Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, is known as one of the most empowered, successful, and longest-ruling women in history. She came to the throne at 33 years of age, and by using her political and intellectual acumen, expanded her empire to become one of the great powers of Europe. But how did she get there?
Born Princess Sophie Friederike August von Anhalt-Zergst-Dornburg of Prussia, Sophie, as many noble children, proved useful as a pawn for political power. King Frederick of Prussia and Empress Elizabeth of Russia (daughter of Peter the Great) set out to strengthen relations between their two countries, and thereby weaken Austria, with an arranged marriage. The two young people who would accomplish this goal for them; none other than Sophie, and Elizabeth’s nephew and heir, Peter of Holstein-Gottorp.
Sophie came to the Russian court as 14-year-old girl. Strong-willed, savvy, and intelligent, she made plans then to prepare herself to someday rule her adopted country. She immersed herself in the culture, spent hours learning the language, and converted from Lutheranism to the Russian Orthodox Church, much to her father’s discontent and objection. She even changed her name to Ekaterina Alexeievna (Catherine), to better fit her new Russian identity. Catherine later wrote in her memoirs that she would do whatever necessary, and profess to believe whatever necessary, to become qualified to wear the crown.
Wed at 16, Catherine’s marriage proved to be unhappy, and her partner cruel. She disliked Peter the moment she met him for his ugly features, his childish behavior, and his penchant for alcohol. Historians note that on their wedding night, Peter set up his toy soldiers on the bed and demanded she “play war” with him. Peter would often have public tantrums, with Catherine bearing the brunt of his childish rants. Along with Catherine, history did not remember him well. From the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica:
“Nature made him mean, the smallpox had made him hideous, and his degraded habits made him loathsome…He had the conviction that his princeship entitled him to disregard decency and the feelings of others. He planned brutal practical jokes, in which blows had always a share…”
Needless to say, the couple did not conceive for 8 years, at which time the Empress Elizabeth took matters into her own hands. Historians claim she encouraged the couple to each have extramarital affairs in the hopes it would awaken them sexually to each other to produce the needed heir. Catherine found refuge in the arms of the first of her many lovers, Sergei Saltykov. In 1754, Catherine bore her first child, Paul. Speculation at court at who fathered the child still exists, but Empress Elizabeth, relieved that Catherine finally produced an heir, claimed the child legitimate.
The relationship between Catherine and Peter did not improve. In fact, Peter began plotting ways to be rid of Catherine, after finding a more suitable mate in his mistress Elizabeth Vorontova. By this time, Catherine had taken another lover, Grigory Orlov, a handsome military officer.
When Empress Elizabeth died in 1762, Peter became Russia’s new ruler and Catherine his consort. Unlike Catherine, Peter, also of German descent, never immersed himself in the Russian culture, and clung to his Germanic roots, something the Russian people abhorred. His favoritism and alliance with Frederick II of Prussia further alienated the new Emperor from his people.
Catherine, who now considered herself Russian in every way, saw the disenchantment of the people for Peter, and had an entirely different vision of how to rule.
Together with Grigory Orlov, Catherine plotted to remove Peter from power. Six months after becoming emperor, Peter traveled to the Russian royal residence of Oranienbaum to visit his German friends and relatives. While there, he learned of the conspiracy to have him removed, and arrested one of Catherine’s men. She knew she had to act fast. She gained the support of the Ismailovsky regiment, the Imperial Russian Guard, and had Peter arrested. With the aid of the Guard, she forced him to abdicate, and claimed the Russian crown. She had accomplished a coup without shedding a drop of Russian or German blood.
Peter requested permission to leave the country, but Catherine refused his request, stating she intended to hold him prisoner for life. However, less than two weeks later, Peter died at the hands of Alexi Orlov, Grigory Orlov’s brother. Historians have found no evidence of Catherine’s complicity in the murder, but one has to wonder.
Catherine II reigned for 34 years and became the most renown Tsar of Russia. She never married again, but took many lovers—something she is also known for—and made them her advisors without apology. Some of the best known are Orlov, who helped her win the crown, and Grigory Potemkin, a Russian military leader, statesman, nobleman, and her declared soul-mate.
Like other empowered women of history, Catherine’s enemies tried to paint her in an unfavorable light. They portrayed her as a woman who captivated and bewitched men with sex, and bent them to her will to help her gain the crown and run her empire. At her death, a rumor spread that her sexual appetites had grown so fierce that she could no longer be satisfied by a man, so sought to couple with a horse. In the attempt, she was crushed and died. In truth, she suffered a stroke, slipped into a coma and died a short time later.
Critics of empowered women rulers were, and still can be, cruel—unable to wrap their heads around the idea that a woman can be true to her nature, and still rule with intelligence, savvy, and confidence.
Although no evidence has been brought forward then, or now, as to Catherine’s role in her husband’s death, it gives one pause. Catherine had a dream to rule, even as a child. Her lust for life and lust for power seemed insatiable, and, like Mary Queen of Scots, (see my post here) the person who stood in the way of her ambition and her safety was her husband. It is interesting that historically, when a king’s wife stood in the way of his ambition or power, her life no longer had value, and killing her was a matter of due course. (We all know about King Henry IIX!) When a Queen’s husband stood in her way, and he died under mysterious circumstances, the scandal forever hung over her head.
Knowing this, it would only make sense that if a woman ruler like Catherine, who stated she would do whatever necessary to rule, wanted her husband out of the way, she had two choices – imprison him or have him killed. Or, perhaps there existed a third choice; to do both.