On July 28, 1762, Catherine, the Empress of Russia, deposed her husband through a coup d’etat. With the support of the military and ordinary Russians, she then took over as sovereign of Russia. This event is recorded on the Bible Timeline Poster with World History during that time.
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The Prussian Princess
Princess Sophie Augusta Fredericka was born in the city of Szczecin in Pomerania on August 21, 1729. She was the eldest child of Prussian Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst by Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Her parents nicknamed her Figchen, and her birth was followed by the family’s heir William. Johanna favored her son more than her daughter, while her middle-aged father doted on her.
Sophie’s family was not entirely wealthy, but her parents hired the best tutors for her to make her more enticing to any prince on the lookout for a wife. It was just as well as their bargaining chip was intelligent and soaked up every word of her tutors like a sponge. Her favorite tutor was the Huguenot governess Mademoiselle Elizabeth Cardel from whom she learned to speak French fluently. She also received lessons from teachers of the German language, religion, and music. But it was Cardel whom she spoke fondly of for the rest of her life.
Sophie first met her future spouse, Grand Duke Peter Ulrich of Holstein, in 1739 when she and her family visited Kiel. He was the son of Duke Charles Frederick of Holstein-Gottorp by Anna Petrovich, daughter of Peter the Great. The boy’s father died in 1739, so the orphan was left behind to live in a military barracks. A Prussian military official raised him, but he would often beat and verbally abuse the child left in his care.
With the encouragement of her mother, Sophie dreamed that she would be chosen as Peter’s wife. She did not mind that he was ugly, sickly, and more interested in military drills than in learning. Figchen and her mother overlooked these flaws and started to think about the possibility of a marriage with this possible heir to the Russian throne.
The events of late 1741 brought mother and daughter several steps closer to their dream. On December 6, Tsarevna Elizabeth, Peter the Great’s younger daughter, became Empress of Russia. She then summoned her nephew Peter to St. Petersburg and declared him her heir. Sophie’s ambitious mother was delighted. She commissioned the painter Antoine Pesne to paint a portrait of her daughter and sent a copy to St. Petersburg. There it joined the portraits of other European princesses from whom Elizabeth could then choose a spouse for her nephew.
To their delight, the family received a letter from Elizabeth’s minister on January 1, 1744. The empress had summoned Johanna and Sophie to appear before her in St. Petersburg. Sophie’s father was at first hesitant to send his daughter because of the volatility of the Russian court. Russian courtiers could easily rise to dizzying heights, but one mistake could also easily lead them to prison, exile, or death.
The ambitious Johanna, however, was adamant. She wanted the privilege and honor of becoming the future Emperor’s mother-in-law—nevermind that her daughter would be subjected to court intrigues and that her life would always be in danger. She told her husband that the marriage would finally bring peace between Prussia and Russia—something that King Frederick of Prussia and his allies so desired. Johanna’s nagging proved too much for her husband, so he finally relented several days after they received the Empress’s letter.
Sophie and her parents made a brief stop in Berlin on January 10, 1744, to inform the Prussian king of their decision and to attend a celebration in her honor. After the festivities, Sophie, her mother, and some servants left the city and traveled east to St. Petersburg. Sophie tearfully said goodbye to her father and promised him that she would not abandon the Lutheran faith in which she was raised. It was the last time she saw her father.
The journey east to St. Petersburg was difficult and cloaked in secrecy to protect them from Elizabeth’s anti-Prussian ministers. After making a quick stop in Riga, they continued to St. Petersburg and finally arrived at the Winter Palace on February 3, 1744. The Empress had left for Moscow, but the princesses were welcomed warmly by Russian courtiers and ministers who stayed behind.
Johanna soon befriended Marquis de la Chetardie and the French physician Jean Armand de Lestocq. They advised her to make a good impression and follow the Empress and the Grand Duke to Moscow in time for the latter’s birthday. The excited Johanna forced herself and her daughter to travel to Moscow in the dead of winter. After a mishap, they arrived in Moscow on February 9 just in time for Peter’s birthday.
