I got this ask on Tumblr:
"Why was Pyotr such so antagonistic towards Ekaterina when she tried so hard to love him? She clearly went above and behind to understand him and make him happy when she didn't have to since marriages were loveless at the time. But Elizoveta does the exact same things her predecessor does and he's besotted? He didn't deserve Ekaterina at all."
Not 100% sure, but it seemed like they were asking about Ekaterina. So, naturally, I had a lot to say in disagreement.
First of all, on the idea that Liza did the “same thing” as Catherine. I’m assuming that by “same thing” you mean that she was nice to him and participated in his interests (like the soldier training). But that’s a very surface way of looking at that, even without considering that we don’t like every person who is nice to us or shows an interest in us the same way or to the same extent. Liza and Catherine have very different personalities, which is a major factor. Peter and Liza are a lot better matched in personality and interests than Peter and Catherine. They both like music, they both enjoy running around with the soldiers (Liza seems to genuinely enjoy the game/training), they’re both dorks with a weird sense of humor. It’s very sweet that Catherine tries to participate in his interests, but she’s actively trying to get him to like her. She’s doing it because she’s trying to reach a goal; Liza is just enjoying herself. Like even compare the scene where Peter and Liza are running around with the soldiers and the scene where Catherine dresses up in a uniform coat and pretends to be a corporal. Catherine is doing this to flirt, trying to get a kiss. Liza seems to just be genuinely having fun and when she kisses him it’s spontaneous and out of genuine emotion. You can see it in how they look at each other right before they kiss.
Also, Liza understands him immediately the way Catherine doesn’t. Maybe because they’re both social outsiders in a way. (Peter at least feels like one and Liza is always put down, even by her own sister, because she’s not beautiful and graceful and doesn’t have flawless social skills.) Liza, from the first scene with Peter, shows an understanding of Peter’s vulnerabilities. She calls him out on being tactless about her limp but when it comes for her to pass comment on his smallpox scars, she calls them shrapnel wounds. I could write a whole essay on the significance of that alone, probably, but it’s clearly exactly the kind of thing he needed to hear and, honestly, shows a pretty amazing understanding of someone she’s just met. Catherine, on the other hand, has a complete failing of understanding of Peter’s situation and his fears when they first get married. He’s terrified and he tells her that almost explicitly more than once and she just doesn’t understand. Because they’re different people. She can’t relate to his fear of his aunt and even if she can, her ideas about what should be done about the situation are polar opposite to his.
And here’s where we get to the “antagonistic” part. This is also a subject worthy of its own meta, but I’ll try to do a summary version here.
Catherine certainly didn’t have to get Peter to love her nor should she be expected to love him. It’s an arranged marriage, after all. But this goes both ways. He also has no obligation to love her or to get her to love him.
That being said, of course, it’s admirable for her to try, and in the face of her efforts, Peter’s unequivocal rejection of her feels like antagonism and is jarring. He certainly could have been nicer to her. But it’s a progression. And the way they act toward each other is also in line with their individual goals and practical interests here, as well as their personalities. It’s advantageous for Catherine if Peter likes her. Not only because it would make her marriage more pleasant (both emotionally and to the extent that sex is clearly important to Catherine) but also for her to retain her position and avoid trouble at court she absolutely must give birth to an heir.
As far as Peter knows, he needs the exact opposite. Not that a an emotionally fulfilling marriage would be bad for him, obviously, but it’s dangerous. Remember, he overheard Elizabeth’s conversation with Shuvalov where she mused about locking him in a monastery or a prison cell after he fathers an heir. He’s seen her do similar things (see: baby Ivan VI, Ivan’s family), he knows that she is ruthless and that she’s disappointed In him. He has no reason, really, to not believe that she will go through with this. So, for Peter, having a child could be catastrophic. Birth control wasn’t really a thing back then so he needed to keep his distance from Catherine. This is easiest to do if they don’t care about each other or maintain a strictly platonic friendship. (Which he isn’t necessarily opposed to at the start, by the way. Catherine herself brings it up after Paul is born – that he had wanted to stay friends after they were married. Of course, by then it’s too late.) Then not caring about each other is safer for him. He tries to explain this to her – “We could be a wonderful couple if it wasn’t for my aunt.” She reacts first with disbelief and then with a proposition that they find a way to ~fight back~ which he thinks is naïve at best and crazy at worst. In some ways he’s right. They don’t have a lot of power in this situation. If Elizabeth had decided to go through with her threats, she easily could have. And they have this conversation again and again – before their marriage, on their wedding night, after they’re already married.
