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An Order of Emancipation

How Catherine I Established a Form of Distinction for Women


Established in Russia under Peter the Great and bestowed upon Catherine I who became its supreme head, the Order of Saint Catherine, or the ‘Order of Liberation’ (‘Orden osvobozhdeniia’), was the first order in Russia to be awarded to women. This small sliver of Petrine era history, as Professor Igor Fedyukin demonstrates in his new research, reveals the monarch’s wife’ serious political ambitions. Professor Fedyukin discusses how the history of the ‘ladies’ order’ reflects the former mistress’s plans to elevate her status and change the line of succession to the throne in her children’s favor.

The Russian Galatea

Historians have long believed that the Order of St. Catherine, the first ‘ladies' order’ in Russia, was established in 1713 by Peter the Great himself. His second wife, Ekaterina Alekseevna (Catherine), was considered the order’s honoree rather than its co-creator. Generally, the tsarina was viewed as a subordinateto Peter, as the mythical Galatea was to her husband, Pygmalion. This undoubtedly stemmed from the tsarina’s biography and her fairytale-like ascent to the throne in particular. A commoner by birth, Marta Skavronskaya, mistress to the tsar (whom she fatefully met in 1703) over time became the empress of the entire Russian Empire (crowned in 1724).

In fact, the relationship between the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea and the Russian throne deserves some reexamination, according to Igor Fedyukin and Ernest Zitzer. Based on recently opened archival materials at the State Historical Museum (GIM; Department of Written Sources) it is clear that Catherine I was acting as an independent politician as early as 1709-1713. In fact, she was a co-architect of the Petrine dynastic structure for many years.

The documents, which include the tsarina’s correspondence with Prince Boris Kurakin, a diplomat and brother-in-law to Peter, dating from late summer to the autumn of 1713, demonstrate the seriousness of Catherine’s intentions. Long before Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich (Peter’s son from his first wife Eudoxia Lopukhina and the heir apparent) was officially removed from succession, his stepmother was already laying the groundwork for changes in the royal line of succession—to the benefit of, naturally, her own children. And with the help of Kurakin, a political veteran and long-time associate of Peter since 1683, Catherine I actively advanced her own interests: she created a cult of herself.

An element of this self-stylisation was indeed the establishment of the Order of St. Catherine. The tsarina and Prince Kurakin knew about Peter's interest in knightly orders, and they used this interest to their advantage in the pursuit of their own political ambitions.

Catherine I and Peter I

A Great Lady

The Order existed for over two hundred years (from 1713 to 1917).

While only eight awards were granted to women under Catherine I, by the end of the 18th century, all great princesses received the Order automatically. This increased the number of those awarded the Order dramatically. Ladies who were not members of the imperial family could receive the Order for merits such as enlightenment, charity, and so on. In 2012 there was an attempt to revive the Order, and the Order of St. Catherine the Great Martyr, similar to its historical predecessor, was established.

In 1713, the establishment of the new distinction became an important PR action.

 The status of the ‘Great Lady’ behind the elite women's order placed Catherine I—the ‘commoner queen’—on equal footing with royal European ladies. After all, in the Holy Roman Empire, orders for high-ranking ladies (such as the Order of the Slaves to Virtue, the Order of the Starry Cross, etc.) had been well-known since the 17th century. Recipients included wives of emperors, princesses of royal blood, and others. Such orders instituted by the Hapsburgs were well known by diplomats—especially Boris Kurakin. In 1711 Kurakin participated in the negotiations for the marriage of Tsarevich Alexei to the sister-in-law of Emperor Charles VI. Evidently, it was his resourcefulness in the matter thatprompted the queen to order that the statutes of the order be drafted by him.

 Also significant for the myth-building of Catherine I was the Order’s motto. ‘For love and fatherland’ encapsulated the feminine and patriotic ministry of the tsarina (and it was assumed that both were addressed to the monarch).

 The statutes of the Order locked in a hierarchy among the female members of the Romanov family, and Catherine I herself served as the Order’s supreme head. She came fully into her role of ‘Great Lady’ in 1725 after her husband’s death. She bestowed the insignia of the Order to the remaining women of her family (beginning with her daughters, Anna and Elizabeth, and then her nieces, the daughters of Tsar Ivan Alekseevich, Peter I’s brother). As a result of the Order’s statutes, the wife of Tsarevich Alexei had no advantages over her new Russian relatives. And his daughter Natalya only received a star at the same time as the non-royal Daria Menshikov, wife of Prince Alexander Danilovich and a close friend of Catherine I.

