Catherine II (Russia) (1729–1796; Ruled 1762–1796)

views updated May 29 2018

CATHERINE II (RUSSIA) (17291796; ruled 17621796)

CATHERINE II (RUSSIA) (17291796; ruled 17621796), empress of Russia. Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great, was born Princess Sophie in Stettin, Anhalt-Zerbst, a remote and poor German principality on the Baltic Sea. She was betrothed to the heir to the Russian throne, the future Peter III, in 1744. Upon her arrival in St. Petersburg, she converted to Russian Orthodoxy and was given the Russian name of Catherine Alekseevna, after Catherine I, Russia's first female crowned head and the mother of the reigning empress Elizabeth, Peter's aunt. Catherine remained in Russia for the rest of her life, and her stay can be divided into three unequal periods: as wife of the heir apparent (17451761), as consort to the emperor (six months in 1762), and as monarch (17621796).


By all available accountsa mixture of personal court gossip, self-serving memoirs, and diplomatic reportsCatherine's marriage to Peter was an emotional disaster, and perhaps unconsummated. Catherine's own narrative of these years (her vaunted memoirs, which remained unpublished until the mid-nineteenth century) described Peter as childish, tempestuous, unloving, and enamored of only three things: his mistress, his toy soldiers, and Prussia. Catherine spent these years relatively excluded from court, but she nevertheless gathered around herself a coterie of admirers and her early lovers, as well as significant figures in the guards' regiments, many of whom found Peter's behavior and his Prussophilia disturbing.

By the time Peter ascended the throne in 1762, he and Catherine were estranged, and by some accounts she was already preparing to replace him as monarch. Her moment came barely six months into his reign, in late June 1762, when several officers of the elite regiments swore allegiance to her, followed immediately by thousands of "cheering" troops. Confronted by this fait accompli, Peter is said to have surrendered meekly, requesting merely that he be allowed to keep his dog (agreed), his toys (agreed), and his mistress (denied). Whether by design or inadvertenly, Peter was assassinated within days, thus bringing his bride to the throne as an unacknowledged regicide.


Once on the throne, Catherine aggressively represented herself as the quintessence of enlightened monarchy, the true heir of Peter the Great. This affinity was reproduced in countless ceremonies and visual images, most famously in Étienne-Maurice Falconet's statue the Bronze Horseman, unveiled in 1782 with the inscription "Petro PrimoCatherina Secunda" ('To Peter the First from Catherine the Second'). Her highly public correspondences with Friedrich Melchior Grimm, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and other leading lumières conveyed the message that Catherine and, through her, Russian statecraft, embodied the highest virtues of reason and order. Perhaps the clearest expression of these views came in her legislative writings, both the major laws and the famous Instruction (Nakaz) to the Legislative Commission, written in 1767. This latter text combined an explicit reconfirmation of absolutism with a categorical Europeanness (in the declaration that "Russia is a European state") and displayed a preoccupation with laws, citizenship, and human happiness that strongly suggested a desire to make Russia into a more orderly, law-driven polity. Historians remain divided whether quasi-liberal sentiments motivated these expressions or, conversely, whether they constituted an interventionist instinct for "a well-ordered police state."

The Legislative Commission was a remarkable semipublic forum that brought representatives of all legally constituted social groupssave the serfs, who were deemed to be represented by landlordsand several ethnic minorities. Although it produced precious little actual legislation and never came close to generating a draft for a new fundamental law, the so-called Great Commission did enable a wide-ranging series of discussions on fundamental issues such as serfdom, social identity, trade, and education. Local deputies came to the sessions armed with instructions from their constituents, and recent research has shown that considerable consultation took place in drafting those instructions. Equally noteworthy, but less frequently acknowledged, is the Commission's afterlife, which extended until the end of Catherine's reign in the form of "particular" or private commissions that continued to discuss issues, albeit more privately and on a less grandiose level. Although these private commissions fell well short of an embryonic civil society, they did allow for an officially sanctioned and ongoing deliberation of law and policy outside of the narrow confines of state institutions.


