Catherine the Great 1729–1796

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Catherine the Great

Sophie Friederike Auguste of Anhalt-Zerbst, later Empress Catherine II of Russia and called Catherine the Great, was born in Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland), on May 2 (April 21, old style), 1729, and died in Tsarskoye Selo, near St. Petersburg, on November 17 (November 6, O.S.), 1796. Young Sophie was betrothed to Grand Duke Peter, heir to the throne of Russia, on July 10 (June 29, O.S.), 1744 as a result of a political scheme organized by King Frederick II of Prussia and accepted by Empress Elizabeth (r. 1741–1762; Peter's childless aunt) in order to strengthen the relationship between the Franco-Prussian axis and Russia, at the expense of Austria and other European powers. Sophie converted to the Russian Orthodox faith, and engaged in a strenuous study of Russian language, culture, and mores. This "Russification" would appear even more remarkable in contrast to the Germanophile attitudes and Protestant faith of Grand Duke Peter. Upon her conversion, she changed her name to Yekaterina Alexeyevna, in honor of Empress Elizabeth's mother.

The marriage (celebrated on September 1 [August 21, O.S.], 1745) never developed into a romantic or intimate relationship, and Peter, weakened and disfigured by smallpox and other diseases (including a birth impairment that probably made him sterile), kept a semiofficial mistress (Elizabeth Vorontsova), while Catherine conceived her son Paul (later Tsar Paul I; 1754–1801; r. 1796–1801) with Sergei Saltykov, one of her lovers. Upon Elizabeth's death, on January 5, 1762 (December 25, 1761, O.S.), Peter ascended to the throne. Through a coup d'état masterminded with the help of Grigory Orlov (her then lover) and his brothers, Catherine had her husband overthrown and was proclaimed empress on July 9 (June 28, O.S.), 1762. Peter's death in prison (officially of a sudden sickness, in fact murdered by some of the conspirators who had deposed him) on July 17 (July 6, O.S.), cast a long-lasting shadow on Catherine's reputation, as did the demise of former (deposed) Tsar Ivan VI in 1764. It seems, however, that Catherine was not directly involved in either assassination.

Catherine's reign was marked, in addition to the relentless pursuit of territorial expansion, by a constant oscillation between impulse for reform and rational codification of laws, and the conservation of autocratic, traditionally Russian attitudes toward power and government. Her Great Instruction (1767), the major theoretical output of what she defined her "Legislomania," was inspired by a peculiarly antiliberal and absolutistic interpretation of the works of such philosophers as the Baron de Montesquieu and Cesare Beccaria, while her literary and practical concerns on the education of children of both sexes (which also resulted in the creation of foundling homes, hospitals, and educational institutions) drew on the ideas of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Catherine entertained a frequent epistolary relationship with both Voltaire (whose library she purchased at his death in 1778) and Denis Diderot. The latter paid her a long visit in 1773. For more than twenty years, she corresponded with Friedrich Melchior Grimm (1723–1807), an important figure in European literary circles, and her most dedicated confidant. This frequentation of Enlightenment figures (together with the legacy of her Lutheran upbringing), probably accounted for her aversion to traditional Russian superstitions. In 1768 she had herself inoculated against smallpox, a gesture that was immediately used and amplified for image-bolstering and political propaganda across Europe.

Catherine worked relentlessly on the construction of her public persona, often playing with gender-related attributes both in normative/traditional and in unconventional ways. On one hand, she was customarily referred to as "Little Mother" and tried to cast herself in the tradition of the four other female rulers who had preceded her. On the other, she cultivated and exhibited masculine attitudes—from riding horses astride and not sidesaddle, to her frequent use of male attire (a penchant she shared with her predecessor, Elizabeth). Even more complex are the issues related to her relationship with a long list of male "favorites," some of whom acquired significant positions in government and military leadership (from Stanisław Poniatowski, later installed as king of Poland, to Grigory Potemkin and Peter Zavadovsky, to name a few), while others, especially toward the end of her life, seemed to have possessed lesser intellectual and political skills.

Catherine seems to have established a system of "favoritism" that went beyond the promiscuity and multiple affairs of Elizabeth and other female rulers. It was a system that developed into a sort of career pattern in which her lovers would eventually be rewarded with substantial severance pay and pensions.

This comportment became an attribute popularly attached to Catherine's persona, together with other perceivably excessive and obsessive attitudes of hers ("legislomania," in her own definition, and "graphomania"). The reaction to the "reversal of traditional sex roles" (Alexander 1989, p. 211) inherent in her favoritism generated (especially in foreign countries) innumerable pamphlets, satires, or blatantly slanderous books that transformed Catherine's perceived sexual voracity into sinister or pornographic legends (with allegations ranging from uxoricide to bestiality), drawing on consolidated historiographical paradigms of character construction (the ones anciently applied to such figures as Sammuramat, Cleopatra, and Messalina, or, in later times, to María Luisa of Parma). From the literary point of view, besides government-related works and some occasional narrative and theatrical works, her most remarkable achievements are considered her epistolary and her French Mémoires.


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

Catherine the Great. 2005. The Memoirs of Catherine the Great, trans. Mark Cruse and Hilde Hoogenboom. New York: Modern Library.

De Madariaga, Isabel. 2002. Catherine the Great: A Short History. 2nd edition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Troyat, Henri. 1980. Catherine the Great, trans. Joan Pinkham. New York: Dutton.

                                          Paolo Fasoli

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Catherine the Great 1729–1796

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