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Baltic seaport town of Stettin, then part of German Pomerania. She was born into the Anhalt-
Zerbst family, one of the poorest and most obscure of all the German princely families. Her
father, Christian Augusta, did not become the reigning prince of Zerbst until Catherine was
thirteen years old. In 1743, at the age of fifteen, Catherine's mother, Johanna, found her a
husband. She was to marry Grand Duke Peter III of Holstein, he was sixteen. When Catherine
met her husband she thought that he was weak, egotistical, unbalanced, ineffective and entirely
Lutheran and German in his attitude. Catherine decided to convert to Russian Orthodoxy after a
year of instruction and education from the Russian court.
She was married in 1745 and became Grand Duchess Catherine of Russia. Catherine's
life as a Grand Duchess from 1745 to 1762 was very difficult. Their marriage was never on
good terms. Catherine thought that she would have to make her own way and find her place
within the Russian court. She learned how to speak Russian to convince the court of her good
will. She studied rituals of Orthodoxy and was careful to show respect for her new religion.
Catherine occupied herself reading everything she could find. She particularly enjoyed the
works of Plato and Voltaire. Her interest in intellectual things caused even greater distance
between Peter and herself.
Many years passed and there was still no heir to the throne. The Empress Elizabeth of
Russia, Peter III's aunt, was irritated because she wanted to secure a powerful dynasty and
couldn't accomplish this without the presence of a male heir. She thought it was Catherine's
fault because she wasn't attracted to her husband. However, it was Peter that was not able to
produce a male son, so Elizabeth permitted an affair between Catherine and a Russian military
officer named Serge Saltykov.
Catherine finally gave birth to a son, whom the Empress named Paul, on September 20,
1754. Peter accepted him as his own. Immediately after Paul's birth Elizabeth took him to her
apartments and raised him as her own. This caused Peter and Catherine's relationship to drift
On Christmas day 1761, the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna died and the reign of Tsar Peter
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III had begun. Catherine mourned the Empress sincerely. Peter apparently was glad, and at the
funeral made a complete fool of himself. He mocked Elizabeth's life, saying that he was glad
she died, and made loud, rude noises while the priests were speaking. Peter was very vocal
about his love of Prussian customs, and Prussian relations with Russia were not going well.
Peter's first official action was to end hostile relations between Prussia and his Russia. He
formed an alliance with Prussia that became the beginning of Russia's detriment. Peter
impressed with the Prussian military adopted many of their customs into the Russian military.
The Russian army, largely due to Peter's adopted changes, suffered great losses during the Seven
Year's War. The army started to turn against Peter and all classes of the Russian people began
to hate him.
Catherine heard rumors that Peter intended to dispose of her and make, his mistress,
Elizabeth Vorontsova his wife. He planned to lock Catherine away because she annoyed him.
He was envious that the Russian people cared for her more than they did for him. With all that
Peter had done to alienate the Army, Catherine felt she was in great danger and began to plot the
overthrow of the new Tsar. Friends of Catherine's and her present lover told her of their plan for
a coup d'etat against Peter. Catherine went to the Ismailovsky regiment looking for their
support saying "I have come to you for protection. The Emperor has given orders to arrest me,
and I fear he intends to kill me." The soldiers believed her and gave her their support. The
Ismailovsky's were hers, and from that moment on so was Russia. Catherine in the protection of
the Ismailovsky Army, made their way to the Cathedral of Kazan where they found the church
filled with clergy awaiting Catherine's inauguration. On June 28, 1762 she took the oath as
Empress and Sole Autocrat.
Peter, unwilling to fight, signed the act of abdication. By order of the Empress, Peter was
taken to a nearby estate in the village of Ropsha and placed under surveillance. Six days later
Catherine received the news that Peter had died. They told her he was killed after an argument
with his guards. She later discovered that Peter was murdered by her lover, Gregory Orlov.
Few people at the European Courts believed Catherine would last long because she
was German without a drop of Russian blood in her veins. The true heir, Peter the Great's
grandson, had been murdered and some believed Catherine was to blame. Catherine knew her
position was very fragile and elected to keep the statesmen who worked under Elizabeth and
Peter active. She believed this would help stabilize her reign.