A Patron-Client Network

Incidentally, the Menshikovs also contributed to the establishment of the Order. In addition to having played a hand in Peter’s decision to marry her, the High Prince was a long-time advocate for Catherine I, so he hoped to receive his political due for the project. In a letter sent to his wife on the eve of the Battle of Poltava, he included a sketch of the medal with its motto, ‘For love and Fatherland’.

Kurakin was in close communication with Menshikov and knew about his ideas. He, too, sought ways to further Catherine’s political advancement. And in these efforts, he had his own interests.

The prince felt humiliated and unjustly overlooked for awards distinction ever since the Battle of Poltava, when the sovereign gave him a severe dressing-down (which ultimately cost Kurakin his promotion). Now, in 1713, the diplomat dreamed of gaining recognition as a leading Russian diplomat and receiving the Order of St. Andrew the First-Called for his many years of service.

In addition, Kurakin needed permission for his only son to leave Petrine Russia. Thus, it is not surprising that he sought the tsarina’s good graces.

Alexander Menshikov and Boris Kurakin

Starting in October 1712, Prince Boris served as the ambassador to the Republic of the United Provinces. It was there he hired Jean Dumont, a writer, lawyer, and compiler of the multivolume collection of international treaties, to draft the statutes of the Order. Kurakin was confident of Dumont’s abilities; he engaged his assistance even before receiving official permission from Peter.

Dumont, who had long resided in Vienna, was a political emigrant, the official historian of Charles VI, and well-versed in the Habsburg system of honours. One can assume that it would not have been difficult for him to compose the statutes for a new order — a Russian one.

Of the three GIM documents related to the Order, two are written in French. Both are written on paper with a watermark of Amsterdam's coat of arms. These are drafts of the statutes of the Order. The first document is a marked up draft, while the second is a clean copy. On the back of its last page there is an inscription in Russian: ‘This was given by way of Mr. Du [illegible] July 20/31 in The Hague.’ ‘Mr. Du’ here refers to Dumont (which in French was written as either ‘Du Mont’ or ‘Dumont’). The third document, ‘The draft of the Order of the cavalry ...’, is a translation from the French into Russian, evidently written by subordinates of Kurakin and containing notes by him. The statutes of the Order were then printed in the same form as they were when they arrived from Kurakin. Peter I did not edit them.

Ambiguous Status

The prince’s edits indicate that he took great care to anticipate the possible wishes and intentions of Catherine I.

For example, Dumont proposed the motto ‘Out of Darkness, Light’, which is, essentially, a paraphrase of a Biblical quotation. It corresponded to the mythology surrounding Peter I: the tsar himself was more than once aided by Providence (his sign, after all, is divine light). Compelling proof of this, in Dumont’s view, was the signing of the peace treaty during the Pruth River Campaign (1711) of the Russo-Ottoman War, when the monarch and his army were surrounded by the Ottomans, who far outnumbered them. Avoiding deadly defeat and reaching a deal in such circumstances was viewed as nothing short of a miracle.

But there was also a legend about Catherine’s key role in this miracle. She had accompanied the tsar on the campaign and, according to legend, offered up her jewels as a bribe to the Turkish commander. Peter I was then able to sign the Treaty of Pruth and lead the army to safety.

Kurakin changed the providentialist motto to one more grounded and tied to Catherine, and in essence, moved the emphasis of the Order from the tsar to the tsarina.

The Order’s supreme head’s title was also a delicate matter. Kurakin originally noted the customary French title ‘Grand Maitress’ in the margins. But then he thought better of it; by that time the term had acquired a second meaning: ‘lover’. To use that title would mean to remind Catherine of her recent mistress status. Her official wedding with Peter I, after all, had just taken place in 1712, a mere year and a half prior. In the version sent to the tsarina, the diplomat took care and switched to the German equivalent, writing that the head of the Order was the ‘Gross Meisterin des Ordens’.

