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From Peasant to Queen. Catherine I

Updated on November 24, 2014

Portraits of Catherine I

Catherine I by Boit, probably somewhat attractive but very charming
Catherine I by Boit, probably somewhat attractive but very charming | Source
Catherine I: what she looked like when she was married in 1712
Catherine I: what she looked like when she was married in 1712 | Source
 Catherine I by Carel de Moor
Catherine I by Carel de Moor | Source

The Enigma that was Catherine I

Voltaire said “There was at that time in the Russian [prison] camp a woman as extraordinary as the Czar himself.”1 She was described by General Alexander Gordon, who knew her as being very pretty and having a “greatness of soul, a strength of judgment, and equanimity of temper rarely to be found in her own or any other sex....The Tzar who was a good judge, and much above vulgar prejudices, was well satisfied of her merit, and ready upon all occasions to acknowledge it.” 2

Voltaire said “The best feature of her character was humanity.”3

Her life ended at from tuberculosis 43.4

Her story was a state secret of the Romanovs. She was the second wife of Peter the Great; born a peasant. Later she was a prisoner of war, and then the mistress of high ranking generals. Her daughter and grandson were destined to rule Russia after her.

When she met Peter, winter travelers in Russia went over the frozen rivers which were better than the roads. Weber, Ambassador from Hanover who was sent to Russia said when the snow melted there were few passable roads. No distance or direction markers existed. There were no inns for travelers or places to eat in the countryside. A handful of factories existed, no navy, an undisciplined army and no commercial shipping.

Russia also had no schools, no artists, no composers, no theater, no writers, and a printing press brought over by Ivan the terrible. Only a few people could read – and it was not common among rich or poor people. Many people had never heard of paper, although in times past they wrote on scrolls made of bark.5 Peter brought all these things in and fought a never ending war against corruption, which was everywhere.

Marta later called Catherine, represented all that Peter wanted to be, European, from Latvia, and modern. She was motherly too, not just to him, and an expert in saying what needed to be said and not offending. She had always depended on pleasing everyone and was good at it.

Her childhood remains a mystery.

There are a lot of stories about Marta's early life which contradict each other. She made great efforts to hide her unenviable past as did the later Romanovs.

Grot 6 and Belozersky 7 list some of the “facts” written by different sources.

1) Marta was born in Estonia. She was a bastard child of a serf on a plantation owned by the rich Rosen family. Her father was Rosen's neighbor, Baron d'Albedyhll. She married Colonel Tiesenhausen and became his widow.

But the Albedyhll family investigated this and said Marta's mother was not one of their serfs ever. Also there was very little time for Marta to be married to a Colonel as she was picked up by the Russians at eighteen.

2) Marta was born in the Estonia. Her father was a poor gravedigger according to Voltaire. She was legitimate. Estonian historians however say there is no evidence she was born there.

3) Marta was the born in Latvia. She was the bastard daughter of Alvendal, an estate owner and one of his serfs. This is a variation on story one.

4) Marta was born in Sweden. She was the daughter of a Swedish quarter-master Johan Reinholdson Rabe and his wife, Elizabeth. Marta had a brother named Sven who ran a tavern.

This story of her birth was rejected by the Swedes, although Latvia was owned by them, so technically she was a Swede. The name for a slave in Russian is rab, she was going to be sold as a slave, so a father or husband named Rabe may be a private joke with Peter.

5) Marta was born in Latvia. She was the daughter of a merchant in Riga. Peter Badendik, was her father. He married twice and had nine siblings and half siblings. Her birthday was February 5, 1679.

But her name was not Badendik and she never looked for that family in Riga, Latvia and Peter said she was 12 years younger than him, not seven.

6) Marta was born in Estonia. Her father was Samuel Skavronskaya from Lithuania. He moved with his wife Dorothea to Tartu Estonia where she was born. She was their child.

But she never looked in Estonia for relatives, and Estonians do not claim she was born there.

7) Marta was born in Latvia. Her father was Latvian nobleman von Alfendalya and his serf. Marta was born in 1683.

If she was noble she never claimed to be. In fact it was well known and acknowledged that her origins were humble.

8) Marta was born in Latvia, as a rich girl named "Katerina von Alfendel. She was born on the 24th of February 1684. That was what they said in the "Genealogical Tables" of Gyubnera in 1725. This seems to be confounding two stories.

9) Marta was born in the village of Ringen, Dorpat County,in Estonia. She was the illegitimate daughter of a poor serf woman and a Swedish Colonel named Rosen.

10) Marta's father was a Polish nobleman named Skavronsky, who died during the Russo-Polish wars. He left their poor grieving mother two children, a boy and a girl. That was the story told by Voltaire.

But she had two brothers and two sisters she brought to Russia, so this is not true.

11) Marta was married to a Swedish dragoon but it took place in Fraustadt, Poland, not Aluksne.8 Anton Frederick Busching, said her father was from Lithuania.

But she was not in Poland until the 1711. This story may confused the spa Marienbad with the town she was living in Aluksne or Marienburg.

12) Marta was a whore and making her a peasant was an improvement. Her father was a gravedigger, she was adopted by Anisia Tolstoy, (aunt of the wife of Menshikov) and adopted by Glück.

This story seems unlikely. Tolstoy the aunt of Menshikov's wife lived with Marta in her earliest days as a mistress to Peter. She was called “The Idiot” by Peter. She was raised as the ward of Glück. These stories were proposed by the conservative movement in Russia, 60 years after her death.

