German princess Sophia Augusta Frederica of Anhalt-Zerbst was the daughter of Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst (1690-1747) and his much younger wife, Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Sophia was educated by Cardel, a Huguenot refugee who fled France after Louis XIV’s 1685 cancellation of the Edict of Nantes that had guaranteed the rights of French Calvinists since 1598. Cardel was beloved by her charge in whom she imbued a love of French language and culture, which would later allow her to correspond with luminaries of the Enlightenment.
Sophia’s mother held great ambitions for her daughter’s marriage and, in 1744, her hopes were fulfilled when Russian Empress Elizabeth (1709-1762) invited the young princess to Russia as a potential bride for her nephew and heir Karl Peter Ulrich (1728-1962), grandson of Peter the Great, Sophia’s second cousin and the future Peter III. At the time of our letter he was Duke of Holstein-Gottorp and King of Finland.
During their last week together, “Sophia did not tell Babet Cardel about her imminent departure. Her parents had forbidden her to mention it; they put it about that they and their daughter were leaving Zerbst simply to pay their annual visit to Berlin. Babet, keenly attuned to her pupil’s character, realized that no one was being straightforward. But the pupil, in her tearful farewell to her beloved teacher, still would not reveal the truth. And teacher and pupil were never to see each other again,” (Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Massie).
Sophia shortly after arriving in Russia
Sophia arrived in Moscow on February 9, 1744. “In her eagerness to master the Russian language, and being as yet unused to the Russian climate, Sophia would get up in the middle of the night and, while everyone else was asleep, would sit in her dressing gown with bare feet, forcing herself to learn by heart the complicated syntax of the Russian grammar. The result was that she fell ill with a serious attack of pleurisy barely a fortnight after she had arrived in the country,” (Catherine the Great, Haslip). Sophia’s mother, Johanna, feared her daughter had contracted smallpox (as mentioned in our letter) but opposed the doctor’s suggestion that she be bled, having lost her brother to the practice. However, Empress Elizabeth, arriving at Sophia’s bedside to find her unconscious and Johanna arguing with the doctors, ordered the doctors to bleed the patient. “Sophia recovered consciousness in the arms of the weeping empress and throughout the following weeks, while she lay between life and death, Elizabeth rarely left her bedside, and even Peter was sufficiently concerned to inquire every day after her health,” (ibid.). In her memoirs Catherine attributes her recovery to the frequent bloodlettings and the tender care by her future mother-in-law.
During her month-long convalescence, Catherine’s mother, Johanna, wanted to send for a Lutheran priest, but Sophia had the presence of mind to request her Russian Orthodox teacher instead. It was also during her long recuperation that Johanna, having fallen in love with a Russian count, insisted that her ailing daughter give her a piece of blue and silver brocade for which Zerbst was well known. “The empress no sooner heard of this incident than she sent Sophia a whole pile of brocades with which to refurbish her wardrobe, including one in blue and silver, even lovelier than the one she had given away… [but] Sophia had not only her mother’s jealousy with which to contend. There was also the grand duke’s growing resentment at the way in which she was being held up to him as a good example. What he resented even more were the rich presents she was always receiving from his aunt, and in order to placate him, Sophia had to spend a lot of her pin money in buying him valuable gifts,” as she arranges in our letter! (ibid.).
By April 21, 1744, her 15th birthday, Sophia was fully recovered. The young princess enthusiastically sought to assimilate in Russian court, converting from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy and changing her name to Catherine. She and Peter married on August 21, 1745, but theirs was an unhappy union culminating with Catherine’s September 1762 coup against her weak-minded husband (she referred to him as an “idiot”) shortly after his ascension to the throne.
Catherine the Great
Ruling as Catherine II, her impressive diplomatic and military talents soon earned her a reputation as equal to any of her western rivals and she counted among her friends such intellectual giants as Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot. At her death, Catherine was buried in a silver brocade dress.
Written on a folded sheet with the integral address leaf intact. Biographical notes in an unidentified hand in the lower margin. Some tears to the integral leaf from the wax seal with remnants of the red seal attached. Gently creased and in fine condition. A very rare and early letter: fewer than a dozen earlier letters are known to have survived. An early ALS from Catherine in which she thanks the recipient for the gift of a dog and formerly in the Schram Collection sold for $20,000 in 2007.
Published, from a copy, in the Mitteilungen des Vereins für Anhaltische Geschichte und Altertumskunde, vol. 4 (1886), p. 481. Our thanks to Kelsey Rubin-Detlev, Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Southern California for her research assistance.