This is Part 4 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!
Catherine has found herself in a rather delicate situation. Her third child, fathered by her newest lover Grigory Orlov, had just very recently been born; her dunce of a husband Peter III had just taken over the country; and everyone around her was waiting for some sort of coup to occur.
France and Austria weren’t too pleased to hear that Peter III had been able to take over the throne of Russia. The Prussian boy who had always been obsessed with military drab had obvious sympathies for Frederick the Great – the land-grabbing military madman who was pushing through central Europe.
One of the first things Peter did when he became Emperor of Russia was pulling all Russian troops out of the war with Prussia that had been implemented by Elizabeth during the Seven Years War. Peter really had no common sense when it came to this foreign affair decision, as his love for his bloodline over in the House of Holstein-Gottorp shadowed the fact that he was near ruler of the mighty Russian Empire.
It is said that Peter actually said, in front of many Russian military officers, that he was upset that he was stuck on the “wrong side” of a moral war. He oftentimes claimed that Prussia was the proper winning side, and that he longed to be fighting for the Prussians rather than ruling the Russian people.
So, I’m sure you’ve probably realized the Russian military didn’t have much taste for Peter III.
As Peter ordered the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Seven Years’ War, he made a decree claiming that “Frederick is not our enemy! Now drink for his health and well-being!” This fanboy-ism Peter held for the Prussian leader was exactly what France and Austria – and Catherine – had worried about.
After Peter’s military returned to his jurisdiction, he forced them to switch their Russian uniforms for Prussian drab. He changed the Russian military drills to be the Prussian drills he had practiced with servants in solitude for all those years prior. This was like rubbing salt in the wound: the Prussians were their enemies! They had just lost their brothers in battle to them and were now dressing and drilling like them?
If all that wasn’t enough, Peter signed an official peace treaty with Prussia. He simply handed over all the conquered provinces that Russia had earned in conflict back to the “rightful owners” within Prussia and offered Frederick II a trade of 12,000 troops for an official alliance. These Russian troops withdrew from seizing Berlin and marched against the Austrian troops that had considered themselves allied to the Russian regime mere weeks prior. Not only were the Russians acting like their enemies – they were allied with their enemies.
Not the smartest move…but Peter thought it was absolutely brilliant.
The military wasn’t the only major institution which hated Peter III – the Church absolutely despised him. You may recall from previous parts of this biography that Peter held a bit of childish ignorance by completely ignoring his adopted country’s culture. His refusal to convert to Russian Orthodoxy followed him until he received the throne. He converted, probably a sham to appear more “Russian” than he actually felt, but immediately turned to put Lutheran interests within Russian borders.
While Catherine had previously earned brownie points with the now late Empress Elizabeth by converting from Lutheran to Orthodoxy and truly accepting the changes, Peter did the opposite. Although he did apparently convert to Russian Orthodoxy on either November 7th or November 18th, 1742 (depending on what version of the calendar looked at), it appears as if he did everything in his power to bring in Lutheran messages.
For example: he brought in a Lutheran clergy and took church lands to give them to none other than Frederick of Prussia. Peter’s love for his former church stayed with him, as he made priests dress as Lutheran clerics and ordered all religious men to shave their beards. The worst thing he did, however, was removing all icons except for the Virgin Mary from the Church.
Although Peter instituted “religious freedom” in the country – something rather progressive on paper but most likely used as a rue – these slight changes to the official church offended the general public. It’s important to realize that the Peter that Catherine and Elizabeth knew was not the Peter that the civilians of Russia knew prior to his coronation. A majority of people merely knew him as “Peter, the future Russian Emperor”. They didn’t really know of the deranged and uncharismatic Peter that we’ve been introduced to through history.
So…they were quite surprised at these horrendous changes to their beloved church. Honestly, the public probably didn’t care less about the problems he had with the military. His messing around with official religious icons really had them wondering if he actually had the people’s interests in mind.
Now, we have to be relatively fair to Peter. As terrible as a person and husband he was, his short-lived reign wasn’t full of negatives. He did abolish the secret police, believing it was unnecessary and a major economic waste. He outlawed the killing of serfs by their landowners – the very first ruler to do so in history. He encouraged mercantilism, something you can check out here in an addition to my American History series, by increasing grain exports and placing tight embargos on products that could only be found in Russia.
Perhaps the “greatest” achievement in his short reign was when he submitted the Manifesto of February 1762, which exempted nobility from the obligatory military service established by Peter the Great and gave them the freedom to travel abroad. Parliament, of course filled with nobility, loved the idea and proposed building a gold statue of him in his honor. Peter wasn’t ignorant enough to realize the economic state he was living in, and refused. He claimed there were better uses for gold in the country.
Peter inherited a rather floundering economy thanks to Elizabeth, thus these seemingly progressive changes – getting rid of the secret police force and placing economic justices – were just ways to create revenue quickly.
