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Her father, Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, belonged to the ruling German family of Anhalt, In accordance with the custom then prevailing in the ruling dynasties of Germany, she received her education chiefly from a French governess and from tutors. She once wrote to her correspondent Baron Grimm: "I see nothing of interest in it." The choice of Sophie as wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, resulted from some amount of diplomatic management in which Count Lestocq, Peter's aunt (and ruling Russian Empress) Elizabeth and Frederick II of Prussia took part.

Lestocq and Frederick wanted to strengthen the friendship between Prussia and Russia to weaken Austria's influence and ruin the Russian chancellor Bestuzhev, on whom Empress Elizabeth relied, and who acted as a known partisan of Russo-Austrian co-operation. Based on her writings, she found Peter detestable upon meeting him.

She enthusiastically supported the ideals of The Enlightenment and is often regarded as an enlightened despot.When she wrote her memoirs, she said she made up her mind when she came to Russia to do whatever was necessary, and to profess to believe whatever was required of her, to become qualified to wear the crown.Catherine recalled in her memoirs that as soon as she arrived in Russia, she fell ill with a pleuritis that almost killed her.The period of Catherine the Great's rule, the Catherinian Era, is often considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire and the Russian nobility.The Manifesto on Freedom of the Nobility, issued during the short reign of Peter III and confirmed by Catherine, freed Russian nobles from compulsory military or state service.

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