Catherine the Great

Catherine II (Russian: Екатери́на Алексе́евна, romanized: Yekaterina Alekseyevna; 2 May [O.S. 21 April] 172917 November [O.S. 6 November] 1796), most commonly known as Catherine the Great (Екатери́на Вели́кая, Yekaterina Velikaya), born Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, was Empress of Russia from 1762 until 1796, the country's longest-ruling female leader. She came to power following a coup d'état that she organised—resulting in her husband, Peter III, being overthrown. Under her reign, Russia was revitalised; it grew larger and stronger, and was recognised as one of the great powers of Europe.

Catherine II
Portrait of Catherine II in her 50s, by Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder
Empress of Russia
Reign9 July 1762 – 17 November 1796
Coronation22 September 1762
PredecessorPeter III
SuccessorPaul I
Empress consort of Russia
Tenure5 January 1762 – 9 July 1762
BornPrincess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst
2 May [O.S. 21 April] 1729
Stettin, Pomerania, Prussia
(now Szczecin, Poland)
Died17 November [O.S. 6 November] 1796 (aged 67)
Winter Palace, Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
among others…
Paul I of Russia
Full name
German: Sophie Friederike Auguste

Russian: Екатерина Алексеевна Романова, romanized: Yekaterina Alekseyevna Romanova

English: Catherine Alexeievna Romanova
HouseHolstein-Gottorp-Romanov (by marriage)
Ascania (by birth)
FatherChristian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst
MotherPrincess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp
ReligionRussian Orthodox (1744–1796)
prev. Lutheran (1729–1744)

In her accession to power and her rule of the empire, Catherine often relied on her noble favourites, most notably count Grigory Orlov and Grigory Potemkin. Assisted by highly successful generals such as Alexander Suvorov and Pyotr Rumyantsev, and admirals such as Fyodor Ushakov, she governed at a time when the Russian Empire was expanding rapidly by conquest and diplomacy. In the south, the Crimean Khanate was crushed following victories over the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish wars, and Russia colonised the territories of Novorossiya along the coasts of the Black and Azov Seas. In the west, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, ruled by Catherine's former lover, King Stanisław August Poniatowski, was eventually partitioned, with the Russian Empire gaining the largest share. In the east, Russia started to colonise Alaska, establishing Russian America.

Catherine reformed the administration of Russian guberniyas, and many new cities and towns were founded on her orders. An admirer of Peter the Great, Catherine continued to modernize Russia along Western European lines. However, military conscription and the economy continued to depend on serfdom, and the increasing demands of the state and of private landowners intensified the exploitation of serf labor. This was one of the chief reasons behind several rebellions, including the large-scale Pugachev Rebellion of Cossacks and peasants.

Catherine decided to have herself inoculated against smallpox by a British doctor, Thomas Dimsdale. While this was considered a controversial method at the time, she succeeded. Her son Pavel was later inoculated as well. Catherine then sought to have inoculations throughout her empire and stated: "My objective was, through my example, to save from death the multitude of my subjects who, not knowing the value of this technique, and frightened of it, were left in danger". By 1800, approximately 2 million inoculations (almost 6% of the population) were administered in the Russian Empire.

The period of Catherine the Great's rule, the Catherinian Era,[1] is considered the Golden Age of Russia.[2] The Manifesto on Freedom of the Nobility, issued during the short reign of Peter III and confirmed by Catherine, freed Russian nobles from compulsory military or state service. Construction of many mansions of the nobility, in the classical style endorsed by the Empress, changed the face of the country. She enthusiastically supported the ideals of the Enlightenment and is often regarded as an enlightened despot.[3] As a patron of the arts she presided over the age of the Russian Enlightenment, including the establishment of the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe.

Early life

Catherine was born in Alt-Stettin, Pomerania, Kingdom of Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland) as Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. Her father, Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, belonged to the ruling German family of Anhalt[4] but held the rank of a Prussian general in his capacity as governor of the city of Stettin. Two of her first cousins became Kings of Sweden: Gustav III and Charles XIII.[5] In accordance with the custom then prevailing in the ruling dynasties of Germany, she received her education chiefly from a French governess and from tutors. Catherine was regarded as a tomboy and was known by the nickname Fike.[6]

Her childhood was quite uneventful. She once wrote to her correspondent Baron Grimm: "I see nothing of interest in it."[7] Although Catherine was born a princess, her family had very little money. Her rise to power was supported by her mother's wealthy relatives, who were both nobles and royal relations.[8][9] The 300 or so states of the Holy Roman Empire, many of them quite small and powerless, made for a highly competitive political system as the various princely families fought for advantage over each other, often via political marriages.[10] For the smaller German princely families, an advantageous marriage was one of the best means of advancing their interests, and the young Sophia was groomed throughout her childhood to be the wife of some powerful ruler in order to improve the position of the von Anhalt family. Besides for her native German, Sophia became fluent in French, the lingua franca of European elites in the 18th century.[11] The young Sophia received the standard education for a 18th century German princess with a concentration upon the learning the etiquette expected of a lady, French and Lutheran theology.[12]

The choice of Sophie as wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, resulted from some amount of diplomatic management in which Count Lestocq, Peter's aunt (and the ruling Russian Empress) Elizabeth and Frederick II of Prussia took part. Lestocq and Frederick wanted to strengthen the friendship between Prussia and Russia to weaken Austria's influence and ruin the Russian chancellor Bestuzhev, on whom Empress Elizabeth relied, and who acted as a known partisan of Russo-Austrian co-operation.

Catherine first met Peter III at the age of 10. Based on her writings, she found Peter detestable upon meeting him. She disliked his pale complexion and his fondness for alcohol at such a young age. Peter also still played with toy soldiers. Catherine later wrote that she stayed at one end of the castle, and Peter at the other.[13]

The diplomatic intrigue failed, largely due to the intervention of Sophie's mother, Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Historical accounts portray Johanna as a cold, abusive woman who loved gossip and court intrigues. Her hunger for fame centred on her daughter's prospects of becoming empress of Russia, but she infuriated Empress Elizabeth, who eventually banned her from the country for spying for King Frederick of Prussia. Empress Elizabeth knew the family well: she had intended to marry Princess Johanna's brother Charles Augustus (Karl August von Holstein), who had died of smallpox in 1727 before the wedding could take place.[14] Despite Johanna's interference, Empress Elizabeth took a strong liking to Catherine, who, on arrival in Russia in 1744 spared no effort to ingratiate herself not only with Empress Elizabeth, but with her husband and with the Russian people as well. Catherine applied herself to learning the Russian language with zeal, rising at night and walking about her bedroom barefoot, repeating her lessons. (Even though she mastered the language, she retained an accent.) This practice led to a severe attack of pneumonia in March 1744. When she wrote her memoirs, she said she made up her mind when she came to Russia to do whatever was necessary and to profess to believe whatever was required of her, to become qualified to wear the crown.

Catherine recalled in her memoirs that as soon as she arrived in Russia, she fell ill with a pleuritis that almost killed her. She credited her survival to frequent bloodletting; in a single day, she had four phlebotomies. Her mother, who was opposed to this practice, fell into the Empress' disfavour. When Catherine's situation looked desperate, her mother wanted her confessed by a Lutheran priest. Awaking from her delirium, however, Catherine said: "I don't want any Lutheran; I want my Orthodox father [clergyman]." This raised her in the Empress' esteem.

