Russia’s Imperial Prima Donnas
In order to gain and retain the highest power in the Russian empire, the empress, the lead actress in a highly politicized imperial drama, engaged in gender cross-dressing. Ascribed masculine qualities and not rejecting their feminine selves, female rulers cultivated supporting actors, including a cast of lovers, often along with their own familial networks—the Razumovskys, Shuvalovs, Orlovs. They traversed gender boundaries as well as binaries of East and West. Avid patronesses of the arts, they employed theatre as a political institution that magnified and mythologized their real and proclaimed victories, their simultaneous promotion of Russian Orthodoxy and secularism, their intimate ties to the Greco-Roman past, to European modernity, and to a hybrid Slavic and Eastern identity—their roles in a dynamic spectacle of absolutism.
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