Catherine the Great's Rise to Power

Katie Lambert: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: Today, we were talking about our favorite royal monikers and also our least favorite royal monikers. Mine is Henry the Impotent. Sarah, what's yours?

Sarah Dowdey: Bloody Mary is pretty bad; Louis the Indolent also bad.

Katie Lambert: But at least Bloody Mary has a drink named after her and you cannot say that about Henry the Impotent.

Sarah Dowdey: That's a good point, Katie.

Katie Lambert: There is name that everyone knows. That is Catherine the Great. Like Elizabeth I, the subject of many of our past episodes, she is a strong woman who ruled an empire and made it greater.

Sarah Dowdey: She's known not only for her political acumen which really kept her in the public imagination but also for her many love affairs which we'll get into that a little bit later. Actually, a little bit on this podcast. Of course, that longstanding rumor that she met her death copulating with a horse -

Katie Lambert: That's quite the resume we have there, Sarah.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, I think so.

Katie Lambert: This is part I of the life of Catherine the Great. We will have a follow up episode because you know we love a series. No one is born the Great, obviously; maybe the cute or the fat or the crying but not the Great. This baby was born Sophia August Frederika, a German princess before there was really a Germany, on May 2nd 1729. Her father, Christian August is referred to as an obscure princeling in more than one source, which maybe wince for him just a little bit. He's always referred to as minor. He's very much loved by his daughter. Her mother, on the other hand, was a bit of a handful. She was Princess Joanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Her brother had been engaged to Elizabeth I of Russia for a time. When he died, Elizabeth kept a soft spot for his family.

Sarah Dowdey: When the Empress Elizabeth needs a wife for her nephew, Peter III, she thinks about this family that she's always held so fondly. She thinks that young Sophia might be a good bride. Sophia and her mother travel to Russia to carry the empress's favor. They're really successful at it. Elizabeth likes Sophia a lot even though court life proves to be rather difficult.

Katie Lambert: It's very expensive to keep up appearances in court. This isn't something that Sophia and her family can do. It's very strict, especially the rules of etiquette and because she's under everyone's eye as this -

Sarah Dowdey: Possible marriage material.

Katie Lambert: Exactly. People are always watching her but she's watching them too. She's learning how to play the political game, which is something that Peter never learns to do. Although she likes him at first, the more she gets to know him, she realizes that he's going to be a hindrance and not a boom to her successful future at court. He's referred to in all the things we were reading as, often as a buffoon.

Sarah Dowdey: Very often. He's generally considered inept. He's considered not well mannered, not cultured, lazy and possibly an alcoholic.

Katie Lambert: Great [inaudible].

Sarah Dowdey: Exactly. Here's Sophia basically bound to marry this guy. She's understandably a little bit lonely. She does a lot of reading. She becomes acquainted with the ideals of the enlightenment. She also starts studying Russian. She studies Russian until she's fluent, which is something that definitely impresses her future subjects.

Katie Lambert: Right, she's immersing herself in Russian culture.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, not being this foreign distant isolated ruler. She's gonna be involved if she's gonna play this game. The same goes for studying the Orthodox Church. Eventually, even leaving her religion of Lutheranism and committing to Orthodoxy pretty wholeheartedly.

Katie Lambert: Which is where we get her name, Catherine? It changed when she converted. She had to in order to move to the next stage of her life, marriage with Peter.

Sarah Dowdey: In addition to all those stellar qualities that we just mentioned; the alcoholism, the poor manners, Peter is also just a really, really weird guy. He's obsessed with soldiers and military stuff but not in a good sort of heir to the throne way; more like a little boy.

Katie Lambert: Yes, overgrown little boy way.

Sarah Dowdey: He plays puppets in bed and makes her play them as well. By the way, a lot of these details I got from Virginia Rounding's biography of Catherine the Great, which is pretty great.

Katie Lambert: Puppets in bed definitely a good detail to know about someone. He drinks a lot as we mentioned. It's not just sullen drinking; it's carousing into the wee hours of the morning sometimes forcing Catherine to come along with him.

Sarah Dowdey: They have nothing in common. She's smart. She's charming. She's intellectually curious. He's none of those things. The divide just grows the longer that they're together. In her memoirs, she describes herself as a miserable creature during this time in her life.

