Catherine the Great, Charles Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, Emperor Peter III of Russia, Empress Catherine II of Russia, Frederick the Great, King Frederick II of Prussia, Palace Coup, Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg
Catherine II (May 2, 1729 – November 17, 1796), most commonly known as Catherine the Great, was Empress of Russia from 1762 until 1796—the country’s longest-ruling female leader. From 1793 on she also became Lady of Jever. She came to power following a coup d’état that she organised, resulting in her husband, Peter III, being overthrown. Under her reign, Russia was revitalised; it grew larger and stronger, and was recognised as one of the great powers of Europe and Asia.
Charles Peter Ulrich of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp and Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. Future Peter III and Catherine II, Emperor and Empress of Russia.
Catherine was born in Alt-Stettin, Pomerania, Kingdom of Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland) as Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. She was the daughter of Christian-August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst and Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, sister of King Adolf-Frederik of Sweden, daughter of Prince Christian-August of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp, Prince of Eutin and Princess Albertina Frederica of Baden-Durlach.
Christian-August of Anhalt-Zerbst belonged to the ruling German family of Anhalt but held the rank of a Prussian general in his capacity as governor of the city of Stettin. Two of Catherine’s first cousins became Kings of Sweden: Gustaf III and Carl XIII. In accordance with the custom then prevailing in the ruling dynasties of Germany, she received her education chiefly from a French governess and from tutors. Catherine was regarded as a tomboy and was known by the nickname Fike.
The choice of Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst as wife of her second cousin, the prospective Emperor, Charles-Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, resulted from some amount of diplomatic management in which Count Lestocq, Peter’s aunt and ruling Russian Empress Elizabeth, and Friedrich II of Prussia took part.
Lestocq and Friedrich 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.
Catherine first met Charles-Peter at the age of 10. Based on her writings, she found Charles-Peter detestable upon meeting him. She disliked his pale complexion and his fondness for alcohol at such a young age. Charles-Peter also still played with toy soldiers. Catherine later wrote that she stayed at one end of the castle, and Charles-Peter at the other.
Princess Sophie’s father, a devout German Lutheran, opposed his daughter’s conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy. Despite his objection, however, on June 28, 1744, the Russian Orthodox Church received Princess Sophie as a member with the new name Catherine (Yekaterina or Ekaterina) and the (artificial) patronymic Алексеевна (Alekseyevna, daughter of Aleksey).
On the following day, the formal betrothal took place. The long-planned dynastic marriage finally occurred on August 21, 1745 in Saint Petersburg. Sophie had turned 16; her father did not travel to Russia for the wedding. The bridegroom, known then as Charles-Peter von Holstein-Gottorp, had become Duke of Holstein-Gottorp (located in the north-west of present-day Germany near the border with Denmark) in 1739. The newlyweds settled in the palace of Oranienbaum, which remained the residence of the “young court” for many years to come.
After the death of the Empress Elizabeth on January 5, 1762, Charles-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 Emperor’s eccentricities and policies, including a great admiration for the Prussian king, Friedrich II, alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated. Russia and Prussia had fought each other during the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), and Russian troops had occupied Berlin in 1761.
Peter, however, supported Friedrich II, eroding much of his support among the nobility. Peter ceased Russian operations against Prussia, and Frederick suggested the partition of Polish territories with Russia. Peter also intervened in a dispute between his Duchy of Holstein and Denmark over the province of Schleswig (see Count Johann Hartwig Ernst von Bernstorff). As Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, Peter planned war against Denmark, Russia’s traditional ally against Sweden.
In July 1762, barely six months after becoming emperor, Peter lingered in Oranienbaum with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives, while his wife lived in another palace nearby. On the night of July 8, Catherine was given the news that one of her co-conspirators had been arrested by her estranged husband and that all they had been planning must take place at once.
The next day, she left the palace and departed for the Ismailovsky regiment, where she delivered a speech asking the soldiers to protect her from her husband. Catherine then 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, 1762—eight days after the coup that amazed the outside world and just six months after his accession to the throne—Peter III died at Ropsha, possibly at the hands of Alexei Orlov (younger brother to Grigory Orlov, then a court favourite and a participant in the coup). Peter supposedly was assassinated, but it is unknown how he died. The official cause, after an autopsy, was a severe attack of hemorrhoidal colic and an apoplexy stroke.
At the time of Peter III’s overthrow, other potential rivals for the throne included Ivan VI (1740–1764), who had been confined at Schlüsselburg in Lake Ladoga from the age of six months, and was thought to be insane. Ivan VI was assassinated during an attempt to free him as part of a failed coup: Like Empress Elizabeth before her, Catherine had given strict instructions that Ivan was to be killed in the event of any such attempt. Yelizaveta Alekseyevna Tarakanova (1753–1775) was another potential rival.
Although Catherine did not descend from the Romanov dynasty, her ancestors included members of the Rurik dynasty, which preceded the Romanovs. She succeeded her husband as Empress Regnant, following the precedent established when Catherine I succeeded her husband Peter the Great in 1725.
Historians debate Catherine’s technical status, whether 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, including Nikita Panin, considered a new coup to depose Catherine and transfer the crown to Paul, whose power they envisaged restricting in a kind of constitutional monarchy. Nothing came of this, however, and Catherine reigned until her death.