar had been unfaithful on many occasions in the past, his relationship with Catherine began after the Empress, who had had eight children, stopped having intercourse with her husband on the advice of her doctors.
After the Empress asked to meet his children with Catherine, the Emperor brought their two older children, George and Olga, to the Empress’s bedside and she kissed and blessed both children. Both the Emperor and his wife were in tears during the meeting. The Emperor told his family that he chose to marry Catherine soon after the death of the Empress because he feared that he would be assassinated and she would be left with nothing. The marriage was unpopular both with the family and with the people, but the Tsar forced them to accept it. He granted Catherine the title of Princess Yurievskaya and legitimized their children, though they had no right to the throne as children of a morganatic marriage.
Some courtiers described Catherine as “vulgar and ugly” and resented that she was there in the place of their dead Empress. One of them, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, wrote that “the eyes, by themselves, would be attractive, I suppose, only her gaze has no depth – the kind in which transparency and naïveté meet with lifelessness and stupidity … How it irks me to see her in the place of the dear, wise, and graceful Empress!”
The Emperor however, was delighted to finally be married to his long-time mistress and to be able to be open about their relationship. In his memoirs, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich of Russia wrote that the Emperor behaved like a teenage boy when in Catherine’s presence and she also appeared to adore him. At one point in family company, the Emperor asked George, his oldest child by Catherine, if he would like to become a Grand Duke. “Sasha, for God’s sake, drop it!” Catherine rebuked him, but the exchange fueled the family’s fears that the Tsar planned to make Catherine his Empress and supplant his legitimate heirs with his second family.
The family also resented it when they heard Catherine call her husband by the diminutive “Sasha.” Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich wrote that his father, Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaevich of Russia, was sorry for Catherine because the family treated her so coldly.
Though they were happy together, the troubled political situation and constant threats of assassination cast a shadow over their lives together. On March 1, 1880, an explosion shook the dining room of the Winter Palace. Alexander ran upstairs to Catherine’s rooms, shouting “Katya, my dearest Katya!” She was unhurt, as was the dying Empress, who was so ill she was unaware an explosion had occurred.
Alexander’s brother-in-law, Prince Alexander of Hesse and by Rhine, who was there during the assassination attempt, bitterly resented that the Emperor had forgotten his dying wife, Prince Alexander’s sister, who was also in the Palace and might have been injured in the assassination attempt. A year later, on the day that Alexander was assassinated, Catherine pleaded with him not to go out because she had a premonition that something would happen to him. He quieted her objections by making love to her on a table in her rooms and leaving her behind. Within hours he was mortally wounded and was brought back to the palace, broken and bleeding.
When she heard the news, Catherine ran half-dressed into the room where he lay dying and fell across his body, crying “Sasha! Sasha!” In his memoirs, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich recalled that the pink and white négligée she was wearing was soaked in Alexander’s blood. At his funeral, Catherine and her three children were forced to stand in an entryway of the church and received no place in the procession of the Imperial Family. They were also forced to attend a separate Funeral Mass than the rest of the family.
After the Tsar’s death, Catherine received a pension of approximately 3.4 million rubles and agreed to give up the right to live in the Winter Palace or any of the Imperial residences in Russia in return for a separate residence for herself and the three children. She settled in Paris and on the Riviera, where she became known as a fashionable hostess and was used to having twenty servants and a private railway car, though the Romanov Family continued to look upon her and her children with disdain. Emperor Alexander III had his secret police spy on her and received reports on her activities in France. Grand Duke George Alexandrovich of Russia used illness as an excuse to avoid socializing with her in 1895.
Emperor Nicholas II recalled that Catherine was offended when he refused to be the sponsor when her daughter Olga married the Count of Merenberg in the spring of 1895. Nicholas II’s mother, the Dowager Empress Maria, had been appalled by the idea, so Nicholas declined. Catherine’s son George was an abysmal failure in the Russian Navy, as Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia informed her by letter, but he was granted a place in the Cavalry School. Catherine survived her husband by forty-one years and died on February 15, 1922 aged 74, just as her money was running out.