Catherine The Great

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Catherine The Great

PRINZESSIN (PRINCESS) VON ANHALT-ZERBST, German-born empress of Russia
(1762-96), who led her country into full participation in the
political and cultural life of Europe, carrying on the work begun by
Peter the Great. With her ministers she reorganized the administration
and law of the Russian Empire and extended Russian territory, adding
the Crimea and much of Poland.

Origins and early experience.

Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst was the daughter of an
obscure German prince, Christian August von Anhalt-Zerbst, but she was
related through her mother to the dukes of Holstein. At the age of 14
she was chosen to be the wife of Karl Ulrich, duke of
Holstein-Gottorp, grandson of
"/bcom/eb/article/0/0,5716,60920+1+59428,00.html" the Great and heir
to the throne of Russia as the Grand Duke Peter. In 1744 Catherine
arrived in Russia, assumed the title of Grand Duchess Catherine
Alekseyevna, and married her young cousin the following year. The
marriage was a complete failure; the following 18 years were filled
with deception and humiliation for her.

Russia at the time was ruled by Peter the Great's daughter, the
empress "/bcom/eb/article/5/0,5716,32975+1+32409,00.html", whose
20-year reign greatly stabilized the monarchy. Devoted to much
pleasure and luxury and greatly desirous of giving her court the
brilliancy of a European court, Elizabeth prepared the way for

Catherine, however, would not have become empress if her husband had
been at all normal. He was extremely neurotic, rebellious, obstinate,
perhaps impotent, nearly alcoholic, and, most seriously, a fanatical
worshipper of Frederick II of Prussia, the foe of the empress
Elizabeth. Catherine, by contrast, was clearheaded and ambitious. Her
intelligence, flexibility of character, and love of Russia gained her
much support.

She was humiliated, bored, and regarded with suspicion while at court,
but she found comfort in reading extensively and in preparing herself
for her future role as sovereign. Although a woman of little beauty,

How to Cite this Page

MLA Citation:
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Catherine possessed considerable charm, a lively intelligence, and
extraordinary energy. During her husband's lifetime alone, she had at
least three lovers; if her hints are to be believed, none of her three
children, not even the heir apparent Paul, was fathered by her
husband. Her true passion, however, was ambition; since Peter was
incapable of ruling, she saw quite early the possibility of
eliminating him and governing Russia herself.

The empress Elizabeth died on Jan. 5, 1762 (Dec. 25, 1761, O.S.),
while Russia, allied with Austria and France, was engaged in the Seven
Years' War against Prussia. Shortly after Elizabeth's death, Peter,
now emperor, ended Russia's participation in the war and concluded an
alliance with Frederick II of Prussia. He made no attempt to hide his
hatred of Russia and his love of his native Germany; discrediting
himself endlessly by his foolish actions, he also prepared to rid
himself of his wife. Catherine had only to strike: she had the support
of the army, especially the regiments at St. Petersburg, where Grigory
"/bcom/eb/article/0/0,5716,58850+1+57415,00.html", her lover, was
stationed; the court; and public opinion in both capitals (Moscow and
St. Petersburg). She was also supported by the "enlightened"
"/bcom/eb/article/5/0,5716,108605+1+106072,00.html"elements of
aristocratic society, since she was known for her liberal opinions and
admired as one of the most cultivated persons in Russia. On July 9
(June 28, O.S.), 1762, she led the regiments that had rallied to her
cause into St. Petersburg and had herself proclaimed empress and
autocrat in the Kazan Cathedral. Peter III abdicated and was
assassinated eight days later. Although Catherine probably did not
order the murder of Peter, it was committed by her supporters, and
public opinion held her responsible. In September 1762, she was
crowned with great ceremony in Moscow, the ancient capital of the
tsars, and began a reign that was to span 34 years as empress of
Russia under the title of Catherine II.

