Catherine the Great

Empress of Russia

Catherine II of Russia
Catherine II of Russia. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

During her reign, Catherine the Great expanded Russia's borders to the Black Sea and into central Europe. She promoted westernization and modernization though within the context of her autocratic control over Russia and increasing the control of landed gentry over serfs.

Early Life

She was born as Sophia Augusta Frederike, known as Frederike or Fredericka, in Stettin in Germany, on April 21, 1729.  (This was the Old Style date, it would be May 2 in the modern calendar.) She was, as was common for royal and noble women, educated at home by tutors. She learned French and German and also studied history, music, and the religion of her homeland, Protestant Christianity (Lutheran).


She met her future husband, the Grand Duke Peter, on a trip to Russia at the invitation of Empress Elizabeth, Peter's mother, who ruled Russia after taking power in a coup  Elizabeth, though married, was childless and had named the Grand Duke 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 fourteen 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.  She 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 converted to Orthodoxy, changed her name, and was married to the Grand Duke Peter in 1745. Though Catherine the Great had the support of Peter's mother, the Empress Elizabeth, she disliked her husband -- Catherine later wrote she'd been more interested in the crown than the person in making this marriage -- and first Peter than Catherine was unfaithful. Her first son, Paul, later Emperor or Tsar of Russia as Paul I, was born 9 years into the marriage, and some question whether his father was actually Catherine's husband.  Her second child, a daughter Anna, was likely fathered by Stanislaw Poniatowski.  Her youngest, Alexei, was most likely the son of Grigory Orlov.  All three children were officially recorded as children of Peter.

Empress Catherine

When Tsarina Elizabeth died at the end of 1761, Peter became ruler as Peter III, and Catherine became the Empress Consort.  She considered fleeing as it was thought by many that Peter would divorce her, but soon Peter's actions as Emperor had led to a coup planned against him. Military, church and government leaders removed Peter from the throne, thinking to install Paul, then seven years old, as his replacement.  Catherine, with the help of her lover, Gregory Orlov, was able to win over the military in St. Petersburg and gain the throne for herself, 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 help strengthen her claim as Empress. She had her ministers carry out a domestic and foreign policy designed to establish stability and peace.  She began to institute some reforms, inspired by the Enlightenment and updated the legal system of Russia to provide equality of persons under the law. 

Foreign and Domestic Strife

Stanislas, the king of Poland, was at one time a lover of Catherine, and in 1768, Catherine sent troops to Poland to help him suppress a revolt. The nationalist 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 a 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 class, Catherine backed off of 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 considerably expand education.  She wanted Russia to be seen as a model of civilization, so she put 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 take European lands from Turkey.  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 alliance with Russia, so Catherine was not able to realize her plan to take over as far as Constantinople.

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


Catherine became concerned that her son, Paul, was not fit emotionally to rule. She had plans to remove him from the succession and instead name Paul's son Alexander as heir.  But before she could make the change, Catherine the Great died of a stroke in 1796, and her son Paul succeeded her to the throne.

Another Russian woman who wielded power: Princess Olga of Kiev