Marta Skowrońska was a Lithuanian peasant of possibly Polish origins. Details about her roots and early life are sketchy. Possibly born in 1684 she was married off in 1702 to a Swedish dragoon in Latvia. Swedish forces were in the region following their decisive victory at the Battle of Narva in 1700. But 8 days after Marta’s wedding the Russians invaded and the Swedes withdrew. The invasion marked the stunning rise of Marta.
She first worked in the household of Field Marshal Boris Sheremetev (it is unclear whether she was ever his mistress). She then became part of the household of Alexander Menshikov the best friend of Tsar Peter the Great. Menshikov was already engaged to Darya Arsenyeva, his future wife and the two may not have been lovers. But Menshikov may have intended to present her to Peter. The Lithuanian peasant and the jumped up stablehand would form a lifelong alliance and friendship. By 1703 Marta was Peter’s mistress. In 1705 she converted to orthodoxy and took the name Catherine Alexeyevna (Yekaterina Alexeyvna). The foursome Peter & Catherine and Menshikov & Draya would travel together as Peter campaigned in the long Great Northern War.
Peter had previously been married. The unhappy arranged marriage had been dissolved and his wife locked up in a convent. His only son Alexei was the hope of Russian conservatives hoping to overturn his reforms. Father and son had a tense relationship as Alexei did not measure up to Peter’s expectations. Catherine would give Peter a happy family life and twelve children. She was the one who calmed his epileptic seizures. They married secretly in 1707 and only two children, daughters Anna and Elizaveta survived to adulthood. In 1712 Peter married Catherine officially in a public ceremony – the fact that this wedding came after the birth of his daughters cast aspersions on the legitimacy of the daughters when it came time to arrange marriages.
In 1716 came the big scandal of Peter’s reign. Alexei had been widowed when his wife died in childbirth bearing a son Peter. In response to a stern letter from Peter demanding Alexei pay more attention to matters of state, Alexei first offered to surrender his place in the succession to his infant son and then fled to his brother in law the Emperor Charles VI. By 1718 Peter had discovered his son’s location and coaxed him back home promising no punishments. But the Tsar was stung by the humiliation of his heir fleeing to a foreign potentate. A reign of terror tried to find out accomplices. Alexei himself was interrogated. But after all the torture the most Peter could find was hearsay that Alexei wished for his father’s death and wished to roll back Peter’s reforms and aggressive expansionist policy. Even though Peter had promised to pardon his son he was convinced Alexei was a traitor. Already ailing the weak Alexei received 25 strokes of the knout on 19 June and 15 more on the 24th. The same day he was sentenced to death by the Russian Senate. Two days later Alexei was dead, probably from the effects of his torture.
The death of Alexei tarnished Peter’s reputation but also muddled up the succession. None of Peter’s five sons (a sad list of Peters and Pavels) by Catherine survived. When Alexei died one of Catherine’s sons Peter Petrovich was still alive, but the boy died the next year aged 3 and a half. That left the more robust grandson of Peter, the 4 year old Peter Alekseyevich as the legitimate heir (and the hope of the conservatives). The only other heirs were all female – the two daughters of Peter’s deceased older brother and one time co-ruler Ivan V – Catherine and Anna; and Peter’s daughters Anna and Elizaveta who were both young.
In 1724 Peter took the unique and spectacular step of crowning Catherine Empress and co-ruler (though he retained actual control).
It was a remarkable rise for the one time peasant mistress. More was to come. Peter died in February 1725 without naming a successor. Menshikov and the new men Peter had promoted faced ruin if the old aristocrats came to power. They arranged a coup with the guards regiments and proclaimed Catherine the ruler of Russia. She was the first woman to rule as Empress of Russia in her own name (Peter’s sister Sophia had been regent and may have had such ambitions but failed).
Her reign was short and uneventful. She was mostly controlled by Menshikov and his cabal but managed to reduce Russian military expenditures easing the crushing burden on the peasantry. The biggest implication of her reign was to legitimize rule by women – and the rest of the century would be dominated by women. However, when she died the claims of the last surviving male Romanov could not be ignored and the unfortunate Alexei’s son was proclaimed Peter II. Catherine’s death marked the fall of Menshikov who after unsuccessfully trying to betroth Peter II to his daughter was packed off to Siberia.
Peter II died suddenly after a reign of 2 1/2 years of small pox on the date set for his wedding. His successor was Peter the Great’s niece Anna Ivanova who ruled for a decade. Anna selected her great nephew the infant Ivan VI as successor but he was soon deposed by Elizaveta the daughter of Catherine I. Elizaveta had a fairly successful reign and it was her death during the Seven Years War that saved Frederick the Great from destruction. She adopted her nephew and Catherine’s grandson Karl Peter Ulrich as her heir Peter III. Peter III barely lasted six months before being deposed by his wife Catherine II the Great. When Catherine was succeeded by her son Pavel (whose throne she had occupied for over 30 years) the new Tsar rewrote the Romanov succession rules to prevent a recurrence of the century of women. Women were now cut out of the succession and no woman would rule Russia until the revolution (and as it happens since then).