Peter III became emperor of Russia in 1762 at the age of 34. It took six months from the time he took the title for his wife, Catherine the Great, to conspire with her lover to overthrow him. While 1762 began the longest reign by a woman in Russian history, Peter III wouldn’t make it out of the year alive. Usually, marriages have two outcomes: stay together or get divorced. Who knew “military coup and murder” was a third option?
Catherine the Great and Peter III had a contentious marriage from the start. Arranged by Peter’s aunt, the pair were only a good match politically, as Catherine was from Prussia — the countries had long been at odds. As far as their compatibility otherwise, they really weren’t suited for each other at all. Historical documents say they were mismatched on just about every front: intellectually, ideologically, even physically. It was truly a marriage of political gain and not much else. A princess by birth, she was born Sophie Frederica Auguste. Don’t let the title fool you: though she was a princess, her family had fallen on hard times. Her rich family history and connections were enough to position her well in society, however. She adopted the name Catherine when they married, when she was 16 and Peter was 17.
According to Catherine’s memoirs, she thought of Peter as an idiot and a drunk who was only interested in playing the part of a military leader. The couple were married for nearly 17 years, but it is rumored that they each had multiple affairs over the years.
Born Karl Peter Ulrich on February 21, 1728, in Kiel in northern Germany, Peter III was the grandson of two emperors, Peter the Great of Russia and Charles XII of Sweden. After his parents died, he was placed in the care of tutors and officials who groomed him for the Swedish throne. When he was 14, he was brought to Russia by his aunt Elizabeth, who was empress, and proclaimed heir to the throne under the name Pyotr Fyodorovich.
From day one of his rule, his decrees as emperor were viewed as treasonous by the Russian aristocracy and military class, which alienated him. Today, the idea of enforcing religious freedom, disbanding secret police forces, and making it illegal for landowners to kill serfs farming their land all seem like pretty supportable ideas but they were not popular with the upper classes in Russia at the time. Peter III was also unpopular for withdrawing from the Seven Years’ War and forming an alliance with Russia’s historic adversary, Prussia.
The reason for Peter III’s overthrow has been the cause of much speculation. Originally, historians believed that it was the aristocracy and political leaders he alienated with his policies and partnerships that led to his demise. The theory was that they approached Catherine for her help in getting rid of him, but some historians now believe that it was Catherine who was the mastermind behind Peter III’s assassination all along. It is believed that she thought he had plans to divorce her.
On July 28, 1762, Peter III was arrested and forced to abdicate the throne. Catherine was declared the sole ruler of Russia while he was exiled to Ropsha, just outside of the capital at the time, St. Petersburg. It was there that he was murdered by Alexei Orlov, the brother of Catherine’s lover at the time, Grigory Orlov, a military officer who is believed to have been the biological father of two of Catherine’s children. Some historians wonder whether Catherine knew Peter III would be assassinated or simply exiled.
Though Peter III would not survive an uprising against him, Catherine went on to survive more than a dozen uprisings over the next 34 years as the longest-ruling empress in Russian history. It turns out you could never know that your partner is secretly plotting to overthrow you and get that crown.
Catherine the Great premieres on HBO on October 21.