In the wake of the dangerous Pugachev revolt of 17731775 Catherine initiated a decade-long blizzard of important new legislation (sometimes dubbed "legislomania"), collectively designed to strengthen civil and moral order. The first of these statutes, the Provincial Reform of 1775, significantly increased the size of formal provincial government by creating thirty-five provinces with civil administrations that were considerably larger than previously and with a much broader set of responsibilities. The provincial reform gave local nobility every opportunity to take control of these new bodies, while making certain that the key figures, the governor and military governor, would be centrally appointed and chosen from among loyal and high-ranking individuals.

Major statutes on urban welfare and police (1782), public education (1782), private publishing (1783), and the Charters to the Nobility and to the Towns (both in 1785) soon ensued. These last two documents sought to codify the corporate status of the empress's subjects (something under ten percent of the total population) who were neither peasants nor legally inscribed ethnic minorities. A similar charter was drafted for the peasants but never enacted. In addition, the state began a major initiative to populate the area north of the Black Sea known as New Russia (Novorossiia) and to develop the agricultural potential of this black-earth temperate zone. This policy encouraged immigration, both from other regions of the empire and from abroad, especially from impoverished German states. These policies enabled Russia to expand its already substantial export of raw materials, including grain, furs, and, by some accounts, large quantities of silver. The Russian economy grew correspondingly, equaling some of the highest rates of expansion in preindustrial Europe.


Bracketed by the end of the Seven Years' War at the beginning and the French Revolutionary wars at the end, Catherine's foreign policy was dominated by more immediate neighbors, the Ottoman Empire and the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania. The victory over the Ottomans that ended the protracted war of 17681774 led to the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji, which afforded Russia considerable access to the Black Sea, Crimea, and the Danubian provinces of Moldavia and Walachia. It also strengthened Russia's protectorate over Orthodox Christians in Ottoman territory. Russia's merchant fleet could now sail unimpeded through the Bosporus into the open waters of the Mediterranean. As a result, Russia's Black Sea trade burgeoned, leading to the establishment of the port city of Odessa in 1794. As before, however, its warships were denied access to the Bosporus, notwithstanding the rapid growth of Russia's Black Sea fleet.

With the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the issues were different. Having achieved access to the Baltic and the North Sea earlier in the eighteenth century, Russia, along with Prussia and the Habsburg Monarchy, had been deeply involved in Polish politics, having bought off numerous Polish magnates and placed more than one king on the Polish throne. By the early 1770s the Commonwealth's parliament, or Sejm, had lost any semblance of independence, and its principle of liberum veto, originally intended to protect the interests of poorer or remote regions, instead paralyzed the Sejm. The three neighboring states therefore partially partitioned Poland in 1772. The integration of the eastern lands of the Commonwealth (mainly modern Ukraine and Belarus) into the Russian empire proved to be a mixed blessing. Substantive political reform in Poland, leading to the Constitution of 3 May 1791, prompted the second partition by Prussia and Russia in 1793, and Tadeusz Kościuszko's nationalist rebellion of 1794 was crushed by a brutal assault from the Russian army. Soon followed the third partition (1795), by which the three powers eliminated the Polish-Lithuanian state altogether. Henceforth Polish identity defined itself largely in contradistinction to Russian. The partition of Poland also brought a large Jewish population into the Russian empire.


Long consigned to prurient anecdotes, Catherine's sexual reputation and the contemporary responses to it have recently attracted serious scholarly attention. As far as is known, she had perhaps twelve lovers between 1752 and her death. One of the earliest, Sergei Saltykov, was almost certainly the biological father of her son, the future Paul I, and two others (Grigorii Orlov and Stanisław August Poniatowski) fathered two additional children, a boy and a girl, never publicly acknowledged. Although most of these men came from distinguished families and had noteworthy political careers (Poniatowski, for example, was elected king of Poland in 1764), none appears to have used his status to affect state policy, with the single and very noteworthy exception of Grigorii Potemkin, with whom Catherine was deeply in love in the mid-1770s and whom, an increasing number of specialists believe, she secretly wed in 1774. Whether true or not, the massive correspondence between the two overflows with affection and mutual respect, even after Potemkin ceased to be the empress's paramour.

Although private liaisons were commonplace for Europe's crowned heads, Catherine's experiences hold particular interest for what they reveal about the implicit strictures of female rule in Russia. Like her predecessors, Catherine was obliged to rule unmarried, to be officially chaste irrespective of the realities of her private life. She could maintain open liaisons, even give birth if need be, but unlike male rulers, she could not remarry or be allowed a consort for fear, one assumes, of polluting the imaginary male line. Such tacit limitations meant that the sexuality of a female ruler would be unavoidably political in ways that a male ruler's would likely never be.

