The origins of the future Catherine I of Russia are rather obscure. She was probably born as Marta Helena Skowrońska on 15 April 1684. Her parents died of the plague when she was still quite young, and she was raised by a pastor, in whose household she was probably a servant. She received little education and could not read or write. She was considered beautiful, and at the age of 17, she was married to a Swedish dragoon. When the city they lived in was captured by Russian forces, the pastor offered to work as a translator, and they were taken to Moscow. She later became part of the household of Prince Alexander Menshikov, who also happened to be the best friend of Peter the Great. Marta finally met Peter in 1703 when he was visiting Prince Alexander.
By 1704 she had become his mistress, and they had a son, also named Peter. They would have a total of twelve children, but only two daughters would survive to adulthood.
Ellen Alpsten brings Catherine to life in her debut novel, Tsarina, with graphic tales of poverty, abuse, war and eventually her life with Peter the Great. It’s brutal but enthralling, and you won’t want to put the book down.
I am normally not that into historical fiction, but perhaps it helps that we know so little about her origins, and thus a lot can be left to the imagination. I would highly recommend this book!