Catherine II the Great (1729–1796)

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Catherine II the Great (1729–1796)

An enlightened despot, who seized the throne from her husband Tsar Peter III and ruled Russia as empress and autocrat of All the Russias for over 34 years. Name variations: Sophia Augusta Frederika, princess of Anhalt-Zerbst; Catherine Alexeievna, Alekseyevna, or Alekseevna, grand duchess of Russia; Catherine II, empress of All the Russias; (nickname) Figchen. Born in Stettin, Pomerania, on April 21,

1729; died of a cerebral stroke in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, on November 6, 1796; daughter of Prince Christian Augustus von Anhalt-Zerbst and Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp (1712–1760); married Peter Fedorovich, grand duke of Russia, later Peter III, tsar of Russia (r. 1762–1762), on Friday, August 21, 1745, in St. Petersburg; secretly married her lover, Gregory Potemkin in 1774, in St. Petersburg (?); children: Paul Petrovich also known as Paul I (b. September 20, 1754), tsar of Russia; (with Stanislas Poniatowski, later king of Poland) Anna Petrovna (1757–1758);(with Gregory Orlov) Count Alexei Gregorevich Bobrinski (b. April 11, 1762), and two more sons born in 1763 and 1771.

Coup against her husband, Tsar Peter III (June 28, 1762); declared empress (June 29, 1762); murder of Peter III at Ropsha (July 5, 1762); Catherine crowned in Moscow (September 22, 1762); meeting of the Great Commission on Codification (December 1766–June 1768); war with Turkey (1768–74); Pugachev Rebellion (1773–74); Charter to the Nobility (April 21, 1785); annexation of the Crimea (1783); second war with Turkey (1787–92); partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, 1795).

The Empress Catherine II has been admired for her liberal ideas, reviled as a usurper and nymphomaniac, praised as an Enlightened Despot and worthy successor of Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725), and condemned for neglect of the Russian masses and aggression against Turkey and Poland. According to a recent article by James Cracraft, "Empress Catherine II was easily the most humane and literate ruler in all of Russian history as well as one of the most active… [and] by the standards of her own or almost any other time, her reign was the most successful."

Catherine the Great">

All I hope, all that I wish is that this country in which God has cast me, should prosper…. The glory of this country is my glory.

Catherine the Great

The young Princess Sophia, from a minor German principality, was shy, plain, and exhibited few qualities that later marked her personal life or her autocratic reign as empress of All the Russias. Lacking beauty and a fortune, her future was not promising. However, her life and ultimately the history of a vast empire changed forever when the formidable Empress Elizabeth Petrovna of Russia selected her as a prospective bride for her nephew and heir, the Grand Duke Peter Fedorovich (born Charles Peter Ulrich of Holstein). In January 1744, Sophia and her mother, Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp , set out on a journey that brought them to Moscow. Russia in the 18th century was at once immense and exotic, reputedly rich but barbarous by Western European standards. Equally mysterious was Sophia's future husband who, like herself, was Lutheran and German by birth; grandson of Peter the Great, he had been brought to Russia in 1742. Lonely and immature both physically and emotionally, Peter was irascible and cruel, and hated all things Russian. In stark contrast to this infantile boy, the young Sophia was intelligent, ambitious and calculating, and eager to please the lusty Elizabeth and her court. As Catherine noted years later in her memoirs: "I felt little more than indifference towards [Peter], though I was not indifferent to the Russian crown." Sophia succeeded in impressing the empress and even won approval from the grand duke. Almost immediately, she began instruction in the Russian Orthodox Church and to study the Russian language, thereby shedding her Lutheranism and her native tongue. "I wanted to be Russian in order that the Russians should love me," she admitted in her memoirs.

Six months after her arrival, on June 28, Sophia was received into the Orthodox Church and was given the name Catherine Alexeievna. The next day, Catherine and Peter exchanged rings at a solemn ceremony in the Kremlin and became officially betrothed. Despite Elizabeth's sense of urgency regarding their marriage, she judged Peter as yet unable to produce an heir. Catherine also thought Peter immature and uninteresting, but she never contemplated abandoning the position of grand duchess or future empress. Catherine attended fancy dress balls, visited the theater, played games with her ladiesin-waiting, and traveled extensively with Elizabeth and her court; while Peter played with his toy soldiers, tortured animals, and engaged in childish behavior at public functions.

