Catherine II (The Great)

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Catherine II (The Great)


Tsarina of russia


Prussian Princess. Originally named Sophie Fredericke Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, Catherine was born in Stettin, Prussia. The daughter of a minor German prince, she moved to Russia in 1744 and married Grand Duke Peter of Holstein, a grandson of Peter the Great and heir to the Russian throne, in 1745. Catherine’s father was one of many German nobles who aided the Russian tsars with their attempts at Westernization; he had many important connections at the Russian court and managed to parlay these into a royal marriage for his daughter. While the marriage was fraught with difficulties, the precocious, intelligent, and extremely ambitious grand duchess managed to learn a great deal in her adopted country. She learned Russian, survived court intrigues (as well as successfully engaging in some), and by all accounts adapted quickly to Russia. She was required to convert from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy before marrying Peter. While this might have dismayed some, Catherine displayed great devotion to both her new religion and nation. With the death of Empress Elizabeth I (1762) Peter became Emperor Peter III of Russia. His reign, however, lasted only a few months. Peter was men-tally unstable and quite paranoid: he immediately antagonized the court, the Orthodox Church, and the leading elements in the army. He also planned to rid himself of Catherine. In July 1762 Catherine and the imperial guard led by her lover Count Grigory Orlov overthrew Peter in a palace coup, and Catherine was declared empress as Catherine II. Orlov’s brother Alexey murdered the deposed tsar in prison several days later.

Enlightened Reforms. Catherine fancied herself an accomplished intellectual and political liberal; she quoted from Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws (1748) and exchanged letters with Voltaire and Diderot. Her first attempt at political reform in Russia, however, ended in failure. Catherine convened a legislative commission in 1767 to codify Russian laws. The commission consisted of 564 deputies, 28 appointed from state institutions and 536 elected by the boyars and the wealthy merchants. Of the elected deputies 161 came from the landed gentry, 208 from the merchants, 79 from the peasants, and 88 from the Cossacks and national minorities. The serfs (agricultural laborers bound to an estate and its owner) and clergy were not allowed to vote. Catherine wrote out a series of instructions for the commission. Though they seemed rather liberal, the instructions actually preserved the tsarina s autocracy and the boyars’ agrarian power. The commission met for a year and a half, held 203 sessions, and was predictably dominated by the boyars, who refused even to recognize the peasant and Cossack representatives. Issues such as the abolition of serfdom were not even discussed. It is likely that Catherine herself expected and desired this result: the commission gave her reign the appearance of liberalism, while maintaining autocracy. The outbreak of war against the Ottoman Empire in 1768 provided a good excuse for Catherine to disband the commission.

Pugachev Rebellion. From 1773 to 1774 much of central and southeastern European Russia convulsed with violence in the great Pugachev rebellion. The illiterate Don Cossack Yemeleyan Pugachev exploited grievances among Cossacks of the Ural Mountains toward their Russian rulers (and toward the Russian army, which was fighting the Ottomans) to urge the Cossacks to revolt. Pugachev proclaimed himself tsar and quickly united all of the Cossacks under his banner. Serfs, miners, Old Believers (a dissident religious group), Bashkirs, Tatars, and other minority peoples flocked to Pugachev and swelled his Cossack army’s ranks. At its height the rebellion encompassed a vast area in eastern European Russia. Important cities such as Kazan were seized, and Moscow itself was briefly in danger. Pugachev promised to execute all royal officials and boyar landlords, free the serfs, and end taxation and compulsory military service. The rebels displayed little organization; however, their efforts ultimately failed. Pugachev’s motley troops could not compete with the regular army once it arrived in considerable numbers. Defeated in battle, the rebellion dissolved as quickly as it had arisen. Pugachev’s own men handed him over to the Russian army. In Moscow he was tried and executed by drawing and quartering. After his execution his body was burned, and his bones were loaded into a cannon and fired in the direction of the Urals. After Pugachev’s rebellion Catherine’s flirtation with liberalism ended. The tsarina allied herself closely with the boyars and delegated much local power to them. Individual boyars were given free reign on their lands as long as they remained revolt free. She reorganized Russia’s administrative units to allow the military to work hand in glove with the boyars to maintain peace. Catherine did this without impairing her ultimate control from St. Petersburg. The result of this was an even stronger, more-entrenched serfdom than before as boyars cemented their control of their lands. The French Revolution also increased Catherine’s hostility toward liberal ideas. Several outspoken critics of serfdom, such as Nikolay Novikov, were imprisoned. Catherine might have been planning to join a European coalition against France when she died on 17 November 1796 in St. Petersburg. An important characteristic of Catherine’s reign was the role played by her lovers or favorites. Ten men occupied this semiofficial position; at least two, Grigory Orlov and Grigory Potemkin, were important in formulating foreign and domestic policy.

Expansive Foreign Policy. Catherine II’s main successes lay in her expansive foreign policy and her continuation of the process of Westernization, especially of the military. Her armies were victorious in two major wars against the Ottoman Empire (1768-1774 and 1787-1792), which extended Russia to the shores of the Black Sea. The Ottoman Turks by the 1770s had fallen far behind the European powers in military technology. Russia’s armies were able to push the Turks out of the Crimea and the Caucasus region; the Sea of Azov became Russian and the port of Sevastopol was established. Treaties with Prussia and Austria led to three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, and 1795), which effectively removed Poland from the map and extended Russia’s territory into central Europe. In the short run the dismemberment of Poland satiated the desires of those states for territory; however, in the long run it destroyed a weak country that had formed an effective buffer between the three Eastern European rivals. After 1795 Russia, Prussia, and Austria could expand in eastern Europe only at each other’s expense. Catherine’s support for the Westernization of Russia included the invitation of French philosophes to St. Petersburg, the patronage of court poetry that glorified Peter the Great (the progenitor of Westernization in Russia) and Catherine II herself, and the improvement of the Russian army. On her death in 1796 Catherine II’s son Paul I succeeded her on the Russian throne.


John Alexander, Emperor of the Cossacks; Pugachev and the Frontier Jacquerie of 1773-1775 (Lawrence, Kans.: Coronado Press, 1973).

Vincent Cronin, Catherine, Empress of all Russias (New York: Morrow, 1978).

Joan Haslip, Catherine the Great (London: Weidenfeld … Nicolson, 1977).

Isabel de Madariaga, Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).

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Catherine II (The Great)

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Catherine II (The Great)