The life of Catherine I , Empress of Russia, was said by Voltaire to be nearly as extraordinary as that of Peter the Great himself. Although there are no documents to confirm the date or place of her birth, it is thought that Marta of Muscovy came from Lithuanian stock and was one of four children of a Catholic peasant, Samuel Skavronski. When her parents died of the plague while she was still a young child, the family scattered and Marta was raised by a Lutheran pastor and educator, Johann Ernst Gluck, who was the first to translate the Bible into Latvian. As a member of the Gluck family, Marta was never taught to read or write, but was raised to do what all peasant women of that era were born to do ― laundry, cleaning, caring for children, tending and feeding animals, and cooking. In these as in all things, Marta was not ordinary. Energetic, compassionate, charming, and wise, Marta gradually rose from housekeeper of a rectory to housekeeper of a nation.
Catherine met Peter through one of his friends and soon became his mistress. Underneath her gentle exterior was an astute woman with penetrating insights and she understood his character ― a man rent by a thousand threats, loyalties, hatreds, fears, friendships, and genius, not common in any situation or in any character ― and over time, he became increasingly dependent upon her. She traveled everywhere with him, campaigning by his side and sharing all the hardships of the Tsar’s life. Challenged by the powerful forces that were changing the face of Europe, together Catherine and Peter rode the cusp to greatness.
Catherine and Peter later married secretly and had twelve children, two of whom survived into adulthood. Their daughter, Elizabeth, became Empress Elizabeth I and regularly whipped Frederick the Great and all of the tall Cossacks in her own army.
When Peter died without naming an heir, Catherine’s candidacy for the throne was supported by the guards and by several powerful and important individuals. As a result, Catherine was almost immediately proclaimed Empress of Russia.
Marta of Muscovy is an impressive biography that pays tribute not just to Marta, but to the people and spirit of Russia.