Empress Catherine II of Russia, better known as Catherine The Great and one of the more effective of the Russian rulers, was actually German by birth. Born in 1729 and christened Sophia Augusta Frederica, she was the daughter of Christian Augustus, Prince of Anhalt Zerbst-Bernburg. Her father was an easy-going man, generally considered something of a harmless ninny, but her mother, Princess Johanna of Holstein-Gottorp, was a forceful, ambitious character and it was entirely due to her machinations that her young daughter, aged fourteen, was recommended to the Russian Empress Elizabeth as the potential bride for her nephew and heir, the Grand Duke Peter.
Journey to Russia
Empress Elizabeth was acquainted with Johanna's family, having nearly married her brother Karl August of Holstein-Gottorp; his death from small-pox had prevented that union. Her sister Anna had married another Holstein-Gottorp scion, Karl Frederick, and produced Peter Ulrich, who became the Grand Duke Peter, after being brought to Russia as Elizabeth's heir, after his parents' deaths and her seizing the throne from the young Czar Ivan VI.
But, although the Holstein-Gottorps were practically family, Empress Elizabeth was not the type to buy a pig in a poke and, determining to see the girl before making such an important decision, she invited young Sophia and her mother to pay her a visit in Moscow. So the two of them set off from Zerbst, making the long and arduous journey to Moscow via Berlin, where they paused to meet King Frederick the Great, and thence to Riga and St. Petersburg, arriving in Moscow in the middle of the infamous Russian winter.
Royalty sounds more attractive in fiction than it is in reality, and if Sophia had harbored any romantic sentiments regarding her future household, they were quite dashed on arrival. They were well-received, but the journey had taken its toll and Sophia was ill for quite some time. Her mother, always an exacting personality, meanwhile found numerous occasions to quarrel with her hostess.
The latter, no mean hand at quarrels either, showed herself to be tyrannical and despotic. As for the lucky groom, he made no efforts to make himself charming to his bride. He was sixteen and, if he hadn't been of royal blood, it is doubtful anyone would have seen him as a great catch. Not much to look at, with uncouth manners, and no developing signs of any culture, he was already addicted to alcohol and more or less impotent, and found the idea of marrying Sophia ― who, not a great beauty herself but at least intellectually well-developed, had grown wan from her illness ― unappealing and tiresome.
Betrothal and Wedding
However, it was the opinion of Empress Elizabeth that counted, and despite developing a hearty dislike for Sophia's mother, she found Sophia herself likable. The girl had a pleasing personality and was intelligent and respectful, and just young enough to be molded to the Empress's own whims. She gave her nod to the betrothal and looked upon with approval at Sophia's rigorous efforts to educate herself on the Russian language, the Russian ways, and despite being brought up as a strict Lutheran, in matters relating to Russian Orthodox Church.
Overcoming her father's objections, Sophia converted to the Russian Orthodox Church and received the name Catherine Alexeyevna. In August 1745, she was married to the still-reluctant Peter and soon after the ceremony, her mother was dispatched home to Zerbst and banned from ever returning to Russia. She never saw her parents again.
Life in Waiting
The next seventeen years were not easy. Empress Elizabeth grew even more difficult to get along with ― probably she didn't even bother to make her former amicable efforts, now that Catherine was a relative ― and Peter, her husband, had never been the sort to improve with marriage. Six years into married life, she gave up on him and took the first of her subsequently numerous lovers, Sergius Saltykov.
Two children, a son and a daughter were born in 1754 and 1758 respectively. Neither child was Peter's, something that seems to have bothered neither him nor Empress Elizabeth overmuch. The latter took over the child-rearing business and left Catherine to while away the time with her lovers.
Rise to Power
The death of Empress Elizabeth in January 1762, was a major turning point in Catherine's life. Her husband, now Czar Peter III, was free to rid himself of her if he wanted to. And it seems he certainly did so. He insulted her in public and threatened to divorce her. Unfortunately for him, he spoke much and she acted first.
Over the years, she had made herself more popular than him with the Russian courtiers and public, and now with the help of her lover Gregory Orlov and his brother Alexis, she won over the allegiance of the Russian Army, who, given the choice between the two German-origin royals, preferred the Russian-loving one (Catherine) to the other (Peter). Peter's open adoration of the Prussian King Frederick was offensive to the Russian soldiers, who had borne the brunt of the Prussian army's onslaught during the Seven Years War.
Peter, trysting with his mistress Elizabeth Vorontzov at the Oranienbaum Palace, was arrested and imprisoned at Rapscha. Here he was murdered and his death officially ascribed to colic.
The Empress of Russia
Catherine, as the new Empress of Russia, now showed herself to be an extremely sharp and astute ruler. After having waited so long to gain power, she was not about to let it slip through her fingers, and did not allow either sentiment or affection to cloud her judgment.
Gregory Orlov's suggestion of marriage and thereby a sharing of the power was rebuffed. He was allowed to remain merely her lover, playing no part in the making of her policies, until she dropped him for Gregory Potemkin in 1776.
Catherine, who was a very well-read and cultured woman, was very impressed by the liberal French philosophies of the day, and in fact had maintained a lengthy correspondence over the years with French thinkers like Voltaire and Diderot. She was determined to be an enlightened ruler and proposed to make sweeping reforms in Russia. With this in mind, she published her famous 'Instructions', based on the ideas of Montesquieu and Beccaria. These proved so revolutionary for their time that, they were banned in the fount of her inspiration, France, and the Russian land-owning nobility nearly deafened her with their protests ― if the condition of the serfs was eased, as she proposed to do, their own would suffer, they complained.
Since it was probably not feasible to dispatch the entire Russian nobility to Siberia, she gave in and even attempted to mollify their ruffled aristocratic feathers with position-enhancing sops. This didn't please the already aggrieved serfs, and they rose up in a tremendous revolt in 1773. The revolt was crushed and its Cossack leader, Pugachev, summarily executed. But the event confirmed her belief in the need for reform and two years later, in 1795, she issued the 'Statute of the Provinces', which offered a measure of self-government to the Russian provinces, and was based on German and British legal systems. It was better received.
Under her rule, Russia emerged as a dominant power, developing both industrially and militarily. Russia participated in the First Turkish War of 1768, in which she sided with Prussia against Turkey and Austria, and in the Second Turkish War of 1784, she sided with Austria against Turkey and Prussia. These adventures helped extend the Russian territory from the Black Sea to the Crimea to the Caucasus. Poland was encroached upon in 1772 and finally swallowed up in 1795.
Her relationship with son Paul was not good ― she had no great opinion of his character and even less of his abilities as the future Czar ― but she seems to have had better luck with the grandchildren. She rather liked her grandsons Alexander and Constantine, and was fond enough of her granddaughter Alexandrina to arrange a match for her with King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. This fell through though, when she tried to sneak in terms not previously discussed or agreed upon in the marriage contract. The King, who was apparently in the habit of thoroughly reading everything he signed, caught her out and refused to play ball, leaving poor Alexandrina high and dry in the Winter Palace.
Catherine was so upset by this affront, it affected her health. A few weeks later, on 10 November 1796, she had a massive stroke and died.