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Catherine the Great

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Before she was a Russian ruler, Catherine the Great was the daughter of a minor German prince (Christian Augustus von Anhalt-Zerbst).  Her birth name was Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst.

Sophie’s mother (Princess Johanna of Holstein-Gottorp) had a close connection to the Russian royal family.  That’s because her brother,  Karl August of Holstein-Gottorp, was engaged to marry the daughter of Peter the Great (Princess Elizabeth Petrovna).  

That marriage never took place, however, because Karl died of smallpox not long after arriving in Russia.

When the never-married Princess Elizabeth became Empress Elizabeth, ruler of Russia, she named her nephew (Karl Peter Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp) as her successor.  As the son of Elizabeth’s deceased sister Anna, the young man (of Russian-German-Swedish ancestry) was the only-surviving male heir of Peter the Great.  He was born in the German town of Kiel.

Empress Elizabeth decided to pick her nephew’s bride.  She summoned Sophie’s mother and told her to bring Sophie with her to the Russian court.  

Impressed with the young German princess, the Empress approved a marriage between Sophie and Peter.  (The two were second-cousins.)  Before that happened however, Sophie needed to learn Russian, convert to the Russian Orthodox faith and take a new name.  

The day after she became a member of the Orthodox Church, Sophie received a new name (Ekaterina Alexeyevna).  The Empress selected that, too.  She chose Ekaterina (Catherine) because it was the name of her own mother.  She chose Alexeyevna (meaning “daughter of Alexis”) because it sounded Russian (which Sophie was not).

After selecting Peter Ulrich as her heir to the throne, Empress Elizabeth also gave him a new name:  Grand Duke Peter Fyodorovich (meaning “Peter son of Fyodor").  That sounded more Russian (since his real father’s name was Karl Friedrich, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp).  

Before he married Catherine, Peter became ill (first with measles, then with small pox).  Although the Empress cared for her nephew during his illness, Peter was left pockmarked and with very little hair.  History tells us that Catherine did not look forward to her wedding day.

Peter and Catherine married in the Cathedral of Kazan on August 21, 1745.  This image (depicting a portrait by Georg Christoph Grooth) shows how Catherine appeared the year of her marriage.  Theirs was a very unhappy union.  

Peter succeeded his Aunt, the Empress Elizabeth, on the 5th of January, 1762.  His reign, as Peter III, lasted about six months.  

Forced to abdicate on the 28th of June, 1762, Peter was dead by the 17th of July.  Immediately thereafter, his wife became the Empress of Russia (as Catherine II).

Known as an enlightened despot, Catherine continued the reforms of Peter the Great.  She reigned for 34 years, then died of a stroke on November 17, 1796.   At her death, Charles Whitworth (the British ambassador) wrote:

Last night... this incomparable princess finished her brilliant career.

Catherine was not known as “The Great” during her lifetime.  She refused to accept such a title, noting:

I leave it to posterity to judge impartially what I have done.

Click on the image for a much-better view.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5124stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jul 25, 2014

Updated Last Revision: Jun 02, 2016


Media Credits

Image, described above, online courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

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