In 1711, Emperor Peter the Great’s army found itself on the brink of disaster. It was surrounded by a vastly superior enemy Ottoman force. The situation appeared hopeless, the Russian army’s annihilation imminent—an inglorious end to Peter’s Pruth River Campaign, and, perhaps, to his imperial ambitions.

Catherine Skavronskaya, Peter’s mistress and future wife, shared the hardships of military life with the Emperor. She accompanied Peter on his campaign into Moldavia. According to legend, it was her quick thinking that saved the Russian army from total defeat. Catherine collected all of her jewelry, along with that of other women accompanying the Russian troops, and bribed the Ottoman grand vizier Baltacı Mehmet Pasha, who allowed Peter and his army to retreat. 

The scholarly consensus is that this episode is a myth, despite being recounted in works such as Voltaire’s History of the Russian Empire Under Peter the Great. However, in 1713, Peter the Great established the Order of St. Catherine in honor of his wife. While proponents of the legend allege that the award was instituted in recognition of Catherine’s bribery of the grand vizier, other sources suggest that it acknowledged her courageous conduct during the Pruth Campaign in general (she was seven months pregnant at the time). Whatever the case may be, the order, named after Catherine’s patron saint, was a unique honor bestowed upon the new tsarina, who went on to become the Russian Empire’s first female ruler as Catherine I. 

During subsequent reigns, the Order of St. Catherine was awarded to other individuals, eventually becoming the highest imperial order exclusively for women. Upon acceding to the throne in 1725, Catherine awarded the insignia of the order to Peter’s daughters, Anna and Elizabeth (the future empress). In total, during Cathrine’s reign, eight awards were issued.

Catherine I. Engraving. Jean-Henri Benner (1776–1836). St. Petersburg–Moscow, ca. 1817. Gift of the Association of Jurists, 1981. Russian History Museum collection

Peter the Great. Engraving. Jean-Henri Benner (1776–1836). St. Petersburg–Moscow, ca. 1817. Gift of the Association of Jurists, 1981. Russian History Museum collection

In 1797, Emperor Paul I legislatively formalized the tradition. Every Grand Duchess received the Order of St. Catherine at birth, leading to a significant increase in the number of awards. The first person of non-royal blood to receive the order was the wife of statesman Alexander Danilovich Menshikov, Daria Mikhailovna, in 1726. 

The statutes did not stipulate what merits were required to receive the award. The traditional basis for conferring the order was significant contributions in the sphere of education. Its recipients were expected to be actively engaged in charity, such as using their own funds to ransom a Christian from slavery, or to support the Moscow School of the Order of St. Catherine for girls.

Princess Ekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova wearing the Order of St. Catherine. Vorontsova-Dashkova was awarded an order by Empress Catherine II in 1762. Painting by Dimitrii Levitskii, 1784. Source: Hillwood Museum

The Russian History Museum is home to one of these orders. It was donated to the museum by Vera Konstantinovna (1906–2001), Princess of the Blood Imperial and great-granddaughter of Emperor Nicholas I.

Princess Vera, Jerusalem, 1967. Russian History Museum, gift of Princess Vera Konstantinovna

The star of the order, worn with a moiré silk sash, features the order’s motto “For Love and Fatherland.” Interestingly, it is fashioned from fabric, sequins, and metallic thread rather than metal and gems, like most other surviving examples. This suggests that this particular order is an earlier example of the award, inherited by Princess Vera from one of her distinguished female ancestors. 

Order of St. Catherine. Gift of Princess Vera Konstantinovna. Russian History Museum сollection

In a letter that accompanied the donation of this artifact, Princess Vera wrote: “The enclosed star is very old, older than the later diamond examples… Probably belonged to my maternal grandmother, Princess Augusta of Saxe-Meiningen.” Princess Augusta was awarded the order in 1884, the year of the marriage of her daughter, Elizaveta Mavrikievna, to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich. By this time, diamond stars had been in use for decades, indicating that the star in the Russian History Museum’s collection may well have belonged to an even earlier recipient.

With the abdication of Nicholas II in 1917 and the end of the Russian Empire the Order of St. Catherine ceased to be awarded. The last recipient of the order’s 1st class was Sadako Kujō, wife of Emperor Taishō of Japan, who was decorated with this distinction in June of 1916.