Who Was Catherine the Great?
In early February 1744, much of Russia was covered in snow. A small village sat beside the best--kept road in the entire country. It was called the “winter highway.” Empress Elizabeth used it to travel between Russia’s two most important cities: Moscow and the capital, Saint Petersburg. One afternoon the villagers heard hoofbeats. Thirty grand sledges—-fancy sleighs with enclosed compartments—-were arriving in the village, pulled by horses. The people could tell that this was a royal procession heading to Moscow. The drivers stopped to change their horses. They would trade the horses that were tired from the journey for new ones.
The villagers whispered to each other. Who were the passengers? Not Empress Elizabeth. She was already in Moscow with the Grand Duke Peter. Peter’s sixteenth birthday was just a few days away. Rumors in Russia were that the empress had secretly invited someone to Moscow to become his wife.
When the carriages stopped, some of the villagers caught a glimpse of a young girl. She was fourteen years old, slim, with chestnut--colored hair and blue eyes. She was quiet, but looked around curiously as if this new country fascinated her. She was traveling with her mother.
“It is the bride of the grand duke,” they thought.
The girl in the carriage was named Sophie. She was traveling east from the country of Prussia. Her parents were noble people, but not royalty. And yet, it seemed as if the empress of Russia had chosen her to marry the heir to the throne.
On the evening of February 9, Sophie and her mother arrived at the Golovin Palace in Moscow. The castle was lit with flaming torches. Sophie unwrapped the furs that had kept her warm on the long trip. She was dressed in a rose--colored silk gown trimmed with silver. She smoothed her dress and her hair. Then she stepped into the palace and waited to meet Empress Elizabeth and her future husband, the Grand Duke Peter.
On this night she was still Sophie of Prussia. Soon after, though, she would be given a new name: Catherine. She would adopt Russia as her own country and work to transform it into one of the most powerful nations in the world.
The people of Russia would grow to love her. They would call her Catherine the Great.CHAPTER 1: A Good Marriage
Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt--Zerbst was born on May 2, 1729, in Stettin, a military town in Prussia. Sophie’s father was Prince Christian August von Anhalt--Zerbst. Although he was called prince, his family was not so very important. His wife was Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein--Gottorp, a highly respected family in Prussia, which was an important part of the German empire.
Prince Christian was much older than Princess Johanna. She had wanted a life filled with fun and pleasure, but her husband gave her none of those things. When Sophie was born, Johanna was disappointed that she had not had a son. So when Sophie’s brother, William, was born eighteen months later Johanna gave most of her attention to him, sometimes ignoring her daughter, until young William died of scarlet fever.
After the loss of William, Johanna often went to visit her wealthy relatives and took Sophie with her. She even took her to the court of Frederick II, the king of Prussia. As a young princess Sophie knew that her job in life was to marry a rich man from an important family. Johanna wanted Sophie to make a good impression on the Holstein--Gottorp family. She made sure her daughter learned to dance and play music. She spoke German, which was the language of Prussia, and French. When Sophie visited her relatives she listened very closely to everything the adults said. She learned all about the important families in Europe. Sophie also carefully watched her mother. Johanna liked to brag and to be the center of attention. Sophie could see that this type of behavior made her mother unpopular, and she did not want to follow her example.
Sophie learned that her uncle had been named the guardian of the orphaned Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, eleven--year--old Karl Peter Ulrich, called Peter. He was the grandson of Peter the Great, the former emperor of Russia. When Sophie met Peter he was a thin, delicate boy with blond hair. He was very shy and lonely and a little unpleasant, but Sophie was kind to him.
When Sophie was twelve years old, Russia got a new ruler: Empress Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s father had been known as Peter the Great. She was not married and had no children. So she declared that Peter Ulrich, her orphaned nephew, would be her heir—-the person who would rule Russia one day as Peter III. Elizabeth invited Peter to leave Prussia and live with her as part of the Romanov family in Russia.
On January 1, 1744, Sophie’s family sat down for a New Year’s Day dinner. A courier arrived unexpectedly. He had a letter for Johanna. It was from Saint Petersburg. Johanna tore it open immediately. “The Empress Elizabeth,” the letter announced, “desires Your Highness, accompanied by your daughter, to come to Russia as soon as possible.” The letter said that Johanna would understand the “true meaning” of the request.