See also Black Sea Steppe ; Elizabeth (Russia) ; Enlightened Despotism ; Enlightenment ; Imperial Expansion, Russia ; Paul I (Russia) ; Poland, Partitions of ; Poland-Lithuania, Commonwealth of, 15691795 ; Pugachev Revolt (17731775) ; Queens and Empresses ; Russia ; Russian Literature and Language ; Russo-Ottoman Wars .


Primary Sources

Anthony, Katherine, trans. The Memoirs of Catherine the Great. New York and London, 1927.

Griffiths, David, and George E. Munro, eds. and trans. Catherine II's Charters of 1785 to the Nobility and the Towns. Bakersfield, Calif., 1990.

Secondary Sources

Alexander, John T. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. New York, 1989.

de Madariaga, Isabel. Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great. London, 1981.

Dixon, Simon. Catherine the Great. Harlow, U.K., and New York, 2001.

Griffiths, David M. "The Rise and Fall of the Northern System: Court Politics and Foreign Policy in the First Part of Catherine II's Reign." Canadian Slavic Studies 4, no. 3 (1970): 547569.

LeDonne, John P. Ruling Russia: Politics and Administration in the Age of Absolutism, 17621796. Princeton, 1984.

Ransel, David L. The Politics of Catherinian Russia: The Panin Party. New Haven, 1975.

Gary Marker

Catherine II

views updated May 08 2018


(17291796) Yekaterina Alexeyevna or "Catherine the Great," Empress of Russia from 17621796.

Recognized worldwide as a historical figure, Catherine the Great earned legendary status for three centuries. Her political ambition prompted the overthrow and subsequent murder of her husband, Emperor Peter III (17281762). Whatever her actual complicity, his death branded her an accessory after the fact. Thus she labored to build legitimacy as autocratrix (independent ruler) of the expansive Russian Empire. When her reign proved long, extravagant praise of her character and impact overshadowed accusation. An outsider adept at charming Russian society, she projects a powerful presence in history. Most associate her with all significant events and trends in Russia's expanding world role. Though she always rejected the appellation "the Great," it endured.

Catherine fostered positive concepts of her life by composing multiple autobiographical portrayals over five decades. None of the different drafts treated her reign directly, but all implicitly justified her fitness to rule. Various versions have been translated and often reissued to reach audiences worldwide. Ironically, the first published version was issued in 1859 by Russian radicals in London to embarrass the Romanov dynasty. Trilingual in German, French, and Russian, Catherine spelled badly but read, wrote, spoke, and dictated easily and voluminously. Keen intelligence, prodigious memory, broad knowledge, and wit enlivened her conversational skill.

Born on April 21, 1729, in Stettin, Prussia, of Germanic parentage, the first daughter of Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst (16901747) and Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp (17121760), Sophia Augusta Fredericka combined precocious physical, social, and intellectual traits with great energy and inquisitiveness. A home education through governesses and tutors enabled her by age ten to read voraciously and to converse incessantly with relatives and acquaintances at home and at other German courts that her assertive mother visited. At the court of Holstein-Gottorp in 1739 she met a second cousin, Prince Karl Peter Ulrich, the orphaned grandson of Peter the Great who was brought to Russia in 1742 by his childless aunt, Empress Elizabeth; renamed Peter Fedorovich; and proclaimed heir apparent. Backed by Frederick the Great of Prussia, Sophia followed Peter to Russia in 1744, where she was converted to Orthodoxy and renamed Catherine. Their marriage in 1745 granted her access to the Russian throne. She was to supply a male heira daunting task in view of Peter's unstable personality, weak health, probable sterility, and impotence. When five years brought no pregnancy, Catherine was advised to beget an heir with a married Russian courtier, Sergei Saltykov (17261785). After two miscarriages she gave birth to Paul Petrovich on October 1, 1754. Presumably fathered by Saltykov, the baby was raised by Empress Elizabeth. Thenceforth Catherine enjoyed greater freedom to engage in court politics and romantic intrigue. In 1757 she bore a daughter by Polish aristocrat Stanislaus

Poniatowski that only lived sixteen months. During her husband's short-lived reign in 1762 she gave birth to another son, Alexei Bobrinskoy, by Russian aristocrat Grigory Orlov.

