The life of Empress Catherine I of Russia could easily be confused with something out of a fairy tale. The future queen was born in 1684 into a family of Lithuanian peasants, and was orphaned at the age of 3 after both her parents died from the plague. Taken in by a pastor, she spent her youth as a housemaid in Marienburg in modern day Latvia. After Russia conquered the city in 1702, 18-year-old Catherine was captured and taken to Moscow. She became a servant in the home of a high-ranking government official, and it was there that she met the Russian Emperor Peter the Great. Despite being uneducated and illiterate, Catherine charmed the emperor with her beauty and wit, and the two soon began a passionate affair.
The couple married in 1712, and Catherine went on to become Peter’s closest confidante during a period of sweeping political and social reforms. She was named Russia’s first female empress upon his death in 1725, cementing her astonishing rise from orphaned peasant to monarch. Catherine died after only 16-months on the throne, but during her short reign she consolidated her power and reduced the size of the empire’s bloated military. Not forgetting her own humble origins, she also won the love of the people by dispensing generous gifts to the poor.