As Empress Elizabeth’s health deteriorated, Catherine found herself pregnant with Gregory Orlov’s child, and she began to seclude herself. Peter was already talking of repudiating her and Catherine did not want to fuel the fire by appearing in public while pregnant. On 3 January 1762, Empress Elizabeth suffered a massive stroke, and both Peter and Catherine were summoned. There was no hope of recovery. She died on 5 January 1762 and Peter became Emperor Peter III of Russia with Catherine as his Empress.
Elizabeth’s body lay in state at the Kazan Cathedral where Catherine – wearing black – knelt beside the coffin. Catherine knew all too well that this state of apparent humility and devotion would appeal to the people. The French ambassador reported that “more and more, she captures the hearts of Russians.”1 Meanwhile, Peter’s behaviour stood in stark contrast with Catherine’s. He mocked the proceedings in public and spent most of his time drunk in his apartments. He also managed to insult the Russian Orthodox Church almost immediately. The peace treaty with Prussia was signed in early May.
Meanwhile, Catherine waited out her pregnancy. Alexis Gregorovich, later Count Bobrinsky, was born on 22 April 1762. She recovered quickly, and the child was whisked away and placed in the care of the wife of Vasily Shkurin, Catherine’s valet. Now free from the constraints of pregnancy, she could finally act. On 23 June, Peter left for Oranienbaum to drill soldiers before sending them off to war. He instructed Catherine to go to Peterhof to avoid the restlessness of the city, and she went there on 28 June. As a precaution, she left Paul behind and made sure that money and wine were being passed among the soldiers in the barracks. Gregory Orlov won the support of many officers in the Guards and thousands of others.
On 9 July 1762, the time had come. Catherine was taken to the barracks of the Izmailovsky Guards who gathered around her and kissed her hands, feet and the hem of her dress. Catherine proclaimed that her life and that of her son had been threatened by the Emperor and that she was compelled to throw herself on their protection for the sake of her beloved country and their holy Orthodox religion. The regimental chaplain administered an oath of allegiance to “Catherine II of Russia.” She was then escorted to the barracks of the Semyonovsky Guards, who also swore their allegiance. Catherine decided to enter St Petersburg immediately preceded by chaplains, priests and followed by the cheering Guards. She rode to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan and stood before the iconostasis (icon screen) while the archbishop of Novgorod proclaimed her Gosudarina (sovereign autocrat). Bells began to ring around the city as Catherine walked from the Cathedral to the Winter Palace. An obstacle arose when the Preobrazhensky Guards wavered, but they decided in her favour and joined her, shouting “Matushka, forgive us for coming last.”2 On the palace balcony, Catherine presented the 8-year-old Paul to the crowd as heir to the throne. Peter remained unaware of all of this.
Catherine proclaimed herself colonel of the Preobrazhensky Guards and dressed in their uniform; she marched to Oranienbaum. As Peter learned of this, he wrote her a letter apologising for his behaviour and offered to share the throne with her. Catherine decided that she would not reply to Peter’s letter. He wrote again, offering to abdicate if he could take his mistress with him to Holstein. Catherine accepted this offer if the abdication came in writing. He did so, and the King of Prussia later commented, “He allowed himself to be dethroned like a child being sent to bed.”3 But she wasn’t about to let Peter slip away to Holstein, and both he and his mistress were captured at Oranienbaum and taken back to Peterhof. Here they were separated, and they never saw each other again. Peter was led upstairs to a room where he surrendered his sword and the blue ribbon of the Order of St. Andrew. He was also stripped of his uniform. He was informed that he was now a state prisoner and would be taken to “decent and convenient rooms” at the Schlüsselburg Fortress. Catherine did not want to see him. On 11 July, Catherine rode back into St. Petersburg in triumph. As his rooms were being prepared at Schlüsselburg Fortress, Peter was sent to Ropsha, and he would not make it to Schlüsselburg. He died there on 17 July 1762 in unclear circumstances.
Catherine had to be seen as blameless, and she treated it as a medical situation. She ordered a postmortem examination, and the doctors declared that they found no evidence of poisoning – thus it must be natural causes. She issued a proclamation that declared his death to be of “hemorrhoidal colic.” His body also lay in state to stay ahead of rumours that he was still hidden away somewhere. Catherine later wrote, “So at last God has brought everything to pass according to His designs. The whole thing is rather a miracle than a pre-arranged plan, for so many lucky circumstances could not have coincided unless God’s hand had been over it all. Hatred of foreigners was the chief factor in the whole affair, and Peter III passed for a foreigner.”4
On 3 October 1762, Catherine was crowned on the diamond throne of Tsar Alexis with the Imperial Crown of Russia.