Catherine the Great (1729-1796) was empress of Russia from 1762 until her death. She is counted amongst the most powerful rulers ever, and her reign is considered as the Golden Age of Russia. Discover how Catherine, born as a German-speaker in the Holy Roman Empire, was motivated from a young age by ideals of enlightenment, and the difficult path she had to endure, to become “The Great”.

#1 Catherine the Great’s birth

Catherine was not always Catherine, or Yekaterina (in Russian). She was actually born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg (almost run out of breath saying that loud), in the Prussian city of Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) in 1729.

A face portrait of Sophie around the time she moved to Russia being 15 years old
The teenager Princess Sophie. Painting by Louis Caravaque. Source

Her father was Christian August, ruler of the principality of Anhalt-Zerbst, and her mother was Joanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. The family was settled in the city of Stettin, in the German kingdom of Prussia, where Christian led a quiet life as city governor. Sophie’s relationship with her father was good, but young Sophie found her mother very apathetic towards her, as she had been long expecting a son.

Joanna’s distant attitude didn’t improve much, however, when she alighted Sophie’s sick brother, Frederik Augustus. Despite the wealthy status of the Anhalt-Zerbst house, and the renown of the Holstein-Gottorp dynasty, little Sophie’s family, was far from the main European spotlights.

#2 That big and far-away country, called Russia

Everything turned upside down when on the 1st January 1744, Empress Elizabeth I of Russia, daughter of Peter the Great, summoned Joanna and Sophie to St Petersburg. The ambitious Joanna was thrilled, she had been coveting Elizabeth’s favour, and now she was finally corresponded. And Sophie, a 14 years old girl dreaming of being a princess (like many girls her age) neither disliked the prospect of ingratiating herself with the Russian empress.

Empress Elizabeth I (1709-1762). The youngest daughter of Peter the Great. Painting by Louis Tocqué. Source

Elizabeth had been betrothed to Joanna’s older brother, Charles Augustus of Holstein-Gottorp, but the latter died of smallpox before the weeding took place. It seems Elizabeth had been truly in love with Charles, as for the rest of her life she regarded the Holsteins very affectionately. Furthermore, Elizabeth had adopted Charles Peter Ulrich, her nephew and Joanna’s cousin, to turn him into the heir to the throne. Confused with the family entanglements? Me too.

Elizabeth intended to marry Sophie to Peter Ulrich, and secure her position by siring a line. People coveting the throne in Russia weren’t few, and Elizabeth herself, although the daughter of Peter the Great, felt the need to strengthen her position. Sophie applied herself in heart and soul to learn Russian, eventually mastering the language, although not getting rid of her German accent altogether. She also diligently studied to convert to Orthodox Christianism, and the Russian folk, thrilled by Sophie’s devotion to their faith, adored her. In her memories, Sophie acknowledged to had been ready to do everything, in order to be worthy of wearing the crown one day.

#3 Catherine and Peter

Sophie was baptised in the Orthodox faith in 1744, under a new name, Yekaterina (Catherine). And next year she married the heir, Charles Peter Ulrich. Elizabeth was over-delighted with her, and life in Russia offered Sophie the chance to be someone. But soon, the new Catherine had a real glimpse of the consequences of moving to Russia, of becoming the heir’s consort.

Peter Ulrich was a weirdo to say the least, he had no friends, and refused to spoke a word of Russian. He was obsessed with military parades, often commanding his servants and friends, women included, to dress as Prussian officers and drill. Life in Russia was unbearable to him, and isolated behind a thick wall of loneliness, which not even Catherine managed to crack, he wished only to return to his native dukedom of Holstein-Gottorp.

Karl Peter Ulrich (1728-1762). The future Peter III. Painting by Lucas Conrad Pfandzelt. Source

For years Peter Ulrich didn’t even touched Catherine in the bed, and the lack of sons enraged Elizabeth. She felt her benevolence and gratitude betrayed by the two teenagers she had lavished on, and taken under her protection. Apart from servants, who were forbidden to socialize with them, Elizabeth had the young couple isolated, hoping boredom would push them to have sex. She should had tried with Vodka maybe, because her strategy failed to bear fruits.

#4 Catherine’s children

Peter had no interest in Catherine, and both ended up seeking lovers. Catherine had an affair with the charming Sergey Saltikov, and shortly after, Bum! She was pregnant. Elizabeth never cared too much about the gossips regarding the paternity of the child, and neither Peter, who was busy recreating Prussian drills and making love to his mistress, Elizaveta Vorontsova. In 1754, Catherine gave light to the future Paul I, and the delighted Empress rushed to took the new born to her chambers.

