Sunday, December 4, 2022

The Servant Queen – Catherine I

This story has an incredibly humble beginning. In 1673 in Moscow gets born a peasant boy who spends his childhood selling pies on the streets. 11 years later in 1684 in Widzeme (modern Latvia) is born a girl whose childhood is spent as a servant in a house of a priest. What unites these two individuals is that within a few years they will be governing Russian Empire together. They are none others than the future Empress Catherine I and Prince Menshikov. Let us begin…

Moscow around 1680. Kostomarov: “The boy was especially sharp-witted and ingenios, which was useful for a servant, thanks to his snip-snap he sold the pies very well. It so happened that one day he was passing by the palace of an influential at the time Lefort; the little guy attracted Lefort’s attention so he called him around and asked: “What do you want for the box of pies?” – “The pies you could buy but I don’t dare sell the box without permission of my master” – replied the boy named Aleksander. “Would you like to work for me?” – asked Lefort. “Happily, – said the boy, – just let me tell my master”. Lefort bought all his pies and said: “Go tell your master and return here quickly”. The old master has only let the boy go because a very powerful person has asked for his services. That’s how Menshikov began working for Lefort”. 

At the time Lefort was the right hand of Peter The Great, he has trained Menshikov from a very young age and it’s worth mentioning that Menshikov was not just extraordinarily lucky but also hard-working, described by his peers as extremely energetic, pleasant, always ready to serve and doing everything he was told to with utmost care and attention. That’s a characteristic which he shared with Catherine I. Around the time when the boy began serving Lefort, the future empress of Russia is born in a small city of Widzeme on 5th of April 1684. She is born in a peasant family and at birth is named Martha Skavronskaya. Few months after the birth girl’s parents die from plague and her uncle gives her away as a servant into household of a pastor Ernst Glück. There exist two more popular versions of her childhood, according to one her mother did not die but abandoned Catherine on the door of pastor’s house and according to another version after her parents died she lived with her aunt until she turned 12 years of age and only then she was given to pastors household. Whatever version it was the fact is pastor Ernst Glück had some impact on Catherine’s life. He was more than a traditional pastor, he also studied science and languages (German, Latvian, Russian, Jewish, Latin and Greek) and was the first person to translate the Bible into Latvian language and later into Russian as well. He was a truly admirable person, his activities in Latvia are mainly concentrated on education. He opens many schools for children and for Pastors, as well as a special school for children of victims of political persecution from Russian government. Later on in life it was precisely pastor’s Education that has not only saved his life but that has also allowed him to become quite an important figure in Russia. He has educated a great number of children of Russian nobility which became government officials, scientists, linguists and philosophers. He also has created a first organised version of Russian grammar. He had 2 sons and 4 daughters. Catherine was counting pastor’s daughters as her sisters and grew up in almost family environment. Although most male historians prefer to say that Catherine was not taught how to read or write there are certain historical accounts which prove otherwise. Francis Vilbua – nobleman of French origin and husband to Gluck’s daughter writes the following: 

“Wife of pastor (Glück) kept the girl (Catherine) as a servant until she turned 16 years old. When she reached this age, the mistress decided that the girl will soon get bored with this service which is evident in her behaviour. Her master’s fear that despite the good education they have given her, girl’s nature can take over her reason and that it’s time to get her married to a young soldier that served in Marienburg garrison. He thought the girl pleasant and asked for her hand. There were no obstacles for the official ceremony to be celebrated. Although the ceremony was not expensive, it has attracted a lot of people curious to see the newlywed couple… This soldier serving Swedish king Karl XII as a simple dragoon, had to return to the army two days after the wedding and to leave his wife so that he could go on with his army. He arrived to Poland, where King was fighting Polish king August. Awaiting the return of her husband Catherine has remained with Gluck’s family”. 

The soldier mentioned in the letter was called Johan Cruse. There is another angle to this story as well. Oldest son of Ernst – Christian Bernard Glück was only 4 years senior to Catherine and Catherine was turning out to be a very attractive young woman. One of Pastor Ernst worries was that his son might fall in love with the servant girl and so he decides to marry Catherine to this Swedish soldier as soon as she turns 17 years old. Just think about it, Catherine’s social status was so low at the time that she was not good enough for pastor’s son. Catherine did not have anything against this proposal, after all she was but an illiterate servant girl as well as orphan and the prospect of someone caring about her future is already pleasant. Her marriage was destined for a short end as only 2 days after the wedding Johan Cruse returns to the army and disappears never to be found. 

Meanwhile Russian army headed by Sheremetev enters the city of Marienburg where Catherine is residing. Russian presence was overwhelmingly cruel as Sheremetev himself has written to Peter I: “I have ordered for everyone to be enslaved and for everything to be burned. Nothing is left standing, everything is destroyed and burned, and we have enslaved all the men and women and children – few thousand in total. Also we took horses and about 20’000 cows or more… and whomever we could not enslaved we have killed”. 

