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Catherine the Great's Ascent

Russia's Peter III acts childish and loses the throne to Catherine the Great

To refresh: last time we detailed Catherine the Great's marriage to Peter III of Russia, paying particular attention to his social shortcomings. German by birth, Catherine's ascent to the throne of Russia was no mean feat. Indeed, for a foreigner to acquire sovereignty in Russia would have needed a coup d'etat over a spectacularly bad predecessor. Peter III nicely fit the bill -- incompetent and widely despised. Unfortunately, he was also her husband. Recall from last week Catherine had just given birth to her first son, the future Emperor Paul I of Russia.

Paul was almost certainly the bastard son of Catherine's lover, Sergius Saltykov. The Russian court needed an heir, and had more or less given up on Peter's virility. That Paul was likely illegitimate was no secret, and, accordingly, Peter was rather bent out of shape. However, after losing his virginity in his ninth year of marriage, he took a mistress and calmed down considerably. The niece of a Vice-Chancellor in the Russian court, his lucky favorite Elizabeth Vorontzova was

... lame, squint-eyed and marked by smallpox. She compensated for these physical disadvantages with a fiery temperament. Always ready to drink, sing, sprawl on the bed or shout abuse, she had a vulgarity of manner that charmed the Grand Duke [Peter]. With her he did not feel inferior, he was not ashamed of his own ugliness, ignorance or bad language. While Catherine chilled him with her elegance and intelligence, Elizabeth Vorontzova excited him with her stupidity and crudeness.[1]

Young Peter Discovers The Birds and the Bees

This newfound, if warty, romance made Peter more tolerant of Catherine's own marital indiscretions, but still a little worried about bastard children eventually following in his footsteps to the Russian throne. At one point, he exclaimed, "God knows where my wife gets her pregnancies! I don't really know if this child is mine and if I have to take responsibility for it." Peter, concerned with protecting his bloodline, was no doubt planning to use the toddler as an excuse to divorce Catherine. Slyly, she had prepared for this contingency by actually, if rarely, sleeping with her husband, so he could not prove the child wasn't his.

While this marital plot unfolded, the Russian Empress Elizabeth's health waned. Trying to cure her ills with an ever-lengthening train of liquor and lovers, she met with limited success. Age and infirmity bore ever-increasing paranoia; servants scurried about hefting her not-inconsiderable weight from room to room to avoid imagined assassins. She died in early 1762, and her grotesquely fat body was on display for six weeks. Unable to secure the crown herself, Catherine did the next best thing -- endear herself to the public by weeping openly at the Empress' grave for the entire period of display and then some. While she feigned her grief in hopes of appealing to the Russian people, Peter went giddily about throwing parties immediately after his aunt's death [cf. Peter the Great's jubilant displays of excess following his own son's arranged murder, and in general]:

In defiance of the country's sorrow [Peter] refused to stand vigil over the body, and on those rare occasions when he approached the coffin it was with the deliberate intention of shocking those present: he would talk in a loud voice, jest, make faces, mock the priests.... On the day of the funeral Peter added one last straw to his insolence by clowning his way through the funeral procession.... Several times during the funeral service he broke out laughing, stuck his tongue out and talked in a loud voice, interrupting the priests.[2]

Gun to Lunch

Peter immediately snuggled up to Frederick II of Prussia, who had been an adversary of Empress Elizabeth and an enemy on the battlefield for the past seven years [known as the Seven Year's War, 1756-1762. Longtime readers will recall Voltaire's tendency to brownnose Frederick II]. Peter went so far as to have a ring made with a picture of Frederick set in it which Troyat claims, "he would kiss fervently at every opportunity." To his delight, Peter's newfound status as Emperor also allowed him to play with real soldiers rather than little ones made of starch and wax, and drilling them constantly amused him to no end. He changed the army's uniform to look like Prussia's, insulting the soldiers greatly -- the Russian army had been fighting the Prussians for almost a decade, and were fairly indignant about suddenly having to look like them: "The hearts of the greater number of them were filled with grief, and with hatred and contempt for their future Emperor."[3] To make his own life more exciting, Peter ordered the firing of big guns in St. Petersburg from morning till night. The city rocked with the loud bangs of constant mock warfare; the clamorous din prevented everyone from sleeping. Needless to say, this action failed to endear him to St. Petersburg's residents. A French ambassador noted the capital "was like a city under siege. One day [Peter] wanted to hear a single shot fired by one hundred big guns at the same time and gave the order for it; he could be dissuaded from carrying out his whim only when it was pointed out to him that it would make the city fall to pieces."[4]