The Grand Duke soon arrived and welcomed them warmly in the German language. Sophie knew that the prince was far from handsome, but he had become uglier since the last time they had seen each other. The Prussian princesses then paid their respects to Empress Elizabeth when she arrived. The formidable Empress interviewed Sophie and was pleased to find that she made the right decision in choosing the intelligent girl as a bride for Peter. But not everyone was happy with her arrival. Count Alexei Bestuzhev, diplomat, and leader of the pro-Austria faction, cast angry glances on Sophie for ruining his plans.
As the months wore on, the deeply perceptive Sophie got to know her fiance. She discovered that he was childish and crass. He still played with toy soldiers and wasted his time holding mock drills instead of studying. His first language had been German and he was not interested in learning Russian at all. He rejected the Orthodox instructions his aunt’s priests gave him and clung tightly to Lutheranism. Sophie, on the other hand, desperately sought the acceptance the Russians by becoming one of them. She soon overtook Peter in her fluency of the Russian language. She also discarded Lutheranism and started studying the Orthodox faith.
Sophie fell ill with pneumonia and nearly died several months after her arrival in Russia. She recovered from illness but to her dismay, her fiance was as childish and simple-minded as before. She also found that her mother had been busy scheming in court and had grown unpopular. Johanna loved intrigue, but she did not have the talent for discretion or stealth. Count Bestuzhev had intercepted Chetardie’s letter to Johanna wherein they plotted to have him removed from power. He handed these letters over to Elizabeth who then had Chetardie expelled from Russia. Johanna received a dressing down but was allowed to stay by her daughter’s side thanks to Elizabeth’s fondness for the young princess.
The baptism was followed by an elaborate betrothal ceremony and her elevation as “Grand Duchess of Russia.” The empress showered Catherine with lavish gifts. For the first time in her life, she also received her own allowance. Her mother, on the other hand, was on her own downward spiral. Idle and jealous of her daughter’s success, she embarked on a risky affair with the handsome and younger Count Betsky. Her indiscretion embarrassed Catherine and scandalized the Empress and her court.
Grand Duke Peter’s his relationship with his equally snappish future mother-in-law did not improve. He then came down with measles and recovered, but it was not long before he contracted the deadlier smallpox. The Empress rushed to his side and cared for him while he was in quarantine. Catherine and her mother, meanwhile, stayed in Moscow so they would not contract the disease.
Mother and daughter worried about his health as their fates depended on Peter’s recovery or death. The Grand Duke survived his illness, but he had grown thinner and his face bore the marks of illness. He had not been handsome, but the scars so disfigured his face that Catherine fled and fainted.
Despite Catherine’s misgivings and Peter’s altered appearance, the couple was married on August 21, 1745, in the Kazan Cathedral. The wedding was grand, but the honeymoon was dismal. Peter spent more time drinking with his valets than with her and soon fell beside her on the bed in a drunken stupor. His indifference in the days after their wedding took its toll on her self-esteem. The isolation she felt became complete when her disgraced mother finally returned to Prussia. She was well and truly alone in Elizabeth’s court.
It would be a long time before an heir to the Russian throne could be conceived. Peter was busy flirting with other women, while Catherine—though stung—pretended that she did not care. The Empress’s attitude to Catherine and Peter also changed. Fearful of plots against her, she dismissed the couple’s loyal servants and replaced them with her lackeys. Nine months after the wedding, Elizabeth summoned Catherine and asked her why the expected heir failed to materialize. She blamed Catherine for this failure and began to verbally abuse her. The Empress then accused the younger woman of being loyal to Prussia and of plotting to bring her down.
Peter and Catherine were nothing more than prisoners of Elizabeth’s iron will for during the early years of their marriage. The Empress gave the couple staff who spied on the couple’s behavior. With the encouragement of Bestuzhev, Elizabeth sent Catherine a new companion, her cousin and noblewoman Maria Semenovna Choglokova. The older lady not only served as a companion to Catherine but also as a spy who was eager to report any misbehavior—even trivial ones. The Empress forbade her to write her own letters to her family, and she had to sign cold and impersonal letters written by Elizabeth’s officers on her behalf.