Princess Sophie's father, a devout German Lutheran, opposed his daughter's conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy. Despite his objection, however, on 28 June 1744, the Russian Orthodox Church received Princess Sophie as a member with the new name Catherine (Yekaterina or Ekaterina) and the (artificial) patronymic Алексеевна (Alekseyevna, daughter of Aleksey). On the following day, the formal betrothal took place. The long-planned dynastic marriage finally occurred on 21 August 1745 in Saint Petersburg. Sophie had turned 16; her father did not travel to Russia for the wedding. The bridegroom, known then as Peter von Holstein-Gottorp, had become Duke of Holstein-Gottorp (located in the north-west of present-day Germany near the border with Denmark) in 1739. The newlyweds settled in the palace of Oranienbaum, which remained the residence of the "young court" for many years to come.

Bored with her husband, Catherine became an avid reader of books, mostly in French.[15] Catherine disparaged her husband as devoted to reading "Lutheran prayer-books, the other the history of and trial of some highway robbers who had been hung or broken on the wheel".[16] It was during this period that she first read Voltaire and the other philosophes of the French Enlightenment.[17] As she learned Russian, she became increasingly interested in the literature of her adopted country.[18] Finally, she also read the Classics. Of the Classics, it was the Annals by Tacitus that caused what she called a "revolution" in her mind as Tacitus was the first intellectual she read who understood power politics as they are, not as they should be.[19] She was especially impressed with Tacitus's argument that people do not act for their professed idealistic reasons, and instead she learned to look for the "hidden and interested motives".[20]

Count Andrei Shuvalov, chamberlain to Catherine, knew the diarist James Boswell well, and Boswell reports that Shuvalov shared private information regarding the monarch's intimate affairs. One of these rumours was that Peter took a mistress (Elizabeth Vorontsova),[21] while Catherine carried on liaisons with Sergei Saltykov,[22] Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov (1734–1783),[23][24] Alexander Vasilchikov,[25][26] Grigory Potemkin,[25][26][27][28]  Stanisław August Poniatowski,[29][30] and others. She became friends with Princess Ekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova, the sister of her husband's mistress, who introduced her to several powerful political groups that opposed her husband.

Peter III's temperament became quite unbearable for those who resided in the palace. He would announce trying drills in the morning to male servants, who later joined Catherine in her room to sing and dance until late hours.

Catherine became pregnant with her second child, Anna, who only lived to four months, in 1759. Due to various rumours of Catherine's promiscuity, Peter was led to believe he was not the child's biological father and is known to have proclaimed, "Go to the devil!", when Catherine angrily dismissed his accusation. She thus spent much of this time alone in her private boudoir to hide away from Peter's abrasive personality.[31]

Catherine recalled in her memoirs her optimistic and resolute mood before her accession to the throne:

"I used to say to myself that happiness and misery depend on ourselves. If you feel unhappy, raise your self above unhappiness, and so act that your happiness may be independent of all eventualities."[32]

Reign of Peter III and the coup d'état of July 1762

After the death of the Empress Elizabeth on 5 January 1762 (OS: 25 December 1761), Peter succeeded to the throne as Emperor Peter III, and Catherine became empress consort. The imperial couple moved into the new Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. The tsar's eccentricities and policies, including a great admiration for the Prussian king, Frederick II, alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated. Russia and Prussia had fought each other during the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), and Russian troops had occupied Berlin in 1761. Peter supported Frederick II, however, eroding much of his support among the nobility. Peter ceased Russian operations against Prussia, and Frederick suggested the partition of Polish territories with Russia. Peter also intervened in a dispute between his Duchy of Holstein and Denmark over the province of Schleswig (see Count Johann Hartwig Ernst von Bernstorff).

In July 1762, barely six months after becoming emperor, Peter took a holiday with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives to Oranienbaum, leaving his wife in Saint Petersburg. On the night of 8 July (OS: 27 June 1762),[33] Catherine the Great was given the news that one of her co-conspirators had been arrested by her estranged husband and that all they had been planning must take place at once. The next day, she left the palace and departed for the Ismailovsky regiment, where she delivered a speech asking the soldiers to protect her from her husband. Catherine then left with the regiment to go to the Semenovsky Barracks, where the clergy was waiting to ordain her as the sole occupant of the Russian throne. She had her husband arrested, and forced him to sign a document of abdication, leaving no one to dispute her accession to the throne.[34][35] On 17 July 1762—eight days after the coup and just six months after his accession to the throne—Peter III died at Ropsha, at the hands of Alexei Orlov (younger brother to Grigory Orlov, then a court favourite and a participant in the coup).

At the time of Peter III's overthrow, other potential rivals for the throne included Ivan VI (1740–1764), who had been confined at Schlüsselburg in Lake Ladoga from the age of six months, and was thought to be insane. Ivan VI was assassinated during an attempt to free him as part of a failed coup: like Empress Elizabeth before her, Catherine had given strict instructions that Ivan was to be killed in the event of any such attempt. Yelizaveta Alekseyevna Tarakanova (1753–1775) was another potential rival.

Although Catherine did not descend from the Romanov dynasty, her ancestors included members of the Rurik dynasty, which preceded the Romanovs. She succeeded her husband as empress regnant, following the precedent established when Catherine I succeeded her husband Peter the Great in 1725. Historians debate Catherine's technical status, whether as a regent or as a usurper, tolerable only during the minority of her son, Grand Duke Paul. In the 1770s, a group of nobles connected with Paul, including Nikita Panin, considered a new coup to depose Catherine and transfer the crown to Paul, whose power they envisaged restricting in a kind of constitutional monarchy.[36] Nothing came of this, however, and Catherine reigned until her death.

Reign (1762–96)

Coronation (1762)

Catherine was crowned at the Assumption Cathedral in Moscow on 22 September 1762.[37] Her coronation marks the creation of one of the main treasures of the Romanov dynasty, the Imperial Crown of Russia, designed by Swiss-French court diamond jeweller Jérémie Pauzié. Inspired by the Byzantine Empire design, the crown was constructed of two gold and silver half spheres, representing the eastern and western Roman empires, divided by a foliate garland and fastened with a low hoop. The crown contains 75 pearls and 4,936 Indian diamonds forming laurel and oak leaves, the symbols of power and strength, and is surmounted by a 398.62-carat ruby spinel that previously belonged to the Empress Elizabeth, and a diamond cross. The crown was produced in a record two months and weighed 2.3 kg.[38] From 1762, the Great Imperial Crown was the coronation crown of all Romanov emperors, until the monarchy's abolition and the death of the last Romanov, Nicholas II, in 1918. It is one of the main treasures of the Romanov dynasty, and is now on display in the Moscow Kremlin Armoury Museum.[39]

Foreign affairs

During her reign, Catherine extended by some 520,000 square kilometres (200,000 sq mi) the borders of the Russian Empire, absorbing New Russia, Crimea, Northern Caucasus, Right-bank Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Courland at the expense, mainly, of two powers—the Ottoman Empire and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Catherine's foreign minister, Nikita Panin (in office 1763–81), exercised considerable influence from the beginning of her reign. A shrewd statesman, Panin dedicated much effort and millions of rubles to setting up a "Northern Accord" between Russia, Prussia, Poland, and Sweden, to counter the power of the BourbonHabsburg League. When it became apparent that his plan could not succeed, Panin fell out of favour and Catherine had him replaced with Ivan Osterman (in office 1781–97).