Catherine quickly absorbed Russian culture. She mastered the language, customs, and history of the empire. An instinctive politician, she cultivated friendships among the court elite and select foreigners such as Sir Charles Hanbury Williams (who lent her money and political advice). Her certainty that factional alignments would change abruptly upon Elizabeth's death (as foretold by the exile of Chancellor Alexei Bestuzhev-Ryumin in 1758, the banishment abroad of Stanislaus Poniatowski, and her husband's hostility) fueled her motivation to form new alliances. When Elizabeth died suddenly on January 5, 1762, Catherine was pregnant by Orlov. Their partisans were unprepared to contest the throne with the new emperor, Peter III, who undermined his own authority, alienating the Guards regiments, the Orthodox Church, and Russian patriots, through inept policies such as his withdrawal from war against Prussia and declaration of war on Denmark. Peter rarely saw Catherine or Paul, whose succession rights as wife and son were jeopardized as Peter delayed his coronation and flaunted his mistress, Yelizaveta Vorontsova, older sister of Catherine's young married friend, Princess Yekaterina Dashkova.

Peter III was deposed on July 9, 1762, when Catherine "fled" from suburban Peterhof to St. Petersburg to be proclaimed empress by the Guards and the Senate. While under house arrest at Ropsha, he was later strangled to death by noblemen conspiring to ensure Catherine's sovereign power. This "revolution" was justified as a defense of Russian civil and ecclesiastical institutions, prevention of war, and redemption of national honor. Catherine never admitted complicity in the death of Peter III which was officially blamed on "hemorrhoidal colic" a cover-up ridiculed abroad by British writer Horace Walpole. Walpole scorned "this Fury of the North," predicting Paul's assassination, and referring to Catherine as "Simiramis, murderess-queen of ancient times"charges that incited other scurrilous attacks.

Catherine quickly consolidated the new regime by rewarding partisans, recalling Bestuzhev-Ryumin and other friends from exile, and ordering coronation preparations in Moscow, where she was crowned on October 3, 1762 amid ceremonies that lasted months. Determined to rule by herself, Catherine declined to name a chancellor, refused to marry Grigory Orlov, and ignored Paul's rights as he was underage. Her style of governance was cautiously consultative, pragmatic, and "hands-on," with a Germanic sense of duty and strong aversion to wasting time. Aware of the fragility of her allegedly absolute authority, she avoided acting like a despot. She perused the whole spectrum of state policies, reviewed policies of immigration and reorganization of church estates, established a new central administration of public health, and set up a new commission to rebuild St. Petersburg and Moscow. Count Nikita Panin, a former diplomat and Paul's "governor," assumed the supervision of foreign affairs, and in 1764 Prince Alexander Vyazemsky became procurator-general of the Senate, with broad jurisdiction over domestic affairs, particularly finances and the secret political police.

Catherine's reign may be variously subdivided, depending on the sphere of activity considered. One simplistic scheme breaks it into halves: reform before 1775, and reaction afterward. But this overlooks continuities spanning the entire era and ignores the varying periodizations for foreign affairs, education, and culture. Another approach conceives of her reign as a series of crises. A ruler of wide interests, she dealt simultaneously with diverse matters. The first decade witnessed her mania for legislation and pursuit of an active foreign policy that, in alliance with Prussia from 1764, led to intervention in Poland-Lithuania. This alliance led to pressures on Poland and spilled over into war with the Ottoman Empire which in turn yielded unforeseen complications in the great plague of 17701771 and the Pugachev Revolt of 17731774. The latter focused public attention on serfdom, which Catherine privately despised while recognizing that it could not be easily changed.