It seemed life in Russia was not as she had expected. After mourning for her father who died in 1747, she went back to the balls and ceremonies which she found boring. Court life no longer charmed her, and the monotony would only be broken by Elizabeth’s petty or cruel whimsies. Peter was hardly a source of comfort and his immaturity only heightened the loneliness she felt. He continued to play with his toys and was increasingly cruel to his servants and his dogs.
She became an accomplished equestrian and read voraciously during her free time. She read anything she could get her hands on—from novels to history to philosophy. But her most important lesson was how to behave and safeguard herself in Elizabeth’s volatile court.
Catherine was still young, lonely, and unloved, and these which made her easy pickings for any womanizer at court. In 1752, she finally gave in and started an affair with the chamberlain Sergei Saltykov. Peter and the adulterous Madame Choglokova pretended not to notice the affair conducted under their noses. Desperate times call for desperate measures so the Empress tolerated—even encouraged—the affair if only to beget an heir for Russia.
She suffered two miscarriages but was able to carry a child full term on her third pregnancy. Paul, son of Catherine, was born on September 20, 1754. Whether Paul was the son of Peter or Saltykov only Catherine knew. For the Empress, however, it would do. Elizabeth took the baby right after birth, and it would be a long time before his own mother would see him.
The supposed father, meanwhile, was drunk by the time his wife had given birth. Catherine, for her part, was compensated for her efforts with money, but Elizabeth took the amount back from her to pay Peter for “doing his part.” Her sadness deepened when the empress sent her lover, Saltykov, as an envoy to Sweden. It was just as well as the womanizer had lost his affection for her.
Despite the rejection and humiliation she suffered, Catherine dusted herself off and busied herself with festivities at court. She read the works of Montesquieu and Voltaire while Peter was busy drinking with his servants and pining for Prussia. He was growing more unpopular among Russians, while Catherine was starting gain more influence and power.
She refused to pine after the fickle Saltykov and plunged into an affair with the winsome Count Stanisław Poniatowski. The 23-year old Polish count was introduced by the English diplomat Charles Hanbury-Williams (with whom she later ran into debt) to the 25-year old Grand Duchess during a ball. She found him pleasing to the eye, but she also found a kindred spirit when it came to intellect. She did not, however, made the same mistake as she did with Saltykov and kept the upper the upper hand with Poniatowski. The equally unfaithful Peter tolerated this affair. Strangely, he often joined them with his own mistress in tow.
This meddling in politics and war, of course, did not endear her to the dying and increasingly paranoid Elizabeth. The Russian troops’ initial victories were replaced with a humiliating defeat in Prussia and it put Catherine in hot water. However, she found herself pregnant for the second time so she was saved from Elizabeth’s wrath. She gave birth to a girl which the empress named after her sister Anna. Just like her brother, the Empress immediately whisked the child to her apartments. Bestuzhev and his allies, meanwhile, were arrested and tried in court for treason. Catherine quickly burned letters and any other documents which might be used against her.
As the war raged on in 1759, Catherine’s relationship with Peter and Elizabeth worsened. Elizabeth’s health had also deteriorated and her paranoia became stifling. Soon she was summoned by the Empress to explain some of her letters to Apraksin that was discovered by her agents. The terrified Catherine had the presence of mind and successfully defended herself. Bestuzhev and his allies, however, were sent to exile in Siberia, while Poniatowski was sent back to Poland.
She received another blow in the same year when both her daughter and her mother died. She grieved for their deaths, but her mind was soon occupied by the possibility of wresting the throne from Peter upon the death of Elizabeth. Peter, meanwhile, was making himself as repulsive as possible during the war. He never forgot his beloved Prussia, and rumors of him leaking information to King Frederick II via the English ambassador made him very unpopular.
