a Konstantin Flavitsky oil painting titled of the princess Tarakanova

This 'pretender princess' tried to steal Catherine the Great's throne

To protect her reign, the empress set a clever trap for Princess Tarakanova—a royal imposter whose true identity remains a mystery.

In 1864, Russian artist Konstantin Flavitsky painted “The Princess Tarakanova, in the Peter and Paul Fortress, at the Time of the Flood” based on a legend in which Catherine the Great locked the false princess in a cell that was known to flood. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Photograph by Bridgeman/ACI

Empress Catherine II of Russia was no stranger to conspiracies and cabals orchestrated by her enemies, but in the early 1770s, one mysterious woman’s claim to the throne would expose deep insecurities underlying Catherine’s reign. The empress ordered that “Princess Vladimir” (later known as “Princess Tarakanova”) be imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.

Although Catherine II is better now known as Catherine the Great, her reign had a rocky start. Empress Elizabeth, before she died in 1762, had named Peter, her nephew and Catherine’s husband, heir to the throne. Six months after Elizabeth's death, Catherine led a coup and forced Peter III to abdicate. About a week later, imprisoned in a palace in Ropsha outside of St. Petersburg, Peter died while in the care of Catherine’s allies. Rumors spread that Catherine had orchestrated her husband’s murder.

The new empress faced challenges from many sides. Her sweeping political reforms sparked opposition from a sector of the conservative Russian nobility. In addition, Polish powers, opposed to Russia’s interference in their country, also had a vested interest in undermining the new empress. Since her accession to the throne, Catherine had exerted increasing pressure on Poland, practically turning it into a Russian protectorate. (See also: A jewel in two crowns.)

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