Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Catherine of Russia: Rags to Riches

Catherine I, empress of Russia (born 15 April 1684)


She's not the Catherine who is known as "the Great," but Catherine I of Russia is pretty damn great as well. Born to a peasant father, Marta Skowrońska was taken into the home of an educated Lutheran pastor and scholar after she was orphaned--the pastor might also have adopted her--though he offered her no education and she remained illiterate throughout her storied life.

At age seventeen, she was married off to a Swedish dragoon, left behind eight days later when Russian troops overran the town of Marienburg, and taken to Russia, where she worked as either a laundress or as someone's mistress; eventually, having passed through the hands of a number of Russian military men, she wound up in the household of Prince Alexander Menshikov--who might have been her lover and who might have bought her. 

Catherine of Russia,
a portrait from 1717
Those might-haves aside, through Prince Menshikov the young woman met Peter the Great. Born to a Roman Catholic family and raised by a Lutheran pastor, Marta Helena Skowrońska converted to the Greek Orthodox faith, took the name Catherine Alexeyevna, and married the Russian tsar secretly in 1707. (They were married formally in 1712.)

Catherine proved to be a loving and soothing partner for the volatile Peter, a "successful" wife, providing her husband with twelve children (though all but two died in infancy or childhood). She was also a "successful" tsarina--she didn't meddle in governmental affairs. When Peter elevated himself from tsar to emperor in 1724, Catherine became empress consort of Russia. 

After Peter's death in 1725, various political factions decided that it was in their best interest to have Catherine remain on the imperial throne. She was duly named empress in her own right, becoming the first woman to rule Russia. She died after sixteen months as empress, in 1727, just forty-three years old.

While Catherine's powers may have been limited, she set a precedent for female rule in Russia. In 1730, Anna, Peter the Great's niece, reigned as empress of Russia until her death in 1740. She was succeeded by Ivan IV, but the infant was overthrown less than a year later by Catherine's daughter Elizabeth, who became empress of Russia, ruling until until  her death in 1762. Empress Elizabeth was succeeded by Peter III--and after six months, he was replaced by his wife, Catherine II, Catherine the Great, who ruled from 1762 until her death in 1796--we'll meet her again, later this year.

Given her improbably successful life, it's surprising that there is no full-length biography of Catherine I of Russia, though there are, of course, biographies of her husband. There is an intriguing group portrait of three Russian empresses, however, Philip Longworth's 1973 The Three Empresses: Catherine I, Anne, and Elizabeth of Russia; the book is out of print, but used copies are readily available.