Catherine II of Russia

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H.I.M. Yekaterina II Alexeyevna "the Great," Empress and Autocrat of all the Russias
H.I.M. Yekaterina II Alexeyevna "the Great," Empress and Autocrat of all the Russias

Catherine II (Russian: Екатери́на II Алексе́евна, tr.: Yekaterina II Alexeyevna; April 21, 1729November 6, 1796 (O.S.)), born Sophie Augusta Fredericka, known as Catherine the Great, reigned as czarina of Russia from June 28, 1762, to her death. A cousin to Gustav III of Sweden and Charles XIII of Sweden, Catherine exemplified an "enlightened monarch" (also referred to as an "enlightened despot").


Life before becoming Empress

A German Princess, Sophie Augusta Fredericka (nicknamed Figchen) was born in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland), to Christian Augustus, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, and Elizabeth of Holstein. In 1744, Tsarina Elizabeth selected Sophie as the wife for her nephew, Peter, her chosen successor. Sophie changed her name to "Catherine" (Yekaterina or Ekaterina) when she accepted the Russian Orthodox faith. The marriage was unsuccessful - it was not consummated for 12 years due to Peter III's impotence and mental immaturity. After Peter took a mistress, Catherine became involved with other prominent court figures. She soon became popular with several powerful political groups which opposed her husband. Well read, Catherine kept up-to-date on current events in Russia and the rest of Europe. She corresponded with many of the great minds of her era, including Voltaire and Diderot. In 1762, after moving into the new Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, Peter succeeded to the throne as Peter III of Russia, but his eccentricities and policies, including an unusual fondness for Frederick the Great, ruler of neighboring and former enemy nation Prussia, alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated. Upon returning from the oversight of his unpopular war with Denmark, Catherine and her wide base of supporters refused him return to the ports of Russia until receiving word of his abdication of the throne. The result was a bloodless coup; Ekaterina Dashkova, confidante of Catherine, remarked that he seemed rather glad to be rid of the throne, and requested only a quiet estate and a ready supply of tobacco and burgundy in which to rest his sorrows. This was most likely wildly exaggerative.

Six months after her ascension to the throne, on July 17, 1762, Peter III was killed by Alexei Orlov (younger brother to Gregory Orlov, then court favorite and aid to the coup) in what was supposed to have been an accidental killing, the result of Alexei's overindulgence in vodka. During the Soviet time it was assumed proven that she ordered the murder. Now, some historians tend to doubt her involvement because of the long-running tensions between Alexei Orlov and Catherine II.

Internal policies

Portrait of Catherine in the Costume of Minerva.
Portrait of Catherine in the Costume of Minerva.

Drawing on writings by Beccaria and Montesquieu, Catherine drew up a document to reform the code of laws. A legislative commission representing all classes except the serfs was created to make this document law, but she disbanded the commission before it took effect, possibly having turned more conservative after the Pugachev uprising of 1773 - 1774.

Catherine reorganized Russian provincial administration, granting the government greater control over rural areas because of the peasant revolt. This process reached completion in 1775. The reform created provinces and districts which were more manageable for the government. In 1785 Catherine issued a charter that: allowed the gentry to petition the throne as a legal body; freed the nobles from state service and taxes; made noble status hereditary; and gave the nobles full control over their serfs and lands. In addition, Catherine gave land in Ukraine to favored nobles and granted them serfs. She also encouraged the colonization of Alaska and of conquered areas.

Catherine proceeded to "Westernize" Russia. However, unlike Peter the Great, Catherine scorned force and instead focused on pursuing individualistic endeavors. For example, when the smallpox vaccination was invented, Catherine was determined that Russia be among the first nations to inoculate its people. The peasants, ever distrustful of anything new or foreign, were terrified of the vaccine. To assuage their fears, Catherine herself was the first person in all Russia to receive the inoculation, from the English doctor Thomas Dimsdale. After two weeks of fearful waiting on the part of the court, Catherine as yet displayed no signs of ill-health. The story spread throughout the country side and the peasants willingly submitted to the vaccinations. In Europe, too, the story spread and helped convince people there that it was safe to subject themselves to "the dreadful lancet."

