CATHERINE I. (1683-1727), empress of Russia. The true character and origin of this enigmatical woman were, until quite recently, among the most obscure problems of Russian history. It now appears that she came of a Lithuanian stock, and was one of the four children of a small Catholic yeoman, Samuel Skovronsky; but her father died of the plague while she was still a babe, the family scattered, and little Martha was adopted by Pastor Glück, the Protestant superintendent of the Marienburg district. Frau Glück finally rid herself of the girl by marrying her to a Swedish dragoon called Johan. A few months later, the Swedes were compelled by the Russians to evacuate Marienburg, and Martha became one of the prisoners of war of Marshal Sheremetev, who sold her to Prince Menshikov, at whose house, in the German suburb of Moscow, Peter the Great first beheld and made love to her in his own peculiar fashion. After the birth of their first daughter Catherine, Peter made no secret of their relations. He had found, at last, the woman he wanted, and she soon became so indispensable to him that it was a torment to be without her. The situation was regulated by the reception of Martha into the Orthodox Church, when she was rechristened under the name of Catherine Alekseyevna, the tsarevich Alexius being her godfather, by the bestowal upon her of the title Gosudaruinya or sovereign (1710), and, finally (1711), by her public marriage to the tsar, who divorced the tsaritsa Eudoxia to make room for her. Henceforth the new tsaritsa was her husband's inseparable companion. She was with him during the campaign of the Pruth, and Peter always attributed the successful issue of that disastrous war to the courage and sang-froid of his consort. She was with him, too, during his earlier Caspian campaigns, and was obliged on this occasion to shear off her beautiful hair and wear a close-fitting fur cap to protect her from the rays of the Sun.
By the ukaz of 1722 Catherine was proclaimed Peter's successor, to the exclusion of the grand-duke Peter, the only son of the tsarevich Alexius, and on the 7th of May 1724 was solemnly crowned empress-consort in the Uspensky cathedral at Moscow, on which occasion she wore a crown studded with no fewer than 2564 precious stones, surmounted by a ruby, as large as a pigeon's egg, supporting a cross of brilliants. Within a few months of this culminating triumph, she was threatened with utter ruin by the discovery of a supposed liaison with her gentleman of the bedchamber, William Mons, a handsome and unscrupulous upstart, and the brother of a former mistress of Peter. A dangerously familiar but perfectly innocent flirtation is, however, the worst that can fairly be alleged against Catherine on this occasion. So Peter also seemed to have thought, for though Mons was decapitated and his severed head, preserved in spirits, was placed in the apartments of the empress, she did not lose Peter's favour, attended him during his last illness, and closed his eyes when he expired (January 28, 1725). She was at once raised to the throne by the party of progress, as represented by Prince Menshikov and Count Tolstoy, whose interests and perils were identical with those of the empress, before the reactionary party had time to organize opposition, her great popularity with the army powerfully contributing to her success. The arch-prelates of the Russian church, Theodosius, archbishop of Novgorod, and Theophanes, archbishop of Pskov, were also on her side for very much the same reason, both of them being unpopular innovators who felt that, at this crisis, they must stand or fall with Tolstoy and Menshikov.
The great administrative innovation of Catherine's reign was the establishment of the Verkhovny Tainy Sovyet, or supreme privy council, by way of strengthening the executive, by concentrating affairs in the hands of a few persons, mainly of the party of Reform (Ukazoi February 26, 1726). As to the foreign policy of Catherine I. (principally directed by the astute Andrei Osterman), if purely pacific and extremely cautious, it was, nevertheless, dignified, consistent and independent. Russia, by the mere force of circumstances, now found herself opposed to England, chiefly because Catherine protected Charles Frederick, duke of Holstein, and George I. found that the Schleswig-Holstein question might be reopened to the detriment of his Hanoverian possessions. Things came to such a pass that, in the spring of 1726, an English squadron was sent to the Baltic and cast anchor before Reval. The empress vigorously protested, and the fleet was withdrawn, but on the 6th of August Catherine acceded to the anti-English Austro-Spanish league. Catherine died on the 16th of May 1727. Though quite illiterate, she was an uncommonly shrewd and sensible woman, and her imperturbable good nature under exceptionally difficult circumstances, testifies equally to the soundness of her head and the goodness of her heart.
See Robert Nisbet Bain, The Pupils of Peter the Great, chs. ii.-iii. (London, 1897); The First Romanovs, ch. xiv. (London, 1905).
(R. N. B.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)