Catherine's government followed a general policy of cultivating public confidence in aspirations to lead Russia toward full and equal membership in Europe. Drawing on the published advice of German cameralist thinkers and corresponding regularly with Voltaire, Diderot, Grimm, and other philosophers, she promoted administrative efficiency and uniformity, economic advance and fiscal growth, and "enlightenment" through expanded educational facilities, cultural activities, and religious tolerance. She expanded the Senate in 1762 and 1763, bolstered the office of procurator-general in 1763 and 1764, and incorporated Ukraine into the empire by abolishing the hetmanate in 1764. The Legislative Commission of 17671768 assembled several hundred delegates from all free social groups to assist in recodification of the laws on the basis of recent European social theory as borrowed from Montesquieu and others and outlined in Catherine's Great Instruction of 1767enlightened guidelines translated into many other languages. To stimulate the economy, foreign immigrants were invited in 1763, grain exports were sanctioned in 1764, the Free Economic Society was established in 1765, and a commission on commerce formulated a new tariff in 1766. She also secularized ecclesiastical estates in 1764, founded the Smolny Institute for the education of young women, and eased restrictions on religious schismatics. New public health policies were championed as she underwent inoculation against smallpox in 1768 by Dr. Thomas Dimsdale and then provided the procedure free to the public. Yet her attempts to contain the horrific plague of 17701771 could not prevent some 100,000 deaths, triggering bloody riots in Moscow.

The most literate ruler in Russian history, Catherine constantly patronized cultural pursuits, especially a flurry of satirical journals and comedies published anonymously with her significant participation. Later comedies attacked Freemasonry. 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 kinds of art. To lighten the burdens of rule, Catherine attended frequent social gatherings, including regular "Court Days" (receptions for a diverse public), visits to the theater, huge festivals like St. Petersburg's Grand Carousel of 1766, and select informal gatherings where titles and ranks were ignored.

To embrace the great Petrine legacy, Catherine sponsored a gigantic neoclassical equestrian statue of Peter the Great on Senate Square, "The Bronze Horseman" as the poet Pushkin dubbed it, publicly unveiled in 1782. Dismayed by Peter's brutal militarism and coercive cultural innovations, she saw herself as perfecting his achievements with a lighter touch. Thus Ivan Betskoy, a prominent dignitary of the period, lauded them both in 1767 by stating that Peter the Great created people in Russia but Catherine endowed them with souls. In neoclassical imagery Catherine was often depicted as Minerva. Her "building mania" involved neo-Gothic palaces and gardens, and with Scottish architect Charles Cameron she added a neoclassical wing to the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo and the nearby Pavlovsk Palace for Paul and his second wife, Maria Fyodorovna, who provided many grandchildren, the males raised directly by the empress.

Through travel Catherine demonstrated vigor in exploring the empire. In June 1763 she returned from Moscow to St. Petersburg, then traveled the next summer to Estland and Livland. She rushed back because of an attempted coup by a disgruntled Ukrainian officer, Vasily Mirovich, to free the imprisoned Ivan VI (17401764). Acting on secret orders, guards killed the prisoner before he could be freed. After a speedy trial Mirovich was beheaded on September 26, 1764, and his supporters were beaten and exiled.

While Catherine quickly quashed such inept plots, she worried more about rumors that Peter III was alive and eager to regain power. Some dozen impostors cropped up in remote locales, but all

were apprehended, imprisoned, or exiled. In 1772 and 1773, amid war with the Ottoman Empire, did fugitive cossack Emelian Pugachev rally the Yaik cossacks under Peter III's banner in a regional rebellion that attracted thousands of motley followers. When Pugachev burned Kazan in 1774, Catherine contemplated defending Moscow in person, but the victorious end of the Russo-Turkish War soon dissuaded her. Upon capture Pugachev underwent repeated interrogation before execution in Moscow on January 21, 1775, in Catherine's demonstrative absence. This embarrassment was overshadowed by elaborate celebrations in Moscow of victory over Pugachev and the Turks, the Peace of Kuchuk-Kainardji of 1774.

Russia's soaring international prestige was further affirmed by the month-long visit of King Gustavus III of Sweden in the summer of 1777 and by Russia's joint mediation of the war of the Bavarian Succession in the Peace of Teschen of May 1779, which made Russia a guarantor of the Holy Roman Empire. Catherine's meeting with Emperor-King Joseph II of Austria at Mogilev in May 1780 led one year later to a secret Russo-Austrian alliance against the Ottoman Empire, the notorious "Greek Project" that foresaw Catherine's grandson Konstantin on the throne of a reconstituted Byzantine Empire. In 1781 Catherine engineered the Armed Neutrality of 1781, a league of northern naval powers to oppose British infringement of the commercial rights of neutrals amid the conflicts ending the American revolution.

