Catherine II (The Great), Empress of Russia
Catherine II (The Great), Empress of Russia
CATHERINE II (THE GREAT), EMPRESS OF RUSSIA
Reign 1762 to Nov. 17, 1796; b. Stettin, Prussia, May 2, 1729; d. 1796, St. Petersburg. Sophia Augusta Frederica was the daughter of Christian Augustus, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, and his wife, Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. When selected by the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna to be the bride of the future Peter III, Princess Sophia abandoned Lutheranism to embrace the Orthodox religion and took the name Catherine Alexeyevna. Her marriage to Grand Duke Peter on Sept. 1, 1745, was unsuccessful from the start; his talents and interests were childish and contrasted with Catherine's ambitions, self-will, and intelligence. During her 17 years as grand duchess, she was estranged from her husband and took several lovers, although a son, the future Czar Paul I (reign 1796–1801) was born on Oct. 2, 1754. At the death of Empress Elizabeth on Jan. 5, 1762, the grand duke ascended the throne as Peter III, but because of his imprudent pro-Prussian policies and his threat to divorce Catherine, he aroused opposition. Gregory Orlov and his three brothers swore allegiance to Catherine on July 9, 1762, and with the help of the regiments of the guard, seized Peter, obtained his abdication, and imprisoned him in the Castle of Ropsha, where he and Ivan VI, son of Anna Petrovna, died violently shortly after.
Uprisings and National Reforms. Catherine corresponded with diderot, voltaire, and the encyclopedists, and in the beginning of her reign she inclined to their "enlightened absolutism." In 1767 she published her famous Nakaz (instruction) for law reform in which she urged the equality of all before the law and the freedom of all under the law, whose function is to protect, not oppress. Her demand that punishment should never be torture and that death sentences should be rare was acclaimed throughout Europe. However, the deputies assembled to codify the laws were inept. In fact even Catherine's equality before the law did not apply to serfs and peasants, who were openly bought, sold, and exploited as sheep and cattle. In the 1760s, at least 40 uprisings occurred; they culminated in the Ural Cossack Uprising or Peasant Rebellion (1773–75), led by Yemilyan Pugachev, who pretended to be Peter III. Pugachev was executed, but this uprising, added to the French and American Revolutions, blunted the desire for enlightened reform. Catherine's Nakaz became a dead letter. She now turned to a stricter control of her domestic administration. She created 80 provinces (guberniya ) in which she allowed a limited measure of democracy and permitted the local gentry to elect the councilors of the district (uyezd ) director. But as Catherine enlarged and ensured the privileges of the gentry, she paved the way for a more permanent and oppressive serfdom. To her, a privileged gentry meant a closer supervision of the popular mood and a tighter control over incipient unrest. Little came of her attempts to democratize the cities, since the poor quality of urban education did not prepare the people for civic responsibility.
Foreign Policy. Catherine's activity in foreign affairs led to the successful pursuit of the war against the Turks to secure better trade routes on the Black Sea. She also strengthened Russia's strategic position in the West. The Lithuanian-Polish state, she felt, must be either brought under the influence of, or conquered by Russia. Through manipulation of the "liberum veto," Poland became so weak that Russia, Austria, and Prussia were able to partition this state in 1772, 1792, and 1795. Catherine thus extended the Russian border further west. She also encouraged the colonization of Alaska. The two Turkish wars (1764–74, 1781–91) ensured safe trade routes and fertile farm lands and secured the southern borders against the Turks and Crimean Tatars. These wars called attention to the genius of her generals, P. A. Rumyantsev, A. V. Surorov, A. Galitsin, P. Panin, and G. A. Potyomkin, whose military ability was mediocre but whose talent for organization and colonization of these areas was more noteworthy.
Catherine's personal life was lonely. She did not marry a second time, and her son Paul lived apart from the court. History seems to have forgotten the daughter born to her in 1758. While she cultivated leaders of European thought, she assiduously made favoritism a quasiofficial institution. During her reign of 34 years she had more than 10 favorites, who were handsomely rewarded, and some (G. Orlov, G. A. Potyomkin, P. L. Zubov, and S. Poniatowski) were of importance to Russian and Polish history.
Catherine and the Jesuits. As Emperor Peter I before her, Catherine saw the need for education in Russia. She founded the Academy of Fine Arts, the Academy of Sciences, the Moscow and Smolny Institutes for Young Ladies, and facilities for the study of medicine. This interest also ensured the continuity of the Society of Jesus in the Catholic Church. At the first partition of Poland (1772), four Jesuit colleges and two residences—201 Jesuits—passed under Russian rule. Because she was pleased with the Jesuit methods of teaching youth, she refused to allow Pope clement xiv's Brief of Suppression of the Society of Jesus (July 21, 1773) to be promulgated in Russia. Pius VI granted permission to the Jesuits in White Russia to receive into the society former confreres living in other countries. At Catherine's urging, the Latin bishop of White Russia ordained 20 Jesuit scholastics in 1777, and two years later he authorized a novitiate in Polotsk. When Gabriel Gruber, later general of the Jesuits, came to St. Petersburg in 1785, he found 10,000 Catholics in the capital. It was at the request of Paul I that Pope Pius VII restored the Society of Jesus on March 7, 1801.
Although the Jesuits found protection with Catherine, the Eastern Rite Catholics were persecuted. After the
first partition of Poland, she sent missionaries, accompanied by soldiers, to restore the "renegades" to Orthodoxy. She did agree to the nomination of a new bishop for the Eastern Rite diocese at Polotsk, but later, after the second partition of Poland and despite her promise to protect Catholics of both rites, Catherine suppressed all other Eastern Rite dioceses, forcibly united over 1.5 million Eastern Rite Catholics to Orthodoxy, and dispersed the Order of Basilians.
Her Importance. Catherine left a Russia whose boundaries were the Neman River, the Dniester River and the Black Sea. She is significant in the history of the Catholic Church for her protection of the Society of Jesus. Intellectual circles and the courts of Europe admired her brilliance and grandiose political projects. She wrote much: memoirs, comedies, comic operas, and fairy tales for her grandchildren. Catherine was the real successor to Peter the Great. Yet by her stratification of classes in Russia, she perhaps did more to prepare the coming of the 1917 revolution than any other single Russian monarch.
Bibliography: catherine ii, Memoirs of Catherine the Great, tr. k. anthony (New York 1927). g. s. thomson, Catherine the Great and the Expansion of Russia (London 1947). f. d. david and m. l. kent, Rome and Russia: A Tragedy of Errors (Westminster, Md. 1954). b. von bilbassoff, Katharina II, Kaiserin von Russland im Urteile der Weltliteratur (Berlin 1897). g. p. gooch, Catherine the Great and Other Studies (New York 1954). m. e. von almedingen, Catherine, Empress of Russia (New York 1961). o. hÖtzsch, "Catherine II," Cambridge Modern History, (London–New York 1902–12) 6:657–701.
[w. c. jaskievicz]