Despite her humble beginnings and her unpopularity, Tsar Peter the Great’s consort Catherine I was able to consolidate power and rule Russia after her husband’s death in 1725. The illiterate Empress, however, was only a puppet for Peter’s trusted friend Menshikov who soon took over the administration of the empire. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History during this time.
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Martha Skavronskaya, the future Catherine I of Russia, was born around 1683 in the Swedish province of Livonia. Her father, Samuel Skavronski, was a peasant and died when Martha was just two years old. Her mother died soon after, so Martha was separated from her siblings and soon adopted by an aunt. At the age of twelve, the girl was sent to Marienberg to work as a servant of the Lutheran Pastor Gluck and his family.
Just like the majority of 18th-century peasant women, young Martha never learned to read or write. She was, however, attractive, cheerful, and smart, so it was not long before she caught the eye of a trumpeter in the dragoons named Johann Raabe. Pastor Gluck’s delighted wife immediately arranged their engagement, and their wedding was held in 1702.
Russian troops marched into town soon after the couple’s wedding, so Johann was forced to retreat with the Swedish troops. Martha stayed behind and accompanied Pastor Gluck (and other townspeople) to the Russian camp to plead for their safety. A German mercenary-officer in service of the Russians promised Pastor Gluck safety. Martha and the other townspeople, on the other hand, were another matter. She and other townspeople were forced to remain in the camp as prisoners of war.
Martha soon caught the eye of the German officer and the two became lovers. She was also able to attract one of the most powerful men in the campaign, the Commander-in-Chief Boris Sheremetev himself. Apart from working as Sheremetev’s personal servant, Martha also served as his mistress. This arrangement, however, did not last long after she was given (or even sold) to the dashing St.Petersburg governor and general Alexander Menshikov.
Like Martha, Menshikov came from a humble background (his father was rumored to be a Moscow pie-seller or a common soldier), and in her he found a kindred spirit. Martha worked as a servant in his household, but it was possible that she was also his lover. She first met Peter during his many visits to Menshikov’s home in 1703. Menshikov was quick to grab an opportunity when he saw one, so he immediately exploited the Tsar’s attraction to his beautiful servant. He arranged their meetings, and it was not long before Peter summoned Martha to Moscow to be his mistress.
The Tsar had married the noblewoman Eudoxia Lopukhina in his youth, but the relationship had been troubled for many years. He had a relationship with a number of women outside his marriage, but he finally had enough and forced his wife to enter a convent to dissolve their marriage. His relationship with his long time mistress Anna Mons also came to an end, so Martha arrived at a crucial moment in his life.
Catherine had a calming effect on the Tsar who suffered from seizures and rages. To him, she was a lover, surrogate mother, and de facto wife rolled into one. It was not long before she found herself pregnant with their second son, whom they eventually named Peter.
The year 1706 was a mix of tragedy and bliss for the couple. They welcomed their first daughter (which they named after her mother) in 1706 but lost the two elder boys in the same year. The Great Northern War still raged on, but they were able to spend some time with each other. She gave birth to Anne in 1708 but soon suffered another blow when her eldest daughter died.
Catherine rarely saw Peter while the Great Northern War reached its height. She also tried to mediate between the temperamental Tsar and his son by his first wife, the Tsarevich Alexei, who resented his father as much as his father despised him. In 1709, she accompanied the Tsar to the southern front and stayed far from the camp when Peter won the Battle of Poltava against the Swedes. Their fifth child, Elizabeth, was born not long after her father’s victory against Charles XII.
The worst moments of the war were finally over, so Catherine was able to see the Tsar more frequently. Although their relationship was still far from legal, she began to appear in public functions with him. She also successfully compelled him to recognize their daughter Anne as a princess. In 1711, Peter himself announced that she was to become a Tsarina and that they would be officially married (they married in secret in 1707). This scandalized the people, but Peter’s terrifying temperament and well-documented cruelty ensured that no one would oppose his plans.
Catherine accompanied Peter on an official state visit to Poland and proved herself indispensable when she traveled with him to the Turkish front. Peter’s war against the Ottomans did not go well, and she was forced to serve as a nurse for wounded Russian soldiers. She was also credited as the one who saved the army when she allegedly gathered her jewels (as well as those of the officers’ wives) and used them to bribe the Ottoman vizier into letting them retreat without further harassment. The bribe was irresistible, and the Russian army was allowed to limp home in defeat.