Peter was rather sickly and, in November 1744, he contracted measles and later that winter came down with smallpox. When Catherine saw him the following February, his bloated, pockmarked face horrified her. But nothing deterred Elizabeth from making plans for an elaborate wedding, and the couple were married by the bishop of Novgorod in St. Petersburg on August 21, 1745, a marriage singularly lacking in prospects of happiness or even compatibility. This arranged marriage would not be consummated for several years, which frustrated and eventually angered the empress. Actually, Peter and Catherine had only a vague idea of sexuality, no experience, and almost a total lack of interest in one another. But to Elizabeth whose sexual exploits were legendary, this ignorance was unacceptable. She resorted to isolating the couple, forcing them to live together under close supervision. For nine years, Catherine endured living with a man for whom she felt increasing contempt, surrounded by Elizabeth's spies. Peter continued to engage in juvenile pursuits and to ignore his wife. Catherine, however, slowly emerged from this long ordeal as a mature, self-assured woman; bored with the trivialities of the "Little Court" and the inane conversation of her companions, she immersed herself in reading the great literature of Greece and Rome, as well as the famous French writers of the 18th century Age of Enlightenment—Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot. And she developed an interest in writing; she was not happy unless she had written something every day, according to historian Bernard Pares.

After years of coercion and enforced isolation, a bizarre sequence of events led to the birth of an heir. Through Catherine's chief lady-inwaiting, Mme Choglokov , two young nobles were introduced into the household of the little court. Undoubtedly with Elizabeth's blessing, Mme Choglokov implied that Catherine must take the initiative, choose one as a lover, and get pregnant. Still a virgin at 23 and eager for affection, Catherine promptly fell in love with Serge Saltikov who became her lover in the summer of 1752. A son was born two years later. Fortunately by then Peter had had sexual relations with another woman, and with Catherine, one must assume. The handsome, refined Saltikov affected Catherine's life in profound ways: their affair aroused Catherine's sensuality that had been repressed by her abnormal marital situation, it involved her in court politics for the first time to protect herself and her lover, and it guaranteed a continuation of the Romanov dynasty. Catherine's position in the royal family was more secure after she gave birth to Paul Petrovich in September 1754. Petrovich meant son of Peter, but was he? There is no solid evidence that he was not Peter's child and though Catherine suggested that Saltikov was the father, Paul's paternity remains uncertain. To Catherine, motherhood was no less aberrant than marriage. Elizabeth, who had never wed, took charge of the newborn heir, denying Catherine any contact with him for months at a time. Ignored and alone, she lived in a dismal, cramped room in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Saltikov was dispatched to a post at the court of the king of Sweden; though he assumed the affair was over, Catherine did not, and word of his liaisons caused her great pain.

However, the future empress had no intention of allowing others to dictate her fate. She began to assert herself and to take an active role in influencing court policies through friends and favorites. Her first foray into international affairs involved her with the newly appointed British ambassador, Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams. He arrived in the capital in 1755, accompanied by a charming, educated Polish aristocrat, Count Stanislas Poniatowski. Catherine was attracted to the count, and Hanbury-Williams encouraged their friendship, which he hoped would win Catherine's support for British interests. He was aware of Elizabeth's deteriorating health, and he seriously doubted that Peter would reign as tsar. Catherine had already gained a reputation at court for being intelligent, sensible, and mature, but always in need of money. Her financial insolvency involved her in a risky and nearly disastrous political venture. Britain and Prussia were allies, and Hanbury-Williams used Catherine to try to convince the Empress Elizabeth not to make war on Prussia. His diplomatic maneuver failed; Catherine was reprimanded for interfering in affairs of state, which Elizabeth had forbidden her to do.

Catherine's position was precarious. She was pregnant by Poniatowski, and Peter openly questioned whether he was responsible. Equally serious was his declared love for his mistress, Elizabeth Vorontsova . At court, the powerful Shuvalov family was preparing to assert its influence over Peter when the ailing empress died. In either case, Catherine would be thrust aside. But Catherine was shrewd and tough, and she actively garnered support among Peter's adversaries and made peace with the empress. Even Elizabeth considered Peter deficient and puerile, and perhaps she realized that only Catherine could save Russia from disaster under his reign. But already some of Catherine's friends at court were planning to install her as co-ruler, an arrangement not favored by her. After the birth of her daughter Anna Petrovna in December 1757, and her reconciliation with Elizabeth, Catherine gave serious thought to her situation and decided upon a course of action. She wanted to wield power, not behind the throne, but on the throne.

