Catherine the Great was the most powerful woman of her time, whose 34-year reign, the longest by any female in Russian history, transformed her adopted homeland into a global superpower. Her time as ruler is often heralded as the ‘Golden Age of Russia’.
The throne, however, was never meant to be Catherine’s; it was something, in the end, she had to seize for herself. Her astonishing rise to power was all the more remarkable considering she didn't have a single drop of Russian blood in her body.
Born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst in 1729, Catherine was the daughter of a German prince and was related to the dukes of Holstein through her mother. The family resided in the Prussian city of Stettin (modern Szczecin, Poland) and although Catherine was born a princess, her family had little money. Their financial shortcomings were countered by their numerous noble connections, something Catherine's mother, Princess Johanna Elisabeth, ambitiously exploited to aid the family’s prospects.
She wanted to shake her Germanic past and embrace her Russian future
From a young age, Catherine was groomed by her mother to become the wife of a powerful and wealthy ruler. Through her connections, Johanna managed to wangle an invitation to Russia for her 14-year-old daughter Catherine, to be hosted at the court of Empress Elizabeth, the current ruler of Russia. The smart, pretty and enigmatic young Catherine so impressed Elizabeth that the Empress looked to wed Catherine to her nephew, Peter, whom Elizabeth had chosen as her heir since she was unmarried and childless.
Born in Germany in 1728 as Charles Peter Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp, Peter was the grandson of Peter the Great who ruled Russia from 1682-1725. In every aspect, Peter was the opposite of Catherine.
Upon arriving in Russia, Catherine converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, took the name Ekaterina Alexeievna (Catherine) and set about learning the language. She wanted to shake her Germanic past and embrace her Russian future, which endeared her greatly to the Russian people. Peter, on the other hand, converted begrudgingly to Russian practices and never hid his admiration of Frederick II of Prussia, the foe of Empress Elizabeth.
Weak-willed, immature, self-absorbed and boorish, Peter disliked traditional learning but loved all things military, including playing with toy figurines. Contrarily, Catherine loved reading books and educating herself; the pair shared no common ground. Despite the obvious personal differences, Catherine and Peter were wed in 1745. The 18-year marriage would turn out to be a complete failure. The marital night was an indication of things to come, as Peter abandoned his new wife to drink and party with friends.
For eight years the marriage went unconsummated with both parties choosing to take lovers instead. Eventually, in 1754, Catherine gave birth to a son Paul, although she would later imply in her memoirs that Paul was the son of her first lover, Sergei Saltykov. Historians have debated the accuracy of these claims, Paul's striking resemblance to Peter leading many to believe he was the boy's father.
During their marriage Catherine took a multitude of lovers and so when her daughter Anna was born (who would live just 14 months), Peter believed the rumours that the child was not his. The subsequent argument between the two, coupled with the fact Elizabeth had taken control of Paul’s upbringing limiting the boy’s exposure to his mother, meant that Catherine often retreated to her private quarters. There, Catherine pursued her intellectual interests, diving into the writings of Enlightenment thinkers, like Voltaire and Diderot.
On 5 January 1762, Empress Elizabeth passed away, paving the way for Peter to become Emperor Peter III and Catherine his empress consort. It didn’t take long for Peter’s eccentricities to begin grating with the Russian nobility and military elite.
His admiration of the Prussian king, Frederick II, saw him end Russia’s involvement in the Seven Years’ War, a fight that had seen Russia allied with Austria and France against Prussia. He made no attempts to hide his dislike of Russia and his love of his native Germany. He further alienated himself from the noble classes with a series of domestic liberal reforms that attempted to improve the lives of the poor. He angered the Church as well by passing a law that promised religious freedom for Russians.
Catherine also became weary of her husband’s intentions as he increasingly humiliated her in court. It soon became clear to her that he was determined to end their marriage and take his mistress as his wife instead.
‘Had it been my fate to have a husband whom I could love, I would never have changed towards him,’ Catherine would later write. With the close ties to the military, noble classes and the church, the bored and humiliated 33-year-old Catherine saw an opportunity for change and began plotting a coup with her military officer lover Grigory Orlov.
On the night of 8 July 1762, Catherine got word that one of her co-conspirators in the plot had been arrested; the time to act was now. The following day she raced to gain the support of the most powerful military regiment in Russia. With their backing, she was ordained by the Church. Catherine then ordered the arrest and forced abdication of her husband. It was said that Peter gave up the throne like a child being sent to bed. Catherine would later claim in her memoirs that she had saved Russia ‘from the disaster that all this Prince’s moral and physical faculties promised.’
Peter’s reign had lasted just six months and at first it seemed the coup had been achieved without a drop of blood being shed. After his abdication, Peter was exiled to a location outside of St. Petersburg. Eight days later he would be declared dead, the coup had seemingly taken a deadly turn. The official cause of death was announced as severe haemorrhoids and an apoplexy stroke, although it is widely believed he died at the hands of Alexei Orlov, brother of Grigory.
Whether or not Catherine had a hand in his death is still up for historical debate but the death of Peter certainly marred the early years of Catherine’s rule.
On 22 September 1762 at the Assumption Cathedral in Moscow, Catherine was crowned. Despite being born into an impoverished lower-nobility Germanic family, with no claim to the Russian crown whatsoever, Catherine rose the ranks of society and went on to stake a claim as one of Russia’s greatest ever rulers.