21.5.3: From German Princess to Russian Tsarina
Born to the family of impoverished German aristocracy, Catherine the Great’s fate was decided when she was chosen to become wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter III, whom she eventually overthrew to become the Empress of Russia in 1762.
Detail Catherine the Great’s journey from German Princess to sole ruler of Russia
- Catherine II of Russia reigned Russia from 1762 until her death in 1796. Born Sophia Augusta Fredericka to Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, and Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp in Stettin, Pomerania, her fate was decided after she was chosen to become wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter of Holstein-Gottorp (as Peter III).
- Catherine spared no effort to ingratiate herself not only with the Empress, but also with her husband and with the Russian people. She applied herself to learning the language and wrote that when she came to Russia she decided to do whatever was required of her to become qualified to wear the crown.
- Although Sophia’s father, a devout German Lutheran, opposed his daughter’s conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, in 1744 the Russian Orthodox Church received Princess Sophia as a member with the new name Catherine and the (artificial) patronymic Alekseyevna (daughter of Aleksey). On the following day, the formal betrothal took place in Saint Petersburg.
- Count Andrei Shuvalov, chamberlain to Catherine, is credited as the source of rumors regarding the monarch’s intimate affairs. These rumor led many, including Peter, to believe that her two children were not fathered by her husband.
- After the death of Empress Elizabeth in 1762, Peter succeeded to the throne as Emperor Peter III and Catherine became empress consort. The tsar’s eccentricities and policies, including a great admiration for Frederick the Great of Prussia, alienated the same groups that Catherine cultivated.
- Catherine staged a coup and had her husband arrested, then forced him to sign a document of abdication, leaving no one to dispute her accession to the throne. Eight days after the coup and just six months after his accession to the throne, Peter III died at the hands of Alexei Orlov. Historians find no evidence for Catherine’s complicity in the supposed assassination.
- enlightened despotism
- Also known as enlightened absolutism or benevolent absolutism: a form of absolute monarchy or despotism inspired by the Enlightenment. The monarchs who embraced it followed the participles of rationality. Some of them fostered education, and allowed religious tolerance, freedom of speech, and the right to hold private property. They held that royal power emanated not from divine right but from a social contract whereby a despot was entrusted with the power to govern through a social contract in lieu of any other governments.
- the Seven Years’ War
- A world war fought between 1754 and 1763, the main conflict occurring in the seven-year period from 1756 to 1763. It involved every great European power of the time except the Ottoman Empire, spanning five continents and affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by Great Britain on one side and France on the other.
Catherine II of Russia (1729 – 1796) was the longest-ruling female leader of Russia, reigning from 1762 until her death in 1796 at the age of 67.Born Sophia Augusta Fredericka to Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, and Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp in Stettin, Pomerania, she received education chiefly from a French governess and from tutors. Although Sophia was born a princess, her family had very little money. She came to power based on her mother’s relations to wealthy members of royalty.
The choice of Sophia as wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter of Holstein-Gottorp (as Peter III), was a result of diplomatic arrangements, most notably by Peter’s aunt, Empress Elizabeth. Catherine first met Peter at the age of 10. Based on her writings, she found him detestable when they met, which did not change after the two got married. Empress Elizabeth appreciated and liked Sophia, who upon her arrival in Russia in 1744 spared no effort to ingratiate herself not only with the Empress, but also with her husband and with the Russian people. She applied herself to learning the language with such zeal that she rose at night and walked about her bedroom barefoot, repeating her lessons (she mastered the language but she retained a foreign accent). This led to a severe attack of pneumonia in March 1744. In her memoirs, she wrote that when she came to Russia she decided to do whatever was required of her to become qualified to wear the crown.
The choice of Sophia as wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, resulted from diplomatic management in which Count Lestocq, Peter’s aunt (the ruling Russian Empress Elizabeth), and Frederick the Great of Prussia took part. Lestocq and Frederick wanted to strengthen the friendship between Prussia and Russia to weaken Austria’s influence and ruin the Russian chancellor Bestuzhev, on whom Empress Elizabeth relied and who acted as a known partisan of Russo-Austrian co-operation.
Conversion and Marriage
Although Sophia’s father, a devout German Lutheran, opposed his daughter’s conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, in 1744 the Russian Orthodox Church received Princess Sophia as a member with the new name Catherine and the (artificial) patronymic Alekseyevna (daughter of Aleksey). On the following day, the formal betrothal took place in Saint Petersburg. Sophia was 16 and her father did not travel to Russia for the wedding. The newlyweds settled in the palace of Oranienbaum, which remained the residence of the “young court” for many years to come.
Count Andrei Shuvalov, chamberlain to Catherine, is credited as the source of information rumors regarding the monarchs’ intimate affairs. Peter was believed to have taken a mistress (Elizabeth Vorontsova), while Catherine carried on liaisons with Sergei Saltykov, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, Alexander Vasilchikov, Grigory Potemkin, Stanisław August Poniatowski, Alexander Vasilchikov, and others. Some of these men eventually became her trusted political or military advisors. She also became friends with Princess Ekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova, the sister of her husband’s mistress, who introduced her to several powerful political groups that opposed her husband.