Katie Lambert: She is of course, being pressured or even bullied by Elizabeth to have a son. They need an heir and the court treats her as what she is, just a baby-making machine, a vessel for this heir. She's kept fairly isolated. Elizabeth puts spies [inaudible] her ladies and she's not really allowed to have friends. She's supposed to be concentrating on one thing and one thing only.

Sarah Dowdey: As soon as she develops a friendship even, the lady is sent away and she's supposed to get back to the task at hand. The only problem is they don't really know how to have sex. It's possible that Peter had impotence problems. He may just have not known what he was doing at all.

Katie Lambert: So Marie Antoinette in her husband, that's all I could think of.

Sarah Dowdey: Exactly. Their marriage isn't consummated for a long time. Only then it's because it was arranged for Peter to learn the ropes from this young widow, which I can't understand how they drafted someone for that job.

Katie Lambert: Now that he's able to perform, Peter and Catherine do engage in conjugal activities but they hate each other so it must've been really awkward not to mention not very fun. They don't do it very often. In the eyes of those watching her so carefully, it's not often enough that she'll produce this heir. Again, an arrangement is made but this time for Catherine. She had grown rather close to a man at court, Sergei Saltykov. This relationship is now permitted or even encouraged.

Sarah Dowdey: Surprise, surprise. Catherine gives birth to this much-desired son; names him Paul. There's a question, was it Peter's child? Was it Sergei's? Bets are actually that it was Peter's child.

Katie Lambert: He apparently was a lot like his father.

Sarah Dowdey: He had some of his similar interests. He liked Prussia lot, not that that would necessarily be inherited.

Katie Lambert: Interests include Prussia.

Sarah Dowdey: Immediately after Paul's birth, Elizabeth whisks him away and she's the one who raises this spoiled sickly heir, whatever Catherine may have wanted from him.

Katie Lambert: She had another child, a daughter named Anna Petrovna, not to be confused with other Anna Petrovna's we may have talked about. In 1757, she probably was not Peter's kid. Hence Stanislaw Poniatowski's another lover. He will come into play in our next podcast.

Sarah Dowdey: Ana died before she reached her second birthday. She's never spoken of again.

Katie Lambert: Which is strange? Speaking of more illnesses! Elizabeth, the empress, had been ill for quite some time. It's possible she had epilepsy. She definitely had some form of edema and she knew she was dying.

Sarah Dowdey: She died on December 25th, 1761 after a nosebleed. She may have hemorrhaged to death. Catherine acted respectfully after the empress's death. She wears mourning. She prays publicly for her. This is a smart move. People like that sort of thing. Remember how angry people were when Elizabeth II of England apparently didn't show enough grief after Princess Diana died. Peter, on the other hand, thought it was a good idea to play a game behind the hearse that involved a lot of running and washing his capes, swish about and then he would hang back for a little bit so he could run some more. Once he caught up, he would do the same thing over and over again. Picture this. There's his aunt's coffin, people in mourning for their most pious autocrat. Then their new ruler, who's gleefully playing childish, games in a funeral procession. It was horrifying. It was a very good example of the kind of man that Peter was.

Katie Lambert: People are immediately thinking, "How can we get rid of this guy? Who can we replace him with? He obviously has problems." Some think it's time to bring back Ivan VI, who is that sad little baby growing up in the prison that we mentioned in an earlier - actually we did a whole podcast on him earlier. Some people think that, "No, forget this strange boy who's grown up in prison. Let's enthrone Catherine because she's actually very impressive." She resists though. That's because she has a little secret.

Sarah Dowdey: She is pregnant again. It is not Peter's. It was her lover, Gregory Orlov's. We'll talk about him in our second episode a little bit more.

Katie Lambert: The key here is that everybody would know it was not Peter's baby either so she'd be put on the national stage so to say and be reveal this pregnant, it would be devastating for her hopes as empress.

Sarah Dowdey: The sex has ceased as far as Peter III goes. She manages to hide her pregnancy the entire time. No one figures it out. When Alexis was born in April, she hands him over to one of her servants. He's out of the way. Maybe we're clearing a path to the throne.