Early years as empress

Despite Catherine's personal weaknesses, she was above all a ruler.
Truly dedicated to her adopted country, she intended to make Russia a
prosperous and powerful state. Since her early days in Russia she had
dreamed of establishing a reign of order and justice, of spreading
education, creating a court to rival Versailles, and developing a
national culture that would be more than an imitation of French
models. Her projects obviously were too numerous to carry out, even if
she could have given her full attention to them.

Her most pressing practical problem, however, was to replenish the
state treasury, which was empty when Elizabeth died; this she did in
1762 by secularizing the property of the clergy, who owned one-third
of the land and serfs in Russia. The Russian clergy was reduced to a
group of state-paid functionaries, losing what little power had been
left to it by the reforms of Peter the Great. Since her coup d'etat
and Peter's suspicious death demanded both discretion and stability in
her dealings with other nations, she continued to preserve friendly
relations with "/bcom/eb/article/8/0,5716,63228+1+61665,00.html",
Russia's old enemy, as well as with the country's traditional allies,
France and Austria. In 1764 she resolved the problem of
"/bcom/eb/article/4/0,5716,115134+1+108559,00.html", a kingdom lacking
definite boundaries and coveted by three neighbouring powers, by
installing one of her old lovers,
"/bcom/eb/article/5/0,5716,71215+1+69415,00.html", a weak man entirely
devoted to her, as king of Poland.

Her attempts at reform, however, were less than satisfying. A disciple
of the English and French liberal philosophers, she saw very quickly
that the reforms advocated by Montesquieu or Jean-Jacques Rousseau,
which were difficult enough to put into practice in Europe, did not at
all correspond to the realities of an anarchic and backward Russia. In
1767 she convened a commission composed of delegates from all the
provinces and from all social classes (except the serfs) for the
purpose of ascertaining the true wishes of her people and framing a
constitution. The debates went on for months and came to nothing.
Catherine's "/bcom/eb/article/3/0,5716,22153+1+21819,00.html"Instruction
to the commission was a draft of a constitution and a code of laws. It
was considered too liberal for publication in France and remained a
dead letter in Russia.

Frustrated in her attempts at reform, Catherine seized the pretext of
war with "/bcom/eb/article/7/0,5716,120797+1+111081,00.html"Turkey in
1768 to change her policy; henceforth, emphasis would be placed above
all on national grandeur. Since the reign of Peter the Great, the
Ottoman Empire had been the traditional enemy of Russia; inevitably,
the war fired the patriotism and zeal of Catherine's subjects.
Although the naval victory at
"/bcom/eb/article/4/0,5716,664+1+663,00.html" in 1770 brought military
glory to the Empress, Turkey had not yet been defeated and continued
fighting. At that point, Russia encountered unforeseen difficulties.

First, a terrible plague broke out in Moscow; along with the hardships
imposed by the war, it created a climate of disaffection and popular
agitation. In 1773 Yemelyan
"/bcom/eb/article/4/0,5716,63424+1+61855,00.html", a former officer of
the Don Cossacks, pretending to be the dead emperor Peter III, incited
the greatest uprising of Russian history prior to the revolution of
1917. Starting in the Ural region, the movement spread rapidly through
the vast southeastern provinces, and in June 1774 Pugachov's Cossack
troops prepared to march on Moscow. At this point, the war with Turkey
ended in a Russian victory, and Catherine sent her crack troops to
crush the rebellion. Defeated and captured, Pugachov was beheaded in
1775, but the terror and chaos he inspired were not soon forgotten.
Catherine now realized that for her the people were more to be feared
than pitied, and that, rather than freeing them, she must tighten
their bonds.

