Catherine I of Russia

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Catherine I (Russian: Екатерина I Алексеевна; Yekaterina I Alekseyevna (born Marta Helena Skowrońska, Latvian: Marta Elena Skavronska, later Marfa Samuilovna Skavronskaya) (15 April [O.S. 5 April] 1684 – 17 May [O.S. 6 May] 1727), the second wife of Peter the Great, reigned as Empress of Russia from 1725 until her death.

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Life as a peasant woman

The life of Catherine I was said by Voltaire to be nearly as extraordinary as that of Peter the Great himself. There are no documents that confirm her origins. The village of Vishki, north of Daugavpils in Latvia, claims to be the place where Catherine was born. At that time this area was in the Swedish province of Livonia. Originally named 'Marta Skowrońska', Catherine was the daughter of Samuel Skowroński, later known as Samuil Skavronsky, a Lithuanian peasant of Polish origin, most likely a Catholic, and who was already a widower of one Dorothea Hann. Her mother has been listed on at least one site as Elisabeth Moritz, who Samuel married at Jekabpils in 1680. There is some speculation that her father was a runaway landless serf. Some sources state her father was a gravedigger and handyman. Marta's parents died of plague around 1689, leaving five children. She was taken by an aunt and sent to Marienburg (present-day Alūksne, near the border with Estonia and Russia) where the three-year old Marta was raised by Johann Ernst Glück, a Lutheran pastor and educator, who was the first to translate the Bible into Latvian. There she essentially served as a housemaid; no effort was made to teach her to read and write and she remained illiterate throughout her life.

She was considered a very beautiful young girl, and there are accounts that Frau Glück became fearful that Marta would become involved with her son. At the age of seventeen, she was married off to a Swedish dragoon, Johan Cruse or Johann Rabbe, with whom she remained for eight days in 1702, at which point the Swedish troops were withdrawn from Marienburg. When Russian forces captured Marienburg, Pastor Glück offered to work as a translator and Field Marshal Boris Sheremetev agreed to his proposal and took him to Moscow. There are unsubstantiated stories that Marta worked briefly in the laundry of the victorious regiment, and also that she was presented in her undergarments to the Brigadier General Adolf Rudolf Bauer to be his mistress. She definitely worked in the household of his superior, Field Marshal Sheremetev. It is not known whether she was his mistress, or household maid.

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