Between Peter the Great and Elizaveta Petrovna Russian history is a dreary and confusing record of intrigue and palace revolutions; here, if anywhere, we may with a good conscience save space and time. Nevertheless, some elements of the mélange must be noted if we are to understand the position, character, and conduct of Catherine the Great.
The natural heir to the throne in 1725 was Piotr Alexeevich, the ten-year-old boy of Peter’s slain son Alexis. But Peter’s widow, who could neither read nor write, persuaded the palace guard (by paying their long-overdue wages) that he had designated her as his successor; and with their support she proclaimed herself (February 27, 1725) Catherine I, Empress of All the Russias. This lesser Catherine then took to drink and adultery, achieved stupor every evening, retired regularly by 5 A.M., and left the government to her former lover Prince Alexander Danilovich Menshikov and a Supreme Council. Count Andrei Ostermann, of German birth, took charge of foreign affairs and directed Russia into friendship with Germany and Austria and hostility to France. Following the plans of Peter I, Catherine married her daughter Anna Petrovna to Karl Friedrich, duke of Holstein-Gottorp; the couple went to live in Kiel, where Anna bore the future Peter III. Catherine herself, exhausted with pleasure, died May 6, 1727, having nominated as her heir that same Piotr Alexeevich whose throne she had usurped.
Peter II was still only twelve; Menshikov continued to govern, and used his power to feather his nest. A group of nobles, led by the brothers Ivan and Vasili Lukich Dolgoruki, overthrew Menshikov and banished him to Siberia, where he died in 1729. A year later Peter II was carried off by smallpox, and the male branch of the Romanov dynasty ended. It was this contretemps that allowed Russia to be ruled for sixty-six years by three women who rivaled or exceeded, in executive capacity and political results, most contemporary kings, and outpaced all of them but Louis XV in sexual promiscuity.
The first of these czarinas was Anna Ivanovna, the thirty-five-year-old daughter of Ivan Alexeevich, the feeble-minded brother of Peter the Great. The Council chose her because she had acquired a protective reputation for humility and obedience. Dominated by the Dolgorukis and the Golitsyns, the Council drew up “Conditions” which they sent to Anna, then in Kurland, as prerequisite to her confirmation as empress. She signed (January 28, 1730). But neither the army nor the clergy wished to replace autocracy with oligarchy. A delegation of the palace guard went out to meet Anna, and petitioned her to take absolute power. Emboldened by their arms, she tore up the “Conditions” in the presence of the court.
Distrusting the Russian nobles, Anna brought in from Kurland the Germans who had pleased her there. Ernst von Bühren, or Biron, who had been her lover, became the head of her government; Ostermann was restored to foreign affairs; Count Christoff von Münnich reorganized the army; Löwenwolde, Korff, and Keyserling helped to give the new regime some German efficiency. Taxes were collected with careful rigor; education was extended and improved; an instructed civil service was prepared. With similar effectiveness the new administration imprisoned, banished, or executed the Dolgorukis and the Golitsyns.
Satisfied with two lovers (Biron and Löwenwolde), Anna lived a relatively regular life, rose at eight, gave three hours to government, and smiled approval as her Germans expanded Russian power. An army under Münnich invaded Poland, deposed the French-oriented Stanislas Leszczyński, enthroned the Saxon Augustus III, and took the first step toward binding Poland to Russia. France countered by urging Turkey to attack Russia; the Sultan demurred, being busy on his Persian front; Russia thought it a good time to declare war against Turkey; so began (1735) sixty years of conflict for control of the Black Sea. Anna’s diplomats explained that the Turks, or their dependents in South Russia, held the outlets of the five great rivers-Dniester, Bug, Dnieper, Don, Kuban—which were the main channels of south-bound Russian commerce; that the semibarbarous Moslem tribes inhabiting the lower basins of these streams were a standing threat to the Christians of Russia; that the northern shores of the Black Sea were a natural and necessary part of Russia; and that a great and growing nation like Russia should no longer be blocked from free access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. This remained the theme song of Russia through the remainder of the century, and beyond.
The first objective was the Crimea, the almost-island that stood as a Turkish stronghold on the northern front of the Black Sea. To take that peninsula was the goal of Münnich’s campaign in 1736. His chief foes were space and disease. He had to cross 330 miles of wilderness in which not one town could provide food or medicine for his 57,000 troops; eighty thousand wagons had to accompany them in a long line subject at any point and moment to attack by Tatar tribes. With brilliant generalship Münnich in twenty-nine days took Perekop, Koslov, and Bakhchisarai (the Crimean capital); but in that month dysentery and other ailments spread such misery and mutiny among his men that he had to abandon his conquests and retreat into the Ukraine. Meanwhile another of Anna’s generals took Azov, which controlled the mouth of the Don.
Münnich marched south again in April, 1737, with seventy thousand men, and captured Ochakov, near the mouth of the Bug. In June Austria joined in attacking the Turks, but its campaign so miscarried that it signed a separate peace; and Russia, suddenly left to face the full Turkish army, and expecting war with Sweden, signed (September 18, 1739) a peace that restored to the Turks almost all that had been won in three campaigns. This treaty was celebrated in St. Petersburg as a splendid triumph, which had cost only a hundred thousand lives.
Anna survived the war by a year. Shortly before her death (October 17, 1740) she named as heir to the throne the eight-week-old Ivan VI, son of her German-born niece Anna Leopoldovna and Prince Anton Ulrich of Brunswick, Biron to be regent till Ivan reached seventeen. But Münnich and Ostermann had now had enough of Biron; they joined with Ulrich and Leopoldovna to send him to Siberia (November 9, 1740). Anna Leopoldovna became regent, with Münnich as “first minister.” Fearing the total domination of Russia by Teutons, the French and Swedish ambassadors aroused and financed a revolt of the Russian nobles. They chose as their secret candidate for the throne Elizaveta Petrovna, daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I.
Elizabeth, as we shall call her, was thirty-two years old, but was at the height of her beauty, courage, and vivacity. She loved athletics and violent exercise, but also she was fond of amorous delight, and entertained a succession of gallants. She had little education, wrote Russian with difficulty, spoke French well. She seems to have had no thought of gracing the throne until Anna Leopoldovna and Ostermann set her aside in favor of foreigners. When the Regent ordered the St. Petersburg regiments to Finland, and the soldiers grumbled at facing a winter war, Elizabeth seized the opportunity; she put on military garb, went to the barracks at 2 A.M. December 6, 1741, and appealed to the soldiers to support her. At the head of a regiment she sledged over the snow to the Winter Palace, awakened the Regent, and sent both her and the baby Czar to prison. When the city awoke it found that it had a new ruler, a thoroughly Russian Empress, a daughter of the great Peter. Russia and France rejoiced.