In 1774 Catherine rearranged her personal life and the imperial leadership by promoting the flamboyant Grigory Potemkin, a well-educated noble and supporter of her coup. Installed as official favorite, he dominated St. Petersburg politics as political partner and probable husband until his death in 1791. He assisted with legislation that spawned the Provincial Reform beginning in 1775, the Police Code for towns in 1782, and charters to the nobility and the towns in 1785. A charter for the state peasantry remained in draft form, as did reforms of the Senate.

In charge of the armed forces, settlement, and fortification of New Russia (Ukraine), Potemkin masterminded annexation of the Crimea in 1783 and the Tauride Tour of 1787, an extravagant cavalcade that provoked renewed Russo-Turkish war in August 1787. In alliance with Austria, and despite unforeseen war with Sweden in 1788 and 1790 and troubles in revolutionary France in 1789, Potemkin coordinated campaigns that confirmed Russian triumph and territorial gains in the treaty of Jassy (1792). The last years of Catherine's life saw another triumph of Russian arms in the second and third partitions of Poland and the preparation of expeditionary forces against Persia and France. Internal repercussions of foreign pressures involved the arrest and exile of Alexander Radishchev in 1790 and Nikolay Novikov in 1792, both noblemen charged with publications violating censorship rules in propagating revolutionary and Freemason sentiments.

The death of Potemkin and Vyazemsky left voids in Catherine's government that a new young favorite, Platon Zubov, could not bridge. Her declining health and growing estrangement from Paul insistently raised succession concerns and rumors that she would prevent Paul's accession. Catherine's sudden death on November 16, 1796, from apoplexy inaugurated his reign. Paul's efforts at reversing Catherine's policies backfired, regenerating fond memories that inspired a bogus "Testament of Catherine the Great" later used by aristocratic conspirators to overthrow and murder Paul and replace him with Alexander, Catherine's beloved grandson.

See also: bestuzhev-ryumin, alexis; instruction to the legislative commission of catherine ii; peter iii; orlov, grigory; potemkin, grigory; pugachev, emilian; russo-turkish wars


Alexander, John T. (1980). Bubonic Plague in Early Modern Russia: Public Health and Urban Disaster. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Alexander, John T. (1989). Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. New York: Oxford University Press.

Alexander, John T. (1999). "Catherine the Great as Porn Queen." In Eros and Pornography in Russian Culture, ed. M. Levitt and A. Toporkov. Moscow: "Ladomir."

Anthony, Katherine, ed. (1927). Memoirs of Catherine the Great. New York: Knopf.

Catherine the Great: Treasures of Imperial Russia from the State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad. (1990). Memphis: City of Memphis, Tennessee, and Leningrad: State Hermitage Museum.

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

De Madariaga, Isabel. (1998). Politics and Culture in Eighteenth-Century Russia: Collected Essays. London: Longman.

Dixon, Simon. (2001). Catherine the Great. London: Longman.

Shvidkovsky, Dimitri. (1996). The Empress and the Architect: British Architecture and Gardens at the Court of Catherine the Great. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

John T. Alexander

Catherine II

views updated Jun 08 2018


catherine in power
war, rebellion, and the years of reform
war, revolution, and catherine's final years

CATHERINE II (1729–1796; ruled 1762–1796), empress of Russia.

Catherine II (called Catherine the Great) was born Sophie Auguste Frederike, Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, on 2 May (21 April, old style) 1729 in the Prussian town of Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) on the Baltic Sea. Although her father was an obscure German princeling, Princess Sophie's mother had connections to the royal houses of Sweden, Denmark, and Russia. Most importantly for Sophie's future, her mother's cousin had been married to Peter the Great's daughter Anna, and her elder brother had been engaged, before his sudden death, to another of the tsar's daughters who went on to rule Russia as Empress Elizabeth (r. 1741–1762 [1761, O.S.]).

In January 1744 Empress Elizabeth invited young Princess Sophie to Russia to be the bride of Karl Peter Ulrich, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, a grandson of Peter the Great and heir to the Russian throne. Princess Sophie arrived in Russia that winter, converted to Russian Orthodoxy (as Grand Duchess Yekaterina [Catherine] Alekseyevna), and then married Grand Duke Peter (Karl Peter's Russian christened name) the following year.