Staged Greatness

Kurakin tried to show that he was a ‘diligent and loyal’ servant of Catherine I and emphasised how much effort he put into ‘building’ the Order to her decree. He hired goldsmiths, carvers, gold embroiderers and other foreign specialists. The Order’s original white ribbon was also changed to red.

The tsarina approved the statutes of the Order in September 1713, which she described as ‘elegantly composed in accordance with our wishes.’ She also promised an award for Kurakin in return. ‘Before, you sent us a white ribbon, for which now we would like to give you a blue ribbon,’ Catherine wrote, referring to the Order of Andrew the First-Called. The empress wrote that she had received royal consent for this and confirmed her ‘good graces’to Kurakin.

Two details of this letter are noteworthy.

 In the letter, the queen deliberately uses the ‘majestic plural’ (pluralis maestatis): ‘we remain’, ‘in accordance with our wishes’, ‘we try’. This grammatical form underscores Catherine’s royal status.

 The letter ‘reflects the hierarchical relationship between the commoner queen and her high-born subjects, wherein the empress acted both as a patron and as an intercessor,’ the researchers write. She not only gives instructions to dignitaries of Kurakin’s rank, but also, as a recognised royal spouse, is able to ensure that the prince will receive the award.

However, the establishment of the Order was but one part of an overall performance—a years-long effort on the part of the queen to build her own myth. This performance began with the staging of ‘The Comedy of Saint Catherin’ (circa 1707) and ended with the public wedding ceremony with the sovereign five years later. These actions were meant to legitimise their children born before their marriage, and they also laid the groundwork for the coronation of Catherine as empress.

‘In the context of the dynastic monarchy of the early Modern period, these events were of paramount political importance, especially since they are closely intertwined with the later removal from succession, condemnation and death of Peter’s legitimate son Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich,’ explains Fedyukin.

©Wikipedia«Peter the Great Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich at Peterhof, Nikolai Ge, 1871

Tsarevich in the Galleys

It is revealing that Kurakin methodically struck all references to Tsarevich Alexei and his German wife from the Russian translation of the statutes.

Generally, the diplomat’s behavior can be regarded as ‘a political declaration of unheard-of audacity’. ‘It is worth recalling that in the summer of 1713, when Kurakin was editing the statutes of the Order of Saint Catherine, the disgrace of Tsarevich Alexei did not yet appear inevitable,’ Fedyukin notes. ‘It was right at this time that his father had entrusted him, the heir apparent, with the most important government task he had ever had: to ensure the timely delivery of lumber for the immediate construction of galleys in the Baltic region.’ This task was an important step towards defeating the Swedish fleet and an early end to the war.

Regardless, the prince decided to remove all references to the tsar’s heir apparent from the document. It is possible that the diplomat could have been aware of decisions already made by Peter. But, most likely, Kurakin’s editing reflected his understanding of Catherine’s plans, which concerned her unborn son’s place in the line of succession to the throne.

Revival of a Miracle

Kurakin presented the Order to the queen not as an innovation, but as a ‘restoration’. The semi-legendary ‘Order of the Knights of St. Catherine of Mount Sinai’ was chosen as its prototype. According to some sources, this monastic military order of the Crusade era was established in 1063. However, whether it existed or not remains unknown. Be that as it may, Kurakin’s use of the legend was in the spirit of the times.

At the time European rulers were ‘restoring’ a number of medieval orders. Among them was Peter the Great himself, who founded the Order of St. Andrew the First-Called. However, while the statutes of the order created by the sovereign were never approved during his lifetime, those patronised by Catherine I were already published in October 1713.


Order of St. Andrew the Apostle the First-Called, St. Andrew’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg

True, she received the Order a mere year after it was established. Moreover, it was originally more likely intended to serve as a reminder of the ‘deliverance from the Pruth River Campaign’ than any particular merits of the tsar’s wife. And only then did the monarch and his panegyrists begin to represent the tsarina’s presence at Pruth as an indication of special courage. And this, undoubtedly, made her a worthy partner of the great emperor.


Project authors:
Igor Fedyukin, Director of the Centre of Modern Russian History in the Faculty of the Humanities, HSE.
Ernest Zitser, Curator of the Slavic and East European collection at the William R. Perkins Library at Duke University
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, February 21, 2019