In the early hours of 2 May 1729, 16-year-old Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein Gottorp, wife of the 39-year-old Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, gave birth to her first child in a merchant’s house in Szczecin (in present-day Poland). The house served as temporary quarters for her husband, who was stationed there as a general in the service of King Frederick William I of Prussia. It had been a long, painful, and life-threatening delivery, and the parents were disappointed with the birth of a girl. Her name was Sophie Augusta Fredericka. She would be known in history as Catherine the Great.
Sophie’s childhood was mostly spent at her birthplace because her father did not become the ruling Prince of Zerbst until 1743. Her relationship with her mother was somewhat distant – as was usual for the time. Johanna handed her child over to the servants and wetnurses. Johanna would give birth to four more children after Sophie but only one other child – a son named Frederick August – lived to adulthood. Sophie later wrote, “It was told me that I was not very joyfully welcomed… My father thought I was an angel; my mother did not pay much attention to me. A year and a half later, she (her mother) gave birth to a son whom she idolised. I was merely tolerated, and often I was scolded with a violence and anger I did not deserve. I felt this without being perfectly clear why in my mind.”1
Sophie’s governess Elizabeth Cardel was entrusted with overseeing her education. With her, Sophie finally found some warmth. She later wrote, “She had a noble soul, a cultured mind, a heart of gold; she was patient, gentle, cheerful, just, consistent – in short the kind of governess one would wish every child to have.”2 Johanna decided that Sophie was becoming too arrogant and proud and began to tell her daughter that she was ugly and that she was not allowed to speak unless someone spoke to her. Sophie bowed to her mother’s will. From around the age of eight, Johanna took Sophie with her on her travels if only to introduce her to society. Sophie soon realised that marriage would be the only way away from her mother, and these travels introduced her to foreign courts. She did not want to end up like her aunt who lived with her 16 pug dogs and several parrots which did their business in the same room as where she lived. Sophie later wrote, “One can imagine the fragrance which reigned there.”3
In 1739, Johanna’s brother Adolf Frederick became the guardian of the orphaned Charles Peter Ulrich of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp, son of Charles Frederick, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp and Anna Petrovna of Russia. He was the only living grandson of Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia and he was just one year older than Sophie. Johanna gathered up her daughter and took her for a visit with her uncle. Sophie met her future husband for the first time around this time. Sophie was now growing into a beautiful young woman and was noticed by a Swedish diplomat who told her mother, “Madame, you do not know the child. I assure you she has more mind and character than you give her credit for.”4
At the age of 14, Sophie had a short flirtation with her young uncle, Georg Ludwig. He suddenly proposed to her, leaving her dumbfounded. She hesitantly accepted his proposal, but only if her parents wished it. A letter from Russia would throw all her uncle’s plans in the wind.
Empress Elizabeth of Russia, a younger daughter of Peter the Great, had seized the throne in a coup and Johanna immediately wrote her to congratulate her. She asked her “dear niece” to return a painting of her beloved sister Anne which Johanna had in her possession. Johanna had no problem with this favour and also dragged Sophie to Berlin to have her painted by Antoine Pesne. This painting would be sent to Elizabeth as a gift as well. Elizabeth had been engaged to Johanna’s elder brother Charles August who had died of smallpox a few weeks before the wedding. Elizabeth was devastated and began to consider the Holstein’s as part of her family. When Johanna gave birth to her fifth and final child in 1742, she was promptly named Elizabeth in honour of the Empress. Tragically, the girl died in infancy. That same year, Elizabeth adopted the aforementioned Peter – the son of her elder sister Anne – as her heir. As a condition of becoming heir to the Russian, he had to renounce his claim to the Swedish throne and Elizabeth choose a new successor to the Swedish throne – Johanna’s brother Adolf Frederick. The family’s fortunes were looking up.
The following year also saw the family move to Zerbst, where Sophie’s father was now the reigning Prince. Shortly after the New Year’s Day service of 1744, another letter arrived from Russia – summoning Johanna and Sophie to Russia. A second letter stated, “I will no longer conceal the fact that in addition to the respect I have always cherished for you and for the princess your daughter, I have always had the wish to bestow some unusual good fortune upon the latter; and the thought came to me that it might be possible to arrange a match for her with her cousin, the Grand Duke Peter of Russia.”5 Notably, Sophie’s father was excluded from the invitation as Elizabeth probably realised he would resent his daughter having to change religion. Nevertheless, he felt like he had no choice and reluctantly gave his approval. Elizabeth sent money for the journey which Johanna used to improve her wardrobe – nothing was left for Sophie.
On 10 January 1744, Sophie and her parents entered a carriage which headed to Berlin where they were to meet King Frederick of Prussia. Sophie would never return to Zerbst. Once at the Berlin Court, Johanna claimed Sophie could not be presented to the King because she had no court dresses. Frederick immediately sent over a gown belonging to one of his sisters. Sophie was presented to him in a gown that did not fit, without any jewellery and not having had her hair powdered.
Nevertheless, it was she who sat at the King’s table and not her parents. She managed to please him with her intelligent answers to his questions. Frederick wrote to Elizabeth in praise of Sophie.
On 16 January, Sophie and her parents left Berlin, and she said goodbye to her father at Schwest. Both wept as they said their goodbyes and they never saw each other again. The journey to St Petersburg was difficult, and they only reached the Winter Palace on 14 February. They were given an Imperial welcome, but Empress Elizabeth was not there – she had already travelled to Moscow. While Johanna enjoyed being treated like a Queen, Sophie was more interested in the 14 elephants that performed tricks in the courtyard – they had been a gift to the Empress from the Shah of Persia. Johanna and Sophie were being fitted with Russian wardrobes before proceeding to Moscow. They left on 16 February to make it to Moscow in time for Grand Duke Peter’s 16th birthday on 21 February. This time, the roads were snowed over, making the journey much smoother.
In the evening of 20 February 1744, 14-year-old Sophie met Empress Elizabeth and her future husband Grand Duke Peter for the first time. Sophie later wrote, “It was quite impossible on seeing her for the first time not to be astonished by her beauty and the majesty of her bearing.”6 Soon, Sophie and Peter would be married, and the little known German Princess was no more.