Peter finally made good on his promise and officially married Catherine on February 9, 1712. They attended a simple ceremony but arrived at an elaborate reception afterward. She was now Tsarina, and Peter soon went back to governing his empire. The Tsar was often away from his family as the Great Northern War continued, while his wife stayed at home with their children. The stress of war, however, began to take its toll on the Tsar’s health. They welcomed the birth of two additional daughters, but both girls died in infancy.
Peter’s relationship with Menshikov and Sheremetev became strained when he discovered their corrupt practices. Thanks to Catherine’s mediation, Menshikov was compelled to give up the money he embezzled so he was spared. Catherine gave birth to a son in 1715, but their joy was turned to worry when the Tsar fell ill later in the same year. He recovered, but the Tsarina knew that she would have to fight for the welfare of her children just in case Peter died and her stepson Alexei succeeded as tsar.
Catherine joined her husband in several state visits to Poland, Prussia, and Denmark. She gave birth to another son in 1717, but the boy died soon after. The couple recovered from their grief and resumed their tour of Holland in the same year. Peter later went to France to negotiate the betrothal of Tsarevna Elizabeth and the Dauphin, but left his wife behind at the request of the scandalized French court. To Peter’s dismay, the betrothal negotiations were unsuccessful because of the Tsarina’s questionable background. The English royal family also refused to invite them to court because of the same reason.
The couple was back in St. Petersburg by fall of 1717. While they were away, Tsarevich Alexei had fled to Austria to his brother-in-law, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. The Tsar was able to track him down, and agents brought his wayward heir back to Russia in 1718. To her relief, Tsarevich Alexei renounced his claim to the throne in exchange for clemency from his father. The prince, however, was sentenced to death for wanting his father dead and was sent to prison to await execution. He mysteriously died on June 26, 1718.
A funeral was held for the Tsarevich, but the royal couple did not mourn him at all and soon went back to their routine. The people still considered Catherine an outsider, but she stubbornly stayed by Peter’s side in spite of their rejection. Peter made moves to modernize the empire, but conservative Russians only pushed back harder.
By 1719, the couple suffered another tragedy: the death of their young son and heir Peter. The death of their son devastated the couple, but they went back to their routine once their period of mourning was over. Tsar Peter was often ill, and it seemed that he had mellowed with age. The couple spent much time thinking about possible heirs for the throne, of which the first candidate was the dead Tsarevich Alexei’s son Peter. They did not like this possibility, so they looked for suitable husbands (and potential heirs) for their two daughters. They found a suitable groom in Charles Frederick, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp and nephew of the dead Swedish king Charles XII. Lineage made up for what Charles lacked in wealth and looks, so the Tsar soon arranged the betrothal of his daughter to the duke.
In 1722, Catherine accompanied her husband on the march south to face Safavid Persia. After taking Derbent in Dagestan, the Russian army marched back to Astrakhan. Peter fell ill soon after, but his poor health did not prevent him from thrashing Menshikov who fell back to embezzlement again. Catherine, for her part, had no choice but to be involved in politics when her husband’s health started to decline. Peter further shocked his people in 1723 when he declared Catherine the Empress and co-ruler of the Russian Empire. She was crowned with great pomp in Moscow’s Uspensky Cathedral in 1724 and it was followed by lavish celebrations. The empress fell ill soon after and had to leave Moscow for her beloved St. Petersburg. Peter’s health was no better, and he had to undergo a bladder surgery to relieve the pain which plagued him for some time.
Peter and Catherine’s relationship deteriorated sometime after the coronation. She had been close to her private secretary William Mons, so rumors soon spread that she and Mons were lovers. The accusation of infidelity was strengthened by the appearance of Mons’s supposed love letter to Catherine (or one of her daughters). This damning letter later wound up in the hands of her husband.
The Tsar had Mons arrested along with his sister Matryona, her children, and the Tsar’s own jester. Mons was condemned to hang, while his sister and her children were sent to exile. Catherine tried to intervene to save her secretary, but Peter was so wrapped up in his jealousy and left Mons to die. Their relationship became strained, and it was not until Anne’s betrothal on November 23 of the same year that they reconciled.