Her reforms went even further after a failed peasant revolt in 1773 led by Yemelyan Pugachev threatened Eastern Russia. As a result, Catherine the Great instituted several drastic reforms within the Russian society. First, she established the Free Economic Society (1765) to encourage the modernization of agriculture and industry. Second, she encouraged foreign investment in economically underdeveloped areas. Third, Catherine relaxed the censorship law and encouraged education for the nobles and middle class. However, another result of this revolt was to instill in Catherine and her court an innate fear and distrust of the peasants and what they might do if given too free a reign. As a result, many of the laws that tied the peasants ever more firmly to their land were enacted under Catherine.

Foreign affairs

Coronation coach of Catherine the Great is exhibited in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Coronation coach of Catherine the Great is exhibited in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

Catherine's foreign minister, Nikita Panin, exercised considerable influence from the beginning of her reign. Though a shrewd statesman, Panin dedicated much effort and millions of rubles to the creation of a "Northern Accord" between Russia, Prussia, Poland, Sweden, and perhaps Great Britain, to counter the power of the Bourbon-Habsburg League. When it became apparent that his plan could not succeed, Panin fell out of favor and in 1781 was dismissed.

In 1764 Catherine placed Stanislaw Poniatowski, a former lover, on the Polish throne. Although the idea came from the Prussian king, Russia gained the largest part of Poland through repeated partitions among Russia, Austria and Prussia (1772, 1793 and 1795).

Catherine made Russia the dominant power in the Middle East after her first Russo-Turkish War against the Ottoman Empire (1768-1774). She attempted to partition the Ottoman Empire's European holdings after the Polish example, but achieved far less success. She annexed Crimea in 1783, a mere nine years after it had gained independence from the Ottoman Empire as a result of her first war with it. The Ottomans started a second Russo-Turkish War during Catherine's reign. This war (1787-1792) ended with the Treaty of Jassy, which legitimated the Russian claim to Crimea.

In the European political theater Catherine played an important role, acting as mediator in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778-1779) between Prussia and Austria. In 1780 she set up a group designed to defend neutral shipping against Great Britain during the American Revolution. In foreign affairs, she was ever conscious of her legacy, and longed to be perceived as an enlightened sovereign. She pioneered for Russia the role that England was later to play with aplomb throughout most of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, that of international mediator in disputes that could, or did, lead to war.

Equestrian portrait of Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseyevna.
Equestrian portrait of Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseyevna.

From 1788 to 1790 Russia was engaged in a war with Sweden, led by Catherine's cousin, the Swedish King Gustav III. Gustav began the war to reclaim the Baltic territories lost to Russia in 1720. Expecting to soundly defeat the Russians, the Swedes were faced with mounting human and territory losses. After Denmark declared war in 1789, things looked bleak for the Swedes. However, in 1790 they mounted a counteroffensive. After the Battle of Svensksund a treaty was signed August 14, 1790, returning all conquered territories to their respective nations, and peace reigned for 20 years.

Catherine took a leading role in the partitions of Poland in 1790s, afraid that the May Constitution of Poland might bring a renaissance of the Commonwealth power and the growing democratic movements inside the Commonwealth might became a threat to the European monarchies. After the French Revolution, Catherine rejected many of the principles of the Enlightenment that she had once paid at least lip service to. In order to stop reforms of the May Constitution of Poland and not allow modernization of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth she provided support to Polish group of traitors known as Targowica Confederation. After defeating Polish loyalist forces in the War in Defense of the Constitution, Russia divided all of the Commonwealth territory with Prussia and Austria. The destruction of Poland helped maintain the absolute monarchies.

All told, she added some 200,000 mile² (518,000 km²) to Russian territory, and further, she shaped the Russian destiny to a greater extent than almost anyone before or since, with the possible exceptions of Lenin, Stalin, and Peter the Great.

Arts and culture

Portrait of Catherine in an advanced age.
Portrait of Catherine in an advanced age.

