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Prominent Russians: Catherine II the Great

May 2, 1729 - November 6, 1796

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Recognized worldwide as a noteworthy historical figure, Catherine the Great was one of the most prominent rulers of Russia and a figure deserving of admiration. During her rule from 1762 to 1796 the Russian Empress Catherine II made such progress in political power that it is hard to find similar examples in world history. She expanded the territory of the Russian Empire and improved its administration, following the policy of Westernization. She was reputed to be an "enlightened despot," however she was also praised for her generosity and humanity. Many historians associate her with all the significant events and trends in Russia's expanding world role. Though she always rejected the appellation "the Great," it endured. She was often compared to Peter the Great. One of her contemporaries described the essence of her rule, saying that Peter the Great created people in Russia, and Catherine put her heart into them. She reformed Russia gradually and calmly finished what Peter had done forcibly. Prince Pyotr Vyazemsky described the different approaches of these two outstanding sovereigns as follows: the Russian man wanted Russians to become Germans, and the German lady tried to make them Russians again.

Early years

Sophia Frederica Augusta was born in Germany, in the city of Stettin in Prussian Pomerania, on 2 May 1729 into the family of Christian Augustus, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst. She spent her youth, which she always remembered with pleasure, in an atmosphere of intelligence, passion for knowledge and good humor, but also austerity. Her father was very religious and strict. He enjoyed the title of prince, but was also a commanding officer of a regiment of the Prussian army. Catherine’s mother, Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, was very self-willed. She originated from the family of Holstein-Gottorp and was related to the monarchs of Prussia, Denmark and Sweden. She brought Catherine up in a most severe manner. Later Catherine herself recollected that she was always ready to get a slap in the face from her mother. Princess Sophia spent her childhood in Stettin and Zerbst. She occasionally visited Hamburg with her mother and spent her summers in Brunswick and Berlin.

Marriage to the heir of the Russian throne

In 1743, she was introduced into the Lutheran Church at the desire of her mother, though she easily changed her religion to the Russian Orthodox faith right before her marriage to the Russian Prince Peter. Her parents were very concerned that their daughter marry and make a good match.

In 1744 Catherine’s mother received an invitation from Empress Elizabeth of Russia to visit the country with her daughter, which meant she was planning to marry the heir to the Russian throne, Peter, to Catherine. However, Catherine had already met her husband to-be, who was one of her cousins. He was only 11 when they were introduced, but he was already reputed to be addicted to alcohol. Catherine didn’t experience any affection for her cousin, but was ready to obey her parents’ decision. Moreover, she realized that marrying the heir to the Russian throne would open the door to a most brilliant life, so coveted by the young and ambitious princess. Sophia and her mother made a journey to Russia in the winter of 1744, where she was converted to Orthodoxy and renamed Catherine. She was one year younger than Peter Fedorovich, the nephew of Elizabeth, the then reigning monarch of Russia. Their marriage was decided upon by their respective families.

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The two were absolutely incompatible with each other. Still, Catherine tried to keep up appearances in front of the court and was patient with her silly and eccentric husband, as long as such pretence served her ambitious purposes. These two people unfortunately brought together by circumstances were destined to break up. Catherine, unlike her husband, was a woman of great talent, intelligence and ambition. Her strong and masculine mind, so eager to learn, had been trained and developed with all the learning and accomplishments of the age. She came to Russia with the intention of achieving a memorable career. Her husband, on the contrary, had an unstable personality, tempestuous, devoid of talent, and his education had been totally neglected. His disposition was good, but his mind was uncultivated. He constantly felt the superiority of his more gifted spouse. To add to this, Catherine had a graceful and beautifully proportioned figure. Peter’s inferiority was the first step to their mutual dislike, which led to fatal results for Peter.

Peter soon started cheating on Catherine, and she repaid in kind having her own favorites. Whether Peter was the father of Paul and Anna, the two children recorded as their offspring, remains a murky question, as five years of marriage brought no pregnancy and some said Peter could not have children.


One of Catherine’s ardent passions was Sergey Saltykov, the prince’s chamberlain. He had been a favorite among the ladies of the court, and he attempted to win Catherine’s affections. A handsome man with graceful manners, Saltykov won Catherine’s love. According to some historians, Catherine was advised to conceive an heir with Saltykov, and Paul, who after Catherine’s death became Emperor Paul I, was presumably fathered by him and raised by Empress Elizabeth. Two other favorites, Grigory Orlov and Stanislaw August Poniatowski, are said to have fathered two additional children - a boy and a girl that only lived sixteen months - who were never publicly acknowledged.