And Johanna certainly did understand it. Sophie, now fourteen, had been chosen to marry the future emperor of Russia!CHAPTER 2: A Whole New World
Sophie’s father was not invited to travel to Russia. She and her mother would make the journey in secret, using different names, because Empress Elizabeth didn’t want anyone to know her plans. The journey to Russia in January was very hard but Sophie had no fear. She was excited about her future. They traveled in a heavy carriage over bumpy, frozen roads. Sometimes Sophie’s feet got so cold she had to be carried out of the carriage because she couldn’t walk.
At that time, the countries of Europe thought of Russia as an old--fashioned, even backward country. It was very large—-the largest country in the world, spread over both Europe and Asia, but much of it wasn’t yet developed. It contained grasslands, forests, mountains, and even near--deserts. Its citizens were uneducated. Many were serfs, the farmworkers who legally belonged to the people who owned the land where they lived and worked.
At the border of the Russian Empire the women traded their plain carriage for an imperial sledge. It was like a tiny house on runners that was pulled by ten horses. Inside, the windows had red curtains trimmed with gold and silver. It had quilted featherbeds with silk and satin cushions.
When they reached Moscow, Empress Elizabeth was waiting with Grand Duke Peter to greet them. Empress Elizabeth was tall. Her blond hair was dyed black. She wore an enormous hoopskirt trimmed with gold lace, and a glittering diamond necklace. Peter was still a thin, sickly boy. He was happy to meet Sophie, probably because she was not only his own age but spoke German like he did. Peter did not like living in Russia and stuck to his Prussian language and customs.
Sophie devoted herself to studying the Russian language. Her family was Lutheran, but she would have to convert to the Russian church to marry Peter. So she also studied the rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church. Sophie took all of her studies very seriously. At night she walked the hallways of the palace barefoot, in her nightgown, practicing her Russian vocabulary and grammar. It was a difficult language to learn. Russian even had a different alphabet than Sophie’s native German.
It was so cold in the hallways where she practiced at night that Sophie got sick with pneumonia. Empress Elizabeth sat by her bed and sometimes held Sophie in her arms as if she were her own child. People at court worried that Sophie would die. Johanna wanted to bring a Lutheran pastor to comfort her daughter. But young Sophie asked for the priest who was her Russian Orthodox teacher instead. She already knew what would please Empress Elizabeth.
Although Sophie didn’t know it, news of her illness was the talk of Moscow and beyond. Her chambermaids knew that she’d gotten sick by studying Russian late at night. They told the other servants, who passed the news around the palace and out into the city. Soon everyone was praying for the foreign princess who loved their country so much. She seemed to be nothing like Peter, who only spoke German, as he had in Prussia, and didn’t like his new country at all.
In April, Sophie recovered. She appeared at court for the first time on her fifteenth birthday. She still looked pale and thin, but she discovered that while she was sick many people had come to respect and even to love her.
Elizabeth quickly moved forward with plans for the wedding. Then disaster struck. Elizabeth found out about letters that Johanna had been sending to the king of Prussia. In the letters she talked about trying to get Elizabeth to get rid of her vice--chancellor. The Prussian king wanted him replaced with someone who was friendlier to Prussia. The letters showed that Johanna was a spy.
Sophie was terrified that she would be sent home, but Elizabeth didn’t hold her mother’s crimes against her. She allowed Johanna to stay in Russia until her daughter’s wedding. Then she would have to leave.
On June 28, 1744, Sophie was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church. She recited her Orthodox vows by heart in Russian. She was given a new Russian name, Ekaterina, or “Catherine” in English. Catherine was now ready for her marriage. But before the wedding could take place, Peter became very sick with smallpox—-a disease that created fluid--filled bumps on the skin, like blisters, that grow and burst. People who survived the illness were often scarred for life.
When Peter finally recovered, his face was horribly scarred. Catherine was determined to show that she didn’t care what Peter looked like. But the first time she saw him after his illness, without meaning to, she winced. Peter was a very resentful boy. He never forgave her for making him feel ugly, even if it was by accident.
From then on Peter would never be her friend. But on August 21, 1745, he became her husband.
Copyright © 2021 by Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.