This is Part 1 of Catherine the Great. Catherine II, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the most known and the longest-ruling female leader of Russia. You can click here for the archives of this miniseries. I hope you enjoy!
The Treaty of Jassy had just, in the last four or so months, ended the war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. The last emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Francis II, had taken office. France and Austria have been at war for quite a short time, something history would later refer to as the French Revolutionary Wars.
That’s right, the year is 1729.
Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg was born in the small city of Stettin, Pomerania, Prussia. Depending on the calendar system you use, we’re talking about either April 21st or May 2nd of 1729. Stettin, once part of the Kingdom of Prussia, is now renamed and within jurisdiction of modern-day Poland. In fact, it’s now the capital city of the West Pomeranian Voivodeship, serving as a major seaport for Poland by the Baltic Sea.
But three hundred years ago, little Sophie was born in a Prussian controlled Stettin. Born to Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst and Johanna Elisabeth, Princess of the House of Holstein-Gottorp, little Sophie was born into a rather gifted family line that didn’t necessarily care about her.
Johanna wasn’t necessarily a happy person. She had been shipped off to an arranged marriage with Christian August, living in a small, stone house on a plain street for quite some time despite the “clout” the two names shared. Her family had ignored countless German nobles – handsome and rich, the lot of them – who had passed through the courts prior. It was a little bit of a low ball, her family forcing her to definitely marry beneath her own social rank.
Regardless, eighteen months after the marriage, Sophia was born.
Johanna had assumed that the bundle of joy she had been carrying within her was going to be a boy – an honorable namesake and possible heir. It seemed as if her only job was to produce a boy, and she had been grasping at straws to bring one in the world.
Her mother had gone through a rather painful labor, being forced to rest for 5 months after Sophie’s birth. With such a sore experience through the stages of pregnancy and birth, Johanna of Holstein-Gottorp held no appreciation for young Sophie. She never had maternal feelings for her first born child, handing her off to caretakers and educators throughout her early life.
Looking back at history, it’s obvious that this little girl was a “Daddy’s girl”. But, unfortunately for her, “Daddy” was rarely home. You see, Sophie’s father – Christian August – may have belonged to the ruling German family, but he held the rank of a Prussian general within the gates of Stettin. Thus, as she would later recall in her memoirs, her early life was dominated by unsettling unfairness.
Her mother oftentimes told her that she had no looks, that she was valueless to the family. Her mother felt an abhorrent hatred for her daughter, which perhaps set up young Sophie’s character at a very young age. But all that hatred – all the verbal abuse, if you will – was far from the truth. At the time, young Sophie was considered rather beautiful. Pictures today lack the charm she had upon nearly everyone. Her dark blue eyes and darker hair mixed rather nicely with her personality. She was a listener, knowing that listening and asking questions got everyone farther through conversation than anything else. She was incredibly curious, with a quick if not almost photographic memory.
But, with curiosity comes some negativity at a young age.
Young Sophie had accidentally stabbed her eye with a pair of scissors at a rather young age. Even further, she had accidentally dislocated her spine at one point. This was a rather embarrassing feat, with a local executioner – the only person skilled with putting dislocated bones back in place in the area – being called in late in the night to avoid the neighbors from knowing. This accident actually forced her to wear a corset until the age of ten. Some like to say this is where the young girl’s “wide, wide hips” came from.
Regardless, though Sophie was technically born a princess by name, her family possessed a very limited amount of money. The “power” held by her immediate family was through her mother’s relations to the powerful members of royalty across central Europe and Scandinavia.
For example: two of Sophie’s first cousins – Gustav III and Charles XIII – became Kings of Sweden.
At a very young age, around ten years old, Sophie was placed in an attempted courting. Her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, was the initial choice of a husband. At eleven years old, young Peter was already suffering through problems of his own. His mother had died three months after his birth, and his father had died when he was ten years of age.
The young boy had a drinking problem. He was socially awkward, emotionally not “right”, and rather uncharismatic. The young Peter was literally obsessed with soldiers and uniforms. He played with toy soldiers, practiced strategies day in and day out, and constantly obsessed over everything military.
But that was then at the age of 10-11. To make matters worse, Peter had started to torture animals and beat peasants by the age of 12. He had severe anger issues and learned at a young age to lie and blame others for his own personal safety. At 11 years old, the boy was so scared of his previous guardian, a man named Otto, that he would vomit.