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Although most of these men came from distinguished families and had outstanding political careers (Stanislaw Ponyatowski, for example, became the king of Poland in 1764), none used his status close to the Empress to affect state policy, with the exception of Grigory Potemkin, with whom Catherine was deeply in love in the mid-1770s and whom, a significant number of experts believe, she married secretly in 1774. Her last favorite was said to be the young and eccentric Platon Zubov. None of the men she had ever been devoted to was devoid of his title or his fortune after his relationship with Catherine ended. On the contrary, she scattered wealth and titles among them.

Ascent to power

Although love was an important part of Catherine's life, it did not overshadow her everlasting learning process and political interests. A sharp-witted and educated young woman, she read widely, particularly in French, which was at that time the first language of educated Europeans. She liked novels, plays and verse but was particularly interested in the writings of the major figures of the French Enlightenment such as Diderot and Voltaire. She spoke German, French and Russian. Catherine worked hard to master the Russian language, though she never managed to totally lose her accent. Catherine spelled badly but read, wrote and spoke Russian well. She quickly absorbed Russian culture, mastering the customs and history of the empire. The most literate ruler in Russian history, Catherine constantly patronized cultural life; in particular a flurry of satirical journals and comedies were published anonymously with her significant participation. Extensive traveling demonstrated in Catherine a great thirst for exploring the empire. She also knew to demonstrate devotion to the Russian Orthodox faith and the Russian state.

An instinctive politician, she cultivated friendships among the court elite. But her road to the Russian throne was thorny.

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When Empress Elizabeth died on 25 December 1761, her nephew Peter was proclaimed Emperor Peter III, and Catherine became Empress. Friends warned her that she might not enjoy her status for long since Peter was planning to divorce her and she was advised to flee. She decided to ignore the warning, and the wisdom of her decision was soon demonstrated. A few months after taking the throne Peter built up much hostility among government, military and church leaders. So, a group of them began plotting a coup to remove him. They wanted to place his 7-year-old son, Paul, on the throne, and name Catherine as regent until the boy should come of age.

But they underestimated Catherine's ambition; she aimed at a bigger role for herself. On 28 June 1762, with the aid of her lover Grigory Orlov, she rallied the troops of Saint Petersburg to her support and declared herself Catherine II, the sovereign ruler of Russia, later naming Paul her heir. She had Peter arrested and forced him to sign an act of abdication. When he sought permission to leave the country, she refused it, intending to hold him prisoner for life. He had only a few days to live, though, as shortly after his arrest he was killed in a fight with his captors.

A ruler of wide interests, Catherine was involved simultaneously in diverse matters. Very hardworking, her days were mapped out to the last five-minute increments and she maintained this schedule until her death. The only thing that was subject to changes was her sleeping hours. At the height of her reign she woke up at 5 am, and as she grew older she started waking up and 6 am, which was late for her. In her Early Reign (1762-1764) Catherine had far-reaching plans regarding both domestic and foreign policy, but during the first years in power her attention was directed towards strengthening her position. She knew that a number of influential people considered her ascent to power illegal and her son, Paul, the rightful ruler. Catherine also realized that without the support of the nobility and the military she could be overthrown by a coup as quickly as she had been brought to power by one. Her reaction to this situation was to jump at every opportunity to conciliate the nobility and the military and at the same time strike sharply at those who sought to replace her with Paul.

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As for general policy, Catherine understood that Russia needed an extended period of peace during which to concentrate on domestic affairs and that peace required a cautious foreign policy. The able Count Nikita Panin, whom she placed in charge of foreign affairs, was well chosen to carry out such a policy. By 1764 Catherine felt secure enough to begin work on reform (1764-1768). Her stance on the reforms placed her among the 18th-century rulers known as "enlightened despots." Influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, these monarchs thought that a wise and generous ruler, living and ruling by the dictates of reason, could ensure the well being of their people. Catherine's government followed a general policy of developing public confidence with the aim of leading Russia towards full and equal membership in Europe. She expanded the Senate in 1762, bolstered the office of Procurator-General in 1763 and 1764 she incorporated Ukraine into the empire by abolishing a self-governed Cossack community in Southern Ukraine centered at the Dnieper River that had its own political and administrative center, the hetmanship, also known as hetmanate.

