What do Catherine the Great, Roller Coasters, and Matryoshki Have in Common?

(If you would like to purchase the Expedition Catherine’s Russian Mountains, scroll to the bottom, or click HERE.)

Recently, I came across something that suggested that the first ever roller coaster had been built by the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. I was so intrigued that I dug in to every record of this that I could find! After so long in self isolation, this little fun fact had me reeling for a good amusement park.

My initial interest was mostly just in the roller coasters, but pretty quickly I became infatuated with Catherine herself. Like, I-just-listened-to-a-20+hr-long-audio-book-of-her-whole-life infatuated. If you’re new to audiobooks like me, that translates to a 6 Part, 73 chapter, 625 page textbook of her life. And like a true nerd, I loved every second of it!

I learned so much about Catherine, but here are some of my favorite snippets of her life:

Impressing an Emperor

Before moving to Russia to be betrothed to the heir selected by Empress Elizabeth, Catherine had to first win over Emperor Peter the Great’s approval. Peter. The. Great. No big deal. As a 15 or 16 year old minor princess, she sat across from this great monarch and impressed him so much, that she was invited to sit next to him and discuss literature and other pretty refined topics for a 16 year old at dinner. The whole situation seems just absurd today. I can’t even imagine!

Throw A Coup

When her husband took the throne, everyone knew he was unfit to rule, but she was as good a wife as I can imagine the circumstances allowed her to be. If you’ve seen the Hulu trailers for the satirical show about Catherine the Great, then you might agree she could have acted like this:

Subtitles read: “I could kill you. You are a bad person.”

But she didn’t. So kudos to her. So maybe my bar is low, but she’s got patience I aspire to.

Eventually though, she caved to the pressure to throw a coup d’etat (a violent coup, as opposed to the peaceable ones that are so common, ya know) for the sake of Russia, BUT she didn’t want any blood shed. The army obeyed and they walked into the palace and took over while Peter was away. I guess it was violent only in that the army escorted her and was prepared to forcibly remove Peter from the premises.

She repeatedly throughout her reign enforced her stance that torture and bloodshed were no way to get to the truth or desired outcome of any situation. Even in the coup, she did not want any harm to come on her awful husband. Instead, she provided him with a very comfortable home and ordered that he should be given everything he wanted. Her letters and recorded commands around this time seem to suggest that she genuinely held to this position regarding her husband, but soon after going off to his superb quarantine, a fight broke out and some guards killed him, arguably on purpose, but officially on accident. If not for that, she would have pulled off an entirely bloodless coup.

Matryoshka, Forgive Me

Empress Elizabeth was vain and had an unpredictable temper at times. A lady-in-waiting hinted to Catherine that one of the things the Empress wanted most was to be seen as a good Matryoshka (little mother) to her people, and that if Catherine ever displeased the Empress, she might get out of trouble by calling the Empress “matryoshka”. Sure enough, the Empress eventually flew into a rage at Catherine’s expense. Catherine remembered the advice and tested it out, saying, “Matryoshka, please forgive me!” It worked!

I learned that this is very common to refer to the Empress or Tsarina as “little mother”, since the Russian tradition upheld that the royal ruler should be like the overseer of the whole Russian family. Likewise, male leaders are also referred to as “Batyushka”, or “little father”. Matryoshka is also the name of the iconic Russian toys we know often as “nesting dolls.”

The Royal Library

Catherine the Great often showed wild generosity beyond just political cunningness. My favorite example of this is the story of Diderot’s library. When Empress Catherine learned that Diderot, a French philosopher, was selling his library to come up with the dowry needed to marry off his daughter. Catherine purchased the library, left it in his care, and gave him a salary to be able to call on him for his books and intellect! I wish there were a Catherine in the world that would pay me for my library without taking away my books and give me a big enough stipend to continue building my library!

The Hermitage

One of the first Russian movies I ever watched in my undergrad was “Russian Ark”. This movie was a big deal, as I remember, because the entire film was taken in one continuous shot inside the actual Hermitage Museum in Russia. Catherine the Great is mainly responsible for this incredible collection of art. The only thing that could have made it more impressive is if she had focused more on supporting Russian artists and representing their art in the museum.

Russian Mountains aka Roller Coasters

If you know anything about Russia, you know that it’s cold. The winters are long and there is a lot of ice and snow. Walking down steep, icy roads is almost impossible at times, and some people I knew actually put spikes on the bottoms of their boots to go out in winter. If I had a recording of every moment in Russia, I could create a montage of moments when I decided (thinking no one was around to see) that I would rather just sit down and slide down some road, rather than try to walk it and risk wiping out. Obviously, I did not have those nifty boot spikes.

In the time of Catherine the Great, building giant mountains of snow/ice to slide down (katalnaya gorka) was a thing. Apparently the long winter of this winter sport wasn’t enough for the Empress. Also, she was adventurous and loved to be loved by people, and brilliant with design. So she built herself a dacha (getaway garden home) where she constructed the first type of roller coaster using cars that could be used year round.

The Common Denominator?

Do you see what I did there? Catherine the Great, Empress and Matryoshka of the Russian Empire built the first roller coaster! That’s what they all have in common. To learn more, you can purchase this Expedition of Catherine’s Russian Mountains here! It’s perfect for all your little explorers who are working on counting to 25, or who are ready to be introduced to simple addition or subtraction! It also includes plenty of reading, tracing, coloring, building things, and playing! (5 detailed lesson plans and suggestions included)

Expedition Catherine’s Russian Mountains

Read, Count and Color your way to being an expert about Catherine the Great of Russia and the first roller coaster made by her!


  • Book Recommendations (A Royal Ride: Catherine the Great’s Great Invention, and others)
  • Catherine the Great Coloring Booklet
  • 2 Coloring Pages
  • Stackable, Printable Nesting Dolls Activity
  • Copy the Shapes and Matching
  • Tracing Pages
  • Scissor Skills
  • Tens Charts
  • Matching Number Forms activities (standard form and word form)
  • Roller Coaster Addition and Subtraction
  • Build Your Own Roller Coasters, and more!
  • A total of 40 pages plus detailed Lesson/Activity Suggestions!

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