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Prominent Russians: Catherine I

April 15, 1684 – May 6, 1727
Portrait of Catherine I by Jean-Marc Nattier Portrait of Catherine I by Jean-Marc Nattier

Russian Empress Catherine I was the second wife of Peter I the Great and Empress of Russia from 1725 to 1727. Her original name was Marta Skowronska, and it is not an exaggeration to say her fate was one that so many young girls of every epoch desperately desired – to marry a prince and have a wealthy and a happy life. It’s hard to say now whether Catherine’s happiness was genuinely true, but her rise from illiterate peasant woman to Russian sovereign deserves special attention.

The peasant girl

Marta was born in Ringen, in present-day Estonia, into the family of a Lithuanian peasant of Polish origin named Samuel who was a Roman Catholic. Her second name, Skowronska, derives from the Polish word for lark. Her parents were rumored to be runaway serfs and her father was allegedly a gravedigger.

When her father died of plague, her mother moved to Livonia (now the territory of Latvia and Estonia) where she also soon died prematurely from the same illness, leaving behind four children. Orphaned at the age of three, Marta Skowronska lived first with her aunt, Maria Vasilevskaya, then was sent to the house of a pastor named Daut, and later, in Marienburg (modern day Aluksne, Latvia) to the house of another Lutheran pastor, Ernst Gluck.

Gluck was a highly educated man and was the first in Marienburg to translate the Bible into Latvian. But he never made any effort to teach Marta to read or write, as Marta was no more than a house servant. She remained illiterate throughout her life, but this disadvantage that for many would have been an obstacle on the way to high society or a meteoric career, never shook her confidence.

Marta was an attractive young girl and at 17 she married a Swedish dragoon named Johan Cruse, with whom she had spent eight days in 1702 before the Swedish troops were withdrawn from Marienburg. The marriage is said to have been arranged by Pastor Gluck’s wife who was fearful her son might start an affair with Marta.

From household servant to Emperor’s mistress

When Marienburg was seized by the Russians on 24 August 1702 during the Great Northern War, Pastor Gluck was taken to Moscow to work as a translator for Russian Field Marshal Boris Sheremetev. Marta was also captured. Some sources state that Marta worked in the laundry of the victorious regiment and that she was presented to Brigadier General Adolf Rudolf Bauer to be his mistress.

Marta worked in the household of his superior, Field Marshal Sheremetev. It is not known whether she was his mistress, or simply a domestic servant, but she was used as human currency at the Russian court – Sheremetev handed her over to Count Aleksandr Menshikov a close adviser to Peter I. Whether the two of them were lovers is highly arguable, as Menshikov was already engaged to Darya Arsenyeva, his future wife.

It was in Menshikov’s home in the autumn of 1705 that Russian Emperor Peter the Great saw Marta for the first time and fell in love with her. Peter is said to be have been enchanted by the 23-year-old’s beauty, her concise gestures and her witty answers to the Emperor’s questions. It’s indisputable that Menshikov and Marta formed a life-long alliance, and it is possible that Menshikov, who had always sought to gain Peter’s favor and knew his tastes, wanted to secure his position by presenting to the Emperor a mistress Menshikov could rely on.

A short time later Marta and Peter became lovers and Marta was brought to live in Peter’s residence. A year after they met Marta gave birth to a boy they called Peter, and after another year she gave birth to another boy, Pavel. Both children did not survive more than a year. Peter and Marta went on to have a total of 12 children, two of whom eventually ruled Russia.

The perfect royal partner

Portrait of Catherine I by Ivan Nikitin Portrait of Catherine I by Ivan Nikitin

In 1705 Marta converted to the Russian Orthodox religion and was baptized as Catherine. On 28 December 1706 Catherine’s position at court strengthened with the birth of their first daughter. Meanwhile, ordinary people and soldiers expressed their dissatisfaction with Peter’s affection for the unknown illiterate girl, who was believed to have bewitched the Emperor. Indeed, “Katerinushka” as Peter called her, enjoyed Peter’s exceptional favors.

Even at the time of Peter’s bitter struggle with Carl XII of Sweden during the Great Northern War, when Peter’s life was in danger and the Russian army was defeated he still thought about his Katerinushka and ordered that she and their daughter be given a huge sum of money. This action very much contrasted with Peter’s nature, as he had a reputation for being frugal.

He expressed his affection to Catherine not only in the form of generous gifts. He was loving and caring in his letters to her. Almost ignoring his first son, Prince Aleksey Petrovich, who was born out of his marriage to Evdokia Lopukhina, he cherished his mistress like the apple of his eye.