The truth seems to be Marta was born in the town of Viški, in the south of Latvia. The people there claim she was born in the village. No other place says she was born there.9 The Swedes, Estonians and Lithuanians say she was not born one of them. When she looked for her sibling she said to search for them in Latvia and three of four siblings were found in the town of Viški or close by there.

The last name she went by was Skowronski. “Skowronek” in Polish means lark. Samuel her father came from a place where Polish was the dominant language. He was supposed to be a runaway house serf of the Sapieha family from Minsk. She looked for his family in 1712 all through Belarus, the Ukraine and Livonia but found no one who knew him. His family probably had a different name, or he took a different one to be untraceable.

Minsk was on a trade route built on a river where merchants from Kiev and Riga met.10 He would have taken the river up to Swedish territory or Russian territory in Latvia to be free. The boats passed along a very old route.

Marta located someone who claimed to be an uncle in 1714. Marta was about thirty.11 Wilhelm Hahn in Jekabpils said he was her uncle through her mother. He talked about the family. They were likely from Kegums in the south of Latvia along the Daugava river, where Christina her sister was found. There is a family of land holders named von Hahn and serfs took the last name of their owners.

These are facts: The town of Jekabpils, where her parents got married and her uncle lived, was founded in 1670, 42 years before the interview. Marta's parents died of the plague. She was raised by Johann Ernst Glück who was a Lutheran missionary. He translated the Bible for the Latvians, and he wrote books on grammar and theology.

How she arrived at this home is unknown. Grot listed the following ways she was said to have done so.

1) Marta was abandoned by her mother Elizabeth as an infant, after a two week stay.

But Marta recalled her family names so that is probably not what happened. In addition it is doubtful that her mother was Elizabeth.

2) Reverend Glück found Marta surrounded by her dead siblings, and Dorothea and Samuel her parents, asking for bread.

But her sibling were brought by her to Russia. This is probably not true.

3) Reverend Daut put her in the local school where his supervisor Glück found her, an extraordinary student, and he adopted her.

But she was illiterate as was most of the population. Voltaire said the peasants of Latvia were not allowed by law to be taught to read. She relied on her daughters to read and sign her correspondence. So this is probably not true.

4) Daut handed her over to Glück from Roop or Straupe near Riga.

This city is 42 miles from Riga and Kegums, it is farther from Viški or Jekabpils and Daugavpils, and so it seems not to be true. This does explain her being associated with the von Rosen family who owned the land and had a castle there. They likely had an illegitimate child or adopted child of some origin and rumors started.

5) Daut lived near Aluksne in the North East of Latvia or Estonia, also north of Latvia.

But how she got from the Viški or Jekabpils to Daut in the North makes this an unlikely story.

6) She was the maid for the Glücks from age 12 on, brought to wait on them by her Aunt Catherine Lisa.

But they did not treat her as a regular servant. They arranged her marriage and taught her to run a middle class house. This story is probably not true.

7) She was promiscuous and slept with many men in the house before she was forced to marry. She had an illegitimate baby at 13 who died.

But there was no reason for the family of the Minister Glück, head of the Lutheran Church in eastern Latvia, to put up with this, they had a reputation to maintain. On the other hand there was great reason for her enemies as Empress to spread these rumors. It is probably not true.

8) Finally she was virtuous and well liked in all ways. Wurm who was a tutor in the house of the Glücks said this. Marta had given him a pension and he was motivated to say good things about her, but he was an eyewitness. This might be boring, but true.

Marta could recall some family names like Duklya, Vaselovsky and Skavronskaya when she looked for the family in 1712. Marta was young enough to be taken in as a ward of the Glücks, she had to be younger than 12, but to recall those names she was not an infant. She was older than three.

Then Glück was supervisor for a very large part of Lutheran Latvia. He probably did get Marta from a local Reverend named Daut or some variation thereof. This is more likely than her aunt knowing important people 100 miles away. However I think Daut was from Jekabpils, since her aunts placed the child with him.

Marta always had good relations with the family Glücks. Marta was picked up by the Russians at 18 on August 26, 1702. Marta was married to a Swede for eight days before this by Reverend Glück according to all accounts including the Swedish one.

When Marta was Empress she helped the Glücks when they were in great need. She got them out of a prison camp. Peter the Great gave him the school Glück founded in Russia and 3000 rubles a year. Later Marta presented Glück's grateful widow with villages, a stipend and serfs.

“Many authors have expressed great surprise at the contradictory reports relative to the origin of so extraordinary a personage as Catherine I...To expect that the history of a person of low extraction who gradually rose to the most exalted station should contain no uncertain and discordant accounts, is to expect improbabilities. All that remains, therefore, is, without prejudice or partiality, to examine and compare the various histories of Catherine I and to collect from the whole the most rational and probable narrative.”12

1 Voltaire, Charles XII page 220

2 Gordon, Alexander, page 24 of the introduction

3 Milner, Thomas page 247-248

4 Browning, Oscar, Except for the one week of Maria Minskek and the false Dimitri page 199

5 Bradford, Sarah Hopkins page 73

6 Grot, J. Catherine Ist Descent

7 Belozersky, N.A.. Section I

8 Coxe, William page 495

9 Dumes, Bruce The time has come to talk of Viški

10 Kerner, Robert J ,The Kievian Rus database

11 Belozersky, NA. Section IX

12 Coxe, William page 493

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