During this tragedy pastor Gluck has the courage to come to Sheremetev and to beg him for the lives of the people. To this meeting Gluck was accompanied by Catherine whom Sheremetev immediately took as his own servant and lover. When the army returns to Russia, Catherine is returned with them. A year later she is seen by Prince Menshikov who was paying a friendly visit to Sheremetev. Almost as soon as Catherine enters into Menshikov’s household she becomes the lover of Peter I. Francis Vilbua writes about the first meeting between Tsar of Russia and a humble servant girl: “The circumstances were such that when Tsar was passing by Saint Petersburg which back then was known as Nienshants or Notenburgh… has stopped in the house of his favourite Menshikov, where he has noticed Catherine amongst the maids serving the table. He asked where she is from and who bought her. Then he whispered something to his best friend who answered only by nodding his head, he kept his gaze on Catherine for quite some time and kept joking around saying that she is smart and finished joking by telling her that when she goes to sleep she should light a candle in his room. This was an order given in a lightly manner but which had to be obeyed. Menshikov understood that and the beauty loyal to her master has spent the night in Tsar’s room… The next day Tsar was leaving early in the morning to continue his trip. He returned to his favourite what he has lent him. If Tsar was satisfied during that night spent in conversation with Catherine we can’t judge by his generosity. She received only one Luidor (10 Francs), which he put in a soldiery manner in her hand before leaving”. 

Nine months after the first meeting Catherine gives birth to a son she names Peter, which soon dies. Her relationship with the Tsar goes on. In 1705 Peter sends Catherine to his sisters house where she gives birth to another son and meanwhile is learning how to speak and to write in Russian. By 1709 Catherine is baptised in Orthodox religion and that’s when she formally changes her name from Martha to Catherine Mihailova. The surname Mihailova she adapts from Mihailov – a surname which Peter I assumes when he wants to stay incognito. In 1711 Tsar took 7 month pregnant Catherine with him to a war against Ottoman Empire. In this war Russian army was completely outnumbered by Turks and Peter together with his soldiers was surrounded. There is a popular legend in Russia which says that it was Catherine who has managed to convince Turkish Pash to let them go offering her jewels as a bribe. There are many different versions of this story but the fact is after this unfortunate for Russia war Catherine has gained respect of the military officials as well as even more love from Peter I. When they come back from the war Peter immediately married Catherine. Peter has later written about Catherine’s conduct during this war: “My dearest wife and empress Catherine was helping gloriously in many military decisions, ignoring her female weakness, she was present with us through strong will and was helping a lot, in the War against Turks, in desperate times she acted manly and not as a woman, and our whole army knows that”. Whatever has happened during that war Peter finally married Catherine in 1712 and few months later has awarded her with medal of “Freedom” later renamed as “Saint Catherine” for outstanding actions in military campaign. 

Catherine and Peter I had 11 children, two of whom have survived past childhood: daughters Anna and Elizabeth. All the letters written by Peter indicate his great love and loyalty towards his wife. Despite the great love though Peter wasn’t physically faithful to Catherine, he still had some lovers but they have never threatened Catherine’s royal position, in fact she was publicly tolerable towards them. In 1721 Bassevich (served as secret advisor) writes about their relationship: “He (Tsar) loves to see her (Catherine) everywhere. There was not a single military revision, ship naming, ceremony or celebration where she would not be present… Catherine confident in the love of her husband, laughed about his constant amorous adventures, how Livia would have laughed about the infidelities of August; in return every time he would tell her of those he would always add: “no one can ever be compared to you”. 

On 24th of May of 1724 Catherine is crowned as Empress of Russia. In autumn of that same year however Peter gets suspicious that Catherine might have an affair with none other than brother of his ex mistress Anna Mons. Willem Mons was a handsome youth who served as private secretary to Catherine while his other sister Matryona Balk was Empress’s best friend. Soon after Tsar’s suspicions fell on Willem, the secretary was found guilty of embezzlement and was publicly executed, his head was preserved in alcohol and served to Catherine on a plate. Peter has obliged his wife to look at that head for hours and afterwards denied her his attention. For a few months she was prohibited from talking to Peter. Finally their daughter Elizabeth has begged her father to forgive Catherine which he soon did. 

In January 28th 1725 Peter died in hands of Catherine. While Catherine was by his bedside however interesting chain of events has occurred. About 8 hours before Peter’s death Menshikov has summoned varios governmental organs to decide who will govern Russia now. Most advisors were in favour of Peter’s grandson – Peter Alekseevich – who came from the son that Peter had with his first wife and who has died during interrogations. Menshikov has used military force then to make all the advisors vote in favour of Catherine. At 4am the voting was done and Catherine was chosen as a new ruler, at 6am Peter I died. 

Catherine has became the first female ruler of Russia in all the history. How she ruled you can read in my next article.

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