What would you think if you were fourteen years old and you found out that everyone wanted you to marry a sickly, unaffectionate, and immature prince. This is exactly the situation that Princess Sophia Augusta Fredericka found herself in when Empress Elizabeth of Russia sent for her to become a bride for Elizabeth's nephew and heir Peter III, great-grandson of Peter the Great.
The young prince was the son of Karl Frederick, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein, who married Peter the Great's eldest daughter, Anne. Anne died when Peter was only three months old, so his father sent him to Germany to begin his education. He had been born a weak, sickly child, and did not please his father. Things grew worse for eleven year old Peter when his father died and he was left to be tutored by the brutal Oberhofmarschall of the ducal court, Brummer. Finally Empress Elizabeth learned of his misery and sent for her nephew to live with her in Russia and become her heir. However, Elizabeth was terribly disappointed in Peter. Instead of a dashingly handsome, aspiring ruler he was a dull, weak, unaffectionate boy. He became very homesick and hated everything Russian, including the language and the Orthodox religion. Elizabeth therefore concluded that she must find a wife for Peter as soon as possible so she might bear a child more promising than Peter himself.
So after searching for the perfect lady, Elizabeth finally decided to send for Princess Sophia of Anahalt-Zerbst, daughter of Christian Augustus. Elizabeth had chosen the princess because she was high enough in society to be well-mannered and intelligent, yet not high enough to be haughty. There was but one small glitch in this strategic plan: Peter saw the Princess Sophia as only a new person for him to talk to, and he immediately declared to her that he loved another. The princess of Anahalt-Zervst was even less enamored with her husband-to-be. She thought him incredibly immature, transparent, and common. She did not deem him worth the sacrifice she would have to make for the marriage. She must leave her native country of Germany and change her religion to Russian Orthodox. But the union was inevitable and soon Sophia became Grand Duchess and her named was changed to Catherine Alexeievna. The wedding followed shortly after, despite the lack of affection or maturity in Peter or Catherine. In fact, as they continued in their marriage, their coldness toward each other did not lessen, but rather increased. Catherine became more and more disgusted with Peter, declaring that all he did was play with toy soldiers and lustfully look at other women. Meanwhile, Elizabeth was angry because nine months after the wedding Catherine still showed no signs of pregnancy and she realized that the marriage had not yet been consummated. Months turned into years, and still Catherine did not become pregnant.
When Catherine finally had a child in 1754, it was not by the Grand Duke. Catherine describes Serge Saltykov her lover as "handsome as a god, and certainly no one could equal him in the Empress's court, much less in ours....All in all, by reason of his birth and his many other qualities, he was a distinguished gentleman." She fell madly in love with this dashing young man, and when she had a child by him, she managed to convince Empress Elizabeth that the child was the Grand Duke's. Elizabeth died in 1761 and Peter was crowned emperor. Catherine felt that Peter was ill equipped to govern Russia and in 1762 she overthrew him with support from the Imperial Guard and her new lover, Gregory Orlov. The Orlov family held Peter captive until he died.
The Grand Duchess now became Catherine II, Empress of Russia. In the years after her husband's death, Catherine promoted Westernization and extended Russia's borders. During her reign she may have added 200,000 square miles to the Russian Empire. Among Catherine's other accomplishments was the educational reform she brought to Russia. She created many elementary schools, secondary schools, and universities. She promoted the education of women and religious tolerance. Many Europeans began to settle in Russia because of the florishing culture during her reign.
Politically, Catherine followed the liberal ideas of that era, sometimes called the Age of Reason. However, she did little to bring equality to the people of Russia. In 1767 she set up a Legislative Commission to try to reform the legal system of the empire, but the Commission was a failure and disbanded after a few years. In 1785 the Charter to the Nobility was passed, giving more power to the gentry, and increasing their rule over the serfs. This made the common people angry and revolts began to break out. As the French Revolution began to make the Europeans think of democracy she had to abandon many of her political reforms. Rumors say that Catherine had twenty-one lovers during her reign and was an immoral woman. Although in the early years of her reign she had been devoted to learn the Orthodox religion, she was eventually responsible for the secularization of the church lands.
Even through these few shortcomings, Catherine II left Russia much stronger and more prosperous than before her ascension to the throne. She had increased healthcare by supervising the building of hospitals and development of vaccines. Through her love of the arts she had brought European culture to Russia and increased education. She expanded Russia's borders and defeated the Ottoman Empire in war. The people of Russia did not fully realize appreciate her until after her death in 1796, when her son Paul inherited the throne.
Born: April 21, 1729
Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland)
Died: November 6, 1796
Tsarskoye Selo (now Pushkin, Russia) German-born Russian empress
The Russian empress Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great, reigned from 1762 to 1796. She expanded the Russian Empire, improved administration, and energetically pursued the policy of Westernization (the process of changing to western ideas and traditions). Under her rule Russia grew strong and rivaled the great powers of Europe and Asia.