Today is the birthday ([O.S. 21 April] 1729) of Catherine II of Russia (Екатерина Алексеевна), also known as Catherine the Great (Екатерина II Великая). She was the longest-ruling female monarch of Russia, reigning from 1762 until her death in 1796 at the age of 67, and probably the most renowned. She came to power following a coup d’état when her husband, Peter III, was deposed and then assassinated. Russia was revitalized under her reign, growing larger and stronger than ever and becoming recognized as one of the great powers of Europe. Her prowess in Russia is comparable with Victoria’s in England, although her historical status in Russia (and of the monarchy in general) was greatly diminished by the Russian Revolution and the rise of communism. You can read about her reign elsewhere. I’ll just look at how she came to power from impoverished princess to immensely powerful ruler of all Russia.
Catherine was born in Stettin, Pomerania, Kingdom of Prussia as Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. Her father, Christian August, Prince 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 (now Szczecin, Poland). 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. Although Catherine was born a princess, her family had very little money. Catherine’s rise to power was supported by her mother’s wealthy relatives who were both wealthy nobles and royal relations.
The choice of Sophia as wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, resulted from some amount of diplomatic management in which Count Lestocq, Peter’s aunt (the ruling Russian Empress Elizabeth), and Frederick II 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. Catherine first met Peter III at the age of 10. Based on her writings, she found Peter detestable upon meeting him. She disliked his pale complexion and his fondness for alcohol at such a young age. Peter also still played with toy soldiers. Catherine later wrote that she stayed at one end of the castle, and Peter at the other.
The diplomatic intrigue failed, largely due to the intervention of Sophia’s mother, Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Historical accounts portray her as a cold, abusive woman who loved gossip and court intrigues. Johanna’s hunger for fame centered on her daughter’s prospects of becoming empress of Russia, but she infuriated Empress Elizabeth, who eventually banned her from the country for spying for King Frederick of Prussia. The Empress Elizabeth knew the family well: she had intended to marry Princess Johanna’s brother Charles Augustus (Karl August von Holstein), who had died of smallpox in 1727 before the wedding could take place. In spite of Johanna’s interference, Empress Elizabeth took a strong liking to the daughter, who, on arrival in Russia in 1744, spared no effort to ingratiate herself not only with the Empress Elizabeth, but with her husband and with the Russian people. She applied herself to learning the Russian language with such zeal, she rose at night and walked about her bedroom barefoot, repeating her lessons (even though she mastered the language, she retained an accent). This led to a severe attack of pneumonia in March 1744. When she wrote her memoirs, she said she made up her mind when she came to Russia to do whatever was necessary, and to profess to believe whatever was required of her, to become qualified to wear the crown.
Princess Sophia’s father, a devout German Lutheran, opposed his daughter’s conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy. Despite his objection, on 28 June 1744 the Russian Orthodox Church received Princess Sophia 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 21 August 1745 in Saint Petersburg. Sophia had turned 16. Her father did not travel to Russia for the wedding. The bridegroom, known then as 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.
As she recalled in her memoirs, as soon as she arrived in Russia, she fell ill with a pleuritis that almost killed her. She credited her survival to frequent bloodletting; in a single day, she had four phlebotomies. Her mother, being opposed to this practice, fell into the Empress’s disfavor. When her situation looked desperate, her mother wanted her confessed by a Lutheran priest. Awaking from her delirium, however, Catherine said: “I don’t want any Lutheran; I want my orthodox father.” This raised her in the Empress’s esteem.
Count Andrei Shuvalov, chamberlain to Catherine, knew the diarist James Boswell well, and Boswell reports that Shuvalov shared private information regarding the monarch’s intimate affairs. Some of these rumours included that Peter took a mistress (Elizabeth Vorontsova), while Catherine carried on liaisons with Sergei Saltykov, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, Alexander Vasilchikov, Grigory Potemkin, Stanisław August Poniatowski, and others. She 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. Catherine became pregnant with her second child, Anna, who only lived to four months, in 1759. Due to various rumors of Catherine’s promiscuity, Peter was led to believe he was not the child’s biological father and is known to have proclaimed, “Go to the devil!” when Catherine angrily dismissed his accusation. She thus spent much of this time alone in her own private boudoir to hide away from Peter’s abrasive personality.
Catherine recalled in her memoirs her optimistic and resolute mood before her accession to the throne:
I used to say to myself that happiness and misery depend on ourselves. If you feel unhappy, raise yourself above unhappiness, and so act that your happiness may be independent of all eventualities.
After the death of the Empress Elizabeth on 5 January 1762 (OS: 25 December 1761), 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 the Prussian king, Frederick II, alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated. Besides, Peter intervened in a dispute between his Duchy of Holstein and Denmark over the province of Schleswig.
Russia and Prussia fought each other during the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) until Peter’s accession. Peter’s insistence on supporting Frederick II of Prussia, who had seen Berlin occupied by Russian troops in 1760, but now suggested partitioning Polish territories with Russia, eroded much of his support among the nobility.
In July 1762, barely six months after becoming emperor, Peter took a holiday with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives to Oranienbaum, leaving his wife in Saint Petersburg. On the night of 8 July (OS: 27 June) Catherine was given the news that one of her companions had been arrested by her estranged husband. 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 were 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 17 July 1762—eight days after the coup and just six months after his accession to the throne—Peter III died at Ropsha, at the hands of Alexei Orlov (younger brother to Grigory Orlov, then a court favourite and a participant in the coup). Historians find no evidence for Catherine’s complicity in the supposed assassination.
At the time of Peter III’s overthrow, other potential rival claimants to the throne existed: Ivan VI (1740–1764), in close confinement at Schlüsselburg, in Lake Ladoga, from the age of six months; and Yelizaveta Alekseyevna Tarakanova (1753–1775). Ivan VI was assassinated during an attempt to free him as part of a failed coup against Catherine: Catherine, like Empress Elizabeth before her, had given strict instructions that he was to be killed in the event of any such attempt. Ivan was thought to be insane because of his years of solitary confinement, so might have made a poor emperor, even as a figurehead.
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 (Nikita Panin and others) 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, nothing came of this, and Catherine reigned until her death.
According to (moderately authenticated) legend Catherine’s favorite dish was sturgeon and champagne soup. It’s not clear whether she actually loved the soup itself or the expense and extravagance associated with it. There is a story told that her lover of the time, count Potemkin, was in a panic because she was due for a visit but there was no sturgeon to be had, and he knew her passion for the soup. So he sold a painting that he had just bought for 10,000 rubles to pay a knowledgeable fishmonger who managed to find a few fillets. The recipe is not terribly complicated, but it will not be much if you do not make a good fish stock first – obviously.
To make a good fish stock I use the head and bones of cod or haddock. Cover them with cold water and add some chopped onion, celery, and parsley root, plus a bay leaf and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a low boil and simmer for an hour or longer. Strain thoroughly.
For the soup, place whole fillets of sturgeon in a fish kettle and cover with stock. Simmer until the fish is just cooked. If you like you can add a few diced vegetables. Parsley root is perfect. Add a good quality dry or extra dry champagne to double the quantity of stock. Let it heat through and serve.
Place a whole fillet in a shallow bowl and cover with soup. Garnish with chives, and serve with lemon wedges. It was customary to drink the soup first with a spoon, and then eat the fish with a knife and fork.