Catherine agreed to a commercial treaty with Great Britain in 1766, but stopped short of a full military alliance.[40] Although she could see the benefits of Britain's friendship, she was wary of Britain's increased power following its victory in the Seven Years' War, which threatened the European balance of power.

Russo-Turkish Wars

Peter the Great had succeeded in gaining a toehold in the south, on the edge of the Black Sea, in the Azov campaigns. Catherine completed the conquest of the south, making Russia the dominant power in south-eastern Europe after the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–74. Russia inflicted some of the heaviest defeats ever suffered by the Ottoman Empire, including the Battle of Chesma (5–7 July 1770) and the Battle of Kagul (21 July 1770). In 1769 a last major Crimean–Nogai slave raid, which ravaged the Russian held territories in Ukraine, saw the capture of up to 20,000 slaves.[41]

The Russian victories procured access to the Black Sea and allowed Catherine's government to incorporate present-day southern Ukraine, where the Russians founded the new cities of Odessa, Nikolayev, Yekaterinoslav (literally: "the Glory of Catherine"; the future Dnipro), and Kherson. The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, signed 10 July 1774, gave the Russians territories at Azov, Kerch, Yenikale, Kinburn, and the small strip of Black Sea coast between the rivers Dnieper and Bug. The treaty also removed restrictions on Russian naval or commercial traffic in the Azov Sea, granted to Russia the position of protector of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire, and made the Crimea a protectorate of Russia.

Catherine annexed the Crimea in 1783, nine years after the Crimean Khanate had gained nominal independence—which had been guaranteed by Russia—from the Ottoman Empire as a result of her first war against the Turks. The palace of the Crimean khans passed into the hands of the Russians. In 1787, Catherine conducted a triumphal procession in the Crimea, which helped provoke the next Russo-Turkish War.

The Ottomans restarted hostilities in the Russo-Turkish War of 1787–92. This war was another catastrophe for the Ottomans, ending with the Treaty of Jassy (1792), which legitimised the Russian claim to the Crimea and granted the Yedisan region to Russia.

Russo-Persian War

In the Treaty of Georgievsk (1783) Russia agreed to protect Georgia against any new invasion and further political aspirations of their Persian suzerains. Catherine waged a new war against Persia in 1796 after they, under the new king Agha Mohammad Khan, had again invaded Georgia and established rule in 1795 and had expelled the newly established Russian garrisons in the Caucasus. The ultimate goal for the Russian government, however, was to topple the anti-Russian shah (king), and to replace him with a half-brother, Morteza Qoli Khan, who had defected to Russia and was therefore pro-Russian.[42][43]

It was widely expected that a 13,000-strong Russian corps would be led by the seasoned general, Ivan Gudovich, but the Empress followed the advice of her lover, Prince Zubov, and entrusted the command to his youthful brother, Count Valerian Zubov. The Russian troops set out from Kizlyar in April 1796 and stormed the key fortress of Derbent on 10 May. The event was glorified by the court poet Derzhavin in his famous ode; he later commented bitterly on Zubov's inglorious return from the expedition in another remarkable poem.

By mid-June, Zubov's troops overran without any resistance most of the territory of modern-day Azerbaijan, including three principal cities—Baku, Shemakha, and Ganja. By November, they were stationed at the confluence of the Araks and Kura Rivers, poised to attack mainland Iran. In that month, the Empress of Russia died and her successor Paul, who detested that the Zubovs had other plans for the army, ordered the troops to retreat to Russia. This reversal aroused the frustration and enmity of the powerful Zubovs and other officers who took part in the campaign: many of them would be among the conspirators who arranged Paul's murder five years later.

Relations with Western Europe

Catherine longed for recognition as an enlightened sovereign. She pioneered for Russia the role that Britain later played through most of the 19th and early 20th centuries as an international mediator in disputes that could, or did, lead to war. She acted as mediator in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–79) between the German states of Prussia and Austria. In 1780, she established a League of Armed Neutrality, designed to defend neutral shipping from the British Royal Navy during the American Revolution.

From 1788 to 1790, Russia fought a war against Sweden, a conflict instigated by Catherine's cousin, King Gustav III of Sweden, who expected to simply overtake the Russian armies still engaged in war against the Ottoman Turks, and hoped to strike Saint Petersburg directly. But Russia's Baltic Fleet checked the Royal Swedish navy in a tied battle of Hogland (July 1788), and the Swedish army failed to advance. Denmark declared war on Sweden in 1788 (the Theatre War). After the decisive defeat of the Russian fleet at the Battle of Svensksund in 1790, the parties signed the Treaty of Värälä (14 August 1790), returning all conquered territories to their respective owners and confirming the Treaty of Åbo. Peace ensued for 20 years, aided by the assassination of Gustav III in 1792.

Partitions of Poland

In 1764, Catherine placed Stanisław August Poniatowski, her former lover, on the Polish throne. Although the idea of partitioning Poland came from the King Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine took a leading role in carrying it out in the 1790s. In 1768, she formally became protector of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, which provoked an anti-Russian uprising in Poland, the Confederation of Bar (1768–72). After the uprising broke down due to internal politics in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, she established in the Rzeczpospolita, a system of government fully controlled by the Russian Empire through a Permanent Council, under the supervision of her ambassadors and envoys.[44]

After the French Revolution of 1789, Catherine rejected many principles of the Enlightenment she had once viewed favourably. Afraid the May Constitution of Poland (1791) might lead to a resurgence in the power of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the growing democratic movements inside the Commonwealth might become a threat to the European monarchies, Catherine decided to intervene in Poland. She provided support to a Polish anti-reform group known as the Targowica Confederation. After defeating Polish loyalist forces in the Polish–Russian War of 1792 and in the Kościuszko Uprising (1794), Russia completed the partitioning of Poland, dividing all of the remaining Commonwealth territory with Prussia and Austria (1795).

Relations with Japan

In the Far East, Russians became active in fur trapping in Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands. This spurred Russian interest in opening trade with Japan to the south for supplies and food. In 1783, storms drove a Japanese sea captain, Daikokuya Kōdayū, ashore in the Aleutian Islands, at that time Russian territory. Russian local authorities helped his party, and the Russian government decided to use him as a trade envoy. On 28 June 1791, Catherine granted Daikokuya an audience at Tsarskoye Selo. Subsequently, in 1792, the Russian government dispatched a trade mission to Japan, led by Adam Laxman. The Tokugawa shogunate received the mission, but negotiations failed.