The two were a poor match, and their marriage proved an unqualified disaster. Catherine's charm, intelligence, and clear-eyed desire to please her new countrymen clashed with Peter's drunken antics, boorishness, and open disdain for all things Russian. The years spent as the grand duchess were the most difficult of Catherine's life. Her sole responsibility had been to bear an heir to the throne, but Grand Duke Peter proved incapable of fulfilling his part of the task. Empress Elizabeth eventually forced Catherine to take a lover, and in 1754, she finally gave birth to a son, Paul (ruled as Paul I, 1796–1801). The question of Paul's paternity remains a mystery, though most believe Catherine's lover, Sergei Saltykov, to have been the father.

Lonely, bored, and vulnerable to the deadly intrigues forever swirling at the Russian court, Catherine read extensively and began developing the innate political skills she used to such exceptional effectiveness throughout her life. Although she had no legal claim to the Russian throne, Catherine, driven by an irrepressible ambition, believed that she would one day rule Russia and began preparing herself for the role.

The grand duke succeeded Empress Elizabeth to the throne upon her death on 5 January 1762 (25 December 1761, O.S.). One of Tsar Peter III's first acts was to pull Russia out of the Seven Years' War (1756–1763) and conclude a peace treaty with Frederick II of Prussia. The move was poorly thought out and deeply unpopular with the Russian officers. When a series of erratic actions followed, opposition to the new ruler began to take shape. After it became apparent that Peter was considering locking up his wife in a convent, Catherine struck back with a coup of her own with the aid of Grigory Orlov, her lover at the time, and his brothers, backed by the capital's elite guards regiments. On 9 July (28 June, O.S.) 1762 Catherine was

proclaimed empress of Russia. Peter III abdicated the throne and was murdered at his palace outside St. Petersburg several days later under murky circumstances.

catherine in power

During the first several years of her reign Catherine worked to consolidate her power and to set Russia's poor financial house in order. In December 1763 she reorganized the Senate in an attempt to rein-vigorate the badly neglected central administration. That same year Catherine issued the second of two manifestoes to encourage foreigners to resettle in Russia and develop its open spaces. In 1764 Catherine secularized the property of the Russian Orthodox Church as part of her strategy to replenish the treasury's depleted coffers. In her dealings with the other European powers, Catherine sought above all to avoid conflict and maintain friendly relations.

Catherine's greatest effort at reform during this period came in 1767 with the convening of the Legislative Commission, whose purpose was to devise a new Russian legal code. To help guide the commission's work, Catherine, who had been drawn to the writings of the French philosophes for some time, drafted her famous Nakaz (Instruction), based largely on the works of such thinkers as Cesare Beccaria and the Baron de Montesquieu. Catherine's legislation expressed her recognition of the multiplicity of religions in the empire and in 1773 she issued a decree that indirectly acknowledged religious tolerance.

war, rebellion, and the years of reform

In 1768 the Ottoman Empire attacked Russia, prompting Catherine to close the Legislative Commission and to focus all her energies on war preparations. At the height of the war, two crises shook Russia. First, a deadly plague broke out in Moscow in 1771 killing thousands and spreading panic. Two years later a peasant revolt led by the Cossack Emelian Pugachev erupted, sweeping across the countryside and threatening the foundations of Catherine's power. Catherine surmounted these crises with the help of the war hero Grigory Potemkin, her new favorite whom she most likely secretly married in 1774. Potemkin became her most trusted advisor, commander in chief of the armed forces, governor-general for southern Russia, and eventually a virtual coruler of the empire.

In 1774 the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji marking Russia's victory over the Turks was signed and the Pugachev rebellion put down. With peace at home and abroad, Catherine returned to her project of reforms, and the next thirteen years witnessed many of the major achievements of her reign. In 1775 she enacted the so-called Provincial Reform aimed at improving local government; in 1782 the Police Ordinance established more effective, rational control over the urban population; and in 1785 charters to the nobility and the towns stipulated the rights of these two social groups for the first time in Russian history. Catherine granted private persons the right to establish printing presses in 1783 and promoted the expansion of the educational system through a series of initiatives and reforms. Potemkin developed the expansive southern territories, and through his urging the Crimea was annexed in 1783.