But, royalty is royalty. And Johanna, Sophie’s mother, had a thirst for fame and fortune.
Sophie met the boy at the age of ten and immediately disliked him. Based in her memoirs, Sophie found him detestable. She disliked his pale skin, his alcoholism, and his obsession with anything military. Peter, on the other hand, had grown quite fond of the dark-haired Prussian beauty, seeking her out of crowds of young suitors every chance he could. But, Sophie tried her hardest to stay away from him. She would try to stay “on one end” of the castle, keeping Peter on the other.
Elizabeth of Russia, who was allowing Peter the opportunity to take the title of heir (being Peter’s aunt), absolutely adored young Sophie despite hating her mother Johanna. Johanna introduced herself as a cold, abusive figure. One who focused on ruining lives through gossip and made her thirst for fame and relevance very well known. It was this desperation for fame that allowed her daughter to become empress of Russia in good time, but it infuriated the current empress of Russia to no ends.
The Empress Elizabeth was no stranger to the either family in Sophie’s heritage. With Peter being Sophie’s second cousin and Elizabeth’s nephew, Elizabeth held the Holstein-Gottorp family somewhere within her ancestral royal tree. She had also intended on marrying Johanna’s brother, who died of smallpox before the wedding could take place in 1727.
Elizabeth liked Sophie, however. When the young girl arrived in Russia in 1744 at the age of 14, Elizabeth encouraged her and welcomed her in a way that her own mother had never done before.
When Sophie arrived to Russia, she became enthralled with the country. This excited Elizabeth, who had seen quite the opposite reaction when she brought Peter in to be heir. Peter, upon arrival, was angry. He hated Russia – from the weather to the culture to the language to the military uniforms. He absolutely refused to “become” a Russian despite being in line to rule the entire nation.
Sophie, on the other hand, applied herself to learn the Russian language. She mastered it rather quickly, but was never able to get rid of her Prussian-esque accent. She was so obsessed with learning the language, that she walked barefoot throughout her bedroom late at night to repeat words she had learned that previous day. Walking barefoot on cold floors in the midst of Russian winters wasn’t such a good idea, and Sophie developed a severe case of pneumonia in March of 1944.
At first, Johanna tried to cover up her daughter’s illness. She didn’t want her daughter to appear weak or ill in any manner, thinking it would lead to the royal marriage being broken off at the last moment. When Elizabeth finally learned of the illness, her hatred for Johanna increased tenfold. The Empress ordered for Sophie to be taken care of immediately, which led to some of the best “doctors” at the time demanding the young girl be bled.
Johanna was scared of bleeding. Her brother, suffering with smallpox, had died after immense blood loss after his doctors had thought of bleeding as a probable answer to the disease. Johanna did not want her ticket to fame, her daughter Sophie, to die similarly how her brother had years prior. For the first five days of this horrendous disease, Johanna prevented doctors from doing anything.
Elizabeth, however, won the verbal war. She painted Johanna as questioning science, saying that being bled was probably the only way for young Sophie to survive. She claimed that the mother wanted her daughter to die, and ordered the doctors to do whatever they seemed fit to keep her living. This led to young Sophie, at around the age of 14-15, being bled 16 times in 28 days.
She proved herself to Elizabeth through this time, though. Quite the opposite of Johanna’s fears! When her fever broke and it appeared as if young Sophie was soon to die (spoiler alert: she doesn’t), she called for a member of the Russian Orthodox Church to wait at her bedside rather than a Lutheran cleric!
She was the complete opposite of Peter, the German boy who refused to consider himself Russian in the least. She was openly accepting her adopted nation as her new life. She had mastered the language, and was offering to switch churches!
This is where her father, Christian August, disagreed. The Prussian general was a devout Lutheran, and he encouraged his daughter to not convert. But, the former “Daddy’s girl” was not about to run home to live out her days in obscurity. She no longer saw herself as Lutheran, and returned to the court a new woman on her 15th birthday.
A literal new woman.
A new faith: Russian Orthodox.
A new nation: Russia.
A new husband: Peter III.
And a new name: Catherine.
From here on out, young Sophie is no more. She will be referred to as Catherine, the duchess and soon to be empress of Russia.
That concludes part one of this special little miniseries about Catherine the Great. You can click here for the archives of this miniseries, which will be updated when the next post is published.