Initially, he only really rejects her romantic advances. He’s socially awkward and sometimes abrasive, but that’s just an unfortunate personality trait + trauma. (And, at the beginning, teenage bravado. He’s only one year older than her.) But he’s not always abrasive with her, even when she tries to do something he’s uncomfortable with. E.g. the first time she tries to kiss him, he merely pulls away and asks why she did it. She doesn’t get the hint and tries to kiss him again and he stops her rather gently. Actually, it’d say that he’s actually pretty friendly toward her at the start. Definitely not antagonistic. He rejects her romantic advances but that’s not the same thing. (He’s freaks a bit in that theater scene where they’re acting out sword fighting when she throws the sword at him, but he’s also a teenage boy who got embarrassed in front of his friends. And he still tries to be graceful about it by praising her skills anyway.) He doesn’t really like…care about her, but he just met her. She’s basically a stranger. Why would he really care than much?
The first time he’s mean to her is on the bridge after the scene with the practice wedding thing. That’s the whole “did you dream of something terrible?” / “I dreamed of you” exchange. But look at what happens there. He doesn’t want to marry her; he’s scared about his future. It’s extra traumatic because he had been so excited to finally have a family of his own but then that’s implicitly wrenched away from him by Elizabeth. Not only that but Elizabeth played an extra mean game with him – asking him to choose a bride and when he does, saying “nope, we’re doing what I want.” It’s mind games and, understandably, it pisses him off. In a way, yes, he’s projecting a bit of his anger with Elizabeth onto Catherine, and that’s not fair, but I digress. This scene is more than that.
This scene is a great example of their complete misunderstanding of each other. It starts with her asking “aren’t you happy?” he says no and she says “but we’ve waited for this for so long!” Except they haven’t. He hasn’t. He’s told her he doesn’t want this. And she is basically saying that she hasn’t heard him at all. And then it gets worse. Peter, despite his hesitations, opens up to her. Or at least he really tries to. He talks about wanting to go far, far away and never come back. That he doesn’t want power, he just wants to be left alone. She point blank tells him she doesn’t understand him at all. Naturally, he backtracks, puts on a bit of bravado. Talks about wanting to start performing science experiences and she…basically laughs at him. And he STILL doesn’t lash out at her. He excuses himself and tries to retreat. And only then, when she calls him back and tries to force a continuance of the conversation does he lash out. Yes, it’s still mean, but wouldn’t you say it’s understandable? After showing vulnerability and getting so thoroughly rejected?
I’d say that this is also the first moment where the potential for a tentative friendship between them begins to break down. They are completely incapable of communicating. And that’s not any one person’s fault. But it still doesn’t break down all the way immediately. I’d actually say that Catherine pushing and pushing to be accepted as a romantic partner puts just as much strain on the relationship as anything Peter does. Yes, it’s understandable why she does it. She needs to have a child. She wants to have sex. But as he established at the start of all this, neither of them had an obligation to love the other. Peter tries to set boundaries and is clearly uncomfortable about the idea of sex and nudity in front of people, etc, at this point in his life. He’s not really attracted to Catherine. He isn’t in love with her. (This is all beyond the issues of being afraid of the consequences of having a child.) He tells her “no” again and again and she tries to push past those boundaries again and again. “No’ still means “no” even if a guy is saying it. If the genders were revered, fandom would call Catherine’s sort of pushiness “creepy” and “predatory.” I’m not trying to argue here that that’s what it is, but her pushing is NOT making an uncomfortable situation any better.
The worst scene from pre-Saltykov (which is a WHOLE other stage at that point and neither of them is really trying anymore) period and where things completely break down is the post-small pox scene. It’s a really uncomfortable scene. Peter really is mean to her during it. But a) I don’t think it’s evidence that he was “so antagonistic” toward her as a general rule and b) he’s in a really dark place at that point emotionally. I’m not gong to go into it much because this is already way too long and I think it’s pretty obvious. He saw the horror on her face when she first walks in. Her reaction is understandable but certain it would have hurt. And at the end there, where he slaps her, from what I understand, she made yet another attempt to kiss him. It was probably well intentioned – “I’m willing to be with you despite the scars” kind of thing – but it once again violates boundaries he’s set again and again and she keeps ignoring.In conclusion. I don’t agree that either one of them is the “at fault” party. They were two teenagers, terribly matched, with ridiculous external pressures, left alone to navigate an emotionally thorny situation. Peter wasn’t antagonistic toward her; he merely didn’t want to be romantically/sexually involved with her. And when he was being a dick it wasn’t just out of nowhere and Catherine is no angel. Peter and Liza were much better matched in personality and in taste, had chosen each other, did not have the same external pressures creating external conflicts of interest and happened at a much later time in Peter’s life when he was probably far more ready for and comfortable with having a romantic/sexual relationship.