Biography of Catherine the Great

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Biography of Catherine the Great

One of the most interesting, hard-working and powerful people to grace the pages of history during the eighteenth century was Catherine II, Empress of Russia. Historians have not always been so kind to her memory, and all too often one reads accounts of her private life, ignoring her many achievements. The stories of her love affairs have been overly misinterpreted and can be traced to a handful of French writers in the years immediately after Catherine's death, when Republican France was fighting for its life against a coalition that included Russia.

Catherine was born Sophia Augusta Frederika of Anhalt-Zerbst on April 21, 1729 in Stettin, then Germany, now Poland. Her father, Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst, was a high-ranking officer in the Prussian Army and a minor prince among the principalities in Germany. He married the much younger Princess Johanna of Holstein-Gottorp. Years before, Johanna's brother Karl August of Holstein-Gottorp had gone to Russia to marry the Princess Elizabeth Petrovna. However the Prince died of small pox, leaving Elizabeth heart-broken. Elizabeth's sister, Anna gave birth to a son named Peter Ulrich, however tragedy once again struck as Anna's died of tuberculosis three months after giving birth to Peter.

Peter, who eventually became Tsar Peter III, was the only surviving male descendent and the potentially heir to the throne of Russia after his father died. In November 1741, Elizabeth seized the throne with the help of the Imperial Guards, and formally declared her nephew Peter heir to the throne. Peter was now 14 years old, and it was time for him to find a bride. Elizabeth had always remembered the family of her dead fiancée with fondness, and chose Sophie as the bride to be. The Empress Elizabeth seemed to have taken an instant liking to Sophie at an early age. Sophie began to learn the Russian language and studied the Orthodox religion, which of course pleased the Empress.

On June 28, Sophie was received into the Church in a great ceremony, and as a result changed her name to Catherine. Catherine was now the second highest-ranking lady in the country. Shortly after, Peter obtained measles, which started to show all the symptoms of small pox. Catherine found him to be a most pitiful creature, and it was with dismay that she looked towards her wedding day. The royal...

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...h the many relationships she formed with men. Perhaps we misunderstand her many attachments. She loved to teach, and she had much knowledge to give. We can see from her many letters to Baron von Grimm, that she took pride in the education of her young protégés. Perhaps what many historians interpret as promiscuous behavior, was nothing more than her filling the lonely hours by sharing her vast knowledge with the young men she deemed worthy of her attention. She had long and lasting relationships with Orlov and Potemkin, and it seems that she was capable of being faithful and devoted.

Russia owes her much. After a long reign of thirty-four years, Catherine died of a stroke on November 17, 1796. History knows her as Catherine the Great, a title she was offered during her lifetime and rejected. "I leave it to posterity to judge impartially what I have done" she said at the time; and Catherine has done well. Domestically, She dealt with peasant revolts, pretenders, and noble opposition. Abroad, she increased Russia's territory, prestige and international importance. Regardless of her much emphasized personal life and sexual relations, she deserves the title because she earned it.

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