Economics and finance

Russian economic development was well below the standards in western Europe. Historian Francois Cruzet writes that Russia under Catherine:

had neither a free peasantry, nor a significant middle class, nor legal norms hospitable to private enterprise. Still, there was a start of industry, mainly textiles around Moscow and ironworks in the Ural Mountains, with a labor force mainly of serfs, bound to the works.[45]

Catherine strongly encouraged the migration of the Volga Germans, farmers from Germany who settled mostly in the Volga River Valley region. They indeed helped modernise the sector that totally dominated the Russian economy. They introduced numerous innovations regarding wheat production and flour milling, tobacco culture, sheep raising, and small-scale manufacturing.[46][47]

In 1768, the Assignation Bank was given the task of issuing the first government paper money. It opened in St. Petersburg and Moscow in 1769. Several bank branches were afterwards established in other towns, called government towns. Paper notes were issued upon payment of similar sums in copper money, which were also refunded upon the presentation of those notes. The emergence of these Assignation rubles was necessary due to large government spending on military needs, which led to a shortage of silver in the treasury (transactions, especially in foreign trade, were conducted almost exclusively in silver and gold coins). Assignation rubles circulated on equal footing with the silver ruble; a market exchange rate for these two currencies was ongoing. The use of these notes continued until 1849.[48]

Arts and culture

Catherine had a reputation as a patron of the arts, literature, and education. The Hermitage Museum, which now occupies the whole Winter Palace, began as Catherine's personal collection. The Empress was a great lover of art and books, and ordered the construction the Hermitage in 1770 to house her ever expanding collection of paintings, sculpture, and books.[49] By 1790, the Hermitage was the home to 38, 000 books, 10, 000 gems, 10, 000 drawings and two wings devoted to her collections of "curiosities".[50] Another interest was the English style of gardens, as she ordered the first "English garden" planted at Tsarskoye Selo in May 1770.[51] In a letter to Voltaire in 1772, she wrote: "Right now I adore English gardens, curves, gentle slopes, ponds in the form of lakes, archipelagos on dry land, and I have a profound scorn for straight lines, symmetric avenues. I hate hate fountains that torture water in order to make it take a course contrary to its nature: statues are relegated to galleries, vestibules etc; in a word, Anglomania is the master of my plantomania".[52]

Catherine read three sorts of books, namely those for pleasure, those for information and those to provide her with a philosophy.[53] In the first category, she read romances and comedies that were popular at the time, many of which were regarded as "inconsequential" by the critics both then and since.[54] She especially liked the work of German comic writers such as Moritz August von Thümmel and Christoph Friedrich Nicolai.[55] In the second category fell the work of Denis Diderot, Jacques Necker and Johann Bernhard Basedow and Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon.[56] For information about particular nations that interested her, she read Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville's Memoirs de Chine; François Baron de Tott's Memoires de les Turcs et les Tartares; the books of Frederick the Great praising himself; and the pamphlets of Benjamin Franklin published during the American Revolution.[57] In the third category fell the work of Voltaire, Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm, Ferdinando Galiani, Nicolas Baudeau, and Sir William Blackstone.[58]

She wrote comedies, fiction, and memoirs, while cultivating Voltaire, Diderot, and d'Alembert—all French encyclopedists who later cemented her reputation in their writings. The leading economists of her day, such as Arthur Young and Jacques Necker, became foreign members of the Free Economic Society, established on her suggestion in Saint Petersburg in 1765. She recruited the scientists Leonhard Euler and Peter Simon Pallas from Berlin and Anders Johan Lexell from Sweden to the Russian capital.

Catherine enlisted Voltaire to her cause, and corresponded with him for 15 years, from her accession to his death in 1778. He lauded her accomplishments, calling her "The Star of the North" and the "Semiramis of Russia" (in reference to the legendary Queen of Babylon, a subject on which he published a tragedy in 1768). Though she never met him face to face, she mourned him bitterly when he died. She acquired his collection of books from his heirs, and placed them in the National Library of Russia.

Within a few months of her accession in 1762, having heard the French government threatened to stop the publication of the famous French Encyclopédie on account of its irreligious spirit, Catherine proposed to Diderot that he should complete his great work in Russia under her protection.

Four years later, in 1766, she endeavoured to embody in legislation the principles of Enlightenment she learned from studying the French philosophers. She called together at Moscow a Grand Commission—almost a consultative parliament—composed of 652 members of all classes (officials, nobles, burghers, and peasants) and of various nationalities. The Commission had to consider the needs of the Russian Empire and the means of satisfying them. The Empress herself prepared the "Instructions for the Guidance of the Assembly", pillaging (as she frankly admitted) the philosophers of Western Europe, especially Montesquieu and Cesare Beccaria.

As many of the democratic principles frightened her more moderate and experienced advisors, she refrained from immediately putting them into practice. After holding more than 200 sittings, the so-called Commission dissolved without getting beyond the realm of theory.

In spite of this, Catherine began issuing codes to address some of the modernisation trends suggested in her Nakaz. In 1775, the Empress decreed a Statute for the Administration of the Provinces of the Russian Empire. The statute sought to efficiently govern Russia by increasing population and dividing the country into provinces and districts. By the end of her reign, 50 provinces and nearly 500 districts were created, more than double the government officials were appointed, and they were spending six times as much as previously on local government. In 1785, Catherine conferred on the nobility the Charter to the Nobility, increasing further the power of the landed oligarchs. Nobles in each district elected a Marshal of the Nobility, who spoke on their behalf to the monarch on issues of concern to them, mainly economic ones. In the same year, Catherine issued the Charter of the Towns, which distributed all people into six groups as a way to limit the power of nobles and create a middle estate. Catherine also issued the Code of Commercial Navigation and Salt Trade Code of 1781, the Police Ordinance of 1782, and the Statute of National Education of 1786. In 1777, the Empress described to Voltaire her legal innovations within a backward Russia as progressing "little by little".

During Catherine's reign, Russians imported and studied the classical and European influences that inspired the Russian Enlightenment. Gavrila Derzhavin, Denis Fonvizin, and Ippolit Bogdanovich laid the groundwork for the great writers of the 19th century, especially for Alexander Pushkin. Catherine became a great patron of Russian opera. When Alexander Radishchev published his Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1790 (one year after the start of the French Revolution) and warned of uprisings because of the deplorable social conditions of the peasants held as serfs, Catherine exiled him to Siberia.

Catherine also received Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (formerly court painter to Marie Antoinette) at her Tsarskoye Selo residence in St Petersburg, by whom she was painted shortly before her death. Madame Vigée Le Brun vividly describes the empress in her memoirs: "the sight of this famous woman so impressed me that I found it impossible to think of anything: I could only stare at her. Firstly I was very surprised at her small stature; I had imagined her to be very tall, as great as her fame. She was also very fat, but her face was still beautiful, and she wore her white hair up, framing it perfectly. Her genius seemed to rest on her forehead, which was both high and wide. Her eyes were soft and sensitive, her nose quite Greek, her colour high and her features expressive. She addressed me immediately in a voice full of sweetness, if a little throaty: "I am delighted to welcome you here, Madame, your reputation runs before you. I am very fond of the arts, especially painting. I am no connoisseur, but I am a great art lover."

Madame Vigée Le Brun also describes the empress at a gala: "The double doors opened and the Empress appeared. I have said that she was quite small, and yet on the days when she made her public appearances, with her head held high, her eagle-like stare and a countenance accustomed to command, all this gave her such an air of majesty that to me she might have been Queen of the World; she wore the sashes of three orders, and her costume was both simple and regal; it consisted of a muslin tunic embroidered with gold fastened by a diamond belt, and the full sleeves were folded back in the Asiatic style. Over this tunic she wore a red velvet dolman with very short sleeves. The bonnet which held her white hair was not decorated with ribbons, but with the most beautiful diamonds."


