Two hundred eighty four years ago, a little German Princess was born. Her name was Sophia Augusta Fredericka, but they called her “Figchen.” She wasn’t the son her mother wanted, but despite that, she grew up to become more famous than the rest of her siblings, and her parents, combined.
Her mother loved court intrigues, so when Figchen was betrothed to her second cousin, she resolved to do all that she possibly could to become the person she needed to be. Not for her mother’s sake, or even for him, since he repulsed her ten year old self on their first meeting (she disapproved of the nine year old boy’s inclination for alcohol), but for her future crown.
She had been baptized into the Lutheran church and learned French in school, but now she made plans to convert and got up at night and paced her room, studying a new language.
When she was sixteen, she became the Duchess of Holstein-Gottorp, and settled with her husband, the crown prince of Russia, in a palace west of St. Petersburg. Their marriage wasn’t a happy one, for many reasons: opposite political views, the taking of lovers (by both of them), and the fact that they just plain did not like each other. The son they had together was probably his, but when he confronted her with the accusation that the young prince was a child of her lover and she denied it, he told her to “Go to the devil.”
Shortly after becoming the Empress Consort of Russia, Figchen and the groups that supported her decided that her husband was not the right Tsar for the time. Since he had made the critical error of leaving his wife and her supporters at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg while he returned with his entourage to their home in Oranienbaum, he wasn’t there to keep anyone from deposing him, much less to prevent his wife from being proclaimed ruler in his place. And though he was killed soon after the coup took place, there is no evidence that his wife ordered his death.
Little Figchen, princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, took her husband’s place as monarch of Russia in 1762 at the age of 33. She had long since joined the Russian Orthodox Church, so she was crowned using the name she had taken when she converted: Catherine.
|Catherine on her horse, 1762.|
by Vigilius Eriksen
What made Catherine so great?
Catherine II, Empress and Autocrat of Russia, was a pioneer of the Enlightenment in Russia. She was a correspondent of Voltaire. She held conferences with forward thinkers about education and politics. She founded the first college for women in Europe. She allowed a certain amount of religious freedom for non-Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews (although they were taxed twice the amount and were offered incentives to convert).
One of the coolest things about Catherine was her personal slogan: “Happiness and unhappiness are in the heart and spirit of each one of us: if you feel unhappy, then place yourself above that and act so that your happiness does not get to be dependent on anything.”
Happy Birthday, Catherine.