Before her accession to power, Catherine had planned to emancipate the
"/bcom/eb/article/7/0,5716,68557+1+66831,00.html"serfs, on whom the
economy of Russia, which was 95 percent agricultural, was based. The
serf was the property of the master, and the fortune of a noble was
evaluated not in lands but in the "souls" he owned. When confronted
with the realities of power, however, Catherine saw very quickly that
emancipation of the serfs would never be tolerated by the owners, whom
she depended upon for support, and who would throw the country into
disorder once they lost their own means of support. Reconciling
herself to an unavoidable evil without much difficulty, Catherine
turned her attention to organizing and strengthening a system that she
herself had condemned as inhuman. She imposed serfdom on the
"/bcom/eb/article/4/0,5716,115504+1+108710,00.html"Ukrainians who had
until then been free. By distributing the so-called crown lands to her
favourites and ministers, she worsened the lot of the peasants, who
had enjoyed a certain autonomy. At the end of her reign, there was
scarcely a free peasant left in Russia, and, because of more
systematized control, the condition of the serf was worse than it had
been before Catherine's rule.

Thus, 95 percent of the Russian people did not in any way benefit
directly from the achievements of Catherine's reign. Rather, their
forced labour financed the immense expenditures required for her
ever-growing economic, military, and cultural projects. In these
undertakings, at least, she proved herself to be a good administrator
and could claim that the blood and sweat of the people had not been

Influence of "/bcom/eb/article/6/0,5716,62606+1+61055,00.html"

In 1774, the year of Russia's defeat of Turkey, Grigory Potemkin, who
had distinguished himself in the war, became Catherine's lover, and a
brilliant career began for this official of the minor nobility, whose
intelligence and abilities were equalled only by his ambition. He was
to be the only one of Catherine's favourites to play an extensive
political role. Ordinarily, the Empress did not mix business and
pleasure; her ministers were almost always selected for their
abilities. In Potemkin she found an extraordinary man whom she could
love and respect and with whom she could share her power. As minister
he had unlimited powers, even after the end of their liaison, which
lasted only two years. Potemkin must be given part of the credit for
the somewhat extravagant splendour of Catherine's reign. He had a
conception of grandeur that escaped the rather pedestrian German
princess, and he understood the effect it produced on the people. A
great dreamer, he was avid for territories to conquer and provinces to
populate; an experienced diplomat with a knowledge of Russia that
Catherine had not yet acquired and as audacious as Catherine was
methodical, Potemkin was treated as an equal by the Empress up to the
time of his death in 1791. They complemented and understood each
other, and the ambitious minister expressed his respect for his
sovereign through complete devotion to her interests.

The annexation of the
"/bcom/eb/article/6/0,5716,28346+1+27901,00.html" from the Turks in
1783 was Potemkin's work. Through that annexation and the acquisition
of the territories of the Crimean khanate, which extended from the
Caucasus Mountains to the Bug River in southwestern Russia, Russia
held the north shore of the Black Sea and was in a position to
threaten the existence of the Ottoman Empire and to establish a
foothold in the Mediterranean. Catherine also sought to renew the
alliance with "/bcom/eb/article/8/0,5716,117978+1+109735,00.html",
Turkey's neighbour and enemy, and renounced the alliance with Prussia
and England, who were alarmed by Russian ambitions. Yet, during
Catherine's reign, the country did not become involved in a European
war, because the Empress scrupulously adhered to the territorial
agreements she had concluded with several western European nations.

Catherine's glorification reached its climax in a voyage to the Crimea
arranged by Potemkin in 1787. In a festive Arabian Nights atmosphere,
the Empress crossed the country to take possession of her new
provinces; the Emperor of Austria, the King of Poland, and innumerable
diplomats came to honour her and to enjoy the splendours of what
became known as "Cleopatra's fleet," because Catherine and her court
travelled partly by water. She dedicated new towns bearing her name
and announced that she ultimately intended to proceed to

Effects of the "/bcom/eb/article/8/0,5716,36018+1+35357,00.html"