The crown changed hands on Christmas Day 1761, eleven days before Elizabeth died. Few applauded the ascension of Peter III, and Catherine still felt vulnerable. The royal couple continued to occupy separate residences and lead independent lives. Peter repeatedly stated that he wished to marry his mistress and threatened to have Catherine arrested. Curiously, Catherine did nothing; she was pregnant by her current lover, Gregory Orlov, who would play a major role in subsequent events. However, she also had secured powerful allies, including Orlov's four brothers and Count Nikita Panin, former ambassador to Sweden and tutor to the Tsarovich Paul. During Peter's brief reign of six months, he managed to alienate important segments of Russian society, in particular the army and the church, both of which he set out to "Prussianize."

In April 1762, Catherine gave birth, in secret, to a son, Alexei Gregorevich Bobrinski. She was 33 years old, a warm, ebullient, and self-confident woman. Orlov matched her lusty nature, and their affair, lasting almost 14 years, was directly responsible for placing Catherine on the throne. The sexual life of the great Catherine has been savagely criticized by contemporaries and by posterity. Europe delighted in, but was scandalized by, her succession of lovers, 55 by some accounts. The editor of her memoirs remarked that her attitude towards love was unfeminine, "she loved like a man, and worked like a man." In fact, Catherine described her mind and temperament as more male than female. Pleasure to her was not sinful, and she sought pleasure from a series of handsome, virile, young men ("temporaries" or "housepets") up to the time of her death.

As Catherine grew more assertive, she publicly stated her disapproval of Peter's peace treaty with Prussia. His tactless disregard for everything Russian, and his open devotion to all things Prussian could no longer be tolerated. Preparation for war with Denmark, which would only benefit his native Holstein was viewed with alarm. So, too, was Peter's stated intention to marry Elizabeth Vorontsova. Meanwhile, a plot laid by Catherine's supporters and led by the Orlov brothers was put into action. Catherine was in residence at Peterhof and would have to be rescued before Peter and his entourage arrived to celebrate the feast days of Saints Peter and Paul, on June 29.

Anna Petrovna (1757–1758)

Princess of Russia. Born on December 9, 1757; died on March 8, 1758; daughter of Catherine II the Great (1729-1796) and Stanislas Poniatowski, later king of Poland.

Gregory Orlov ensured the allegiance of the Ismailov Regiment and several others in St. Petersburg for Catherine, while his brother Alexei conducted her safely to the capital. Shortly before 8:00 am, Catherine arrived in St. Petersburg, where the officers and soldiers swore an oath to her. In the Kazan Cathedral, Catherine was crowned and received the blessing of the church; the entire affair had taken only four hours. Peter was informed of the coup by Catherine herself, as she led 14,000 troops to Peterhof. He was placed under house arrest at Ropsha, near Petersburg. Writing to Catherine, he asked to share power with her, which she refused, and Peter quietly abdicated. Alexei Orlov was appointed to guard him, but on July 5, Peter died under mysterious circumstances. It has been assumed that Alexei Orlov suffocated or strangled Peter. Orlov denied this, but it is certain that Catherine gave no orders to murder Peter. No one was punished. In a public statement, Catherine claimed that Peter died of hemorrhoidal colic; in her memoirs, she noted, "I had him opened up…. The cause of death was es tablished as inflammation of the bowels and apoplexy. He had an inordinately small heart, quite withered."

The coronation of Catherine II took place on September 22, 1762, in Moscow, the traditional, historical capital of pre-Petrine Russia, thereby identifying herself with her Russian predecessors, and as autocrat and heir of the Westernizer, Peter I the Great. She would "civilize Russia" through education, enlightened laws, and administration. Often working 15 hours a day, employing four secretaries, Catherine attempted to drag Russia into the Age of Enlightenment. However, she was ever mindful of Russian realities and her own insecurity on the throne because of other claimants such as the deposed Ivan IV and her son Paul who were objects of plots to replace her. Her support came from the privileged landed gentry whom she must appease. In spite of all obstacles, she made sincere efforts to improve conditions in her empire.

The gentry enjoyed a monopoly of rights that would be enhanced during Catherine's reign. At her insistence, they eagerly embraced Western ideas and ways in vogue at the time, separating them from their native traditions, their Russian roots. Bernard Pares claims that Catherine gave the nobility "their soul: certainly she gave them their style." That style was European. On the other hand, serfdom continued to bind the masses to legal servitude.

