In February 1744, a 14-year-old princess named Sophia Augusta Frederica of Anhalt-Zerbst came to Russia to be introduced to the Russian Empress Elizabeth Petrovna and to her future husband, the heir to the Russian throne, Grand Duke Piotr Fiodorovich, whose wife she would become a year later (taking the name Catherine upon her conversion to Orthodoxy). The young princess from a tiny German principality was amazed by this strange country, with its immense spaces, incredible scale of construction, entertainment, and court intrigue.
During the reign of Elizabeth Petrovna, St Petersburg was transformed from the fortress, shipyard and port which Peter the Great had built, into a city of palaces. Catherine witnessed the construction of a majestic royal residence, while life inside the temporary, but nonetheless luxurious wooden palace of the "merry" Empress Elizabeth Petrovna was full of splendour and idleness.
According to an Austrian diplomat, the Prince de Ligne, Catherine "was noted for great talent and a subtle intellect... Her ambitions were unlimited but she was able to guide them towards sensible aims".
On 28 June 1762, as a result of a coup d'etat, she was proclaimed Empress Catherine II. Her contemporaries and descendants later called her "Catherine the Great" and the period of her reign is known as "the magnificent age".
Fascinated by the ideas of the European Enlightenment, Catherine II reconstructed the pompous and pretentious interiors of the Winter Palace according to the new tastes of the age. Next to the palace meant for "pleasant entertainments and merry amusements", she ordered the construction of a "Hermitage" (literally "the dwelling of a hermit") in line with the fashion of the French court at Versailles. The rooms of her "retreat" were decorated with paintings, bronzes and carved stones that very soon could not be housed in the Small Hermitage, so that soon a new building, the Great Hermitage, was erected. When Catherine II bought works by famous masters, sometimes even whole art galleries from European nobility, she was not merely satisfying some caprice. With each new sensational purchase, she impressed a stunned Europe - kings, bankers, philosophers - with the thought that Russia flourished under the sceptre of a powerful monarch.
The enlightened Empress also took delight in the theatre. The first theatrical performances were held in the Small Hermitage, and in 1783 she ordered the construction of a Hermitage Theatre.
"The court of Catherine," wrote in the 1780s the Count de Segur, ambassador of the King of France in Russia, "was the meeting place of all European monarchs and celebrities of her age. Before her reign Petersburg, built in the realm of cold and ice, went almost unnoticed and seemed to be somewhere in Asia. During her reign Russia became a European power. St Petersburg occupied an important place among the capitals of the educated world and the Russian throne was raised as high as the most powerful and significant thrones."