Catherine, like all the crowned heads of Europe, felt seriously
threatened by the French Revolution. The divine right of royalty and
the aristocracy was being questioned, and Catherine, although a
"friend of the Enlightenment," had no intention of relinquishing her
own privileges: "I am an aristocrat, it is my profession." In 1790 the
writer A.N. , who
attempted to publish a work openly critical of the abuses of serfdom,
was tried, condemned to death, then pardoned and exiled. Ironically,
the sentiments Radishchev expressed were very similar to Catherine's
Instruction of 1767. Next,
"/bcom/eb/article/4/0,5716,62124+1+60581,00.html", encouraged by the
example of France, began agitating for a liberal constitution. In
1792, under the pretext of forestalling the threat of revolution,
Catherine sent in troops and the next year annexed most of the western
Ukraine, while Prussia helped itself to large territories of western
Poland. After the national uprising led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko in 1794,
Catherine wiped Poland off the map of Europe by dividing it between
Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1795.

Catherine's last years were darkened by the execution of Louis XVI,
the advance of the revolutionary armies, and the spread of radical
ideas. The Empress realized, moreover, that she had no suitable
successor. She considered her son Paul an incompetent and unbalanced
man; her grandson Alexander was too young yet to rule.


Russians, even Soviet Russians, continue to admire Catherine, the
German, the usurper and profligate, and regard her as a source of
national pride. Non-Russian opinion of Catherine is less favourable.
Because Russia under her rule grew strong enough to threaten the other
great powers, and because she was in fact a harsh and unscrupulous
ruler, she figured in the Western imagination as the incarnation of
the immense, backward, yet forbidding country she ruled. One of
Catherine's principal glories is to have been a woman who, just as
Elizabeth I of England and Queen Victoria gave their names to periods
of history, became synonymous with a decisive epoch in the development
of her country.

At the end of Catherine's reign, Russia had expanded westward and
southward over an area of more than 200,000 square miles, and the
Russian rulers' ancient dream of access to the Bosporus Strait
(connecting the Black Sea with the Aegean) had become an attainable
goal. At the end of her reign Catherine claimed that she had
reorganized 29 provinces under her administrative reform plan. An
uninhibited spender, she invested funds in many projects. More than a
hundred new towns were built; old ones were expanded and renovated. As
commodities were plentiful, trade expanded and communications
developed. These achievements, together with the glory of military
victories and the fame of a brilliant court, to which the greatest
minds of Europe were drawn, have won her a distinguished place in

Catherine's critics acknowledge her energy and administrative ability
but point out that the achievements of her reign were as much due to
her associates and to the unaided, historical development of Russian
society as to the merits of the Empress. And when they judge Catherine
the woman, they treat her severely.

Her private life was admittedly not exemplary. She had young lovers up
to the time of her unexpected death from a stroke at the age of 67.
After the end of her liaison with Potemkin, who perhaps was her
morganatic husband, the official favourite changed at least a dozen
times; she chose handsome and insignificant young men, who were only,
as one of them himself said, "kept girls." Although in reality devoted
to power above all else, she dreamed endlessly of the joys of a shared
love, but her position isolated her. She did not love her son Paul,
the legitimate heir, whose throne she occupied. On the other hand, she
adored her grandsons, particularly the eldest, Alexander, whom she
wished to succeed her. In her friendships she was loyal and generous
and usually showed mercy toward her enemies.

Yet it cannot be denied that she was also egotistical, pretentious,
and extremely domineering, above all a woman of action, capable of
being ruthless when her own interest or that of the state was at
stake. As she grew older she also became extremely vain: there was
some excuse, as the most distinguished minds of Europe heaped
flatteries on her that even she ultimately found exaggerated.

A friend of Voltaire and Diderot, she carried on an extensive
correspondence with most of the important personages of her time. She
was a patron of literature and a promoter of Russian culture; she
herself wrote, established literary reviews, encouraged the sciences,
and founded schools. Her interests and enthusiasms ranged from
construction projects to lawmaking and the collection of art objects;
she touched on everything, not always happily but always passionately.
She was a woman of elemental energy and intellectual curiosity,
desiring to create as well as to control.

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