It was in the spirit of the Enlightenment that Catherine carried out her first major reform, that of Russia's legal system, which was based on the old and inefficient Code of Laws, dating from 1649. For more than two years, inspired by the writings of Montesquieu and the Italian jurist Beccaria, she worked on the "Instruction," a set of guidelines for those entrusted with reforming the legal system. This work became widely known in Europe and caused a sensation because it called for a legal system way ahead of its time. It proposed a system providing equal protection under the law for all persons and emphasized prevention of criminal acts rather than harsh punishment for them. In June 1767 the Empress created the Legislative Commission to revise the old laws in accordance with the "Instruction." The Commission was a body consisting of delegates from almost all levels of society except for the serfs, the lowest class. Like many others, Catherine had great expectations about what the Commission might accomplish, but unfortunately, the delegates devoted most of their time exposing their own grievances, rather than focusing on the job. Consequently, despite the year-long series of sessions, they made no progress, and Catherine suspended the meetings at the end of 1768. The fact that she never reconvened the Commission has been interpreted by some historians as an indication that she had lost faith in the delegates. Others feel, however, that she was more interested in having the reputation of being an "enlightened" ruler than in actually being one. According to some sources she was strongly opposed to serfdom, but preferred not to arouse the nobility’s discontent, as she needed their support.

Foreign and domestic affairs

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In the meantime, foreign affairs began to demand Catherine's close attention.
Catherine attempted to increase Russia's power at the expense of its weaker neighbors, Poland and the Ottoman Empire. She sent troops to help the Polish king Stanislaw (Stanislaw August Poniatowski, Catherine’s former lover) in suppressing a nationalist revolt aimed at reducing Russia's influence in Poland. The Russo-Turkish War of 1768–1774 resulted in bringing Southern Ukraine, the Northern Caucasus and the Crimea under the possession of the Russian Empire. The war broke out as a result of an internal conflict within Poland. A squadron of Cossacks in Russian service entered Balta (in Ottoman territory) during the pursuit of a Polish Bar Confederation force. The Ottoman Empire accused the troops of having murdered its subjects in the town of Balta. The Russian authorities denied the charge. Following this border incident the Turkish Sultan Mustafa III declared war on Russia. The Turks formed an alliance with the Polish opposition forces of Bar Confederation, while Russia was supported by Great Britain, who offered naval advisers to the Imperial Russian Navy. Thus in 1772 Austria and Russia annexed Polish territory in the First Partition of Poland. Two years later, after long-lasting negotiations, Catherine concluded peace with Turkey, getting relatively modest but nonetheless important gains. Russia received as a territorial concession its first foothold on the Black Sea coast, and Russian merchant ships were allowed to sail in the Black Sea and through the Dardanelles.

Even before the conclusion of peace with the Turks, Catherine had to face a revolt led by the Cossack Yemelyan Pugachev. It proved to be the most odious internal threat she ever faced. The rebel leader claimed to be the deposed Emperor Peter III, as his death certificate was fabricated. Pugachev, posing as a wealthy merchant, reportedly tested the feelings of the Cossacks at the Yaik (a river, nowadays called the Ural and known as Yaik before 1775, flowing through Russia and Kazakhstan) by suggesting that he lead a mass exodus into Turkey. When the majority seemed to agree to his plan, he thought it was the right time to begin his revolt. Though he was arrested shortly after and held for five months at Kazan, he would escape and return to the Yaik to start his revolt. By promising to return several privileges to the Cossacks and to restore the Old Belief, he was able to gain the support he needed to promote his identity as Peter III. Soon tens of thousands were following him and the uprising, which started in the south and spread up the Volga River, moved within threatening range of Moscow. Pugachev's defeat required several major expeditions by the imperial forces, and a feeling of security returned to the government only after his capture late in 1774. After the rebellion Catherine had the Yaik Cossaks renamed Ural Cossacks and the Yaik River, the Ural River.

The revolt was a major landmark in Catherine's reign. Deeply alarmed by it, she concluded, along with most of the aristocracy, that the best safeguard against rebellion would be the strengthening of the local administrative authority of the nobility rather than measures to improve the conditions of the lower classes.

