The Latvian Who Ruled Russia: Catherine I

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. 

Theodora Commoner wife of Justinian I

Theodora Commoner wife of Justinian I

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.

Greeting Guests to go back to the Terem

Greeting Guests to go back to the Terem

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.

Catherine I the second wife of Peter the Great

Catherine I the second wife of Peter the Great

An older Catherine I

An older Catherine I

 

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. 

von Hahn estate that the Grandparents of Catherine I worked on near Kegums

von Hahn estate that the Grandparents of Catherine I worked on near Kegums

 

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.

Višķi today

Višķi today

 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. 

Johann Glück

Johann Glück

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.

Rodion Bauer

Rodion Bauer

Boris sheremetev

Boris sheremetev

 

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.

Catherine I as Empress

Catherine I as Empress

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

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The Loves of Peter the Great

Peter the Great 1675-1725, abhorred his first wife Eudoxia. The two had a miserable marriage arranged by his mother when he was sixteen. She was stupid, and argumentative.  He was intelligent, slept around and had no respect for her. Finally he sent her to a nunnery dissolving the union after nine years and three children, albeit against her will. She may not have loved him, but she loved being the royal consort. Thirty years and one dead lover, two convents and a jail cell later,  she was freed by her grandson, Peter II.

But he always said he loved Catherine his second wife,  the former Marta Skavronskaya, who was considered  to have been beautiful when young, and to be graceful and clever when her looks faded.

Catherine was unassuming, as hyperactive as he, and funny. She could drink with her husband, and calm him. She held him when he had epileptic seizures and rebuked him in private when he had made an ass of himself. Peter took her on campaigns because he liked her company. She would follow protocol no matter how tiresome or involved for the sake of the public. Catherine did not complain, give him trouble or assume airs (Massie, page 376 -377).

Catherine I the second wife of Peter the Great

Catherine I the second wife of Peter the Great

She was not noble.  In fact she was an orphan and peasant, who had learned the ways of intellectual Germans as the head of household for Reverend Gluck. After being captured in war she  became mistress to some high ranking Generals before she became mistress to him.  But as Queen the army loved her. The New Men; men of talent if not of character, all supported her. She saved many of them from well deserved executions and banishment (Bain, Romanovspage 396).

Peter loved her for 23 years, thirteen of which were after the wedding.

But he was not faithful to either wife. Peter did not like to sleep alone. He had a 12 year serious relationship with Anna Mons whom he met the the year after he was married to Eudoxia. He also slept with her friends.  When he began his relationship with Catherine, he was still with her. Then he found Anna had fallen in love with a German diplomat five years before when he was gone on the Great Embassy and although long over, he placed her under house arrest for two years, and ended the relationship.

He slept with noble women, whores and mistresses when he was away from Catherine; and  others when he was not, including her ladies in waiting.  If there were no women to sleep with, he would use aides as pillows, and they could not move an inch (Von Staehlin, page 233).

Catherine ignored his indiscretions or laughed with him. Peter wrote things like “I have sent my mistress back to you, for I would not have been able to resist the temptation if I had kept her here” (Anisimov, page 25).

He rewarded the aristocratic women by giving them husbands and their families promotions, although he was notoriously stingy with whores and the servants. His women were young or his age, simple or smart, and they included one hunchback. He could and did sleep with almost everyone he wanted to. He was the movie star of his day in Russia. A list of his better known  aristocratic mistresses follows.

Maria Matveev in her older years

Maria Matveev in her older years

Maria Matveev, the grandchild of the adviser to his father, was 25 years younger than Peter who was in his late 40s.  She was a lady in waiting, beautiful, graceful, and had been raised in Vienna by her father who was a diplomat.  

He told her she was to have no other admirers and that she would be his most important mistress.

Peter arranged her marriage to Alexander Rumyantsev as a reward for finding his son in Austria.  He was made a Brigadier General. She continued to sleep with Peter, and he was sent far from his wife. It was rumored that Peter was her real ‘husband’.  The paternity of her children was questionable, especially her son Peter who was to become a famous  Field Marshall in charge of the Russian army.

Maria  Cantemir was his mistress during his final four years. He was 48 when they met, she was twenty one. She was the daughter of the highly educated former ruler of Moldavia, Dimitri Cantemir.  Her father gave Peter assistance in his second war against the Ottoman Empire, which he lost.  Cantemir was to be a puppet of the Turks, which was the cause of his resentment, but he only ‘ruled’ 3 weeks.

Marie Cantemir

Marie Cantemir

The family moved to Russia and lived on an estate in Kharkov.

Maria was very clever, and well educated. She knew ancient Greek and Latin, Italian, some mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, literature, history, drawing and music. 

When Peter was having problems with Catherine for the last three months of his life, they were close. Some authors have suggested if her son had lived he might have left Catherine for her, as he was desperate for a male heir. But the child was born dead (Waliszewski, page 287).