Catherine’s first son, Paul. Future Emperor Paul I. Painting by Andrey Filippovich Mitrokhin. Source

Catherine was left devastated. Her baby had been snatched, and she could barely see him, having to request an audience with the Empress to do so. Elizabeth literally took over the role of mother. And Sergei Saltykov? He was quite a womaniser and soon felt bored of Catherine. The Saltykov affair made a huge impression in Catherine. Alone in a foreign country, her husband acting like a child, and her son abducted by the Empress, Catherine turned to men to fill the void. Before and after taking power, Catherine scored with twelve lovers, most of them decades younger, and even sired some illegitimate children.

In 1757 Catherine’s daughter, Anna, was born. Her father was Stanislaw Poniatowski, the future King of Poland, who was never able to forget his crush for Catherine. But Anna died in 1759. In 1762 Elizabeth followed her to the grave. The erratic Peter Ulrich was finally crowned Peter III.

#5 Catherine II of Russia

A staunch supporter and admirer of Frederik the Great of Prussia, Peter III signed peace with Prussia over the Seven Years War. His pro-Prussian policies, like changing the uniforms of the Russian regiments for Prussian uniforms, didn’t sit very well with the army or the nobility.

After Peter arrested some conspirators, Catherine, who feared for her life, marched to the Ismaylovsky and Semyonovsky regiments’ quarters, and asked them for protection against the Prussophile Tsar. Catherine used these troops to arrest Peter, and forced him to abdicate. A few days later, Alexei Orlov, brother to Grigory Orlov, head of the conspiracy and lover of Catherine, murdered Peter III.

A martial Catherine, sword in hand, resolute eyes and stern face
Painting depicting Catherine riding in her Preobrazhensky uniform, to depose Peter III. By Vigilius Eriksen. Source

#6 Catherine and Voltaire

Catherine was crowned Empress Regent, and saw her childhood dream fulfilled, when he moved to Russia for the first time as the 15 years old, Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, a princess of a tiny German principality. Now, Catherine was the mistress of one of the most powerful and largest countries in the world.

During her time as consort of the heir, Catherine, an idealistic person, worried about the ill-treated Russian serfs, and her estrangement with her husband, led her to immerse in myriads of books touching all subjects, including philosophy and politics. She was mesmerised by the enlightenment trend taking roots in Europe, and wishing to step up the modernisation of Russia, that Peter the Great started, she befriended and kept correspondence with the most influential Enlighted personalities, like Voltaire.

François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778). Known as Voltaire. Famous for advocating freedom of speech, and the separation of church and state. Painting by Nicolas de Largillière. Source

Catherine’s main concern during the first years on the throne, was the institution of Serfdom. Of roughly 20 million people living within the borders of the Russian Empire in 1762, half were peasants, and most of those, were serfs. Serfs were practically slaves, who could not leave the land they were working, subjected to the whims of their masters, who could sell them to other landowners, or abuse them, physically, sexually and even torture them.

#7 Catherine, the Enlightened Empress

In 1766 Catherine summoned an assembly with representatives of all parts of Russia, amalgamating all social classes and clergy. Their goal, apart from enjoy a trip at the expense of Catherine, was to discuss the needs of the general population, and come up with ideas to improve it. Very participative. Although the experiment was a disaster according to her memories.

A year later Catherine gathered all the ideas of the assembly, and elaborated a statement of legal principles, the Nakaz, in order to guide and reformate the obsolete Muscovite legal code, and infuse Russia with Enlighted ideas of Montesquieu, Beccaria and Voltaire. She envisioned Russia as an enlightened autocracy. In her eyes serfdom was bad yes, but she wasn’t willing to share the power, or foolishly endanger it only to see herself removed in favour of her son, Paul.

The result? Serfdom wasn’t abolished. It wouldn’t be until 1861, when Catherine’s great grandson, Alexander II, proclaimed the emancipation of the Russian serfs.

Alexander II (1818-1881). Called ‘The liberator’ for emancipating the serfs. He was murdered, ironically, by a socialist organization who sought to spark widespread reforms in Russia. Source

Catherine’s first years in power were met with frustration, backwardness from the commoners, and the obstinate refusal of the powerful classes, who thought it a sacrilege to relinquish their serfs and privileges. On top of that, her legitimacy of the throne was questioned. The nobility, who helped her to overthrown Peter III, believed her to be in debt with them, and ironically, as it happened to Elizabeth, Catherine needed her son Paul to produce an heir, and thus consolidate her position.

Catherine dressing the Russian royal regalia. Painting by Aleksey Antropov. Source

Power changes the people, and the former Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, wasn’t an exception… But Catherine’s monumental role in Russian history was yet to be fully manifested.

This is a two part article. Read the second part here.
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