Catherine subscribed to the Enlightenment and considered herself a "philosopher on the throne." She was very aware of her image abroad, and ever desired to be perceived by Europe as a civilized and enlightened monarch, even though in Russia she often played the part of the tyrant. Even as she proclaimed her love for the ideals of liberty and freedom, she did more to tie the Russian Serf to his land and his lord than any sovereign since Ivan IV, "The Terrible." Subtle as she was forceful, she enlisted to her cause one of the great minds of the age, Voltaire, with whom she corresponded for fifteen years, from her accession to his death. He lauded her with epithets, calling her "The Star of the North" and "Semiramis of Russia," making reference to the legendary Queen of Babylon. Though she never met him face-to-face, she mourned him bitterly.

She became known as a patron of the arts, literature and education. The Hermitage Museum, which now occupies the whole of the old Winter palace, was begun as Catherine's personal collection. She wrote a manual for the education of young children, drawing from the ideas of John Locke, and founded the famous Smolny Institute for noble young ladies. This school was to become one of the best of its kind in Europe, and even went so far as to admit young girls born to wealthy merchants alongside the daughters of the boyars and nobility. She wrote comedies, fiction and memoirs, while cultivating Voltaire, Diderot and D'Alembert, all French encyclopedists who later cemented her reputation in their writings. She was able to lure the mathematician Leonhard Euler from Berlin back to Saint Petersburg.

Her patronage furthered the evolution of the arts in Russia more than any sovereign of that nation before or since. Under her reign, the classical and European influences which inspired the "Age of Imitation" were imported and studied. Gavrila Derzhavin and other writers of her epoch laid the groundwork for the great writers of the nineteenth century, especially the immortal Pushkin. However, her reign was also marked by the omnipresent censorship and state control of publications. When Radishchev published his Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1790, warning of uprisings because of the deplorable social conditions of the peasants held as serfs, Catherine had him banned to Siberia.

A monument to Catherine in St Petersburg.
A monument to Catherine in St Petersburg.

Personal life

Catherine, throughout her long reign, took many lovers, often elevating them to high positions for as long as they held her interest, and then pensioning them off with large estates and gifts of serfs. After her affair with Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin, he selected a candidate that had both the physical beauty as well as the mental faculties to hold Catherine's interest. Many of these men loved her back, as she was considered quite beautiful in the standards of the day, and was ever generous with her lovers, even after the affair was ended. The last of her minions, Prince Zubov, being 40 years her junior, was the most capricious and extravagant of them all.

Catherine suffered a stroke on November 5, 1796, and subsequently died without having regained consciousness. She was buried at the St. Peter and St. Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg. She was succeeded by her son, Paul I of Russia, whom she did not much like. He may have been fathered by Peter or by one of Catherine's lovers: Serge Saltykov, or Grigori Orlov are often thought likely candidates. Her illegitimate son by Orlov was a half-witted invalid whom she kept aloof from the court. Despite some reports that she intended to pass the throne directly to her grandson, Paul's son Alexander, under Peter the Great's 1722 declaration that the Tsar could name his own successor, she never took the necessary steps, perhaps from fear that Alexander, once confirmed as heir, would lead a revolt against his grandmother.

Palace intrigue generated several urban myths about the circumstances of her death that put her in rather unfavorable light. Because of their sexual nature, they survived the test of time and are still widely known even today.

Catherine II in fiction

Catherine II is a character in the computer game Civilization IV.


  • The Russian slang word for money babki (old women), refers to the portrait of Catherine II printed on pre-Revolution 100 rubles bills [1].

List of great Catharinians

Aleksey Orlov | Grigory Potemkin | Alexander Bezborodko | Nikita Panin | Alexander Suvorov | Peter Rumyantsev | Fyodor Ushakov | Gavrila Derzhavin | Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova-Dashkova | Mikhailo Shcherbatov | Mikhail Lomonosov | Dmitry Levitsky

External links

Filmography: Scarlet Empress (1934), Directed by Josef von Sternberg, with Marlene Dietrich as Catherine II of Russia

Preceded by:
Peter III
Empress of Russia
June 28, 1762November 6, 1796
Succeeded by:
Paul I
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