Catherine the Great (1729 – 1796) was the longest-serving Russian monarch, reigning from 1762 to her death in 1796. She presided over a revitalisation of Russian strength, an expansion of Russian territories, greater integration of Russia within Europe and partial liberalisation of Russian society.
She was born Sophie Frederike August von Anhalt-Zerbst in Stettin, then part of Prussia (now modern Poland). In 1745, she was accepted into the Russian Orthodox Church, changed her name to Catherine and married Grand Duke Peter, grandson of Peter the Great and heir to the Russian throne.
At first, she was viewed with suspicion in the Russian court because of her foreign roots, lack of Russian culture and liberal attitudes. However, she threw herself into Russian culture and became adept at forming relationships within the Russian court. Over time, her foreign birth became less important, as she was increasingly seen as more capable than her husband – Tsar Peter III – who was seen as weak, childish and incompetent. There was little love between Catherine and her husband. It was said that Catherine was soon engaged in various love affairs with top officials in the Russian court.
Catherine and Peter did have one son – Paul who would later succeed Catherine.
Shortly after her husbands – Tsar Peter III’s – ascension to the throne, he was deposed and Catherine put in his place. Peter was killed shortly after; it is not known whether Catherine had any knowledge or involvement in his death.
“I shall be an autocrat, that’s my trade; and the good Lord will forgive me, that’s his.”
– Catherine the Great
Once Catherine had gained the throne, she proved to be an astute leader, gradually widening Russia’s sphere of influence, expanding Russia’s borders and continuing a process of gradual westernisation, begun by Peter the Great. One example of her western approach was to have herself and her family inoculated against smallpox. This groundbreaking medical treatment had only recently been introduced in Europe. It was a success and within a few years over 2 million Russians had been inoculated from smallpox.
Catherine was also a great patron of the arts, and enthusiastically accepted the ideals of the Enlightenment. She became a collector of art and books and became friendly with leading literary figures of the day, including French writers, Voltaire and Denis Diderot. She invited the famous Swiss mathematician Leonard Euler to study in Russia as she was always seeking to improve the standing of Russia in European culture.
Catherine read popular novels, economic treatises and had a particular interest in philosophy. She gravitated towards a philosophy which justified her desire to be an ‘enlightened autocrat.’ She had little concept of democracy but felt even powerful rulers should follow the rule of law and aim to improve the welfare of her subjects. There were few subjects which escaped her attention from gardens to education and religion.
If her husband was weak, Catherine was never in doubt about her position and power. She cultivated an image of strength and patriotism. Symbolically, she oversaw the building of many impressive mansions for the nobility which came to characterise the new confidence of the ruling classes.
“The Sovereign is absolute; for there is no other Authority but that which centers in his single Person, that can act with a Vigour proportionate to the Extent of such a vast Dominion.”
– Catherine the Great
During her reign, Russia expanded her territories into Belarus, Lithuania, the Crimea and Poland.
Catherine was famed for having many romantic relationships with members of her own court. She bore several illegitimate children by different fathers.
A key relationship for Catherine was with Grigory Potemkin. Their relationship was personal but also very important politically. Potemkin was very capable from a military perspective and proved to be a powerful leader in the new Russia of the south, helping to win over the people of Crimea. This helped to foster Russia as a new superpower on the European stage.
In her early years, Catherine held remarkably liberal attitudes. This is best exemplified by the Legislative Commission’s document of Nakaz or ‘instruction’ It contained a model of the ideal government with respect for individual rights and the pursuit of justice. An example of the sentiments in this document include:
“The Equality of the Citizens consists in this; that they should all be subject to the same Laws. This Equality requires Institutions so well adapted, as to prevent the Rich from oppressing those who are not so wealthy as themselves” Proposals for a New Law Code (1768)
However, after the outbreak of war with the Ottoman Empire in 1768, the document became sidelined and then ignored.
Due to declining economic conditions and conscription into the Russian army, the Russian masses felt a great injustice and saw no benefit from Russia’s expansion. A series of poor harvests, plague epidemics and worsening economic conditions led to rebellions, such as the Pugachev rebellion (1774-75) – which was a violent revolt against the nobility and system of serfdom. With the help of the nobility, Catherine was able to put down the rebellion, but this hardened her stance against the liberalisation of Russian society. The nobility was given extra privileges, strengthening their power over the serf population.
Catherine was brought up in a Lutheran Protestant background. On moving to Russia, she let go of her old religion and converted to the Russian Orthodox church.
Under Catherine the Great, the orthodox church saw a decline in its influence. Catherine closed many monasteries and reduced the church’s income. By 1786, religious education had been removed from schools. This helped to create a separation of church and religion.
At different times, she promised religious tolerance to groups. She forbade the demolition of mosques and the forced conversion from Islam to Christianity. At the same time, she sought to co-opt Islamic religions into supporting the Russian state – she introduced prayers for the Tsar in mosques. Her policy to Muslims was important after the conquest of Crimea and the Caucuses as Muslim populations were high.
By the standards of her time, she was relatively enlightened but her implementation of religious tolerance was patchy. As one example, she promised tolerance to a Christian competitor to the orthodox Church – the Old Believers. Yet, after a few years, she exiled 20,000 ‘Old Believers’ to Siberia for failing to convert. But, then two years later in 1785, she allowed them to return and made a promise of religious freedom for those who wanted to settle in Russia.
Catherine the Great suffered a stroke, whilst in the toilet (bathroom), she died the next day. After her death, some of her enemies within the court, spread false rumours about her death to discredit her image. One of the most outlandish was how she died having sexual intercourse with a horse.
Catherine the Great was a very influential ruler who shaped modern Russia and pushed the country in a more modern, western approach. Despite initial efforts to promote reforms for serfs, her foreign wars made her unpopular with many ordinary Russians. The nobility generally did well under Catherine and she was seen as a strong ruler. The passage of time has placed her as one of the most eminent of Russian rulers.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Catherine the Great”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net. Published 27/02/2010. Last updated 13 February 2020.
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