When Peter died, Maria was thrown out of the court by Catherine.

Avdotya Rzhevskaya Chernyshev

Avdotya Rzhevskaya Chernyshev

Eudoxia Chernichov, was another of his mistresses. The daughter of an aristocratic family, she became his mistress at fifteen in 1708, when he was 36. Her parents were granted an estate.  She was married the next year at his command to Grigory Chernichov, who became a Senator and General on the Admiralty board as a reward. The affair continued after the marriage and there is some question about the paternity of her children.

When  Peter thought she had given him a venereal disease, her husband was ordered to beat her for making him sick (Troyat, page 265). It’s unlikely she had syphilis. She outlived Peter by twenty years.

But she was famous for her erratic, and vicious behavior and for telling investigators about the miscarriage and infanticide of the famous Mary Hamilton.

Imagined picture of Mary Hamilton in prison done 185 years after

Imagined picture of Mary Hamilton in prison done 185 years after

Mary Hamilton was a lady in waiting and mistress to Peter. She was investigated for making remarks about Catherine eating wax to make her complexion pale. Catherine heard her rounding a corner. But the trivial matter became serious when Eudoxia Chernichov testified that she had aborted a pregnancy, and later killed her new born child. They also found several items belonging to Catherine while going through her room.

Catherine asked Peter to pardon Mary. Peter’s sister in law Praskovia pleaded for her too.

To the very end she expected to be pardoned, and at Peter’s request she wore a gown of white silk with black ribbons. But Peter told her on the scaffold “I cannot violate laws both human and divine to save your life. Accept your punishment in the hope that God will pardon you if you repent.” (Troyat, page 266).

Her head was cut off with a sword not an ax as a favor. Peter was said to pick her head up, kiss it, and give an anatomy lesson. She was executed at the age of 25, on March, 14th 1719.

Elizabieta Sieniawska, the most powerful woman in Poland

Elizabieta Sieniawska, the most powerful woman in Poland

Other women he slept with included Elizabieta Sieniawska the most powerful woman in Poland. She was three years older than Peter, brilliant, shrewd and most famous in their relationship for dismissing the German head of her orchestra after Peter talked of firing all his foreign officers. In order to teach him a lesson she then asked him how the music sounded without the conductor, which of course was discordant.  He also talked about turning the areas his nemesis Charles XII would pass in Russia into deserts in advance of his attack, at which point she told him the story of a man turning himself into a eunuch to spite his wife.

Of note was his brief relationship with the brilliant hunchback Varvara Aseneeyev to whom he often turned for advise.  He told her “I do not think anyone will fall in love with you poor Varvara, you are too ugly. But I will not let you die without experiencing love.” (Waliszewski, vol I, page 254-255)

Peter also slept with whores whom he paid poorly and servants.  Most accepted his advances, some did not. When  Peter made known his attraction to  one servant girl at court, Catherine took her into her rooms as a personal attendant. It is likely the girl had solicited the help of CatherinePeter found her there and his wife  said “She is pretty isn’t she? Can I have her?” After that he left the girl alone   (Lamb,  page 208).

Peter the Great at a 'social" assembly

Peter the Great at a ‘social” assembly

 

When Peter was told that Charles VI of Austria punished adultery with death; Peter said “Is that possible? I should have thought that so great a prince had more judgment: without doubt, he fancied that his people were too numerous.”   (Von Staehlin page 325).

Catherine ignored his famous womanizing and came to accept it. John Bell a contemporary who worked for him wrote “Many people represented Peter as a tyrant because they repeated stories picked up at ale houses. This was not his character. He was just and prudent and his humanity over balanced his failings. His greatest weakness was women.” (Bell, vol II,  page 356)

Anisimov, Evgeni Viktorovich. Five Empresses,Praeger Printer, 88 Post Road West,Westport, CT 06881 2004

Bain Nisbet. Robert, The First Romanovs. A History of Moscovite Civilization and the Rise of Modern Russia Under Peter the Great and his Forerunners. London : Archibald Constable & Co. 1905

Bain Nisbet. Robert, The Pupils of Peter the Great, A History of the Russian Court and Empire. London, Westminster A. Constable. 1897

Bell, John. Travels from St. Petersburgh in Russia, to various parts of Asia Vol I and 2 Edinburgh : Printed for W. Creech 1788

Lamb, Harold. The City And The Tsar Peter The Great And The Move To The West New York. Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1948

Massie, Robert, K. Peter the Great, His Life and World, New York: Ballantine, 1981

Henri Troyat, Peter the Great, New York; E.P. Dutton, 1987

Von Staehlin, Jakob. Peter the Great, Collected from the Conversation of Several Persons of Distinction at Petersburgh and Moscow by, London J. Murray 1788

Waliszewski, Kazimierz, Peter the Great, London; Heinemann 1898

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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