One of the most important attempts to modernize Russia was Catherine's proposal to assemble a Great Commission of elected delegates from all classes and parts of her realm to discuss a new law code. Prior to the meeting, Catherine spent almost two years compiling an Instruction (Nakaz) based on liberal, humanitarian principles. The 500-odd articles reveal how Catherine viewed her role and what she considered beneficial for her subjects. Borrowing from several writers of the Age of Enlightenment, issues such as equality before the law, taxation, capital punishment, personal liberty, and justice were included. From December 1766 to June 1768, the Commission of 564 delegates met in Moscow, but nothing constructive came from the 203 sessions held because of the privileged gentry whom Catherine could not afford to offend. In principle, Catherine opposed serfdom and had written that serfs should be freed when estates were sold, a gradual rather than sudden emancipation, to avoid social and economic instability. In fact, nothing of the sort was ever carried out; social stability overrode humanitarian considerations.

Catherine attended many of the sessions and responded to the numerous demands for administrative reform; subsequently Russia was divided into 50 gubernii (provinces) headed by governors and subdivided into districts, and on the national level, she reorganized her own administration. In 1785, Catherine granted charters to towns that implemented self-government through an elected mayor and a town council (duma). That same year, she issued her Charter to the Nobility, inaugurating the "golden age of the nobility," which lasted in large measure until the 1917 Revolution. Hereditary nobility had exclusive rights to own peasant villages with absolute authority over their serfs, were exempt from personal taxes and capital punishment, and could elect their own provincial and district officials and convene assemblies every three years.

Catherine took special interest in agriculture and trade. Roads and canals were built and improved, trade treaties were negotiated. However, towns failed to flourish due to lack of industry and heavy taxes. Trade generally remained in the hands of foreigners. Catherine had founded the Free Economic Society to investigate the conditions of agriculture; its findings confirmed what she already knew: serfdom was uneconomical, not to mention morally reprehensible. In practice, Catherine had to choose between principle and the possible, and it was not possible to tamper with aristocratic privilege.

During her long reign, Catherine had the habit of recording her thoughts on a myriad of subjects. A sentence or short paragraph would be devoted to education, to relocating factories from Moscow to outlying villages to boost local economies, thoughts on the production of oysters, and the causes of high infant mortality in Russia. Often her words were translated into action. She had Foundling Hospitals built in Moscow and St. Petersburg. And in 1771, when Moscow was ravaged by bubonic plague, which killed about 100,000 people, and riots broke out, she sent Gregory Orlov to restore order and enforce a quarantine of the city. Catherine was also well acquainted with the scientific advances of the time and as an example to others, she and her family were inoculated against smallpox in 1768. To Catherine, disease and ignorance were enemies of progress and happiness, which could be conquered through education. "Domestic education is still a muddy stream," she wrote. "When oh when will it become a torrent?" Catherine established schools—the Smolny Institute for daughters of the gentry, an Academy of Beaux Arts, a School of Mining, and a College of Medicine—and built a public library in St. Petersburg.

But these measures did nothing to improve the widespread misery of the masses. In May 1773, a massive rebellion, led by Emelian Pugachev, broke out. Claiming to be Peter III, Pugachev and an army of Cossacks and peasants pillaged and murdered gentry, clergy, and officials. When the rebels controlled almost one-third of Russia, Catherine sent an army to crush the revolt, the largest in Russia to this time. Pugachev was brought to Moscow in an iron cage, tried, and executed in January 1775. Catherine's reaction led to extending serfdom to newly acquired areas, and to expanding the nobles' legal authority over their serfs.

Catherine's rule was autocratic; she functioned as her own minister of foreign and domestic affairs, of finance and war. And she directed her private life with the same decisiveness that she displayed in governing. Behavior at court was regulated by a list of "Ten Commandments," compiled and enforced by the empress. Her lovers were also required to live by her rules. When Gregory Orlov, the father of three of her sons, engaged in an affair with a distant adolescent relative, Catherine terminated their relationship, then made him a prince and showered him with riches. Orlov was "replaced" by a long, undistinguished series of virile young "temporaries." When they bored her or became too greedy, she discarded them as she did old gowns. But in 1774, Catherine fell in love with Gregory Potemkin whose ability and judgment matched her own. More than a lover, he acted as her trusted advisor during the last half of her reign. However, Catherine continued to rely on young lovers to amuse and serve her. As she explained to Potemkin, "The trouble is that my heart is loath to remain even one hour without love."

