Who Was Catherine II?
Catherine II, often called Catherine the Great, was born in Prussia in 1729 and married into the Russian royal family in 1745. Shortly after her husband ascended to the throne as Peter III, Catherine orchestrated a coup to become empress of Russia in 1762. Remembered in large part for her romantic liaisons, Catherine also expanded Russian territories and sought to modernize its culture through progressive views on arts and education. After more than three decades as Russia's absolute ruler, she died in 1796.
German Princess and Ambitious Mother
Catherine II started out as a minor German princess. Her birth name was Sophie Friederike Auguste, and she grew up in Stettin in a small principality called Anhalt-Zebst. Her father, Christian August, a prince of this tiny dominion, gained fame for his military career by serving as a general for Frederick William I of Prussia.
Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, Catherine II's mother, had little interest in her daughter. Instead, Johanna spent much of her time and energy on Catherine's younger brother, Wilhelm Christian, leaving Catherine to be nurtured by her governess, Babette.
After Wilhelm Christian died at age 12, Johanna came to see her daughter as a means to move up the social ladder and improve her own situation. Johanna had relatives in other royal courts in the region and brought Catherine with her on visits to seek out possible suitors. Catherine, on the other hand, saw marriage as a way to escape from her controlling mother.
Catherine was tutored in religious studies by a military chaplain but questioned much of what he taught her. She also learned three languages: German, French and Russian, the last of which came in handy when Catherine's mother wrangled an invitation to St. Petersburg from Elizabeth of Russia.
Introduction to Russian Royal Family
In 1744, a teenage Catherine traveled with her mother to Russia, to meet with the empress; Elizabeth had once been engaged to Johanna's older brother, who died of smallpox, and she felt a connection to Johanna's family. She wanted to see if Catherine would be suitable for her heir, Peter.
When Catherine became ill, Elizabeth insisted on treatment that included numerous bloodlettings. This created conflict between Johanna and Elizabeth, but Catherine ingratiated herself with the Russian empress after her recovery.
Moving forward with her relationship with Grand Duke Peter, Catherine converted to the Russian Orthodox faith, despite her deeply Lutheran father's objections. Along with her new religion, she also received a new name—Yekaterina, or Catherine.
Husband and Heir
On August 21, 1745, Catherine II married Russia's Grand Duke Peter. They proved to be anything but a happy couple, however, as Peter was immature and juvenile, preferring to play with toy soldiers and mistresses than to be with his wife. Catherine II developed her own pastimes, which included reading extensively.
After years of not having children, Catherine II finally produced an heir with son Paul, born on September 20, 1754. The paternity of the child has been a subject of great debate among scholars, with some claiming that Paul's father was actually Sergei Saltykov, a Russian noble and member of the court, and others pointing to Paul's resemblance to Peter as proof of them being related. In any case, Catherine had little time with her first-born son; Elizabeth took over raising the child soon after his birth. Catherine later had three other children.
Empress of Russia
Catherine II, often called Catherine the Great, became empress consort of Russia when her husband, Peter III, ascended to the throne following the death of his aunt, Elizabeth of Russia, on December 25, 1761. Catherine soon orchestrated a coup that forced Peter to step down after just six months on the throne, and she became empress of Russia on July 9, 1762.
Along with his strained relations with his wife, Peter had alienated other nobles, officials and the military with his staunch support for Prussia, and angered the Orthodox Church by taking away their lands. During his brief time in power, Catherine II conspired with her lover, Gregory Orlov, a Russian lieutenant, and other powerful figures to leverage the discontent with Peter and build up support for his removal.
By the time Peter ascended to the throne, he was openly cruel to his wife and considering pushing her aside to allow his mistress to rule with him. A few days after his resignation, he was strangled while in the care of Catherine's co-conspirators at Ropsha, one of Peter's estates. The exact role the empress played in her husband's death is unclear.
Catherine II's Early Reign
Concerned about being toppled by opposing forces early in her reign, Catherine sought to appease the military and the church. She recalled troops that had been sent by Peter to fight Denmark, and promoted and gifted those who had backed her as the new empress. Despite being a religious skeptic, she also returned the church's land and property that had been taken by Peter, though she later changed course on that front, making the church part of the state.
Catherine styled herself after the beloved ruler Peter the Great, claiming that she was following in his footsteps. She later commissioned the creation of a sculpture, known as the Bronze Horseman, to honor him.