As some historians note, this tough man, who ruled the country with a heavy hand, sent Catherine dozens of letters full of tenderness and care. He missed her greatly when he was away and used every single chance to see her and always desperately begged her to accompany him on his trips.

Peter had moved the capital to St. Petersburg in 1703. While the city was being built he lived in a three-room wooden hut with Catherine, where she cooked and looked after the children and he worked in their garden as though they were an ordinary couple. There is a great number of letters demonstrating the strong affection between Catherine and Peter.

Peter bestowed on Catherine all possible gifts. After conquering Estonia in 1711, Peter began planning Kadriorg Park in Tallinn and a palace at its center as a gift to Catherine - hence the name of the park, Kadriorg, which in Estonian means “Catherine’s Valley.”

How did Catherine manage to maintain Peter’s passion? What was her secret? Though it’s impossible to disclose the hidden secrets of the heart, some historians say she filled Peter’s life with joy and a touch of lightheartedness he had always lacked. She made him laugh easily and at the same time she was a good listener. Peter loved her passion.

At first he loved her as his mistress, similar to those whom he easily forgot, but as the years passed he became devoted to her as to a woman who knew him inside out and was used to his habits. Catherine was very energetic and compassionate; she would always gladly join Peter at numerous feasts and at the same time she had a positive influence on him always knowing when to stop.

She was able to calm Peter during his frequent rages. Only Catherine could allay his pains during his epileptic seizures. She used to take Peter’s head into her arms, caress his hair and put his head on her chest. Finally Peter fell asleep and she sat still for hours fearing to disturb him.

Unlike her cruel and ambitious predecessor, Peter’s favorite Anna Mons, Catherine never used Peter’s power to help anyone or give a career push. She wasn’t involved in politics but she could always keep up with the talk. Knowing Peter’s preferences she enjoyed instigating conversations on his favorite topics – ships and victorious battles. Her natural intelligence and tact had a significant moral influence on him.

Unlike other imperial persons she had a small cozy bedroom, instead of spacious royal chambers. She knew that since childhood Peter suffered from a subconscious fear of sleeping in big rooms – mainly because of several murder attempts he confronted. Peter enjoyed staying in Catherine’s small bedroom.

Catherine’s constant study was how to please her dearest husband. Illiterate and uneducated she shared her husband’s joys and sorrows. She showed such sincere compassion and interest in Peter’s activities and needs that Peter always considered her good and clever company. He enjoyed sharing political news and his thoughts with her.

The Empress of Russia

Many historians assert that Catherine wasn’t that simple and always knew what she wanted. After all, it was she who mounted the Russian throne after her husband’s death. The couple married in 1707 but the marriage was kept secret for a number of years even after she had given birth to a number of children.

Catherine accompanied Peter in his travels including his Prussian Campaign during the Russo-Turkish War (1710–1711). Here Catherine is said to have saved Peter and his Empire.

Teetering on the brink of defeat, the Russian troops were surrounded by the Turks, who exceeded the Russians in number. Catherine suggested before surrendering, her jewels and those of the other women present be used in an effort to bribe the Grand Vizier Baltaji into allowing a retreat. Baltaji allowed the retreat, but whether he was motivated by the bribe or by considerations of trade and diplomacy remains unknown.

Peter feared breaking the traditions of his ancestors but he credited Catherine and proceeded to marry her again (this time officially) at Saint Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg on 9 February 1712. On 19 February Catherine and Peter legitimized their two daughters, Anna, born in 1708 and Elizaveta, born in 1709. They were officially acknowledged as princesses. Catherine always accompanied Peter on his foreign travels, including the Persian War of 1722. On 7 May 1724 Catherine was crowned Empress at Uspensky Cathedral in Moscow’s Kremlin.

However, very often Catherine was a slave to her passions. She is said to have had an intrigue with her former benefactor Aleksandr Menshikov. Being unfaithful to Peter she in turn generously forgave him his love affairs. Seeking to please her husband Catherine treated her rivals amiably at court. Starting to realize that her husband’s passion was gone, she was rumored to have started a love affair with William Mons.

The year before his death, Peter and Catherine had an estrangement over her support of William Mons (the brother of Peter's former mistress and secretary to Catherine) and his sister, one of Catherine's ladies-in-waiting. All his life Peter had led a bitter struggle against corruption in the country. William Mons and his sister had begun selling their influence to those who wanted access to Catherine and, through her, to Peter.

Apparently this had been overlooked by Catherine, who was fond of both. Peter was already seriously ill when he drew up his will, naming Catherine his successor and the sovereign of the Russian Empire. But he tore it up when he learned about his wife’s affair with Mons. Peter also ordered Mons, who was charged with bribery, executed.

