Biography of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia

Catherine II of Russia
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Catherine the Great (May 2, 1729—Nov. 17, 1796) was empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796, the longest reign of any female Russian leader. She expanded Russia's borders to the Black Sea and into central Europe during her reign. She also promoted westernization and modernization for her country, though it was within the context of maintaining her autocratic control over Russia and increasing the power of the landed gentry over the serfs.

Fast Facts: Catherine the Great

Known For: Empress of Russia

Also Known As: Catherine II

Born: May 2, 1729, in Stettin, Germany (now Szczecin, Poland)

Parents: Prince Christian August von Anhalt-Zerbst, Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp

Died: Nov. 17, 1796, in St. Petersburg, Russia

Spouse: Grand Duke Peter (Peter III) of Russia

Children: Paul, Anna, Alexei

Notable Quote: "I beg you take courage; the brave soul can mend even disaster."

Early Life

Catherine the Great was born Sophia Frederike Auguste in Stettin, Germany (now Szczecin, Poland), on May 2, 1729 (April 21 in the Old Style calendar). She was known as Frederike or Fredericka. Her father was Prussian Prince Christian August von Anhalt-Zerbst, and her mother was Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp.

As was common for royal and noble women, she was educated at home by tutors. She learned French and German and also studied history, music, and the religion of her homeland, Lutheranism.

Marriage

She met her future husband, the Grand Duke Peter (later known as Peter III), on a trip to Russia at the invitation of Empress Elizabeth, Peter's aunt, who ruled Russia after taking power in a coup. Elizabeth, unmarried and childless, had named Peter as her heir to the Russian throne.

Peter, though the Romanov heir, was a German prince. His mother was Anna, daughter of Peter the Great of Russia, and his father was the Duke of Hostein-Gottorp. Peter the Great had 14 children by his two wives, only three of whom survived to adulthood. His son Alexei died in prison, convicted of plotting to overthrow his father. His elder daughter, Anna, was the mother of the Grand Duke Peter, whom Catherine married. Anna had died in 1728 following the birth of her only son, a few years after her father died and while her mother, Catherine I of Russia, ruled.

Catherine the Great (or Catherine II) converted to Orthodoxy, changed her name, and married the Grand Duke Peter in 1745. Though Catherine had the support of Peter's mother, the Empress Elizabeth, she disliked her husband—Catherine later wrote she had been more interested in the crown than the person—and first Peter and then Catherine were unfaithful.

Her first son, Paul, later emperor (or czar) of Russia as Paul I, was born nine years into the marriage, and some question whether his father was Catherine's husband. Her second child, daughter Anna, was likely fathered by Stanislaw Poniatowski. Her youngest, Alexei, was most likely the son of Grigory Orlov. All three were officially recorded, however, as Peter's children.

Empress Catherine

When Czarina Elizabeth died at the end of 1761, Peter became ruler as Peter III, and Catherine became the empress consort. She considered fleeing, as many thought that Peter would divorce her, but Peter's actions as emperor soon led to a coup against him. Military, church, and government leaders removed Peter from the throne, planning to install Paul, then 7 years old, as his replacement. Catherine, however, with the help of her lover, Orlov, won over the military in St. Petersburg and gained the throne for herself in 1762, later naming Paul as her heir. Soon after, she may have been behind Peter's death.

Her early years as empress were devoted to gaining the support of the military and nobility to strengthen her claim as empress. She had her ministers carry out domestic and foreign policies designed to establish stability and peace; instituted reforms inspired by the Enlightenment, a philosophical, intellectual, and cultural movement of the 17th and 18th centuries; and updated Russia's legal system to provide equality of people under the law. 

Foreign and Domestic Strife

Stanislas, the king of Poland, was Catherine's former lover, and in 1768, Catherine sent troops to Poland to help him suppress a revolt. The rebels brought in Turkey as an ally, and the Turks declared war on Russia. When Russia beat the Turkish troops, the Austrians threatened Russia with war, and in 1772, Russia and Austria partitioned Poland. By 1774, Russia and Turkey had signed a peace treaty, with Russia winning the right to use the Black Sea for shipping.

While Russia was still technically at war with the Turks, Yemelyan Pugachev, a Cossack, led a revolt at home. He claimed that Peter III was still alive and that oppression of serfs and others would be ended by deposing Catherine and reinstituting Peter III's rule. It took several battles to defeat the rebellion, and after this uprising that included many of the lower classes, Catherine backed off many of her reforms to benefit that stratum of society.

Government Reorganization

Catherine then began reorganizing government in the provinces, strengthening the role of the nobility and making operations more efficient. She also tried to reform municipal government and expand education.

She wanted Russia to be seen as a model of civilization, so she paid considerable attention to the arts and sciences to establish the capital, St. Petersburg, as a major center for culture.

Russo-Turkish War

Catherine sought the support of Austria in moving against Turkey, planning to seize Turkey's European lands. In 1787 Turkey's ruler declared war on Russia. The Russo-Turkish War took four years, but Russia gained a large amount of land from Turkey and annexed the Crimea. By that time, Austria and other European powers had withdrawn from their alliances with Russia, so Catherine wasn't able to realize her plan to take over lands as far as Constantinople.

Polish nationalists again rebelled against Russian influence, and in 1793 Russia and Prussia annexed more Polish territory. In 1794 Russia, Prussia, and Austria annexed the rest of Poland.

Succession

Catherine became concerned that her son, Paul, was not emotionally fit to rule. She planned to remove him from the succession and name Paul's son Alexander as heir. But before she could make the change, she died of a stroke on Nov. 17, 1796, and her son Paul ascended to the throne.

Legacy

Russians continue to admire Catherine for increasing the boundaries of the country and streamlining its governance. At the end of her reign, Russia had broadened to the west and south over more than 200,000 square miles; provinces had been reorganized and towns renovated, expanded, or built from scratch; trade had expanded; military battles had been won; and the royal court had transformed into an attraction for the greatest minds of Europe.

Catherine was a patron of literature who promoted Russian culture and one of the few women, including British Queens Elizabeth I and Victoria, to have been influential enough to have epochs named after them.

Though outside observers acknowledged her energy and administrative ability, they saw her more as a harsh, unscrupulous ruler, egotistical, pretentious, and domineering, a woman of action who could be ruthless when it served her or the state. She was also widely known for being lusty, having taken young lovers up to her death at age 67. (Rumors of her death occurring while she was having sex with a horse are no longer believed.)

As Encyclopaedia Britannica put it, "She was a woman of elemental energy and intellectual curiosity, desiring to create as well as to control."

Sources

  • "Catherine the Great: Empress of Russia." https://www.britannica.com/biography/Catherine-the-Great.
  • "Catherine the Great: Biography, Accomplishments & Death." https://www.livescience.com/42006-catherine-the-great.html.
  • "8 Things You Didn't Know About Catherine the Great." https://www.history.com/news/8-things-you-didnt-know-about-catherine-the-great.