She had been born Princess Sophia August Frederika on May 2, 1729 in the Baltic seaport town of Stettin, then a part of German Pomerania. Her father was an obscure German military princeling named Christian August, and her mother was Princess Joanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Her father was nominal ruler of the tiny principality of Anhalt-Zerbst, but the greater part of his life was spent as an officer in the service of Prussia. Little Sophia was nicknamed Feke or Figchen. Little is known about her early life, except that which Catherine related in her unfinished autobiography years later.
Figchen's mother, Joanna, was the sister of Karl August, who had been engaged to Elizabeth I of Russia before she took the throne. Karl August died suddenly and unexpectantly in Petersburg in 1727. Elizabeth kept a fondness for him and his family long after his death. In the early 1740's Elizabeth was searching for a wife for her nephew and heir, Peter.
Fidgen was the right age and a sentimental choice for the romantic Empress of Russia. Figchen and her mother were summoned by Elizabeth to Russia late in 1743. The potential match of the young German princess and the heir to the Russian throne was actively promoted by her mother and the Prussian King, Frederick, who saw the alliance as a way to further Prussian interests at the court of St. Petersburg. He eyed Figchen carefully at a banquet in her honor in Berlin before she left for Russia. He always claimed he saw greatness in her, even when Sophia was a child.
Crossing the border into Russia she went from Riga to St. Petersburg and on to Moscow, finally meeting Elizabeth on February 9, 1744. Elizabeth was enchanted with her. Figchen immediately began to study Russian and Orthodoxy, with...