Catherine held western European philosophies and culture close to her heart, and she wanted to surround herself with like-minded people within Russia.[59] She believed a 'new kind of person' could be created by inculcating Russian children with European education. Catherine believed education could change the hearts and minds of the Russian people and turn them away from backwardness. This meant developing individuals both intellectually and morally, providing them knowledge and skills, and fostering a sense of civic responsibility.[60]

Catherine appointed Ivan Betskoy as her advisor on educational matters.[61] Through him, she collected information from Russia and other countries about educational institutions. She also established a commission composed of T.N. Teplov, T. von Klingstedt, F.G. Dilthey, and the historian G. Muller. She consulted British education pioneers, particularly the Rev. Daniel Dumaresq and Dr John Brown.[62] In 1764, she sent for Dumaresq to come to Russia and then appointed him to the educational commission. The commission studied the reform projects previously installed by I.I. Shuvalov under Elizabeth and under Peter III. They submitted recommendations for the establishment of a general system of education for all Russian orthodox subjects from the age of 5 to 18, excluding serfs.[63] However, no action was taken on any recommendations put forth by the commission due to the calling of the Legislative Commission. In July 1765, Dumaresq wrote to Dr. John Brown about the commission's problems and received a long reply containing very general and sweeping suggestions for education and social reforms in Russia. Dr. Brown argued, in a democratic country, education ought to be under the state's control and based on an education code. He also placed great emphasis on the "proper and effectual education of the female sex"; two years prior, Catherine had commissioned Ivan Betskoy to draw up the General Programme for the Education of Young People of Both Sexes.[64] This work emphasised the fostering of the creation of a 'new kind of people' raised in isolation from the damaging influence of a backward Russian environment.[65] The Establishment of the Moscow Foundling Home (Moscow Orphanage) was the first attempt at achieving that goal. It was charged with admitting destitute and extramarital children to educate them in any way the state deemed fit. Since the Moscow Foundling Home was not established as a state-funded institution, it represented an opportunity to experiment with new educational theories. However, the Moscow Foundling Home was unsuccessful, mainly due to extremely high mortality rates, which prevented many of the children from living long enough to develop into the enlightened subjects the state desired.[66]

Not long after the Moscow Foundling Home, at the instigation of her factotum, Ivan Betskoy, she wrote a manual for the education of young children, drawing from the ideas of John Locke, and founded the famous Smolny Institute in 1764, first of its kind in Russia. At first, the Institute only admitted young girls of the noble elite, but eventually it began to admit girls of the petit-bourgeoisie, as well.[67] The girls who attended the Smolny Institute, Smolyanki, were often accused of being ignorant of anything that went on in the world outside the walls of the Smolny buildings. Within the walls of the Institute, they were taught impeccable French, musicianship, dancing, and complete awe of the Monarch. At the Institute, enforcement of strict discipline was central to its philosophy. Running and games were forbidden, and the building was kept particularly cold because too much warmth was believed to be harmful to the developing body, as was excess play.[68]

During 1768–1774, no progress was made in setting up a national school system.[69] Catherine continued to investigate educational theory and practice of other countries. She made many educational reforms despite the lack of a national school system. The remodelling of the Cadet Corps 1766 initiated many educational reforms. It then began to take children from a very young age and educate them until the age of 21. The curriculum was broadened from the professional military curriculum to include the sciences, philosophy, ethics, history, and international law. This policy in the Cadet Corps influenced the teaching in the Naval Cadet Corps and in the Engineering and Artillery Schools. After the war and the defeat of Pugachev, Catherine laid the obligation to establish schools at the guberniya—a provincial subdivision of the Russian empire ruled by a governor—on the Boards of Social Welfare set up with the participation of elected representatives from the three free estates.[70]

By 1782, Catherine arranged another advisory commission to study the information gathered about the educational systems of many different countries.[71] A system produced by a mathematician, Franz Aepinus, stood out in particular. He was strongly in favour of the adoption of the Austrian three-tier model of trivial, real, and normal schools at village, town, and provincial capital levels. In addition to the advisory commission, Catherine established a Commission of National Schools under Pyotr Zavadovsky. This commission was charged with organising a national school network, training the teachers, and providing the textbooks. On 5 August 1786, the Russian Statute of National Education was promulgated.[72] The statute established a two-tier network of high schools and primary schools in guberniya capitals that were free of charge, open to all of the free classes (not serfs), and co-educational. It also regulated, in detail, the subjects to be taught at every age and the method of teaching. In addition to the textbooks translated by the commission, teachers were provided with the "Guide to Teachers". This work, divided into four parts, dealt with teaching methods, the subjects taught, the behaviour of the teacher, and the running of a school.[72]

Judgment of the 19th century was generally critical, claiming that Catherine failed to supply enough money to support her educational programme.[73] Two years after the implementation of Catherine's programme, a member of the National Commission inspected the institutions established. Throughout Russia, the inspectors encountered a patchy response. While the nobility put up appreciable amounts of money for these institutions, they preferred to send their own children to private, more prestigious institutions. Also, the townspeople tended to turn against the junior schools and their pedagogical methods. An estimated 62,000 pupils were being educated in some 549 state institutions near the end of Catherine's reign. This was only a minuscule number of people compared to the size of the Russian population.[74]

Religious affairs

Catherine's apparent whole-hearted adoption of all things Russian (including Orthodoxy) may have prompted her personal indifference to religion. She nationalised all of the church lands to help pay for her wars, largely emptied the monasteries, and forced most of the remaining clergymen to survive as farmers or from fees for baptisms and other services. Very few members of the nobility entered the Church, which became even less important than before. She did not allow dissenters to build chapels, and she suppressed religious dissent after the onset of the French Revolution.[75]

However, Catherine promoted Christianity in her anti-Ottoman policy, promoting the protection and fostering of Christians under Turkish rule. She placed strictures on Roman Catholics (ukaz of 23 February 1769), mainly Polish, and attempted to assert and extend state control over them in the wake of the partitions of Poland.[76] Nevertheless, Catherine's Russia provided an asylum and a base for regrouping to the Jesuits following the suppression of the Jesuits in most of Europe in 1773.[76]


Catherine took many different approaches to Islam during her reign. Between 1762 and 1773, Muslims were actively prohibited from owning any Orthodox serfs. They were also pressured into Orthodoxy through monetary incentives.[77] Catherine promised more serfs of all religions, as well as amnesty for convicts, if Muslims chose to convert to Orthodoxy.[78] However, the Legislative Commission of 1767 offered several seats to people professing the Islamic faith. This commission promised to protect their religious rights, but did not do so. Many Orthodox peasants felt threatened by the sudden change, and burned mosques as a sign of their displeasure.[78] Catherine chose to assimilate Islam into the state rather than eliminate it when public outcry became too disruptive. After the "Toleration of All Faiths" Edict of 1773, Muslims were permitted to build mosques and practise all of their traditions, the most obvious of these being the pilgrimage to Mecca, which had been denied previously.[79] Catherine created the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly to help regulate Muslim-populated regions, as well as regulate the instruction and ideals of mullahs. The positions on the Assembly were appointed and paid for by Catherine and her government, as a way of regulating the religious affairs of her nation.[80]

In 1785, Catherine approved the subsidising of new mosques and new town settlements for Muslims. This was another attempt to organise and passively control the outer fringes of her country. By building new settlements with mosques placed in them, Catherine attempted to ground many of the nomadic people who wandered through southern Russia.[81] In 1786, she assimilated the Islamic schools into the Russian public school system, to be regulated by the government. The plan was another attempt to force nomadic people to settle. This allowed the Russian government to control more people, especially those who previously had not fallen under the jurisdiction of Russian law.[82]