war, revolution, and catherine's final years

Seeking to avenge its earlier defeat, the Ottoman Empire declared war for a second time in 1787. The war did not begin well for Russia and took a drastic turn for the worse when Sweden attacked in 1788, thus opening a second front in the north. Russia's main ally, Austria, proved of only limited help, and Prussia, seeing Russian forces pinned down in the north and south, threatened to invade from the west. Effective diplomacy and a series of dramatic victories over the Turks began to turn the tide. In 1790 Sweden dropped out of the war, and a British threat in spring 1791 to send warships against St. Petersburg if Catherine did not immediately sue for peace with the Turks evaporated in the face of stiff domestic opposition. The Treaty of Jassy, concluded with the Turks in January 1792 (December 1791, O.S.), solidified Russia's possession over the Crimea and the northern Black Sea littoral. It was a great victory for Catherine, clouded only by the death of Potemkin in autumn 1791.

The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 did not initially worry Catherine much, both because France had long been a foe of Russia and unrest there would deprive Turkey of an important ally and because she, like most other European rulers at the time, could not yet perceive where events in France were heading. When Poland proclaimed a new constitution in 1791, however, Catherine feared Jacobinism had spread to Russia's borders and decided to act. After offering subsidies to Sweden, Prussia, and Austria to lead the fight against France, she set about imposing Russian control over Poland. Russian troops invaded in 1792, and through the partitions of 1793 and 1795 Poland was divided among Russia, Prussia, and Austria and disappeared from the map of Europe.

The Revolution also led Catherine to clamp down on perceived dissent at home. In 1790 she ordered the writer Alexander Radishchev arrested and exiled to Siberia. Two years later Nikolai Novikov, a leading Freemason and journalist, was arrested and imprisoned. Masonic lodges across Russia shut their doors soon thereafter. In September 1796 Catherine established strict censorship and closed the private presses. Special posts were established at key ports and border crossings to keep out revolutionary ideas. This proved to be one of Catherine's final acts: she died of a stroke on 17 November (6 November, O.S.) 1796.


The wars against Turkey, Sweden, and Poland put an end to Catherine's reforms and placed a heavy burden on the state's finances. The partitioning of Poland and imposition of censorship at home cast an undeniable shadow over her final years. These developments, along with the continued plight of the peasantry—the vast majority of the Russian populace, whose condition changed little under her rule—represent the low points of her reign.

Nevertheless, Catherine the Great is justly considered one of imperial Russia's most enlightened rulers whose reign marked a period of rare social, political, economic, and cultural development. She was the only intellectual ever to sit on the Russian throne, a prolific writer and patron of the arts, imbued with boundless energy and optimism. The lurid tales of her private life that have made Catherine a legend were fabricated by her enemies, chiefly foreign, intent on destroying the reputation of a woman who wielded with such confidence power traditionally reserved for men. Internationally, Catherine led Russia to victory in several critical wars, added more territory to the empire than any other ruler since Ivan IV (r. 1553–1584), and solidified Russia's status as one of the great European powers.

See alsoPaul I; Russia.


Primary Sources

Cruse, Markus, and Hilde Hoogenboom, eds. and trans. The Memoirs of Catherine the Great. New York, 2005.

Smith, Douglas, ed. and trans. Love and Conquest: Personal Correspondence of Catherine the Great and Prince Grigory Potemkin. DeKalb, Ill., 2004.

Secondary Sources

Alexander, John T. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. New York, 1989.

Dixon, Simon. Catherine the Great. Harlow, U.K., 2001.

LeDonne, John P. Ruling Russia: Politics and Administration in the Age of Absolutism, 1762–1796. Princeton, N.J., 1984.

Madariaga, Isabel de. Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great. New Haven, Conn., 1981.

——. Catherine the Great: A Short History. 2nd ed. New Haven, Conn., 2002.

Douglas Smith

Catherine II

views updated May 17 2018

Catherine II ( the Great) (1729–96) Empress of Russia (1762–96). A German princess, she married Peter III in 1745 and succeeded him after he was murdered. She began as an ‘enlightened despot’, with ambitious plans for reform. Her economic improvements, patronage of the arts and vast extension of Russian territory (chiefly at the expense of the Ottoman Turks) raised national prestige, but did little for Russian peasants. After the revolt of 1773–74, led by the Cossack Pugachev, she became increasingly conservative.

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Catherine II