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With regards to foreign affairs, Catherine gradually came to believe that it would be possible to strip Turkey of both Constantinople and its European possessions if only Austria would join Russia in the assault. And, having gained Austria’s support, she began to conduct a policy so aggressive towards Turkey that in 1787 the Sultan finally declared war on Russia. As in past encounters, Russian forces proved superior, but they required four years to totally defeat the Turks. By the Treaty of Jassy (1792) Catherine won from Turkey a large area on the Black Sea coast and gained Turkish agreement to Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. But she was not able to fulfill her original plan of annexing Constantinople and Turkey's European territory, since Austria had withdrawn its support for this action and other powers strongly opposed it. While the Russo-Turkish War was in progress, Polish nationalists again tried to strengthen the Polish state and end Russian influence within it. As before, their efforts were fruitless, leading only to another disaster for their unfortunate country – the Second Partition of Poland (1793), in which Russia and Prussia annexed Polish territory; and the Third Partition (1795), in which Russia, Austria and Prussia divided what remained of an independent Poland.
In her domestic policy, Catherine owes much of her glory to her accomplishments in the dozen years following the Pugachev uprising, when she devoted her time and talent to the administrative operation of the government. Her reorganization in 1775 of the provincial administration – in such a way as to favor the nobility – passed the test of time but her reorganization of municipal government 10 years later was not so successful.

Catherine devoted much attention to expanding the country's educational facilities. She gave serious consideration to various plans and in 1786 adopted one providing for a large-scale educational system. Unfortunately she was unable to carry out the entire plan. But she did add a number of the country's elementary and secondary schools, while some of the remaining points of her plan were carried out by her successors.

Another one of Catherine's chief domestic concerns was the enhancement of Russia's economic strength. To this end she encouraged trade by lifting various restrictions and promoting the development of under-populated areas by attracting both Russians and foreigners to settle there.

The arts and sciences received much attention during Catherine's reign not only because she believed them to be important as such, but also because she saw them as a means by which Russia could acquire a reputation as a center of civilization. Under her direction Saint Petersburg was partly rebuilt and became one of the world's most dazzling capitals. With her encouragement, theater, music and painting flourished, while, under her patronage, the Academy of Sciences reached new heights. During her reign Saint Petersburg became one of the major cultural centers of Europe. In 1768 she founded the Society for the Translation of Foreign Books into Russian, superseded in 1782 by the Russian Academy, which sponsored a comprehensive dictionary between 1788 and 1796. Most strikingly, she founded the Hermitage, a museum annex to the Winter Palace, to house burgeoning collections of European paintings and other masterpieces of art.

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As she grew older, Catherine became greatly concerned because her heir, Paul, who had long displayed violent and unpredictable extremes of emotion, was becoming so unsettled and erratic that she doubted he would make a fit successor to the throne. She considered disclaiming him as heir and naming his oldest son, Aleksandr, as her successor. But before she was able to change her original arrangement, she died of a stroke on 6 November 1796.

During her reign the territory of Russia increased significantly: out of 50 provinces 11 were acquired while she was in power. The population of the country grew almost twofold. She ordered 144 new cities and towns built, founding more than four cities per year of her reign. Russia also saw a flood of European immigrants. She boosted twofold the strength of the Russian army and increased more than threefold the number of lead ships of the Russian fleet. Her army and the fleet triumphantly came out victorious 78 times strengthening Russia’s position in the world.

Although very ambitious, she never exaggerated her significance for Russia, saying that whatever she had done was a drop in the ocean. Her close friends described her as a very good-looking woman throughout her entire life and appreciated her amiability, noble simplicity and tact. She was said to prefer to praise loudly, but to scold quietly.

In an epitaph to be inscribed on her grave, which she wrote long before she died, Catherine perhaps best surmised herself: “Catherine II rests here. She came to Russia in 1744 to marry Peter III. At the age of 14 she took a three-sided decision: to enchant her husband, Empress Elizabeth and the people of Russia. And she used every single chance to succeed in this. Eighteen years of loneliness and boredom made her read many books. As she mounted to the Russian throne she did her best to give her people happiness, freedom and wellbeing. She forgave people easily and hated nobody. She was charitable, good-tempered and loved life. She was a true republican in her politics and was kind-hearted. She had friends. She worked easily. She loved social life and the arts.

Written by Yulia Bokova, RT Correspondent

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