The Tsar fell ill once again during the winter of 1724, and his condition only worsened after the new year. He had been unable to urinate without pain, so his surgeons decided to operate once again. He seemed to get better after the operation, but the wound became infected and gangrene soon set in. He knew that he was dying, so he hastily summoned Princess Anne so he could dictate his will.
He was unable to continue and soon fell into a coma. The distraught empress knew how vulnerable she and her daughters were, so she asked Menshikov to protect them in the event of Peter’s death. Menshikov knew that his own safety and privileges would be in danger if Alexei’s son Tsarevich Peter succeeded, so he agreed to support her.
Peter, ruler of the Russian Empire, died at the age of 52 during the early hours of January 25, 1725. Established grandees and Peter’s favorite upstarts gathered in the palace to talk about who would succeed the dead Tsar. Conservative grandees wanted Tsarevich Peter to succeed his grandfather, but others favored Princess Anne. The strongest party, however, was that of Menshikov and the dead Tsar’s favorites. While Peter lay dying, Menshikov had already bribed the guardsmen with increased pay if they would support Catherine’s accession to the throne.
The crowd which gathered in the Winter Palace was caught by surprise when ranks of guardsmen suddenly arrived outside just as dawn was breaking. Menshikov was busy throwing his weight around in the palace, but the presence of the guardsmen was enough to silence the Tsarevich Peter’s supporters. When the grieving Catherine arrived, the grand admiral suddenly hailed her as Russia’s new empress. Sensing that they had no choice, the rest of the crowd followed suit.
Despite her overwhelming grief, Empress Catherine met with her ministers and signed documents while supervising her husband’s funeral. Fate dealt her another blow when little Natalia, the couple’s youngest daughter, died three days before Peter’s funeral. Father and daughter were buried together on March 8, 1725, at the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral.
Catherine was ill-equipped to handle the responsibilities her husband left behind. She never learned to read or write, and the problems of the vast empire were just too many for her to grasp. She knew that her hold on the throne was fragile, so she turned on her long-time ally, Menshikov, to guide and protect her. Menshikov kept his part of the bargain. He did his best in rooting out enemies and stamping out possible dissenters, while every day Catherine ensured that she had the army’s loyalty.
She wisely kept Tsarevich Alexei by her side to make sure that the people would see her as a benevolent mother. Her grief slightly ebbed, and she was able to become more than a figurehead for Menshikov for a little while. She received reports that the peasants were overburdened by the poll-tax, so she immediately slashed the amount collected by her government. She also discontinued some of Peter’s naval projects and allowed the army fewer recruits so the government could save money.
Menshikov continued to play a great part in administering the empire, while the empress gradually took a back seat. She was eventually convinced to create a council made up of her trusted men who would then make most of the decisions for her. The council included Grand Admiral Fyodor Apraksin, Chancellor Gavriil Golovkin, Chancellor Peter Tolstoi, the German diplomat Andrey Osterman, and Menshikov himself. These men ruled the empire, while the illiterate Catherine was left to sign decrees and other documents.
Her spending sprees and incompetence made her unpopular among the people. She began to drink and party heavily to cope with her loss, and would often stagger to bed at 3 in the morning. Menshikov was content to leave her to her revelry and absent-mindedly wandering around the palace and gardens while he continued to extend his influence and enrich himself at the expense of the government coffers.
Catherine fell ill in late 1726 and her condition worsened as the new year arrived. Menshikov knew that Catherine would not last long, so he started supporting Tsarevich Peter as her successor. The Empress herself wanted Peter to rule. Princess Anne was already disqualified because she was born out of wedlock, while the empress did not want to burden her youngest daughter Elizabeth with the ruling an empire.
By April and in spite of the efforts of her doctors, Catherine knew that she did not have enough time. Menshikov created a will which made Tsarevich Peter the successor and had her sign it on her deathbed. She signed it without protest but made sure that her daughters would succeed in case Peter died without an heir. On May 6, 1727, Catherine I, Empress of Russia, died after only three years of unremarkable reign.
Lieven, Dominic, ed. The Cambridge History of Russia: Imperial Russia, 1689-1917. Vol. II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Longworth, Philip. The Three Empresses: Catherine I, Anne and Elizabeth of Russia. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973.
Montefiore, Simon Sebag. The Romanovs: 1613-1918. New York, Vintage Books, 2017.
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