Russia often treated Judaism as a separate entity, where Jews were maintained with a separate legal and bureaucratic system. Although the government knew that Judaism existed, Catherine and her advisers had no real definition of what a "Jew" is, since the term meant many things during her reign.[83] Judaism was a small, if not nonexistent, religion in Russia until 1772. When Catherine agreed to the First Partition of Poland, the large new Jewish element was treated as a separate people, defined by their religion. In keeping with their treatment in Poland, Catherine allowed the Jews to separate themselves from Orthodox society, with certain restrictions. She levied additional taxes on the followers of Judaism; if a family converted to the Orthodox faith, that additional tax was lifted.[84] Jewish members of society were required to pay double the tax of their Orthodox neighbours. Converted Jews could gain permission to enter the merchant class and farm as free peasants under Russian rule.[85][86]

In an attempt to assimilate the Jews into Russia's economy, Catherine included them under the rights and laws of the Charter of the Towns of 1782.[87] Orthodox Russians disliked the inclusion of Judaism, mainly for economic reasons. Catherine tried to keep the Jews away from certain economic spheres, even under the guise of equality; in 1790, she banned Jewish citizens from Moscow's middle class.[88]

In 1785, Catherine declared Jews to be officially foreigners, with foreigners' rights.[89] This re-established the separate identity that Judaism maintained in Russia throughout the Jewish Haskalah. Catherine's decree also denied Jews the rights of an Orthodox or naturalised citizen of Russia. Taxes doubled again for those of Jewish descent in 1794, and Catherine officially declared that Jews bore no relation to Russians.

Russian Orthodoxy

In many ways, the Orthodox Church fared no better than its foreign counterparts during the reign of Catherine. Under her leadership, she completed what Peter III had started: the church's lands were expropriated, and the budget of both monasteries and bishoprics were controlled by the College of Economy.[90] Endowments from the government replaced income from privately held lands. The endowments were often much less than the original intended amount.[91] She closed 569 of 954 monasteries and only 161 got government money. Only 400,000 rubles of church wealth were paid back.[92] While other religions (such as Islam) received invitations to the Legislative Commission, the Orthodox clergy did not receive a single seat.[91] Their place in government was restricted severely during the years of Catherine's reign.[75]

In 1762, to help mend the rift between the Orthodox church and a sect that called themselves the Old Believers, Catherine passed an act that allowed Old Believers to practise their faith openly without interference.[93] While claiming religious tolerance, she intended to recall the Believers into the official church. They refused to comply, and in 1764, she deported over 20,000 Old Believers to Siberia on the grounds of their faith.[93] In later years, Catherine amended her thoughts. Old Believers were allowed to hold elected municipal positions after the Urban Charter of 1785, and she promised religious freedom to those who wished to settle in Russia.[94][95]

Religious education was also strictly reviewed. At first, she simply attempted to revise clerical studies, proposing a reform of religious schools. This reform never progressed beyond the planning stages. By 1786, Catherine excluded all religion and clerical studies programmes from lay education.[96] By separating the public interests from those of the church, Catherine began a secularisation of the day-to-day workings of Russia. She transformed the clergy from a group that wielded great power over the Russian government and its people to a segregated community forced to depend on the state for compensation.[91]

Personal life

Catherine, throughout her long reign, took many lovers, often elevating them to high positions[97] for as long as they held her interest, and then pensioning them off with gifts of serfs and large estates. The percentage of state money spent on the court increased from 10.4% in 1767 to 11.4% in 1781 to 13.5% in 1795. Catherine gave away 66,000 serfs from 1762–72, 202,000 from 1773–93, and 100,000 in one day: 18 August 1795.[98]:119 Just as the church supported her, hoping to get their land back, Catherine bought the support of the bureaucracy. From 19 April 1764, any bureaucrat holding the same rank for seven years or more was instantly promoted. On 13 September 1767, Catherine decreed that after seven years in one rank, civil servants would be automatically promoted regardless of office or merit.[99]

After her affair with her lover and adviser Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin ended in 1776, he allegedly selected a candidate-lover for her who had the physical beauty and mental faculties to hold her interest (such as Alexander Dmitriev-Mamonov and Nicholas Alexander Suk[100]). Some of these men loved her in return, and she always showed generosity towards them, even after the affair ended. One of her lovers, Pyotr Zavadovsky, received 50,000 rubles, a pension of 5,000 rubles, and 4,000 peasants in Ukraine after she dismissed him in 1777.[101] The last of her lovers, Prince Zubov, was 40 years her junior. Her sexual independence led to many of the legends about her.[102]

Catherine kept her illegitimate son by Grigori Orlov (Alexis Bobrinsky, later elevated to Count Bobrinsky by Paul I) near Tula, away from her court.


Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, the British ambassador to Russia, offered Stanisław Poniatowski a place in the embassy in return for gaining Catherine as an ally. Poniatowski, through his mother's side, came from the Czartoryski family, prominent members of the pro-Russian faction in Poland. Catherine, 26 years old and already married to the then-Grand Duke Peter for some 10 years, met the 22-year-old Poniatowski in 1755, therefore well before encountering the Orlov brothers. In 1757, Poniatowski served in the British forces during the Seven Years' War, thus severing close relationships with Catherine. She bore him a daughter named Anna Petrovna in December 1757 (not to be confused with Grand Duchess Anna Petrovna of Russia, the daughter of Peter I's second marriage).

King Augustus III of Poland died in 1763, so Poland needed to elect a new ruler. Catherine supported Poniatowski as a candidate to become the next king. She sent the Russian army into Poland to avoid possible disputes. Russia invaded Poland on 26 August 1764, threatening to fight, and imposing Poniatowski as king. Poniatowski accepted the throne, and thereby put himself under Catherine's control. News of Catherine's plan spread and Frederick II (others say the Ottoman sultan) warned her that if she tried to conquer Poland by marrying Poniatowski, all of Europe would oppose her. She had no intention of marrying him, having already given birth to Orlov's child and to the Grand Duke Paul by then. She told Poniatowski to marry someone else to remove all suspicion. Poniatowski refused.

Prussia (through the agency of Prince Henry), Russia (under Catherine), and Austria (under Maria Theresa) began preparing the ground for the partitions of Poland. In the first partition, 1772, the three powers split 52,000 km2 (20,000 sq mi) between them. Russia got territories east of the line connecting, more or less, RigaPolotskMogilev. In the second partition, in 1793, Russia received the most land, from west of Minsk almost to Kiev and down the river Dnieper, leaving some spaces of steppe down south in front of Ochakov, on the Black Sea. Later uprisings in Poland led to the third partition in 1795, one year before Catherine's death. Poland ceased to exist as an independent nation until 1918, in the aftermath of World War I.


Grigory Orlov, the grandson of a rebel in the Streltsy Uprising (1698) against Peter the Great, distinguished himself in the Battle of Zorndorf (25 August 1758), receiving three wounds. He represented an opposite to Peter's pro-Prussian sentiment, with which Catherine disagreed. By 1759, Catherine and he had become lovers; no one told Catherine's husband, the Grand Duke Peter. Catherine saw Orlov as very useful, and he became instrumental in the 28 June 1762 coup d’état against her husband, but she preferred to remain the Dowager Empress of Russia, rather than marrying anyone.

Grigory Orlov and his other three brothers found themselves rewarded with titles, money, swords, and other gifts, but Catherine did not marry Grigory, who proved inept at politics and useless when asked for advice. He received a palace in Saint Petersburg when Catherine became Empress.