Mons was beheaded on 16 November 1724 and his sister was exiled. Catherine showed no signs of remorse or even disappointment when she learned her alleged lover was dead, on the contrary she was in high spirits on this day. When Peter deliberately took her out for a walk and passed by the site of the execution where Catherine saw the head of her lover, she maintained her composure, looked down and said simply: “It’s a shame chamberlains have so many vices.” Although rumors flew that she and Mons had had an affair, there was no evidence to support this claim and if she did have other liaisons, she never again gave herself away.

Peter and Catherine did not speak for the next two months that preceded Peter’s demise. But before he died, they reached reconciliation.

Ascension to the throne

In 1724 Catherine was officially named co-ruler and when Peter died in 1725 without naming an heir, Catherine's candidacy for the throne was supported by the guards of the Semenovsky and Preobrazhensky regiments that liked Peter very much and after his death transferred their trust and devotion to his wife Catherine. Her candidacy was also supported by several powerful and important individuals who saw Catherine as their guarantee to maintaining their power.

As a result, the Holy Synod, the Senate and other high officials almost immediately proclaimed Catherine Empress of Russia. Becoming the first female ruler in Russia she started a new page in the history of women in power that continued with her daughters Elizabeth and Catherine II, who preferred to stick to Peter’s reformist policies.

Catherine’s great administrative innovation was the establishment of the Supreme Privy Council of Imperial Russia on 8 February 1726. She named six of Peter's former advisors as its members and effectively transferred control of government affairs to the new body, thereby undermining the authority of the Senate and the Synod, which had been Peter's main administrative instruments. Originally, the council included six members — Aleksandr Menshikov, Fyodor Apraksin, Gavrila Golovkin, Andrey Osterman, Pyotr Tolstoy and Dmitry Golitsyn.

Several months later, Catherine's son-in-law Karl Friedrich, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, joined the Council. During Catherine's reign, the Council was dominated by Prince Menshikov. The role of the Senate lost its importance and all state affairs were supervised by Catherine’s advisers who also took all the core decisions. Peter’s reformist activities were totally lost and bribery and embezzlement became widespread.

But Catherine still enjoyed the support of ordinary Russians – they loved their Empress for her kindness and generosity. She easily granted money to the poor, became the godmother to the children of peasants and gave generously to widowed brides.

But her foreign activity was restricted to diplomatic letters supporting the interests of her son-in-law Karl Friedrich, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp. Catherine’s rule went down in history as a period free from any major military conflicts. At the time of Peter's death Russia's army was easily the largest in Europe. Since the nation was at peace, Catherine was determined to reduce military expenditures and she succeeded in this. Smaller taxes for peasants, which resulted from her actions, led to her reputation as a just and fair ruler.

However, because of Catherine’s support of Karl Friedrich, Russia found herself opposed to England and King George I found that the Schleswig-Holstein question might be reopened to the detriment of his Hanoverian possessions. Things came to such a pass that, in the spring of 1726, an English squadron was sent to the Baltic Sea and cast anchor before the town of Reval. The Empress fiercely protested and the fleet was pulled out, but on 6 August Catherine acceded to the anti-English Austro-Spanish league.

With Peter she was content to live in the shadow of her husband and after his death she was pleased to remain the “goddess” of Tsarskoye Selo, their estate near St. Petersburg. She was the first royal owner of the Tsarskoye Selo estate, where the Catherine Palace still bears her name. She was also interested in the fleet her husband was so obsessed with.

Catherine’s legacy

After Peter’s death Catherine reigned for just 16 months and, according to historians, during that time she cast prudence to the winds, constantly changing lovers. True power in fact resided in the hands of Count Menshikov, who had been instrumental in Catherine’s ascension to the throne. At the beginning, Catherine attempted to follow Peter’s policies, but very soon his reformist spirit was almost totally abandoned.

Catherine gave her name to Ekaterinehof near St. Petersburg and built the first bridges in the new capital.

Before she died in 1727 at the age of 43, Catherine willed the throne of Russia to the 12-year-old grandson of Peter the Great, who was crowned in Uspensky Cathedral in 1728 and proclaimed Emperor Peter II. The young Emperor was very handsome, well-educated and fluent in German, French and Latin.

According to Catherine’s will until he reached maturity, the Russian empire was to be ruled by the High Secret Council with the active participation of her two daughters Anna and Elizaveta.

However, Menshikov was again able to consolidate power in his own hands, and in fact ruled the country. The reign of young Emperor Peter II ended in 1730, when he died from smallpox at the age of 16.

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