July 17th, 1762 – The Rise of Catherine the Great

Today-In-History

On July 17th, 1762, Catherine the Great became tsar of Russia upon the murder of Peter III of Russia.

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After the death of the Empress Elizabeth of Russia on January 5th, 1762, Peter succeeded to the throne as Emperor Peter III, and Catherine became empress consort. The imperial couple moved into the new Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg.

The tsar’s eccentricities and policies, including a great admiration for the Prussian king, Frederick II, alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated. Besides, Peter intervened in a dispute between his Duchy of Holstein and Denmark over the province of Schleswig (see Count Johann Hartwig Ernst von Bernstorff).

Russia and Prussia fought each other during the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) until Peter’s accession. Peter’s insistence on supporting Frederick II of Prussia, who had seen Berlin occupied by Russian troops in 1760, but now suggested partitioning Polish territories with Russia, eroded much of his support among the nobility.

Catherine and PeterIn July 1762, barely six months after becoming emperor, Peter took a holiday with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives to Oranienbaum, leaving his wife in Saint Petersburg. On the night of July 8th, Catherine the Great was given the news that one of her co-conspirators had been arrested by her estranged husband, and that all they had been planning must take place at once. She left the palace and departed for the Ismailovsky regiment, where Catherine delivered a speech asking the soldiers to protect her from her husband. Catherine then left with the regiment to go to the Semenovsky Barracks where the clergy was waiting to ordain her as the sole occupant of the Russian throne. She had her husband arrested and forced him to sign a document of abdication, leaving no one to dispute her accession to the throne. On July 17th, 1762—eight days after the coup and just six months after his accession to the throne—Peter III died at Ropsha, at the hands of Alexei Orlov (younger brother to Grigory Orlov, then a court favourite and a participant in the coup). Historians find no evidence for Catherine’s complicity in the supposed assassination.

At the time of Peter III’s overthrow, other potential rival claimants to the throne existed: Ivan VI (1740–1764), in closed confinement at Schlüsselburg, in Lake Ladoga, from the age of six months; and Yelizaveta Alekseyevna Tarakanova (1753–1775). Ivan VI was assassinated during an attempt to free him as part of a failed coup against Catherine: Catherine, like Empress Elizabeth before her, had given strict instructions that he was to be killed in the event of any such attempt. Ivan was thought to be insane because of his years of solitary confinement, so might have made a poor emperor, even as a figurehead.

Catherine

Catherine, although not descended from any previous Russian emperor, succeeded her husband as empress regnant. She followed the precedent established when Catherine I (born in the lower classes in the Swedish East Baltic territories) succeeded her husband Peter the Great in 1725.

Historians debate Catherine’s technical status, some seeing her as a regent or as a usurper, tolerable only during the minority of her son, Grand Duke Paul. In the 1770s, a group of nobles connected with Paul (Nikita Panin and others) considered a new coup to depose Catherine and transfer the crown to Paul, whose power they envisaged restricting in a kind of constitutional monarchy. However, nothing came of this, and Catherine reigned until her death.


 

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