She was the daughter of Prince Christian
August, a Prussian officer, and Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp,
and named Sophie Auguste Friederike, Prinzessin von Anhalt-Zerbst. As such she
was a distant cousin of Frederich II of Prussia and cousin as well to the
ruling line of Hostein dukes. One of these, Karl Friedrich, had married the
elder sister of the Russian Empress Elizabeth and the pair had a son, Karl
Peter Ulrich. This inauspicious lad was Elizabeth's choice as her successor.
Seeking a suitable consort for her selection in order to continue the dynasty,
Elizabeth hit upon the obscure young Sophia. Arriving at St. Petersburg in
answer to the summons from Elizabeth, the clever Sophia recognized a good
chance when she saw it. Not that her proposed groom was any prize choice, but
the splendor of the role even of the wife of a Russian Tsar was awe inspiring.
So Sophie promptly converted from her Lutheran faith to the Orthodox religion
and took her new name Ekaterina Alekseevna. She was married to the pathetic
Peter in August of 1745.
The new Catherine lost no time is starting to make up for a rather abysmal
education. She took up reading all the latest in European Enlightenment
literature and dutifully studied the Russian language and national customs.
Since her husband was eccentric in more ways than one, she also had plenty of
time to investigate the personal attributes of the important guards officers
about the court, just as the Empress Elizabeth had. Thus by the time Peter III
came to the throne in 1762, Catherine had assured herself a good foundation,
not only in state affairs but also in those other affairs on which matters of
importance often rest in absolute monarchies.
Peter proved as hopeless a ruler as he had a husband. He promptly ended the
successful war against Frederich and began the conversion of the Russian army
from its traditional uniform and tactics to that of his beloved Holstein. Thus
it was that on the night of 28 June of 1762 a small group of officers and
courtiers were able to arrest the feeble Peter and proclaim the German princess
as the Tsarevna of Russia. Catherine lost no time in consolidating her position
and letting every one in doubt know that she considered herself the Autocrat of
all the Russias. Peter III was soon strangled and shortly after so was the
insane 23 year old Ivan VI, who had lived his entire life in solitary
confinment in the Shusselburg (Orekhov fortress). Here is the entry for
Catherine II in the11th Edition of Encyclopedia