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To put it mildly Sophie Friederike Auguste, née Von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, later know as Tsarina Catherine the Great, and her husband Grand Duke Karl Friedrich von Holstein-Gottorp, the future Tsar Peter III, did not get along.

Portrait of Grand Duke Peter Fedorovich, by Aleksei Petrovitch Antonov, 1753. Source: Russian State Museum

Though she was the daughter of Fürst Christian August von Anhalt-Zerbst, a man of ‘quite exceptional imbecillity’ as a French diplomat put it [1], Catherine was precocious, well-read and ambitious. Karl Friedrich on the other hand got the worst press in history, as attested by the article in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica: ‘Nature had made him mean, smallpox had made him hideous, and his degraded habits made him loathsome… He detested the Russians and surrounded himself with Holsteiners.’

This reputation was mainly due to Catherine’s autobiography published in 1845 [2] in which she describes her experiences since entering the Russian court in 1744 at age fourteen as the intended bride of Empress Elizabeth I’s nephew. The young Grand Duke seems to have been an ill-mannered lout indeed, given to drinking and playing practical jokes at the expense of his underlings. Catherine thought he was childish, without judgment, ‘not enamoured of the nation over which he was destined to reign’ and ‘obsessed by all things German’. On top of that he was ugly as hell, but Catherine professed her willingness to ‘do her duty’ and love him.

Catherine II the Great of Russia, by Georg Christoph Grooth, circa 1745. Source: Hermitage Museum, Petersburg

The ruling Tsarina Elizabeth, who didn’t think Peter would last long as tsar and who was desperate for an heir, hurried the marriage despite warnings from the royal physicians that the boy wasn’t quite ready for it. ‘Take away his drink,’ she’d been heard to say, ‘and he’ll turn out to be a real rooster.’

Alas, the Grand Duke spent much of their marriage dressing up as a military commander and drilling helpless lackeys and unwilling courtiers as soldiers in the ducal halls and corridors. During the night he played with his ‘puppets’ as Catherine called them, which his tutors had expressly forbidden during daytime.

Unfortunately their nanny, Madame Krouse, rather indulged him, Catherine wrote in her autobiography.

Back at the palace, Mme Krouse, who never stopped being an Argus, had softened to the point where she [..] bought the Grand Duke toys, puppets, and other childish playthings which he loved madly. During the day we hid them in or underneath my bed; the Grand Duke would go to bed first after supper, and the moment we were in bed, Mme Krouse locked the door, and then the Grand Duke played till one or two o’clock in the morning. I was forced willy-nilly to take part in this fine amusement, just like Mme Krouse. I sometimes laughed it off, but more often I was exacerbated and even disturbed by it: the whole bed was filled and covered with puppets and toys that were sometimes quite heavy.

In 1755 Catherine and her husband moved to the new, wooden Winter Palace where they were each given spacious quarters at a considerable distance fom the other, which was just as well.

At that time, and for a long time afterward, the main plaything of the Grand Duke, when in town, was an excessive quantity of small puppets, of soldiers made of wood, lead, starch and wax, which he arrayed on very narrow tables that filled the entire room; one could hardly pass between those tables.

He had nailed long strips of brass along the lengths of these tables; these bands had wires attached to them, and when one pulled these, the brass strips made a sound which, according to him, was akin to the rolling fire of muskets.

Peter may have had a motive other than a childish preoccupation with toys, and that same motive may explain why he ‘surrounded himself with Holsteiners’. According to Catherine’s biographer Vincent Cronin [3]:

In 1713 Denmark had invaded the duchy of Holstein and seized the important province of Schleswig. Peter’s father had gone to St. Petersburg and secured a solemn promise from Peter the Great, his future father-in-law, that Russia would force Denmark to restore Schleswig to Holstein. But in the peace negotiatiation following Russia’s long war with Sweden Peter the great, bowing on this to European opposition, broke his promise and allowed Denmark to retain Schleswig. Young Peter, brought up originally for the Swedish not the Russian throne, had been taught to see Russia as the great betrayer of Holstein.

The Grand Duke’s behaviour eventually became insufferable. Once, in a state of enebriation during a banquet, he called her a ‘stupid whore’ in front of the whole table. And at the ripe age of twenty-five Peter executed a rat in their bedroom for attacking two toy soldiers made of starch. Peter claimed that the rat was guilty according to military law. After he had one of his dogs break its back, the animal was hung in public view for three days ‘as an example’.

Catherine had a momentary outburst of hysterics, but she was not a woman to remain passive in the face of adversity. She had already turned her attentions to a certain Sergey Saltykov who was later rumoured to have fathered the future Tsar Paul I. However, Paul didn’t resemble the tall and elegant Saltykov in any way; in fact he was just as short and just as ugly as Peter III. Peter must have fathered Paul after all which probably made his behaviour all the more insufferable in Catherine’s eyes.

Portrait of Catherine the Great as Lawgiver in the Temple of the Goddess of Justice, by Dmitry Levitsky, 1770

As a ruler Peter III proved to be quite enlightened. He was prepared to abolish serfhood and put the Russian army on a modern footing. This latter notion didn’t sit well with the military. In July 1762, barely six months after becoming Tsar, Peter retired with his German courtiers and relatives to Oranienbaum, an imperial residence on the Gulf of Finland, and left his wife behind in Saint Petersburg. The Garde du Corps in St. Petersburg revolted, deposed him and proclaimed Catherine Empress of Russia. Catherine had her husband arrested; eight days later he was murdered by Alexei Orlov, the brother of one of the coup-leaders.

[1] Henry Troyat, Cathérine la Grande, 1977

[2] Mémoires de l’impératrice Catherine II, écrits par elle-même, et précédés d’une préface par A. Herzen, Londres, 1845

[3] Vincent Cronin, Catherine Empress of all the Russians, 1978