Defender of the Faith

Not content with sticking his nose in the affairs of the military, Peter [Lutheran by upbringing] also decided that the Russian Orthodox Church needed some revision. Frederick II hurriedly told him that he had not been crowned Emperor in Moscow yet; he was not the official head of the Russian Church. Peter shrugged and ordered all sacred images except for Christ and the Virgin Mary removed, built a Lutheran chapel in the palace, ordered all Russian priests to shave their beards, and decreed that all of the Church's wealth was owned by the state. One lesson Peter should have learned from Europe is that one does not muck about with the Church's hoard. Troyat tells us, "the bishops expressed indignation, the popes vituperated: the new Emperor was a heretic, a Lutheran, the Antichrist in person! Riots broke out in the countryside." Peter tried to make all his dignitaries divorce their wives and remarry the ones he chose; after declaring his "will for general peace" he turned around and announced plans to invade Denmark. He was a loose cannon. He named the pimply Elizabeth Vorontzova "Grand Mistress of the Court", which darkly implied Catherine might be left out of the picture [recall Catherine was still his wife during this drawn-out brouhaha]. Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth Vorontzova's charms had not changed. A French dignitary said, "She has a dull mind. As for her face, it is the worst possible. In all respects she resembles an inn servant of the lower sort."[5] A German dignitary noted "She swore like a trooper, had a squint, stank, and spat when she talked."

In the summer of 1762, Peter left St. Petersburg with Elizabeth Vorontzova and a congregation of his favorite ladies for his summer home, after which he planned to invade Denmark. He had gaily left St. Petersburg in shambles, with a sternly discontented public smoldering away:

All this sort of thing does not prevent the emperor from living with absolute freedom from anxiety. He spends his time in drilling his soldiers, giving balls, and arranging operatic entertainments. He has taken all the prettiest women in St. Petersburg with him. I observe their husbands pacing the gardens of the capital with melancholy countenances.[6]

In the Navy

Unfortunately for Peter's invasion plans, the Russian Navy had been reduced due to an epidemic. He issued an order for all of the sick sailors to recover as soon as possible, and retreated to his summer home with his coterie. Catherine, noting the increasing disgust with which the residents of St. Petersburg had been regarding Peter, proclaimed herself Empress in his absence. When Peter got the news, he had no idea how to treat it. His arrogance had left him:

Hanging onto [the messenger's] neck [Peter] made no move, merely panting and sobbing while the Chancellor tried to rally him: "Courage, Majesty! Courage! One word from you, one imperious glance, and the people will fall on their knees before the Czar!" ...but Peter refused such a confrontation. He sought other solutions, ran in all directions, fainted, revived, drank large glasses of burgundy... he was drunk, staggering, weeping; at ten o'clock in the evening he was helped aboard a schooner. The whole chattering flock of ladies, led by Elizabeth Vorontzova, followed him up the gangplank.[7]

Peter sailed to the city of Kronstadt, hoping to amass troops who had not yet sworn allegiance to Catherine, but he was a little late. "There is no more Emperor," they called out to the ship, "Stand out to sea!" Peter's advisor General Munnich landed the ship anyway, hoping that Peter's bold imperial presence on their land would drive them into submission. But

Peter rushed to the bottom of the hold. The sweat stood out on his brow and his teeth chattered with terror. Until then he had only had to deal with wooden soldiers... he wept with great sobs. Around him, the women uttered piercing cries.[8]

Oh, the Indignity

Peter arrived in St. Petersburg, and Catherine's advisors handed him a document renouncing his claim to the throne, which he humbly signed. Stripped of his military garb and his sword, and exiled to a summerhouse in Ropsha, bereft of his beloved, swarthy mistress Elizabeth Vorontzova and the pleasures of his starch armies, he lived the remainder of his life lonely and weeping. Within weeks he was writing Catherine letters begging for Vorontzova's company, and other things:

Also I beg you to not order the officers to remain in the same room [with me]; since I must relieve myself, that is impossible....[9]

Catherine's supporters at Ropsha had him assassinated, probably poisoned. This was a stroke of luck for Catherine, since now there was no clean line of succession to unseat her should it find support; but it the swiftness with which he found death certainly made her look bad. The official report was that Peter died of a "hemorrhoidal colic", and, the firing guns silenced, the citizens of St. Petersburg lapsed into restful sleep.


  1. Troyat, 88
  2. Troyat, 117-118
  3. Report issued by French Ambassador M. Breteuil, as in Gribble, 85. Peter, while exercising power, had not officially been crowned in Moscow, hence 'future'. Nor would he ever.
  4. Troyat, 119
  5. Troyat, 121
  6. French Charge d'Affaires, as in Gribble, 95
  7. Troyat, 131
  8. Troyat, 131-132
  9. Troyat, p. 136


  1. Francis Gribble. The Comedy of Catherine the Great. E.P. Dutton & Company, 1942. [Out of Print]
  2. Henri Troyat. Catherine the Great. Meridian, 1980.

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