Peter III’s temperament became quite unbearable for those who resided in the palace. He would announce trying drills in the morning to male servants, who later joined Catherine in her room to sing and dance until late hours. In 1754, Catherine and Peter welcomed a son, the future tsar Paul I. There is considerable speculation as to the actual paternity of Paul. It is suggested that his mother had engaged in an affair—to which Empress Elizabeth consented—with a young officer named Serge Saltykov and that he was Paul’s father. However, Peter never gave any indication that he believed Paul was not his son. He also did not take any interest in parenthood, but Empress Elizabeth,certainly did. She removed young Paul from his mother by ordering the midwife to take the baby and follow her. Catherine was not to see her child for another month and then only briefly during the churching ceremony. Six months later Elizabeth let Catherine see the child again. Paul had in effect become a ward of the state and in a larger sense, the property of the state, to be brought up by Elizabeth as she believed he should be — as a true heir and great-grandson of her father, Peter the Great. Catherine became pregnant with her second child, Anna, who died as an infant in 1757. Due to the rumors of Catherine’s promiscuity, Peter was led to believe he was not the child’s biological father.
After the death of Empress Elizabeth in 1762, Peter succeeded to the throne as Emperor Peter III and Catherine became empress consort. The imperial couple moved into the new Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. The tsar’s eccentricities and policies, including a great admiration for Frederick the Great of Prussia, alienated the same groups that Catherine cultivated. Furthermore, Peter intervened in a dispute between his Duchy of Holstein and Denmark over the province of Schleswig, which many at his court saw as a step towards unnecessary war. Peter’s shift in the official position of Russia from the enemy to the ally of Prussia during the Seven Years’ War eroded much of his support among the nobility. Domestic reforms, including a manifesto that exempted the nobility from obligatory state and military service (established by Peter the Great), did not convince the Russian elites to support their emperor.
In July 1762, barely six months after becoming emperor, Peter took a holiday with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives in Oranienbaum, leaving his wife in Saint Petersburg. On the night of July 8, Catherine received the news that one of her co-conspirators had been arrested by her estranged husband and that all they had been planning had to take place at once. She left the palace and departed for the Ismailovsky regiment, where Catherine delivered a speech asking the soldiers to protect her from her husband. She left with the regiment to go to the Semenovsky Barracks where the clergy was waiting to ordain her as the sole occupant of the Russian throne. She had her husband arrested and forced him to sign a document of abdication, leaving no one to dispute her accession to the throne. On July 17—eight days after the coup and just six months after his accession to the throne—Peter III died at the hands of Alexei Orlov. Historians find no evidence for Catherine’s complicity in the supposed assassination.
Catherine, though not descended from any previous Russian emperor of the Romanov Dynasty (she descended from the Rurik Dynasty, which preceded the Romanovs), succeeded her husband as empress regnant. She followed the precedent established when Catherine I (born in the lower classes in the Swedish East Baltic territories) succeeded her husband Peter the Great in 1725. Historians debate Catherine’s technical status, some seeing her as a regent or as a usurper, tolerable only during the minority of her son, Grand Duke Paul. In the 1770s, a group of nobles connected with Paul considered a new coup to depose Catherine and transfer the crown to Paul, whose power they envisaged restricting in a kind of constitutional monarchy. However, the plan failed and Catherine reigned until her death.
The period of Catherine’s rule, the Catherinian Era, is often considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire and Russian nobility. She enthusiastically supported the ideals of the Enlightenment, thus earning the status of an enlightened despot. As such, she believed that strengthening her authority had to occur by improving the lives of her subjects. This philosophy of enlightened despotism implied that the sovereign knew the interests of his or her subjects better than they themselves did. The monarch taking responsibility for the subjects precluded their political participation. Catherine presided over the age of the Russian Enlightenment and sought contact with and inspiration from the major philosophers of the era. In one of her letters to Dennis Diderot, she referred to how she saw her responsibility as the empress:
You philosophers are lucky men. You write on paper and paper is patient. Unfortunate Empress that I am, I write on the susceptible skins of living beings.
As a patron of the arts and an advocate of Enlightenment ideals, she presided over the age of the Russian Enlightenment, In this painting, she is visiting Mikhail Lomonosov, a Russian polymath, scientist and writer, who made important contributions to literature, education, and science. Among his discoveries was the atmosphere of Venus and the Law of Mass Conservation in chemical reactions. He was also a poet and influenced the formation of the modern Russian literary language.
- From German Princess to Russian Tsarina
“Catherine II of Russia.” https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Catherine_II_of_Russia. Wikiquote CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Enlightened absolutism.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enlightened_absolutism. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“800px-Ekaterina_II_and_Lomonosov.jpg.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikhail_Lomonosov#/media/File:Ekaterina_II_and_Lomonosov.jpg. Wikipedia Public domain.
“Grand_Duchess_Catherine_Alexeevna_by_L.Caravaque_1745_Gatchina_museum.jpg.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catherine_the_Great#/media/File:Grand_Duchess_Catherine_Alexeevna_by_L.Caravaque_(1745,_Gatchina_museum).jpg. Wikipedia Public domain.