Nakaz and Reform Attempts
While Catherine believed in absolute rule, she did make some efforts toward social and political reforms. She put together a document, known as the "Nakaz," on how the country's legal system should run, with a push for capital punishment and torture to be outlawed and calling for every man to be declared equal. Catherine had also sought to address the dire situation of the country's serfs, workers who were owned by landowners for life. The Senate protested any suggestion of changing the feudal system.
After finalizing the Nakaz, Catherine brought delegates together from different social and economic classes to form the Legislative Commission, which met for the first time in 1767. No laws came out of the commission, but it was the first time that Russians from across the empire had been able to express their thoughts about the country's needs and problems. Ultimately, the Nakaz became more known for its ideas rather than its immediate influence.
Education and the Arts
At the time of Catherine's accession, Russia was viewed as backward and provincial by many in Europe. She sought to change this negative opinion through expanding educational opportunities and the arts. Catherine had a boarding school established for girls from noble families in St. Petersburg and later called for free schools to be created in towns across Russia.
Catherine was devoted to the arts and sponsored many cultural projects. In St. Petersburg, she had a theater built for opera and ballet performances—and even wrote a few librettos herself. She also became a prominent art collector, and many of these were displayed in the Hermitage in a royal residence in St. Petersburg.
An avid reader, Catherine was especially fond of the philosophers and writers of the Enlightenment. She exchanged letters with the French writer Voltaire, and writer Denis Diderot came to Russia to visit with her. In fact, Diderot was the one who gave the empress her nickname, "Catherine the Great." With literary aspirations of her own, Catherine also wrote about her life in a collection of memoirs.
Foreign Affairs and Military Campaigns
During Catherine's reign, Russia expanded its borders. She made substantial gains in Poland, where she had earlier installed her former lover, Polish count Stanislaw Poniatowski, on the country's throne. Russia's main dispute with Poland was over the treatment of many Orthodox Russians who lived in the eastern part of the country. In a 1772 treaty, Catherine gave parts of Poland to Prussia and Austria, while taking the eastern region herself.
Russia's actions in Poland triggered a military conflict with Turkey. Enjoying numerous victories in 1769 and 1770, Catherine showed the world that Russia was a mighty power. She reached a peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire in 1774, bringing new lands into the empire and giving Russia a foothold in the Black Sea.
One of the war's heroes, Gregory Potemkin, became a trusted advisor and lover of Catherine's. Ruling over newly gained territories in southern Russia in her name, he started new towns and cities and built up the country's navy there. Potemkin also encouraged Catherine to take over the Crimea peninsula in 1783, shoring up Russia's position in the Black Sea.
A few years later, Catherine once again clashed with the Ottoman Empire. The two countries battled each other from 1787 to 1792.
With the Charter of the Nobility in 1785, Catherine made an about-face on policy and greatly augmented upper-class power, with a large number of citizens forced into the oppressive conditions of serfdom.
By the mid-1790s, Catherine had enjoyed several decades as Russia's absolute ruler. She had a strained relationship with her son and heir, Paul, over her grip on power, but she enjoyed her grandchildren, especially the oldest one, Alexander. In her later years, Catherine continued to possess an active mind and a strong spirit.
The love life of Catherine II has been a topic of much speculation and misinformation. The rumors of bestiality have been debunked, but the empress did have numerous relationships during her reign. Catherine could not remarry after the death of her husband, as it would jeopardize her position, and she had to appear chaste to the public. Behind the scenes, however, she seemed to have quite the sexual appetite.
According to most accounts, Catherine had around 12 lovers during her life. She had a system for managing her affairs—often bestowing gifts, honors and titles on those she liked, in order to win their favor. At each relationship's end, Catherine usually found a way to get her new paramour out of her hair. Potemkin, perhaps her most significant lover, spent many years as her favorite and remained lifelong friends after their passions cooled.
Death and Legacy
In mid-November 1796, Catherine was found unconscious on the floor of her bathroom. It was thought at the time that she suffered a stroke.
Catherine, Russia's great empress, lingered on until the following night, but never regained consciousness. She died on November 17, 1796. At the Winter Palace, her coffin lay in state next to that of her late husband, Peter III. Her son, Paul, ordered the remains of his father to placed there, giving Peter III the funeral honors that he had not received after his assassination. Catherine II and Peter III were both laid to rest at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul.
Catherine is often better remembered for her romantic liaisons than her many accomplishments. Historians have also criticized her for not improving the lives of serfs, who represented the majority of the Russian population. Still, Catherine made some significant contributions to Russia, bringing forth educational reforms and championing the arts. As leader, Catherine also extended the country's borders through military might and diplomatic prowess.
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