Tales of Cinderella in the West go back to the 7th century before Christ in Egypt. The Chinese version is even older, from 850 BC. Each culture has hundreds of variations. Alas, they are rarely true. Justin I married a whore, Euphemia and Justinian I, his nephew, married Theodora who was an actress and whore, later a wool spinner. She helped him rule for 21 years until her death. But even her marriage was opposed by of all people, Euphemia. A lowly woman would have to meet a prince who had so much authority he could marry her despite the disapproval of family and other aristocrats. Common women could be courtesans but those who threatened the succession were often killed.
This was especially impossible in 17th and 18th century Russia which was worse than Europe in their treatment of women. Sayings abounded like “a woman’s head is like a house without a roof, a good woman is invisible”, or even “a woman like a horse, needs to be broken.” Men and women married without having seen one another before the wedding. During the wedding a father handed the husband a whip indicating now he had authority over his wife. A woman of social standing stayed in the house all the time, came out to greet guests and then went back to her richly decorated apartments on one side of the house. Women were bored, drank too much, and made simple by their closed in environment.
Then there was a woman named Catherine I who became the first female Russian ruler, taking over upon the death of Peter the Great. She was described as very beautiful when young, and graceful. Catherine was capable both of motherly care of Peter, and had the ability to reprimand Peter in private. She shared his crude sense of humor and extreme energy while being described by contemporaries as very even tempered to his unbalanced rages. Peter said she was astute in her relationships with diplomats and persons of importance, and regarded her as compassionate toward those he had to judge, so that he made sure when he sentenced harshly she was not present. Diplomats described her as very clever and well advised. She was very good at public relations which he was not and did not wish to attend to. They made a good combination.
There were self serving aspects to this. She used her influence to form allegiances and later took bribes for her influence, which later nearly cost her everything. While gaining his trust she also was given palaces and luxuries he did not want for himself. She was not a fool in practical matters.
Who was she? Well no one really knows. There was no glory in pulling oneself up by the bootstraps in the Europe of 1700. Only in the Muslim world was this possible. Therefore it was declared illegal to look into her past even 80 years after her death, and Catherine destroyed all the records she could while alive.
She was probably born Marta Helena Skowrońska on April 15, 1684 to a runaway serf from Minsk, Belarus named Samuil and his wife Dorothea, the daughter of a runaway serf named Meinhardt from Kegums, Latvia.
But even this is not 100% certain. Grot 1 and Belozersky 2 list some of the “facts” written by different sources. Various authors claimed she was born in Estonia, Poland, Sweden or Latvia. Some say she was legitimate and others not. Her father was said to be a nobleman from Poland, Estonia, or Latvia; or a Quarter Master, Colonel, merchant or a gravedigger. He was Swedish, Lithuanian or from Belarus. Her mother was listed as Elizabeth or Dorothea. She was a peasant, but some say serf. Even her birth date is in question, listed as 1683, or February 24, 1684, or February 5, 1679. Some sources list nine siblings, others one.
The truth seems to be that “Marta” was born in the town of Viški, in the south of Latvia, where the people claim her.3 When she looked for her sibling she searched for them in Latvia and three of four siblings were found in the town of Viški or close by there.
The last name she went by was Skowronski. “Skowronek” in Polish means lark. She was told Samuil her father was a runaway house serf of the Sapieha family from Minsk in Belarus. She looked for his family but found no one who knew him. Her mother’s last name was Hahn. They were likely from Kegums in the south of Latvia along the Daugava river, where her youngest sister was found. There is a family of land holders named von Hahn and serfs took the last name of their owners.
Catherine’s parents died of the plague. She was raised by Johann Ernst Glück who was a famous Lutheran missionary in Latvia and his wife who was an aristocrat in Latvia. All scholars agree on this. No one agrees on how she got to his home 119 miles away from Viški. Some say she was abandoned by her mother Elizabeth as an infant, after a two week stay. Others, she was found by Reverend Glück surrounded by her dead sibling asking for bread. Another has the local Reverend Daut putting her in school, where his supervisor Glück found her, an extraordinary student, and he adopted her. Except she could not read and was taught to sign her name with great difficulty when she was the ruler. Others wrote she was a maid for the Glücks from age 12 on, brought to wait on them by her Aunt Catherine Lisa.
What do we know of her relationship with the Glücks? Catherine could recall some family names like Duklya, Vaselovsky and Skavronskaya when she looked for her family in 1712. Therefore Catherine was not an infant. She was taught to run the household servants, to speak German and to have aristocratic manners. In the end she was married by the Glücks to a bugler with the idea that she was to be a farm wife in Sweden. She never made it to Sweden as the Russians attacked the next week.
This concern does not sound like she was a servant. Rather she was a ward, a convert, raised like the poor relation of the family. Her political enemies spread rumors that Catherine was a widow at 18, and bore a child who died when she was 13. But the Glücks had a reputation to maintain making this unlikely. Wurm who was a tutor in the house of the Glücks said she was really no trouble, learning to run the household and economize. Later Catherine got the Glücks out of a Russian prison camp. Peter the Great gave the Reverend a school and 3000 rubles a year. On his death Catherine presented Glück’s grateful widow with villages, a stipend and serfs.
Catherine’s documented life began when she was picked up by the Russian army at 18. For the next year and a half she was the mistress of the German mercenary made Russian General, Rodion Bauer, and then the General Field Marshall Boris Shermetev who was in charge of the Western forces of Russia. After that she was bought by Alexander Menshikov, another commoner with family from Belarus who wanted to increase his very strong influence on the Tzar, and he introduced them. She was first the mistress of Peter the Great and he married her privately four years later. Five years after that he married her publicly and had her declared Tzarina rather than consort. Twelve years later in 1724 she was declared his co-Tzar. He died in 1725. The New Men held a coup in which she was declared the ruler of all Russia. She was 40 at that time.
“Many authors have expressed great surprise at the contradictory reports relative to the origin of so extraordinary a personage as Catherine I…To expect that the history of a person of low extraction who gradually rose to the most exalted station should contain no uncertain and discordant accounts, is to expect improbabilities. All that remains, therefore, is, without prejudice or partiality, to examine and compare the various histories of Catherine I and to collect from the whole the most rational and probable narrative.”4
1Grot, J Catherine I Descent
2Belozersky, NI The Origins of Catherine I
3Dumes, Bruce. The Time has Come to talk of Viški
4Coxe, William page 493