The Arrival in Russia
On 10 January 1744, the Princess Sophia of Anhalt- Zerhst set out with her parents as though on their annual visit to Berlin. Their departure from Zerbst was unobtrusive, for both her mother and father had taken care to give the impression in the town that nothing special was happening; they had not even explained to their daughter the reason for these hurried arrangements. But Sophia herself knew that she was embarking on no ordinary journey and, although not yet fifteen years old, she knew too, that this was a fateful step in her life.
The excitement in the Anhalt-Zerbst family had started on New Year’s Day. Mail had come as they sat at dinner, and among the letters was one addressed to her mother. Princess Johanna. Sophia had seen that it was from Russia and had caught a glimpse of the words "with the Princess, her elder daughter.” Moreover from her mother’s behaviour and the prompt withdrawal of her parents to talk in private, she had guessed that it brought important news, and news that concerned her. The letter was, in fact, from Brummer, the chamberlain of the court of the Grand Duke Peter, heir of the Russian throne. Brummer was a friend of her mother's, but he had written now on the instructions of the Empress Elisabeth herself to invite her to visit the imperial court with her daughter, travelling with all speed. The letter did not state the purpose of the visit.
A few hours later on the same day, excitement increased when another letter came, also addressed to her mother. This letter was from King Frederick of Prussia. He had learnt through his agents in St. Petersburg of the imperial summons, and had written at once to tell princess Johanna of the possibility of the marriage of her daughter to Grand Duke Peter and of the importance he attached to it. He, too, urged them to lose no time in setting out for Russia.
Elizabeth received mother and daughter at the entrance to the state bedchamber and embraced them. She observed each of them attentively and was touched to tears by the likeness of Princess Johanna to the brother who had been her betrothed. After half an hour, she dismissed them saying that they must be tired after their long journey. But the Grand Duke with his suite then escorted them to their apartments, where they all dined together.
On the next morning Sophia and her mother attended again in the audience chamber. The Empress appeared, dressed even more magnificently than on the night before, and followed by Count Razumovsky, her Cossak favourite, whom Sophia considered one of the handsomest men she had even seen. He bore on a gold plate the insignia of the Order of St. Catherine, which Elizabeth conferred on Sophia and then on Princess Johanna. It was a sign that they had made a favourable first impression.
Indeed, not only the Empress, but Peter, too, had been charmed by this demure young princess. He delighted in her company and explained ingenuously that what he liked most about her was the fact that she was German and a relative which meant that he could talk freely with her. He disliked the suite appointed to attend him and he hated Brummer. Moreover, he had only contempt for the Russians and their Orthodox Christianity. He even told her that he really loved and wanted to many one of the Empress's ladies-in-waiting who, because her mother
had been guilty of conspiring against the throne, had been exiled to Siberia; he was, however, prepared to obey his aunt, the Empress, and to marry Sophia. It was a devastating confession to make to a young girl who had just arrived in a strange
Sophie-Frederique-Augusta d'Anhalt-Zerbst (the future Catherine II)
(painting by Anna-Rosine Litchevsky -1720)
country to marry him. It hurt Sophia deeply, but she did not allow her feelings to show. In fact, his conversation often embarrassed and distressed her, and she merely listened quietly, seeking ..to increase his confidence in her. She quickly realised that mentally he was no more than a child, and that he would be inadequate and immature as a husband, but never for a moment did she forget that he was heir to the throne.
From the first day of her arrival in Russia, Sophia gave all her energies to adopting it as her home and to making it her career. Despite her youth she was mature and clear headed, and her hunger for power and position was harnessed to a practical calculating mind. Her first principle of conduct was to win the confidence and goodwill of everyone, and already she had charmed the Empress and the Grand Duke, while her general bearing had earned the approbation of the court. She had, too, in her mother a foil whose stupidity and arrogance gave her frequent opportunities to shine as a dutiful daughter, innocent, sincere, and obedient, and she played the part well.
Sophia also saw that it was necessary not only for her to adopt this new country, but to demonstrate it in ways that all would understand. She therefore devoted herself to the study of the language and of Orthodox ritual. The Empress had already appointed teachers to instruct her in both subjects, but with special emphasis on orthodoxy for Elizabeth's first thought was for her rebaptism.
Sophia studied eagerly. Often she would jump out of bed in the middle of the night and, wearing only her nightgown, pace the floor of her bedroom learning her Russian lessons by heart. As a result she caught a chill, which developed into pleurisy. She fell sick when the Empress was away from Moscow on a pilgrimage to the Troitsa Monastery. (...)
Three days later the Empress returned to Moscow and, going at once to Sophia's bedside, found her unconscious. She promptly took charge and ordered blood-letting, and Sophia regained consciousness to find herself in the Empress's arms. For some days she remained gravely ill and was bled frequently.
The Empress watched over her solicitously, spending hours at her side and disregarding all risks that she might catch the infection herself, if it proved, in fact, to be smallpox. Moreover, she excluded Princess Johanna from the sick room so that the patient would not be troubled.
Although so ill, Sophia still managed to play her part. The court was like a whispering chamber and she could be sure that every word she uttered would be repeated to the Empress. 'When her mother sent her a message, suggesting that she should have a Lutheran pastor to comfort her, she firmly demanded an Orthodox priest, and nothing was better calculated to impress the Empress than this convincing sign of conversion. Also Sophia made sure that it was known that her illness was a result of her ardent study of Russian, and this, too, told strongly in her favour. The Russians, who had suffered long from the condescension of foreigners, took to their hearts this German princess who paid such respect to their language.
Sophia now fully recovered from her illness, studied in preparation for her admission to the orthodox church. She suffered no crisis of conscience over the change. In fact, her conversion took place "without any effort", as herself wrote later.
Her acceptance into the church was appointed to take place on 28 June and she worked hard to make herself word perfect. It was a lengthy ceremony, conducted in Russian and her knowledge of the language was still limited. On the occasion, however, she acquitted herself magnificently. In the presence of the Empress, the court, and the Holy Synode in the palace chapel, Sophia clad in the white robe of the neophyte, recited the creed in a clear voice, with an excellent accent and without once stumbling.
No one was more impressed and touched than the devout Empress who was in tears as she listened to Sophia pronounce her final acceptance of orthodox faith and heard her christened anew as Catherine Alexevna, the name chosen by the Empress in honour of her own mother, Catherine I of Russia.
On the following day she faced the ordeal of her betrothal
Scenes of Russia at the time of Catherine II: the main mode of transport for long distances at the time: the diligence
(Original drawing by an English traveller)
to the Grand Duke. This was not a private and intimate ceremony like her rebaptism, but public, taking place in the Uspensky Cathedral, where the Tsars of Russia had always been crowned. With all the magnificent ceremonial of the Orthodox Church, Catherine and Peter exchanged vows and rings, and Catherine was then proclaimed Grand Duchess. The little German princess from Zerbst, now an Orthodox Russian, was launched on her career.
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