Catherine knew that the Empress would die soon, so she started consolidating allies in and out of court. One of the most important allies was Count Nikita Panin, Elizabeth’s former favorite and little Paul’s tutor. The minister Ivan Shuvalov and Princess Catherine Dashkova also became her supporters. None was more important than her lover, the dashing army officer and her of the Battle of Zorndorf, Grigory Orlov. His four brothers were also military officers and they promised to support Catherine’s accession to the throne. Elizabeth died on January 5, 1762, and the crown naturally passed on to her nephew. Disappointed but not surprised, Catherine bided her time.
Immature and churlish, Peter took great pains to show the Russians that he was Prussian to the core as his aunt’s body lay in state. He held balls in his palace and wore regular clothes. Catherine, on the other hand, wore black as was customary. She stayed at the foot of Elizabeth’s catafalque and shed tears as the crowd paid their respects to the former Empress of Russia. Whether she was a good actress or her grief was sincere no one knew, but it was certain that she had won the hearts and minds of the people.
Drunk with wine and power, Peter first acts as emperor of Russia sealed his fate. On September 24, 1762, he ordered the withdrawal of the Russian troops from the territories the Empire gained from his beloved Prussia. He restored these territories to his homeland and betrayed Russia’s ally Austria by switching alliances to Prussia. He then forced the army to wear the Prussian uniform and replaced high-ranking Russian officers with German ones.
A Lutheran to the core, the new Emperor launched a campaign to get rid of images of saints and forced the priests to wear Lutheran garb. He also outraged Russians by ordering his henchmen to confiscate church properties. He then summoned the officials exiled by Elizabeth back to St. Petersburg and Moscow. Russia’s coffers were already dry, but this did not stop him from declaring war against Denmark to regain Schleswig. Prussia’s King Frederick II discouraged this foolish plan, but to no avail.
Peter was unaware that his wife was once again pregnant. He had spent more time with his mistress, the crude Elizaveta Vorontzova, and had planned to marry her as soon as possible. Catherine knew that one complaint would send her packing so she bore this threat quietly. She gave birth to another son which a trusted servant soon bundled up and whisked away to safety for fear of Peter’s discovery.
In Peter’s eyes, Catherine was no longer his wife nor the Empress of Russia. Once he humiliated her in front of 400 dinner guests and then planned to have her imprisoned. One of his uncles dissuaded him from his plan, but the news had already reached Catherine. She now had no choice. She could either go to prison or wrest power away from her husband. She chose the latter.
Catherine II as Sovereign of Russia
Her supporters were also working in secret to have her installed on the throne. Orlov had been appointed paymaster of the army, and he was not above to diverting state funds to bribe soldiers. His brothers were also busy convincing soldiers who were still on the fence to join their cause. She befriended the French ambassador Baron de Breteuil who then facilitated her request for a loan to King Louis XV. The loan, however, was denied and Catherine was forced to borrow money from England. It was approved.
On June 12, 1762, the defiant Peter III traveled west to Oranienbaum to prepare for the war against Denmark. He summoned Catherine, but she dared not join him for fear that he would have her imprisoned or killed. She stayed in Monplaisir in nearby Peterhof where she waited for the right time to strike.
She did not have to wait long. On June 27, 1762, Catherine’s ally Count Passek insulted the Emperor publicly. He was soon arrested and tortured, so Feodor Orlov, Grigory’s brother, decided to carry out a preemptive strike. He hurried to St. Petersburg and ordered Catherine’s supporter Commander Cyril Razumovsky to print the announcement of Peter III’s abdication and Catherine’s succession. Alexis Orlov then galloped to Monplaisir on the morning of June 28, 1762, and took Catherine with him to St. Petersburg to carry out their plans.
They met Grigory along the way and headed to the barracks of the Ismailovsky regiment led by Commander Razumovsky. The soldiers of regiment greeted her with enthusiasm and acclaimed Catherine the Empress and sovereign of Russia. The Semyonovsky regiment also joined them, but they encountered some resistance when they arrived in the barracks of the Preobrazhensky regiment led by Simon Vorontzhov (Elizaveta Vorontzova’s brother). After a standoff, the Preobrazhensky regiment was soon convinced to join their ranks.