There is one thing everyone can agree about his reign: Peter did not have Russia in mind when it came to foreign affairs. He had his heart set in his home country, as seen through how he handled his new founded alliance with Prussia. But, if all of his terribly ironic military expenditures weren’t enough, he got himself involved in matters he had no business getting into.
Peter planned war. A war against…
There was absolutely no reason for Russia to put time, money, and effort into a war for Denmark when Prussia and Poland are literally right there. But his alliance and love for Prussia allowed him to throw all Russian interests aside in order to look at what truly mattered to him: his family, the Holstein-Gottorp House.
Peter had been the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, formerly in line as the heir of Sweden similarly to many members of he and Catherine’s family. He had merely renounced his heirship of taking Sweden when Elizabeth had called him to Russia instead. This left many interests of his still in his family’s Duchy. Denmark held claims and control of several provinces, specifically Schleswig, that historically belonged to the Holstein-Gottorp House.
It almost seems as if Peter immediately forgotten he had pulled Russia out of several central alliances to side with Prussia over the Seven Years’ War. Rather than stay cool and keep out of foreign affairs for a while after completely erasing Elizabeth’s involvement in the war, he immediately began begging for more alliances. He spent quite a while attempting to ease tensions between Russia, Sweden, and England in order to ensure that they wouldn’t join in a coalition against him over his attempted plans in Denmark.
Of course, it was a political failure.
Peter also realized it was his chance to divorce Catherine once and for all. He called in Sergei Saltykov, Catherine’s first lover and the presumed child of her first child Paul, and demanded him to admit he had affairs with his wife. Peter hoped this would be more than enough reason to kick Catherine out of his life and prevent Paul from being eligible to take the throne.
But, to Peter’s dismay, Saltykov refused to answer questions. Saltykov, who had used Catherine to advance his career, didn’t want to lose it all because of some laughable affair from a couple years prior. Peter angrily cast Saltykov aside, but it was pretty clear he and Catherine were no longer on speaking terms afterwards.
In July of 1762, just shy of his six-month milestone of being emperor, Peter went on a “holiday break” with beloved Holstein-Gottorp relatives to Oranienbaum, a royal residence located on the Gulf of Finland just to the west of St. Petersburg. He specifically left Catherine behind in spite.
His spite was what did him in.
On July 8th, 1762 (or July 27th if you use the old system), Catherine was given the news that one of her co-conspirators had been arrested by Peter’s men. It was at this moment, alone in the castle, that Catherine realized it was a “now or never” situation. With one of the co-conspirators apprehended, her life was at stake. She had her pundits burn all evidence of involvement, and ordered her informants to begin operations.
She had her husband Peter arrested, forcing him to sign a document of abdication and making him renounce the throne forever. This was so there would be no dispute over her legal accession to the throne.
Peter attempted to run to a refuge castle of his, proclaiming “open the door, your Emperor has arrived!” The guards at the castle ignored his request, calling down to him that “we have no Emperor…we have an Empress.”
And thus, the power Peter held for six months had been taken away from him. Catherine had him apprehended once again, ordering him to be locked in a summer palace – his prison – where he was forced to take an oath of loyalty. He begged and he pleaded to be sent home to Holstein, where he repeatedly stated it was where he truly belonged.
He hated Russia, after all. Why should he be forced to remain? He begged and begged to just live the rest of his days in peace back home. But… Catherine knew better. Peter may have been ignorant and foolish, but she understood that Peter, if let free, would simply run to Frederick of Prussia where he would have external support to become King again. Maybe not in Russia, but somewhere else in Europe instead. Catherine felt as if Peter was less of a threat locked away.
She placed her lover Grigory Orlov’s younger brother Alexei in charge of the guards that watched over poor Peter, and eight days after the coup it was revealed that the former Emperor had died mysteriously.
The official statement claimed he had died of hemorrhoids as he played the violin. A likely story.
In fact, this became a bit of a dark joke across Europe. Whenever someone was executed for treason, the royals would sneer that they had “died of hemorrhoids”.
Historians have found no evidence, however, that Catherine had any role whatsoever in the supposed assassination. A skittish letter sent to Catherine by Alexei Orlov claimed that the guards had “messed up”. One theory is that Peter, in a drunken rage, started a fight with his guards, thus leading to his death.
Catherine was nice enough to request an autopsy on her now late husband’s body, but whatever she found out because of it didn’t change the official description of “hemorrhoids”.
Peter, the sadistic and emotionally bewildered man we have talked about for so long in this series, is finally dead; and Catherine was able to rally the troops in St. Petersburg to support her uprising.
The Rising Woman had finally done it! On June 28th, 1762, she declared herself as Catherine II, the sovereign ruler of all of Russia. Little Sophie from Stettin is now one of the most powerful people in the world.
That concludes part four 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.