Orlov died in 1783. Their son, Aleksey Grygoriovich Bobrinsky (1762–1813), had one daughter, Maria Alexeyeva Bobrinsky (Bobrinskaya) (1798–1835), who married in 1819 the 34-year-old Prince Nikolai Sergeevich Gagarin (London, England, 1784–1842) who took part in the Battle of Borodino (7 September 1812) against Napoleon, and later served as ambassador in Turin, the capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia.


Grigory Potemkin was involved in the coup d'état of 1762. In 1772, Catherine's close friends informed her of Orlov's affairs with other women, and she dismissed him. By the winter of 1773, the Pugachev revolt had started to threaten. Catherine's son Paul had also started gaining support; both of these trends threatened her power. She called Potemkin for help—mostly military—and he became devoted to her.

In 1772, Catherine wrote to Potemkin. Days earlier, she had found out about an uprising in the Volga region. She appointed General Aleksandr Bibikov to put down the uprising, but she needed Potemkin's advice on military strategy. Potemkin quickly gained positions and awards. Russian poets wrote about his virtues, the court praised him, foreign ambassadors fought for his favour, and his family moved into the palace. He later became the de facto absolute ruler of New Russia, governing its colonisation.

In 1780, the son of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, Emperor Joseph II, toyed with the idea of determining whether or not to enter an alliance with Russia, and asked to meet Catherine. Potemkin had the task of briefing him and travelling with him to Saint Petersburg. Potemkin also convinced Catherine to expand the universities in Russia to increase the number of scientists.

Potemkin fell very ill in August 1783. Catherine worried he would not finish his work developing the south as he had planned. Potemkin died at the age of 52 in 1791.


According to a census taken from 1754 to 1762, Catherine owned 500,000 serfs. A further 2.8 million belonged to the Russian state.[103]

Rights and conditions

At the time of Catherine's reign, the landowning noble class owned the serfs, who were bound to the land they tilled. Children of serfs were born into serfdom and worked the same land their parents had. The serfs had very limited rights, but they were not exactly slaves. While the state did not technically allow them to own possessions, some serfs were able to accumulate enough wealth to pay for their freedom.[104] The understanding of law in imperial Russia by all sections of society was often weak, confused, or nonexistent, particularly in the provinces where most serfs lived. This is why some serfs were able to do things such as accumulate wealth. To become serfs, people would give up their freedoms to a landowner in exchange for their protection and support in times of hardship. In addition, they would receive land to till, but would be taxed a certain percentage of their crops to give to their landowners. These were the privileges a serf was entitled to and that nobles were bound to carry out. All of this was true before Catherine's reign, and this is the system she inherited.

Catherine did initiate some changes to serfdom, though. If a noble did not live up to his side of the deal, then the serfs could file complaints against him by following the proper channels of law.[105] Catherine gave them this new right, but in exchange they could no longer appeal directly to her. She did this because she did not want to be bothered by the peasantry, but did not want to give them reason to revolt, either. In this act, though, she unintentionally gave the serfs a legitimate bureaucratic status they had lacked before.[106] Some serfs were able to use their new status to their advantage. For example, serfs could apply to be freed if they were under illegal ownership, and non-nobles were not allowed to own serfs.[107] Some serfs did apply for freedom and were, surprisingly, successful. In addition, some governors listened to the complaints of serfs and punished nobles, but this was by no means all-inclusive.

Other than these, the rights of a serf were very limited. A landowner could punish his serfs at his discretion, and under Catherine the Great gained the ability to sentence his serfs to hard labour in Siberia, a punishment normally reserved for convicted criminals.[108] The only thing a noble could not do to his serfs was to kill them. The life of a serf belonged to the state. Historically, when the serfs faced problems they could not solve on their own (such as abusive masters), they often appealed to the autocrat, and continued doing so during Catherine's reign, though she signed legislation prohibiting it.[109] Although she did not want to communicate directly with the serfs, she did create some measures to improve their conditions as a class and reduce the size of the institution of serfdom. For example, she took action to limit the number of new serfs; she eliminated many ways for people to become serfs, culminating in the manifesto of 17 March 1775, which prohibited a serf who had once been freed from becoming a serf again.[110] However, she also restricted the freedoms of many peasants. During her reign, Catherine gave away many state-owned peasants to become private serfs (owned by a landowner), and while their ownership changed hands, a serf's location never did. However, peasants owned by the state generally had more freedoms than those owned by a noble.

While the majority of serfs were farmers bound to the land, a noble could also have his serfs sent away to learn a trade or be educated at a school, in addition to employing them at businesses that paid wages.[111] This happened more often during Catherine's reign because of the new schools she established. Only in this way could a serf leave the farm for which he was responsible.

Attitudes towards Catherine

The attitude of the serfs towards their autocrat had historically been a positive one.[112] However, if the tsar's policies were too extreme or too disliked, he was not considered the true tsar. In these cases, it was necessary to replace this “fake” tsar with the “true” tsar, whoever he may be. Because the serfs had no political power, they rioted to get their message across. But usually, if the serfs did not like the policies of the tsar, they saw the nobles as corrupt and evil, preventing the people of Russia from communicating with the well-intentioned tsar and misinterpreting his decrees.[113] However, they were already suspicious of Catherine upon her accession, because she had annulled an act by Peter III that had essentially freed the serfs belonging to the Orthodox Church.[114] Naturally, the serfs did not like it when Catherine tried to take away their right to petition her because they felt as though she had severed their connection to the autocrat, and their power to appeal to her. Far away from the capital, they were also confused as to the circumstances of her accession to the throne.[115]

The peasants were discontented because of many other factors, as well, including crop failure, and epidemics, especially a major epidemic in 1771. The nobles were also imposing a stricter rule than ever, reducing the land of each serf and restricting their freedoms further beginning around 1767.[116] Their discontent led to widespread outbreaks of violence and rioting during Pugachev's Rebellion of 1774. The serfs probably followed someone who was pretending to be the true tsar because of their feelings of disconnection to Catherine and her policies empowering the nobles, but this was not the first time they followed a pretender under Catherine's reign.[117] Pugachev had made stories about himself acting as a real tsar should, helping the common people, listening to their problems, praying for them, and generally acting saintly, and this helped rally the peasants and serfs, with their very conservative values, to his cause.[118] With all this discontent in mind, Catherine did rule for 10 years before the anger of the serfs boiled over into a rebellion as extensive as Pugachev's. The rebellion ultimately failed and in fact backfired as Catherine was pushed even further away from the idea of serf liberation following the violent uprising. Under Catherine's rule, despite her enlightened ideals, the serfs were generally unhappy and discontented.

