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The Military Coup That Put Catherine the Great on the Throne

Russia's last empress overthrew her own husband.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

When a Prussian-born princess led a parade as a Russian empress into St. Petersburg for the first time on June 30, 1762, she was clad in a soldier’s uniform, high on the back of a white horse, and triumphant from her victory. She had just seized a throne that fate and circumstance, not blood, had led her to. She had come to Russia in the first place to be empress consort and mother of the next heir. She is lamented in history as Catherine the Great (1729-1796) and she was the ruler chosen, and elevated, by Russia’s own military base.

Tsar Peter III (1728-1762) practically instigated his wife’s ascension to power by being arguably the most ineffective and unpopular ruler in Russian history. In the span of only six months on the throne, he managed to make himself so universally disliked that a usurpation would be enacted with record-breaking speed. 

Adopted by his childless aunt Elizabeth Petrovna—who served as Empress of Russia from 1741-1762—for the sole purpose of becoming her successor, his reign was doomed from the beginning. From a young age he wanted nothing to do with Russia. He didn’t want to live in it, nor did he want to rule it. He was a German-born prince of Prussia, and his staunch and foolish loyalty to his native land over his inherited one would lead him to make disastrous decisions that earned him the disgruntled ire of his people and especially his army. 

The Russian military saw in him not an inspirational leader, as his predecessor Empress Elizabeth had been, but a weakling and a traitor. Peter’s worst and most self-sabotaging offenses as emperor would be returning Russia’s conquered territories back to Prussia and withdrawing his forces from the Seven Years’ War, subsequentially rendering all of Russia’s recent global victories pointless. Worse still, Peter also offered 12,000 Russian troops to Frederick II of Prussia as a further peace offering between the country he loved and the country he reluctantly controlled. 

history of catherine the great
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  • Tsar Peter III and his wife, the future Catherine the Great.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Considering that Peter had, since childhood, considered war and soldiers to be games and playthings for his own amusement and manipulation, these actions were not surprising. But they were degrading to the rest of the populace whose resources Peter was meant to manage, not distribute to foreign enemy kingdoms. These stinging insults to Russian nationalism, and to the deaths and sacrifices of thousands of Russian soldiers who’d fought for imperial glory, were too much for the army to stomach. 

The solution to the problem of Peter was obvious. As Russia was not a democratic country, there was no question of impeachment or holding an election to usher in a more palatable head of state. Monarchs had to be overthrown with organized military prowess and swiftly swapped with another monarch in order to prevent outright anarchy. The replacement would have to be of royal blood, educated for the demanding role, well-loved and well-respected by the people, and most importantly, a Russian patriot who would put Russian causes and Russian needs first. They would also have to hate Peter enough to be able to aid his disposal without any moral scruples. 

In every single one of these aspects, Peter’s estranged wife Catherine was the perfect choice. In the people’s eyes, she was a symbol of dignity and regal grace in contrast to Peter’s childishness and vulgarity. And she wanted justice not only for Russia, but for herself. Since her marriage in 1745, the German princess-turned-Tsarina been subjected to Peter’s gross neglect and abuse. “No one knows exactly when the plot to remove Peter III from the throne first took place in Catherine’s mind,” writes Catherine’s biographer Robert K. Massie, the author of the acclaimed 1994 Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. “As Peter’s consort, she had become express of Russia. Politically, however, this meant little; from the beginning of her husband’s reign, her position was one of isolation and humiliation”. 

Catherine understood that if her husband was permitted to continue his pro-Prussian ways, it would mean a nationwide uprising and a violent end to all stability in the country. As a result, she became the cunning center of a secret plot in the summer in 1762 in which she fully participated as an active conspirator, not as a pawn. Her lover, the ambitious Grigory Orlov, and his ruthless brother Alexei Orlov, began by gathering supporters for Catherine with bribes and promises for reforms. This was all done quietly, right under the nose of the oblivious Peter and his tightknit court of revellers.

But some were unable to keep quiet. At dawn on June 28, 1762, Catherine was shaken awake by her ally Alexei Orlov, who’d disturbed her precious sleep to inform her that one of his brother’s underlings had been arrested for speaking out against Peter. The imprisoned lieutenant knew all about the plan, and so they had to act fast before he could reveal it under torture. Catherine, leaping at once out of bed, was ready, and so were her followers. She and Orlov raced by carriage to the garrison of the Izmailovsky Guards, who were waiting for her in formation, already under her command. 

This was just the start of what would be a grand, symbolic procession with as much pomp and ceremony as a coronation. Travelling from barracks to barracks, gathering more armed men, cheering citizens, and powerful allegiances at each stop, a heavily guarded Catherine made her way to her final destination, the official royal residence of the Winter Palace. “Preceded by chaplains and other priests, she rode to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan on the Nevsky Prospekt,” is how Massie describes this epic pilgrimage of the queen-to-be. “There, flanked by the Orlov brother and Razumovsky [another influential ally], she stood before the iconostasis (icon screen) while the archbishop of Novgorod solemnly proclaimed her Gosudarina (sovereign autocrat) Catherine II and her son, Paul Petrovich, heir to the throne”. 

On the balcony of the Winter Palace, Catherine stood with her then eight-year-old child and theatrically presented him to the gathered crowd as the heir to the throne. Not as the new emperor, as patriarchal laws and societal normalcy would expect, but as her heir. She was now the empress. Paul would get the crown only after she died, which wouldn’t be until 1796.  

“Didn’t I always tell you she was capable of anything?!” was what Peter reputedly shrieked to his mistress, Elizaveta Vorontsova, when he first heard what Catherine had done. For all his infamous immaturity, Peter was at least able to acknowledge his bride’s tenacity. And he was right, she was capable of anything, including imprisoning her own husband. 

history of catherine the great
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  • Catherine on a balcony of the Winter Palace on the day of the coup.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

With his lover in tow, Peter made a desperate escape attempt to the island of Kotlin but was turned away and denied sanctuary by the military base of Kronstadt. Its habitants had decided that their traditional loyalty to the emperor was no longer within their interests. “Long live the Empress Catherine II!” they called down to the now-frantic ex-monarch. “She is now our empress, and we have orders to admit nobody within these walls. Another move forward and we fire!” It had been easy to sway them to Catherine’s side; perhaps they too could not forgive Peter for his traitorous sellouts to Prussia. Peter, with nowhere to turn, was forced to retreat back to St. Petersburg, where he was promptly arrested and compelled by pressure on all sides to abdicate his crown. 

Peter died while under house arrest at the settlement of Ropsha on July 9, 1762. The circumstances surrounding his mysterious death would evolve into Russia’s greatest conspiracy theory, only usurped in prominence centuries later by the alleged survival of Grand Duchess Anastasia. The official report is that Peter perished of hemorrhoidal colic and an apoplectic stroke. The alternative stories were that he was assassinated by Alexei Orlov, under Catherine’s orders, or killed in self defense by a jailer whom he drunkenly attacked. Whispered among the small faction of Peter’s loyalists was the premise that he was smuggled out of captivity and that the body buried was a lookalike commoner. A universally accepted fact was that Peter was not mourned by his nation. There was general relief when he was gone. Only his mistress seemed to miss him. 

Catherine the Great’s tenure as an independent Tsarina would be considered, historically, a staggering success. Her husband ruled for only six months. She held the reins in Russia for 34 years. She ushered in progress, particularly in the arts and education, and her most durable efforts are still available for the public to enjoy today. While touring the massive Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, founded by the Catherine in 1764, visitors can remember that it takes an extraordinary strength of mind to not only collect and display what is valuable to a country, but to recognize and remove what is detrimental to it as well.