HESSTON — You can learn how a Prussian princess influenced the Mennonite immigrants who came to Kansas as Bonnie Johnson of Historical Echoes performs as Catherine the Great on Sept. 17 at Dyck Arboretum.

The woman most commonly known as Catherine the Great began her life in 1729 as Princess Sophia of Prussia. She caught the eye of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, who arranged for her to marry her German nephew, Peter III.

Peter III became emperor when Elizabeth died, but did not take his responsibilities seriously. He made jokes at inappropriate times, refused to learn Russian and angered members of the military, church and royal court.

Catherine suggested to her husband that he abdicate the throne.

"Her goal was to be empress," Johnson said.

After only six months as emperor, Peter III did abdicate, though it was expected that his son, Paul, would then rule with Catherine as regent until he became older.

"She goes, 'no, I'm the empress. When I'm gone, my son can rule then,'" Johnson said.

The land Catherine ruled was vast and populated by millions of serfs who worked the land for wealthy landowners.

"She hated the serf institution," Johnson said. "She didn't want state serfs to farm the land. She wanted a free people."

In 1763, Catherine signed a manifesto offering freedom of religion and exemption from military service for 20 years for immigrants.

"She said, 'I will respect the fact that you will not fight in my wars,'" Johnson said. "She wasn't even going to force them to learn Russian."

German Mennonites came to Russia under the manifesto and had several years of peace, during which they developed Turkey Red wheat.

"They had the time to develop the crops that would grow in that climate. They were there for generations," Johnson said. "Catherine made sure, through her decrees, that they were protected."

Catherine had other policies that were radical for her time. When she heard of a problem at a factory, she had the managers removed, not the serfs.

"She would disband the management of the factory and bring in someone who was more understanding, more humane in treating the serfs," Johnson said. "She figured they didn't have a voice."

The empress can also be credited with being partially responsible for the success of the American Revolution. During that war, ships from neutral countries were trying to make their way to the United States with supplies and were stopped by British ships.

Catherine's establishment of the League of Armed Neutrality in 1780 was formed so countries who promised not to take weapons or military supplies to America could threaten retaliation if their cargoes were seized by Britain. Ships from the Russian navy were sent to enforce the treaty.

The United States sent Francis Dana as an ambassador to Russia in order to obtain recognition as a country. While Catherine was unable to recognize the United States, she treated Dana and his secretary, a young John Quincy Adams, well. Adams would recall the hospitality he was shown and return to Russia as ambassador himself in 1809.

"It turns out that John Quincy (Adams) really appreciated the hospitality that was afforded him and Francis Dana," Johnson said. "He wanted to go back."

Catherine kept Russia out of wars, choosing to use the funds at her disposal to buy artwork, books and gems that other countries could not afford. She also interacted with French philosophers and became a voracious reader of Russian history.

"She wanted to bring culture to Russia and continue what Peter the Great did," Johnson said. "That's how all these books show up at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg."

The empress also brought the latest advances in medicine to Russia.

"She was instrumental in smallpox being wiped out in Russia," Johnson said.

Catherine's uncle died of smallpox and the disease had also disfigured her husband.

"When she became empress, she heard of this Scottish doctor who came up with a vaccination," Johnson said.

Though the doctor warned her the vaccine was still in its testing stages, Catherine insisted on vaccinating herself and her family, setting an example the royal court would follow.

"As her children and grandchildren were born, they were vaccinated," Johnson said. "That's how the vaccination spread throughout Russia."

Catherine died in 1796, and her successors were not as interested in providing freedoms for the Mennonites who had immigrated to Russia.

"Over the course of several emperors and czars...they were being taxed a little bit more; more of their freedoms were being taken away, and some of the forward-thinking Mennonites said 'it's going to be a matter of time before we're not welcome,'" Johnson said.

Sending out scouts to Canada, the United States and South America, the Mennonites found new places to settle.

"As things were being made rougher for them over there, there were these mass migrations to other places," Johnson said. "The new world was very welcoming. They saw they could have their independence — their languages and their culture — and they could practice (pacifism)."

As they left Russia, the Mennonites took with them the Turkey Red wheat that their time under Catherine the Great had allowed them to cultivate — the seeds of which would allow them to farm in a new world.

"Tea With Personality" will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 17 at Dyck Arboretum, 177 W. Hickory St. in Hesston. Johnson will answer questions both in character and as a scholar afterwards. The program includes a light tea with finger sandwiches and scones.

Tickets are $25. Reservations are recommended. For tickets, visit http://dyckarboretum.org.

For more information about Historical Echoes presentations, visit www.historical-echoes.com.

Contact Patricia Middleton by email at pmiddleton@mcphersonsentinel.com or follow her stories on Twitter at @MacSentinel.