Maria the Great’s private letters sell for $1.8 million

Written by Catherine S Paley

It’s impossible to know when Catherine the Great made the grave mistake of recommending that all children be vaccinated against tuberculosis, because she’s usually not around to tell the full story. And, now that she’s dead, there’s often been a reluctance to learn about her private life.

A collection of letters, which date from around the turn of the 20th century and also include notes on the drafting of Russia’s constitution, is auctioned off this month, and as expected, it sells for more than 10 times its pre-sale estimate.

International power

When Catherine the Great (1823-1798) ruled Russia, she was often referred to as the “mother of the world.” As such, her aggressive policy of territorial expansion was dangerous and divisive, and was also called “the introduction of imperialism.” During her time in power, Catherine conducted almost daily imperial inspections — allowing her to see every aspect of society.

Although some of the letters she wrote were privately addressed to family members, it is possible that as they passed through her eyes, they became part of her Imperial correspondence.

According to Artcurial , the owner of the auction, the purchaser — the Catherine S. Winter Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg — may already be using these letters for the museum’s corporate resources.

1 / 17 – A map of Russia c. 1700 and a display board showcasing the Kremlin, Catherine’s fiefdom. They are part of the recently sold collection of a London auction house. Credit:

“We believe that they became part of her Imperial correspondence, and will be a valuable asset for the Catherine S. Winter Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg,” said Heather Dundas, head of information management at Artcurial.

Tuberculosis, which spread quickly during Catherine’s rule, was a public health concern. It killed up to 40 percent of patients at the time, and 5 million people died of the disease in Russia during her time in power.

The letters, which date from around 1900, indicate that Catherine heard firsthand tales of how serious the problem was. “Even a stable maid in St. Petersburg seemed to have lost a few clients,” wrote Catherine, in reference to her ordering a large quantity of medicines for the treatment of TB.

“In one of my nurses’ apartment recently I became aware of a number of bouts of catching TB,” she added. “She said that she has been treated with diphtheria which is somewhat similar to TB.”

Failing to stop the spread

One of the letters discusses a Russian writer who wrote about the horrifying effects of TB, causing her to worry about her own health: “I cannot bear the thought of my own throat being numb, and prone to the situation in the writer’s neck, and I thus can not send anyone to ‘take care of him,’” writes Catherine.

“I do not want to be a ‘medical father’ for the writer either,” she continues.

After paying attention to reports about TB, Catherine acknowledged in another letter that there was a real problem in Russia: “One goes from being informed to crying out that the epidemic has only begun,” she wrote.

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