Sophie had arrived at the Russian court as a 14-year-old German Princess to marry the 15-year-old Grand Duke Peter – heir and nephew of Empress Elizabeth of Russia – accompanied by her mother, Johanna. They were received like Queens, much to Johanna’s delight who considered the match her personal triumph. Sophie wrote of those first days, “He seemed glad to see my mother and me… In that short space of time, I became aware that he cared little for the nation over which he was destined to rule, that he remained Lutheran, did not like his entourage, and was very childish. I kept silent and listened, which helped gain his confidence.”1
Sophie soon realised that she must learn Russian and become orthodox to win the love of the people and their Empress. Her lessons began a week after her arrival, and she threw herself into it to such an extent that she developed a cold which turned in pneumonia. Johanna opposed Elizabeth’s doctors who wanted to bleed Sophie much to Elizabeth’s annoyance. Elizabeth then had Johanna removed from the room. She was bled 16 times over the following 27 days. As Sophie was in and out of consciousness, her reputation was already growing when stories were spread as to how she became ill. She did not appear in court again until her birthday in early May.
Meanwhile, Sophie’s mother Johanna had not made herself popular at court, and after a terrible scene, Sophie feared both of them were being sent home. It was decided that Johanna would go home as soon as the wedding had taken place. On 9 July 1744, Sophie was admitted into to the Russian Orthodox Church. She became Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseyevna or Catherine in English. Elizabeth had chosen the name for her; it had been the name of her own mother. The following day, her official betrothal to Peter was celebrated. Catherine gained precedence over her mother, and her mother wrote, “My daughter conducts herself very intelligently in her new situation. She blushes each time she is forced to walk in front of me.”2 The wedding itself was postponed as Peter had not hit puberty yet and during this time, Peter was very ill twice and even came down with smallpox.
Catherine had never had smallpox and was kept away from him, and when she saw him again, she was horrified. His face had been rendered barely recognisable by the smallpox scars. Empress Elizabeth decided that the wedding should now go ahead, she could wait no longer. It finally took place on 1 September 1745 with Catherine dressed in a silver brocade wedding dress, which was “horribly heavy.”3 Elizabeth escorted Peter and Catherine to the nuptial bed herself. They were then separated, and Catherine dressed in a pink nightgown before she was put to bed and there she waited….and waited. Eventually, Peter arrived drunk and reeking of tobacco and promptly fell asleep beside her. Their union would remain unconsummated for nine years. Not long after, Johanna was finally sent home, and she left huge debts behind.
Catherine was now alone with a husband who cared little for her, and she lived under the eye of the overbearing Empress Elizabeth. As time passed, Elizabeth became more anxious for an heir to appear. On 16 March 1747, Catherine’s father died after suffering a stroke, and Catherine was devastated. Elizabeth refused to allow her to mourn for more than a week and forced her to appear in public – as a concession she was allowed to wear black silk for six weeks. Elizabeth also tried to force Peter and Catherine in closer confinement, hoping that they would produce an heir. It was no use as Peter would use the nighttime in Catherine’s bed to play with his toys. It is unclear why the marriage remained unconsummated for so long. Catherine herself suggested that a doctor recommended that they wait until Peter was 21. Did he perhaps suffer from phimosis, or was the problem psychological? In any case, Catherine, who knew little about sex, could not have known.
As Peter’s behaviour became increasingly unpredictable, Catherine was stuck with him. She found refuge in books and devoured everything she could find. In the summer of 1752, Catherine met Sergei Saltykov, who was married to one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting. He was soon whispering in her ear, and she initially fended him off. Their affair began sometime in August or September 1752. Around the same time, Peter was introduced to sex by a certain Madame Groot, and supposedly he reluctantly underwent an operation for his phimosis. At the end of 1752, Catherine became pregnant for the first time, but she suffered a miscarriage not much later. In May 1753, she was pregnant again, but she suffered another miscarriage at the end of June. She later wrote, “I must have been pregnant two or three months. For 13 days, my life was in danger, and it was suspected that part of the after-birth had not been expelled. Finally, on the 13th day, it came out without pain or effort.”4
By February 1754, Catherine was pregnant again. This time, everything went according to plan. In August, she returned to the Summer Palace where two rooms were prepared for her in the Empress’ own suite. Here, Sergei would be unable to visit her. As her labour pains began, she was placed on a traditional labour bed – a mattress on the floor. On 1 October 1754, Catherine gave birth to a son and heir after a long and difficult labour. Elizabeth named him Paul. For the following three hours, Catherine was neglected as she lay in the labour bed. Only then was she placed back in her own bed. She would not see her own son for a week. Sergei was assigned to a special diplomatic mission. Catherine herself would always insist in her private writings that Paul was her lover’s son. In any case, Paul did not grow up to look like Sergei – but he did look and act just like Peter. We’ll never know for sure.
For many months, Catherine was depressed, and she refused to leave her room. Once again, she turned to her beloved books. She resolved that she would defend her position from now on. She was, after all, the mother of the heir. She even confronted Peter, who was left thoroughly confused by her behaviour. She was becoming her own woman and embarked on several love affairs. In 1757, she fell pregnant again, probably by Stanisław Poniatowski. Peter sighed out loud, “God knows where my wife gets her pregnancies. I have no idea whether this child is mine and whether I ought to take responsibility for it.”5 On 9 December 1757, Catherine gave birth to a daughter named Anna who would die in infancy. Once more, the baby was snatched away. Catherine never mentioned her death in her memoirs.
Soon, she met Gregory Orlov, though it is unclear when exactly they met for the first time. They became lovers in the summer of 1761. Meanwhile, Empress Elizabeth’s health was steadily deteriorating. Peter became more vocal in his sympathies for Prussia and how he wished to divorce Catherine. He intended to immediately end the war with Prussia as soon as he became Emperor. Unlike him, Catherine’s absolute devotion was to Russia. The idea of a coup was born.