If Catherine's sexual exploits shocked and titillated courts from London to Constantinople, her aggressive foreign policy made Europe tremble. She is reported to have said, "If I could live to be a hundred, I should wish to unite the whole of Europe under the scepter of Russia." A master of diplomacy, Catherine forged alliances, made war, negotiated treaties, and expanded the Russian land mass. With the cooperation of Frederick the Great of Prussia, she placed her former lover, Stanislaus Poniatowski, on the throne of Poland and controlled him through her ambassador in Warsaw. But this did not prevent Catherine, along with Austria and Prussia, from partitioning Poland until even the name disappeared from the map in 1795. Russia gained six million people and over 180,000 square miles, a Machiavellian feat of diplomacy. Similar success against the Turks in two wars resulted in Russian expansion to the Black Sea and into the Caucasus region and the Balkans. Her unrealized "Greek Plan" would have established a reconstituted Christian-Byzantine state under an Orthodox ruler in Constantinople, namely one of her adored grandsons, Alexander or Constantine. Catherine never lost sight of Russian interests and her desire to make the empire into a great power; she achieved what Peter the Great had begun.

Catherine became more conservative as she aged. Alarmed by the revolution that shook France, and Europe, after 1789, she tightened censorship laws to prevent "godless ideas" from infecting her realm. With amazing prescience, she predicted the rise of a strong man in France, but did not live to see Napoleon Bonaparte assume power.

There is little doubt that Catherine merited the appellation "the Great." She presided over a brilliant court with tact and ease, corresponded with great thinkers and powerful monarchs as equals, and revelled in their admiration; she collected art, built palaces, wrote plays and satirical articles, and worked on a comprehensive chronicle of Russian history, but her lively and intimate letters best reflect her personality. As empress, she assembled one of the greatest art collections in Europe, and she built the Hermitage in St. Petersburg to house it. Her ambassadors and agents searched out and bid on entire collections as well as single pieces. By 1785, she had bought 2,658 paintings. In addition, she acquired the entire library and papers of Voltaire and of the French philosophe, Denis Diderot, who had visited her for five months in 1773; both collections are housed in the National Library in St. Petersburg. As one of her biographers noted, "Life was never too much for her; the problem rather, was time—time to devour it all."

In a brief section of her memoirs, entitled "Achievements," Catherine listed her accomplishments in ruling Russia, a most impressive précis of the reign of this most remarkable woman "who warmed both hands before the fire of life." Her people viewed her as the embodiment of Russia, a true Russian. In the epitaph she wrote for herself, Catherine reflects this: "Enthroned in Russia she desired nothing but the best for her country and tried to procure for her subjects happiness, liberty, and wealth. She forgave easily and hated no one." Through her ability and perseverance, the Russian colossus became a major force in European history.


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

Bruun, Geoffrey. The Enlightened Despots. NY: Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

Coughlan, Robert. Elizabeth and Catherine: Empresses of All the Russias. NY: Putnam, 1974.

Kitzlvetter, Aleksander A. "Portrait of an Enlightened Autocrat," in Catherine the Great: A Profile. Edited by Marc Raeff. NY: Hill and Wang, 1972.

Maroger, Dominique, ed. The Memoirs of Catherine the Great. Trans. by Moura Budberg . NY: Macmillan, 1955.

Oldenbourg, Zoé. Catherine the Great. Trans. by Anne Carter. NY: Pantheon Books, 1965.

Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia (chapters XIII-XV). NY: Vintage Books, 1965.

suggested reading:

Anthony, Katherine. Catherine the Great. Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing, 1925.

Cronin, Vincent. Catherine, Empress of All the Russias. London: Collins, 1978.

Grey, Ian. Catherine the Great: Autocrat and Empress of All Russia. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1962.

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

Oliva, Lawrence Jay, ed. Catherine the Great. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971.

Thomson, Gladys Scott. Catherine the Great and the Expansion of Russia. NY: Collier Books, 1962.

Troyat, Henri. Catherine the Great. NY: Dutton, 1981.

related media:

Great Catherine, film adapted from George Bernard Shaw's short play of 1913, starring Jeanne Moreau (1967).

The Scarlet Empress, film by Josef von Sternberg, starring Marlene Dietrich (1934).

Catherine the Great, film starring Elisabeth Bergner and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., directed by Alexander Korda, 1934.

Catherine was Great, Mike Todd's Broadway production, starring Mae West (1944).

Two-part television presentation, "Meeting of Minds," with Steve Allen, and Jayne Meadows Allen as Catherine (1980).

Segment on Catherine the Great (played by Valentina Azovskaya ), in Peter Ustinov's "Ustinov in Russia" (1987).

Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah

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Catherine II the Great (1729–1796)

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Catherine II the Great (1729–1796)