When Catherine met the Senate for the first time at the Summer Palace, she was stunned
by the realities of the country's financial and social situation. The budget showed a deficit of
seventeen million rubles, in a country of only one hundred million people. People, everywhere,
complained about corruption, extortion and injustice. Catherine decided to concentrate on
increasing Russia's wealth and since Russia was primarily agricultural, she began with the land.
She sent experts to study the soil and propose suitable crops. She made grants to landowners to
learn new ways being used in England and to buy machines that were being invented there. She
encouraged introduction of modern methods to breed sheep and cattle, and she promoted horse-
breeding. Catherine realized more workers were needed to work the under populated areas, so
she used advertisements in foreign newspapers, mostly German, inviting settlers and offering
them attractive terms to get them to move to Russia. The response was excellent, thousands
came over to Russia.
She next turned to mining and sent geologists to access the ores from Russia's seemingly
barren lands. She founded the first school of mines in St. Petersburg, complete with an
underground mine where trainees could learn the trade under realistic conditions. Her next
undertaking was to establish a new decree stating that anyone could start a new factory, except
in the two capitals, which were overcrowded. A whole range of industries began to emerge:
linen, pottery, leather goods and furniture. By the simple act of abolishing export duties, she
achieved remarkable results. As early as 1765, three quarters of the Empress Elizabeth's debt
was repaid and a budget deficit had been turned into a surplus.
Russia only had a few schools so now Catherine turned to improving education. She
started by converting a convent in St. Petersburg into a boarding school for girls, the Smolny
Institute. In 1786, Catherine issued the Statute for Schools for all of Russia. It said that every
district town was to establish a minor school with two teachers and every provincial town a
major school with six teachers. She did not set policies for the founding of Universities,
because she knew that Russia lacked qualified teachers for these institutions, but she did increase
the number of grants to study abroad.
In 1763, Catherine founded Russia's first College of Medicine, which consisted of a
director, a president, and eight members. The college was instructed to train Russian doctors,
surgeons and apothecaries to serve in the provinces. When she reorganized the provinces in
1775, she ruled that each provincial capital must have a hospital. These are just some of the
visible results of Catherine's domestic reforms.
Catherine was also an enthusiastic collector of the arts. She built up the Imperial art
collection from a dozen works to an incredible 3,926. She commissioned the building of palaces
and the Hermitage. Her great love for Russia and pride in her adopted country comes through to
us when we look at the beautiful collection of paintings done by the world's greatest masters,
acquired not for personal indulgence, but as an effort to make Russia respected. She had a
theater built where operas and plays were performed by artists invited to Russia. Catherine,
herself, wrote several operas and some were performed there. Later in life she wrote stories for
Catherine helped expand Russia through two Russo-Turkish wars, one in 1768-1774, and
one from 1787-1792, through the addition of Ukraine from 1781-1786 and by gaining portions
of Poland. Catherine still felt her reign was fragile and she was in desperate need of noble
support to keep the throne so she deliberately increased the power of the nobles over the serfs,
and governed in such a way as to consolidate noble domination and exploitation of the human
and material resources of the country.
Catherine possessed majesty without being pompous. She was neither cold nor inhuman.
Over the years she lived through hurtful criticism, rebellion, war and estrangement from her son,
Paul, whom she thought incapable of ruling Russia. She was a woman alone without her own
family, except her beloved grandchildren. As Empress, she showed much love and affection to
her grandsons, but you can sense a void that she tried to fill with the many relationships she
formed with men. She craved affection, but Catherine loved to teach and she had much to give.
There is no doubt that Catherine's reputation suffered because of the many accounts of her
affairs. In the overall picture, all the stories about Catherine the woman can not take away from
her many achievements as Catherine the Empress. Russia has a lot to thank her for. After a long
reign of thirty four years, Catherine died of a stroke on the 17th of November, 1796. She died in
Tsarskue Selu, Russia at the age of 67. Although she had wanted her grandson to succeed her,
she was too over confident about her health so she hadn't made the transition of power to her
grandson, Alexander, final before she died. Therefore her son, Paul I, succeeded her as
Emperor. History knows her as Catherine the Great, a title she was offered during her lifetime
and rejected, but she deserves the title because she earned it.