Catherine was born in Alt-Stettin, Pomerania, Kingdom of Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland) as Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. Her father, Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, belonged to the ruling German family of Anhalt but held the rank of a Prussian general in his capacity as governor of the city of Stettin.
Although born a princess,Catherine’s family had very little money.For most German princely families,an advantageous marriages was one of the best means of advancing their interests and throughout childhood,she was groomed to be the wife of a powerful ruler. The young Sophie received the standard education for an 18th-century German princess with a concentration upon learning the etiquette expected of a lady, French and Lutheran theology.
At 16, Sophie found herself engaged to her second cousin and the the heir of the Russian throne,Peter,nephew of the reigning Elizabeth and another renowned Romanov, Peter the Great. Upon arriving in St. Petersburg in 1744, Sophie converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, adopted a Russian name and began learning Russian.
On 21 August 1745 she wed her betrothed, officially becoming Grand Duchess Catherine Alekseyevna. Her father did not travel to Russia to attend the wedding,probably because he was still angry at her for her conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy.
Catherine and Peter were not compatible she was unhappy in her marriage.Their differences led both parties to seek intimacy elsewhere, a fact that raised questions, both at the time and in the centuries since, about the paternity of their son, the future Paul I. Catherine herself suggested in her memoirs that Paul was the child of her first lover, Sergei Saltykov.
Peter on the other hand had a mistress,Elizabeth Vorontsova. Ironically later on,Catherine became friends with Princess Ekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova, the sister of her husband’s mistress, who introduced her to several powerful political groups that opposed her husband.
Catherine became pregnant with her second child, Anna, who only lived to 14 months, in 1759. Due to various rumors of Catherine’s promiscuity, Peter was led to believe he was not the child’s biological father.
Bored with her husband, Catherine became an avid reader of books, mostly in French.Peters resentment to his wife grew with each passing day and he became a threat to her well being.He seemed determined to end their marriage and remove her from the public eye.
However,Catherine bid her time and watched as Peter alienated key factions at court. Like his wife, Peter was actually Prussian. But whereas she downplayed this background in favor of presenting herself as a Russian patriot, he catered to his home country by abandoning conquests against Prussia and pursuing a military campaign in Denmark that was of little value to Russia. Further compounding these unpopular decisions were his attempted repudiation of his wife in favor of his mistress and his seizure of church lands under the guise of secularization.
On the night of 8 July, Catherine the Great was given the news that one of her co-conspirators had been arrested by her husband and she knew she had to act fast. The next day, she traveled to the Ismailovsky regiment and after earning the soldiers trust,left with the regiment to go to the Semenovsky Barracks, where the clergy was waiting to ordain her as the sole occupant of the Russian throne.
She then had her husband arrested, and made him sign a document of abdication, leaving no one to dispute her accession to the throne.On 17 July 1762,eight days after the coup,Peter III died at Ropsha, possibly at the hands of Alexei Orlov. The official cause, after an autopsy, was a severe attack of “hemorrhoidal colic” a diagnosis that soon became the euphemism for assassination.
Throughout her reign,Catherine was able to bring some reforms and as a successful military ruler,her troops conquered a great deal of new territory.However, like every other ruler,she was also faced with opposition,by allowing a system of serfdom,in essence a form of slavery, to continue in Russia.
In 1767,her government had published a decree condemning serfs who protested about their conditions.Anyone involved in submitting petitions-making the complaint and writing the petition- about their landlords or the imperial majesty,would be punished by the knout (whip) and forthwith deported to Nerchinsk to penal servitude for life.
Yemelyan Pugachev,who claimed to be Peter III (Catherine’s executed husband) caused a full fledged revolt.He went around telling people that they had been released from their taxes inflicted to them by wicked nobility and even offered people land owenership. In the end he was arrested and executed.
On November 16, 1796, the 67-year-old empress suffered a stroke and fell into a coma. She died the next day, leaving her estranged son, Paul I, as Russia’s next ruler.