Ordinary people soon joined this lively procession. Escorted by soldiers and ordinary Russians, Catherine and her supporters entered the Cathedral of Kazan where the Archbishop of Novgorod blessed her and acclaimed her the sovereign of Russia. She then went back to the Winter Palace where she was greeted by a cheering crowd. There she received the Russian grandees, members of the clergy, government officials, and merchants who bowed in front of her. Her propagandists, meanwhile, were working double time outside by distributing her manifesto to the people.
Catherine’s supporters tried to prevent the news of the coup from reaching Peter, but it was no use. The Emperor and his entourage traveled to Monplaisir to see her, but no one greeted them as they dismounted from their horses and carriages. A secret messenger then arrived and delivered the news that he was no longer sovereign of Russia. He listened to the news of Catherine’s coup with mounting panic and since he did not know how to respond to a setback, he immediately resorted to drinking alcohol. One of his advisers, General Munnich, convinced him to go to the fortress on the island of Kronshtadt to seek refuge and think about their next step. Like a child, Peter allowed himself to be escorted to a ship bound for the island.
Little did he know that Catherine’s supporters had already infiltrated the ranks of the soldiers stationed at Kronshtadt. When they arrived near the island, the admiral immediately warned Peter’s party not to disembark from the ship or they would be met with artillery. General Munnich tried to convince the Emperor to show himself and order the admiral to submit. The Emperor only fled in fright and wept with the ladies who accompanied them. Munnich had no choice but to take his pitiful charge and their companions back to Oranienbaum.
Meanwhile, the Empress had left St. Petersburg to trace her route back to Peterhof. She wore the uniform of the Semyonovsky regiment as she and her loyal troops traveled on horseback to Monplaisir. They stopped by Krasny Kabak (“Wonderful Tavern”) and soon Peter’s chancellor Vorontzhov appeared to insist on the emperor’s rights. He, however, switched to her side after the Empress confidently laughed to mock his proposal. Other negotiators sent by Peter also followed suit.
The entourage led by Catherine traveled to Monplaisir where she dictated the document of abdication that she hoped Peter would soon sign. Her envoys Orlov and Ismailov handed the document to the desolate Peter in Oranienbaum. He signed the act of abdication and was then led to Peterhof by Catherine’s soldiers. There he received the news that he was to be imprisoned at the Ropsha estate and that his mistress would be sent to Moscow. He was then stripped of his sword, uniform, and privileges as Emperor of Russia. Alexis Orlov escorted Peter to Ropsha later that night.
On June 30, 1762, Catherine and her supporters returned to St. Petersburg where she was greeted with cheers and sounds of artillery. Despite her victory, she still worried that Peter would launch a coup d’etat to depose her. Several days later she received news of Peter’s death through a letter from Alexis Orlov. In this letter, Orlov detailed how Peter died after a drunken brawl erupted between him and Prince Feodor Bariatinsky.
The news horrified her. It was true that she feared Peter and wanted him dead, but his death would surely be viewed as an assassination. Orlov and Bariatinsky’s clumsy though well-meaning move would surely be pinned on her. She announced Peter’s death on July 7, 1762, with great calm despite the anxiety that she felt inside.
To her relief, the people quickly shrugged off their former ruler’s death. She knew that she would not reach the throne without the support of her men, so she readily forgave Alexis Orlov and others who were involved in Peter’s suspicious death. The deceased emperor was buried hastily in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg. No one was surprised when she did not attend his funeral.
Budberg, Moura, trans. The Memoirs of Catherine the Great. Edited by Dominique Maroger. New York: Collier Books, 1961.
Madariaga, Isabel De. Catherine the Great: A Short History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
Montefiore, Simon Sebag. The Romanovs: 1613-1918. New York, Vintage Books, 2017.
Troyat, Henri. Catherine The Great. New York: Berkley Books, 1981.
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