Catherine the Great of Russia was actually German. Living from 1729 to 1796, she was contemporary with John Wesley. Though raised a Lutheran, Catherine ruled as a Russian Orthodox empress for thirty-four years.
Catherine’s early spiritual formation holds timely lessons for today.
Her real name was Sophie Auguste Friderike. Her family was part of the minor German nobility in what was then the Kingdom of Prussia. The area was Lutheran and had been influenced by the renewal and revival movement known as Pietism over the previous half-century.
Sophie’s formal education and religious instruction were entrusted to a Pietist pastor named Friedrich Wagner, who was also a military chaplain. Pastor Wagner, though a Pietist, seems to have had zeal but little spiritual warmth and scant patience with a bright and lively pre-teen girl. According to her biographer, Wagner imposed “an unforgiving regime of rote learning which helped to harden her mind against organised religion”; he would frighten Sophie “with stories of the Last Judgment.”
In stark contrast was Sophie’s young Huguenot governess, Babet Cardel, who cared for Sophie earlier when she was only four and Babet herself scarcely eighteen. Babet showed little Sophie the love of Christ as she taught her to read and spell and listen to stories. She continued as Sophie’s governess and friend for several years.
Decades later, as Empress Catherine of the Russian Empire, Sophie remembered these early years. She recalled the stark contrast between Pastor Wagner and Babet Cardel. “I do not believe that it could be humanly possible to remember all that I had to learn by heart” from Pastor Wagner, Sophie wrote, “nor that there was any point in doing so.” She still had her German Bible, she said, “in which all the verses I learned from memory are marked in red.”
But then there was Babet—“a model of virtue and wisdom,” Sophie wrote. “She possessed a naturally elevated soul, a cultivated mind, and an excellent heart: she was patient, gentle, gay, just, steadfast—in truth, everything one could wish to find in people who look after children.”
Sophie reflected further, “I yielded to her alone; she smiled to herself and reasoned with me so gently that I could not resist her. All my life, indeed, I have preserved this inclination to yield only to reason and gentleness: I have always resisted pressure of any kind.”
But in contrast, young Sophie learned to hide her true feelings and thoughts from Pastor Wagner. She wrote later, “One never knows what children are thinking, and children are difficult to get to know, especially when a severe education has turned them into docile listeners and they have learned from experience not to tell things to their teachers.” We should internalize “the fine maxim that one should not scold children, but put them at their ease, so that they do not hide their blunders from you.”
Remembering her pre-Russian life as Sophie, Empress Catherine later told a friend, “I bear no grudge against Monsieur Wagner, but I am intimately persuaded that he was a blockhead, and that Mademoiselle Cardel was an intelligent girl.”
Sophie’s secretiveness, learned early, combined with her wit and intelligence, led eventually to her crowning as Empress Catherine II of Russia in 1762, while still in her early thirties. Married to the grandson of Peter the Great at the age of fourteen, and now part of the Russian Court at St. Petersburg, she learned the Russian language, culture, and Orthodox faith. Seventeen years later her husband was crowned Tsar Peter III of Russia.
Within a year Catherine engineered a coup. Peter III was deposed and shortly afterwards assassinated. Sophie became Catherine II of Russia, known to history as Catherine the Great. Her conversion to Russian Orthodoxy seems to have been more political expediency than personal faith. She reigned until her death in 1796, at the age of sixty-seven. She was a monarch to be compared with Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria of England. Her reign witnessed one of the largest expansion of the Russian Empire in history, pushing its boundaries westward and southward, giving crucial access to the Black Sea and turning Russia into a European power.
John Wesley knew of Catherine only by reputation. In December 1787, at the height of Catherine’s reign, Wesley visited the waxworks at Cox’s Museum in London and saw the display of Europe’s reigning monarchs. One wax figure portrayed Empress Catherine; Wesley found her features “coarse” and “unamiable.” Later Wesley read a tract on international politics by King Gustavus III of Sweden—hardly an unbiased source—which painted a very dark picture of Catherine’s intrigues and multiple affairs. “If his account be true,” Wesley wrote in his journal, “what a woman is the czarina!”
Catherine the Great was certainly no saint. But she might have been, if Jesus had truly been modeled for her at the critical time of her adolescence—with huge consequences for later history.
The formation of children is the formation of the future, the shaping of history.
[Quotations are from Simon Dixon, Catherine the Great (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), pp. 26-28, and from John Wesley’s Journal.]