Katie Lambert: Catherine's not gonna stage a coup quite yet at least. We get to experience a little bit of Peter III on the throne. In February 1762, there is a bit of a class shakeup. When Peter declares that there will be no more compulsory service for nobles during peacetime, nobody knows what to think of this. The nobles are wondering, "Is this good for us? Yeah, we don't have to have service but on the other hand, this is how we would rise in the ranks." The Serbs are not quite sure how it affects them. It's a decision that was made without any thought.

Sarah Dowdey: Which describes a lot of things that Peter does, actually? His first possible mistake was in angering the church by secularizing monastic property. His biggest one dealt with the seven years war. Russia has almost beaten Frederick of Prussia after years of fighting and so many Russian soldiers dying. Peter stops the war, makes peace with Prussia and they offer him land and he won't even take it, "No, no, you keep it, Prussia." All those soldiers died for nothing. It became clear that Peter cared much more for Prussia than he did for Russia especially when he ignores the things that are important to them like learning their language. He skips the coronation ceremony, which it was a huge deal. People want to celebrate when there's a new person. It also had some religious overtones that needed to be there for the Russian people to be behind him.

Katie Lambert: Ultimately, even Peter's good deeds as emperor, he does get rid of the secret police, for example. People don't pay any heed to that. It's completely ignored because here's this guy making disastrous decisions for the country and not even seeming to care.

Sarah Dowdey: There are more warning signs. He won't share his power at all with Catherine. People are beginning to worry that he might get rid of her in favor of his mistress. Remember, people really do like her. She's devout. She clearly loves her country. The general sentiment is that they would be better off with her at the helm than this guy who's now dressing his military in Prussian uniforms.

Katie Lambert: Plus he's drinking more than ever. He doesn't know anything about business. He's keeping bad company. He's getting bad advice. He's just in this terrible downward spiral.

Sarah Dowdey: The last straw is that a very fancy dinner with a lot of impressive people at which Peter calls Catherine a fool in front of all of them. Then repeats it in case everyone hadn 't heard; humiliating her in this brutal way. She's in tears. Someone else has to distract everyone from what's going on. Peter is the fool. He is not cut out for the job of ruling all the Russians.

Katie Lambert: With everybody hating Peter III, it's time for some action. There's a conspiracy afoot to crown Catherine, now that that baby's out of the way. She's the one heading up the conspiracy. Surprise! Surprise! She has 30 officers, 10,000 subalterns according to Virginia Rounding's book. She has financial support from not only Russia, but Denmark and a very detailed plan about how this is gonna go down.

Sarah Dowdey: Unless you feel bad for Peter, he's been told about the coup. He dismisses it, not having much respect for the formidable ambitions and talents of his neglected wife. In true Peter style, he stays up partying until 4:00 a.m. completely unconcerned.

Katie Lambert: Which, just a note on Catherine, she will never, ever ignore rumors about conspiracies or coup; she knows better. Peter is not in St. Petersburg when the coup takes place. It doesn't go quite according to plan. Catherine has this great rundown for how everything's supposed to go but things don't fall into place. One conspirator is arrested and the others have to hurry away before he reveals what they're about to do. Catherine herself leaves her apartment so fast that she's still wearing her nightcap.

Sarah Dowdey: She changes out of that nightcap and gets all fancy and goes to regiments she already knew supported her. They swear allegiance to her. It's a bit of a domino affect. Once you've got the first one, you just move onto the second. At the church of Our Lady of Kazan, site of her wedding, she is proclaimed empress of all the Russia's and names her son Paul as her successor. More people swear their allegiance at the winter palace.

Katie Lambert: Peter's people tell him about the coup. He doesn't even believe it so he's a real good example of a dim historical figure. He even looks for Catherine at their house at Montpelier while Russia is busy trying to crown her. He's looking around for her like a child playing hide and seek.

Sarah Dowdey: And she is long gone, Peter. She is never coming back. She proclaims that Peter III endangered orthodoxy sullies Russia's military glory and undermined the empire's institutions. I think that last one is debatable but I will give her the first two even if she goes on herself to endanger the Orthodox Church, as we'll see in our next episode. When she parades in front of the people, it's in a tricorn hat in a guard's uniform carrying a saber. This is a woman who understands the importance of signifiers and of ceremony, unlike Peter.

