First, the biography:
Only in the bizarre chessboard world of 18th century European monarchy could an obscure princess from the German nation-state of Anhalt-Zerbst rise to become Empress of Russia, the vast and powerful nation that dominates the eastern part of the continent, then and now.
Catherine, writes biographer Robert K. Massie, was the equal of her illustrious predecessor Peter the Great – “his only equal – in vision, strength of purpose and achievement during the centuries that Russia was ruled by tsars, emperors and empresses.”
The story of her reign is fascinating but equally so is the unlikely tale of how it came about. Catherine – born Sophia – was plucked from relative obscurity by Empress Elizabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great.
Elizabeth was childless and had taken her nephew, Peter, also a German, as her heir. For his consort, she chose another German related to Peter’s House of Holstein – little Sophia. As a young teenager, the princess was summoned to St. Petersburg.
While Sophia, soon rebaptized in the Russian Orthodox Church as Catherine, was an eager and willing student of Russian language, religion and culture, her young husband-to-be was not. Whether he was mentally ill or just damaged from a neglected and traumatic childhood, young Peter was certainly strange. He idolized the Prussian emperor Frederick the Great, and he spent most of his waking hours conducting pretend military drills in the Prussian manner. For his “soldiers,” he employed servants and, well into adulthood, dolls.
Young Catherine was left to learn the navigation of Russian imperial court life herself, dealing with the vain and unpredictable Elizabeth as well as her immature and unprepared young fiancé. Even after the pair were married – and Catherine had grown into an attractive young woman – the marriage went unconsummated and the heir Elizabeth had essentially ordered up did not appear.
Finally Catherine was encouraged to take a lover and she bore the first of her three children – fathered by three different men, none of them her husband, according to Massie. It was a boy and the delighted Empress Elizabeth immediately seized custody.