He astonished everyone by the generosity of his measures. The good nature that had been blurred by coarse and thoughtless manners came to the fore in a burst of gratitude for his peaceful accession to power. He pardoned enemies, he retained most of Elizabeth’s ministers, and he tried to be kind to Catherine. In the royal palace he allowed her comfortable quarters at one end, housed himself at the other, and assigned to his mistress the intermediate rooms; it was a mortal affront, of course, but Catherine was secretly pleased to be at a distance from him. He provided her with an ample allowance, and paid her extensive debts without inquiring into their origin.65 In official ceremonies he gave her equal standing with himself, sometimes yielded her precedence.66
He recalled from exile the men and women whom previous rulers had sent to Siberia; now Münnich returned, aged eighty-two, to be welcomed by thirty-two grandsons; Peter restored him to his rank as field marshal; Münnich vowed to serve him to the end, and did. The happy Emperor freed the nobles from the obligation that Peter the Great had laid upon them to give many years of their lives to the state; they proposed to build a statue of him in gold; he bade them use the metal more sensibly.67 A decree of February 21 abolished the universally hated secret police, and forbade arrest on political charges until these had been reviewed and sanctioned by the Senate. On June 25 Peter issued a ukase that adultery should henceforth be exempt from official censure, “since in that matter even Christ had not condemned”;68 the court was delighted. Merchants were pleased by a lowering of export dues; the price of salt was reduced; the buying of serfs for factory labor was stopped. Old Believers, who had fled from Russia to avoid persecution under Elizabeth, were invited to return and enjoy religious freedom. The clergy, however, was incensed by decrees of February 16 and March 21 nationalizing all the lands of the Church, and making all Orthodox clergymen salaried employees of the government. The serfs on these secularized domains were freed, and serfs on the estates of the nobility expected that they too would soon be freed. Amid all these reforms—suggested to him by various ministers—Peter continued to drink heavily.
The most startling of his measures, and the one that gave him the greatest happiness, was his termination of the war with Prussia. Even before his accession he had done much to help Frederick, secretly transmitting to him the military plans of Elizabeth’s Council; now he boasted of having done this.69 On May 5 he bound Russia with Prussia in defensive and offensive alliance. He instructed the commander of the Russian forces then with the Austrian army to put them at the service of “the King my master.”70 He donned a Prussian uniform, and ordered the local soldiery to do the same; he established Prussian discipline in the army; he organized military exercises every day for his court, and compelled every male courtier to participate regardless of age and gout.71 He gave his own “Holsteiner Guard” precedence over the proud regiments of the capital.
The Russian army was not averse to peace, but it was shocked by Russia’s precipitate desertion of her French and Austrian allies, and her surrender of all terrain won from Prussia during the war. It was alarmed when Peter announced that he proposed to send a Russian host against Denmark to recover that duchy of Schleswig which Denmark had taken from the dukes of Holstein, who included Peter’s father. The troops made it clear that they would refuse to fight such a war; when Peter asked Kirill Razumovsky to lead an army to Denmark, the general answered, “Your Majesty must first give me another army to force mine to advance.”72
Suddenly, despite his brave and remarkable reforms, Peter found himself unpopular. The army hated him as a traitor, the clergy hated him as a Lutheran or worse, the unfreed serfs clamored for emancipation, and the court ridiculed him as a fool. Upon all this came the general suspicion that he intended to divorce Catherine and marry his mistress.73 “That young woman” (according to Castéra), “destitute of everything like address, but stupidly proud, … had the art of obtaining from the Czar—sometimes by flattery, sometimes by chiding, and sometimes even by beating him—a renewal of the promise he had made her, … to marry her and place her, instead of Catherine, upon the throne of Russia.”74 As power and liquor went more and more to his head, he treated Catherine harshly, even to publicly calling her a fool.75 The Baron de Breteuil wrote to Choiseul: “The Empress [Catherine] is in the cruelest state, and is treated with the utmost contempt.... I should not be surprised, knowing her courage and violence, if this were to drive her to some extremity … Some of her friends are doing their best to pacify her, but they would risk everything for her if she required it.”76
St. Petersburg and its environs were full of Catherine’s partisans. She was popular with the army, the court, and the populace. Next to her ladies in waiting and Grigori Orlov, her closest intimate in these critical days was Ekaterina Romanovna, Princess Dashkova. This bold and enterprising lady was only nineteen years old, but, as niece to Chancellor Vorontsov and sister to Peter’s mistress, she was already prominent in the affairs of the court. Peter, in his simplicity or his cups, had revealed to her his intention to depose Catherine and enthrone Elizaveta Vorontsova.77 Dashkova carried the news to Catherine, and begged her to join in a plot to put Peter aside. But Catherine had already organized a conspiracy with Nikita Panin, tutor to her son Paul, and Kirill Razumovsky, hetman of the Ukraine, and Nikolai Korff, head of the police, and the Orlov brothers, and P. B. Passek, an officer in a local regiment.
On June 14 Peter ordered Catherine’s arrest; he canceled the order, but bade her retire to Peterhof, twelve miles west of the capital. Peter himself withdrew to Oranienbaum with his mistress. He left instructions that the army should prepare to sail for Denmark, and promised to join it in July. On June 27 Lieutenant Passek was arrested for making derogatory speeches against the Emperor. Fearing that he would be tortured into confessing the plot, Grigori and Alexei Orlov decided that they must act at once. Early on the twenty-eighth Alexei rode in haste to Peterhof, roused Catherine from her sleep, and persuaded her to ride back with him to St. Petersburg. On the way they stopped at the barracks of the Ismailovsky Regiment; the soldiers were summoned by a drum roll; Catherine appealed to them to save her from the threats of the Emperor; they swore to protect her; “they rushed to kiss my hands and feet, the hem of my dress, calling me their savior” (so Catherine wrote to Poniatowski78)—for they knew that she would not send them toDenmark. Escorted by two regiments and the Orlovs, she proceeded to the Kazan Cathedral, where she was proclaimed autocrat of Russia. The Preobrazhensky Regiment joined her there, and begged her to “forgive us for being the last to come.”79The Horse Guards fell in, and fourteen thousand troops accompanied her to the Winter Palace; there the Church Synod and the Senate officially announced the dethronement of Peter and the accession of Catherine. Some high dignitaries protested, but the army frightened them into swearing allegiance to the Empress.
She donned the uniform of a captain of the Horse Guards, and rode at the head of her troops to Peterhof. Peter had come there that morning to see her; informed of the revolt, he fled to Kronstadt; Münnich offered to go with him to Pomerania and organize an army to restore him; Peter, unable to decide, returned to Oranienbaum. When Catherine’s forces approached he spent a day in pleas for a compromise; then, on June 29 (O.S.), he signed his abdication; “he allowed himself to be overthrown,” said Frederick, “as a child lets himself be sent to bed.”80 He was imprisoned at Ropsha, fifteen miles from St. Petersburg. He begged Catherine to let him keep his Negro servant, his lapdog, his violin, and his mistress. He was allowed all but the last. Elizaveta Vorontsova was banished to Moscow, and disappeared from history.