Katie Lambert: No silly cape games for her. You might wonder how is Peter dealing with this now that he finally has accepted that it might be for real. He's not dealing with it. He's just drinking. He's thinking up more out there ideas. Then he finally realizes, "Yes, she's really has gotten him." He starts sending letters asking for forgiveness, promising that he'll change and then simply asking, "Can I at least get a Holstein with my mistress and back out of the whole thing?"

Sarah Dowdey: She doesn't reply to the first few. To the last, she simply sends him an abdication letter to sign. It's pretty cold, Catherine. He's stripped of his uniform and sent away to an estate later to be transported to Schlissloberg, which is where they kept Ivan VI. She does send him his pug for company, which made Candace very happy. She denies his request for his mistress. You only get so much, Peter.

Katie Lambert: Catherine deposed him on June 28, 1762. She's crowned September 22, 1762. Just a little note on Catherine's crown! It has more than 4,000 diamonds.

Sarah Dowdey: And some giant ruby as well.

Katie Lambert: Nice. The people and the soldiers get very, very drunk though after the coronation. They almost riot. Sort of an inauspicious start, I would say.

Sarah Dowdey: Celebration plus vodka, it sounds very auspicious to me.

Katie Lambert: As far as Peter being imprisoned, he's still drinking with his guards and he's miserable over his reduced circumstances. He's getting very, very sick very often with some digestive ailments. He doesn't want to use the bathroom in front of his guards, which is understandable.

Sarah Dowdey: One of the brothers of Catherine's lover, Orlov, writes in a letter to her this very cryptic comment, "I fear that he might die tonight but even more, I fear that he might live." What's that supposed to mean, Orlov?

Katie Lambert: We get another letter from the Orlov that's very vague and almost incoherent. The bottom line being, there was an argument, Peter was killed, they don't remember what happened.

Sarah Dowdey: It sounds like a bad story. Catherine doesn't announce Peter's death until the next day and gives natural causes, colic inflammation of the bowels and apoplexy. When his body's displayed, it's obvious that something very, very bad happened to it. He has a black face and you can see the blood through the skin, which seems a little like he was poisoned.

Katie Lambert: That would explain some of those ailments.

Sarah Dowdey: Exactly. There are also strangulation marks on his neck; clearly, not just a case of colic.

Katie Lambert: Not so natural. She didn't go to the burial. He wasn't allowed to be buried in the illustrious burial place of his forbearers either. People think that she killed him and their son would grow up thinking that she killed him. Did she? The consensus seems to be that she definitely knew about it and she never said it explicitly, "Please go murder my husband." But she Okayed it. Her wishes were clear and she would protect the men who committed the crime and reward them for it. Catherine believed that it was her destiny to rule; that it was God's hand guiding her life to that purpose. I think she did her best to help it along.

Sarah Dowdey: That brings us to our next topic, which is gonna be Catherine in Power. We'll get to discuss all those interesting things that happen when she's finally empress in her own right.

Katie Lambert: That brings us to listener mail.

Sarah Dowdey: Our first letter is a correction from Laura in our Oscar Wilde podcast we said, "The Oxford College of Magdalen like Mary Magdalen." It should be pronounced Maudelin. She says, "It's another little Oxford oddity. I'm not sure if it's done just to torture those tourists who don't know and ask after the college only to receive the confusing answer. There is a Magdalen Bridge but no college. Very weird and very Oxford! Thank you, Laura.

Katie Lambert: Thank you, England. We've also got a lot of really nice Hawaiian postcards since our episode on Hawaii, including three so beautiful postcards. I could just look at them all day from Vicki from Hawaii. I think it's just sort of made us wanna take a nice island vacation. Right, Katie?

Sarah Dowdey: I was starting wistfully at them for a few minutes at my desk before I brought them over to Sarah's, yes.

Katie Lambert: If you have mail you'd like to send us, we have a tricky way of making you find our address on the HowStuffWorks homepage. If you'd like to send us e-mail, we're at We're also on Twitter at Missed in History and we have a Facebook fan page. If you'd like to keep up what we're doing day-to-day, please check out our homepage at

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