Catherine The Great

Catherine The Great

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Sophia Frederika-Augusta, later known as Catherine, was born on May 2, 1729 in the

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

further apart.

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

her grandchildren.

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.
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