Final months and death

Though Catherine's life and reign included remarkable personal successes, they ended in two failures. Her Swedish cousin (once removed), King Gustav IV Adolph, visited her in September 1796, the Empress's intention being that her granddaughter Alexandra should become Queen of Sweden by marriage. A ball was given at the imperial court on the 11th of September, when the engagement was supposed to be announced. Gustav Adolph felt pressured to accept that Alexandra would not convert to Lutheranism, and though he was delighted by the young lady, he refused to appear at the ball and left for Stockholm. The frustration affected Catherine's health. She recovered well enough to begin to plan a ceremony which would establish her favourite grandson Alexander as her heir, superseding her difficult son Paul, but she died before the announcement could be made, just over two months after the engagement ball.[119]

On 16 November [O.S. 5 November] 1796, Catherine rose early in the morning and had her usual morning coffee, soon settling down to work on papers; she told her lady's maid, Maria Perekusikhina, that she had slept better than she had in a long time.[120] Sometime after 9:00 she was found on the floor with her face purplish, her pulse weak, and her breathing shallow and laboured.[120] The court physician diagnosed a stroke[120][121] and despite attempts to revive her she fell into a coma. She was given the last rites and died the following evening around 9:45.[121] An autopsy confirmed stroke as the cause of death.[122]

Later, several unfounded stories circulated regarding the cause and manner of her death. A popular insult to the Empress's legacy at the time is that she died after having sex with her horse. The story claimed that her maids believed that Catherine spent too much unsupervised time with her favorite horse, Dudley.[123] A German scholar Adam Olearius in his 1647 book Beschreibung der muscowitischen und persischen Reise claimed that Russians had fondness for sodomy, especially with horses.[124] Olearius's claims about a supposed Russian tendency towards bestiary with horses was often repeated in anti-Russian literature throughout the 17th and 18th centuries to illustrate the alleged barbarous "Asian" nature of Russia. Given the frequency which this story was repeated together with Catherine's love of her adopted homeland and her hippophilia, it was a easy step to apply this scurrilous story as the cause of her death.[125] Finally, Catherine's lack of shame about expressing her sexuality together with her incongruous position as a female leader in the male-dominated society of Europe made her the object of much malicious gossip, and the story of her supposed death while attempting sex with a stallion was meant to show how "unnatural" her rule as Empress of Russia was.[126] Catherine was meant to have been a pawn in the European power game who was to be married off to some prince and provide the proverbial "heir and a spare" to continue the dynasty, and in rejecting this role for herself by ruling as Empress in her own right provoked a powerful reaction against herself. The enduring popularity of this supposed cause of death reflects strong misogynistic tendencies against female leaders that continues to this day.[127]

Catherine's undated will, discovered in early 1792 by her secretary Alexander Vasilievich Khrapovitsky among her papers, gave specific instructions should she die: "Lay out my corpse dressed in white, with a golden crown on my head, and on it inscribe my Christian name. Mourning dress is to be worn for six months, and no longer: the shorter the better."[128] In the end, the empress was laid to rest with a gold crown on her head and clothed in a silver brocade dress. On 25 November, the coffin, richly decorated in gold fabric, was placed atop an elevated platform at the Grand Gallery's chamber of mourning, designed and decorated by Antonio Rinaldi.[129][130] According to Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun: "The empress's body lay in state for six weeks in a large and magnificently decorated room in the castle, which was kept lit day and night. Catherine was stretched out on a ceremonial bed surrounded by the coats of arms of all the towns in Russia. Her face was left uncovered, and her fair hand rested on the bed. All the ladies, some of whom took turn to watch by the body, would go and kiss this hand, or at least appear to." A description of the Empress's funeral is written in Madame Vigée Le Brun's memoirs. Catherine was buried at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.


Paul (I) Petrovich
Emperor of Russia
1 October 1754 
23 March 1801
Born at the Winter Palace, he married firstly Princess Wilhelmina Louisa of Hesse-Darmstadt in 1773 and had no issue. He married secondly, in 1776, Princess Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg and had issue, including the future Alexander I of Russia and Nicholas I of Russia. He succeeded as Emperor of Russia in 1796 and was murdered at Saint Michael's Castle in 1801.
Grand Duchess Anna Petrovna of Russia
Grand Duchess of Russia
9 December 1757 
8 March 1759
Possibly the offspring of Catherine and Stanisław Poniatowski, Anna was born at the Winter Palace between 10 and 11 o'clock;[131] she was named by Empress Elizabeth after her deceased sister, against Catherine's wishes.[132] On 17 December 1757, Anna was baptised and received the Great Cross of the Order of Saint Catherine.[133] Elizabeth served as godmother; she held Anna above the baptismal font and brought Catherine, who did not witness any of the celebrations, and Peter a gift of 60,000 rubles.[132] Elizabeth took Anna and raised the baby herself, as she had done with Paul.[134] In her memoirs, Catherine makes no mention of Anna's death on 8 March 1759,[135] though she was inconsolable and entered a state of shock.[136] Anna's funeral took place on 15 March, at Alexander Nevsky Lavra. After the funeral, Catherine never mentioned her dead daughter again, having always preferred male offspring.[137]
Alexei Grigorievich Bobrinsky
Count Bobrinsky
11 April 1762 
20 June 1813
Born at the Winter Palace, he was brought up at Bobriki; his father was Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov. He married Baroness Anna Dorothea von Ungern-Sternberg and had issue. Created Count Bobrinsky in 1796, he died in 1813.
Elizabeth Grigoryevna Temkina 13 July 1775 
25 May 1854
Born many years after the death of Catherine's husband, brought up in the Samoilov household, and never acknowledged by Catherine, it has nevertheless been suggested that Temkina was the illegitimate child of Catherine and Potemkin. However, this is now regarded as unlikely.[138]

Royal descendants

The royal families of Britain, Denmark, Netherlands, and Spain descend from Catherine the Great.

British royalty

Olga Constantinovna of Russia, great-great-granddaughter of Catherine, was the paternal grandmother of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and his descendants which include Prince Charles, Prince of Wales; his son, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge; and William's son, Prince George of Cambridge; the three direct heirs to the throne of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

She also was a maternal great-grandmother of Prince Edward, 2nd Duke of Kent, Princess Alexandra, The Honourable Lady Ogilvy and Prince Michael of Kent through her granddaughter Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, and who are all grandchildren of King George V.

Danish royalty

Elena Pavlovna of Russia, Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, and granddaughter of Catherine, was the paternal great-great-great-great-grandmother of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark.

Anastasia Mikhailovna of Russia, Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, and great-great-granddaughter of Catherine, was the maternal great-grandmother of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark.

Dutch royalty

King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands is a great-great-great-grandson of Anna Pavlovna of Russia, who was a granddaughter of Catherine.

Spanish royalty

Olga Constantinovna of Russia, great-great-granddaughter of Catherine, was the maternal great-great-grandmother of King Felipe VI.

Romanov dynastic issues

Pretenders and potential pretenders to the throne

  • Ivan VI of Russia (born 1740), as a former tsar (reigned as an infant, 1740–1741), represented a potential focus of dissident support for successive rulers of Russia, who held him in prison. When she became empress in 1762 Catherine tightened the conditions of his incarceration. His jailers in the prison of Shlisselburg killed Ivan, as per standing instructions, in the course of an attempt to free him in 1764.
  • Yemelyan Pugachev (1740/1742–1775) identified himself in 1773 as Tsar Peter III of Russia (Catherine's late husband). His armed rebellion, aiming to seize power and to banish the Empress to a monastery, became a serious menace until crushed in 1774. The authorities had Pugachev executed in Moscow in January 1775.
  • Princess Tarakanova (1753–1775) declared herself in Paris in 1774 as Elizabeth's daughter by Alexis Razumovsky and as the sister of Pugachev. The Empress Catherine dispatched Alexey Orlov to Italy, where he captured Tarakanova in Livorno. When brought to Russia in 1775, Tarakanova went to prison in the Peter and Paul Fortress, where she died of tuberculosis in December 1775.[139][140] There are rumours that her death was faked and that she was confined to a nunnery in Moscow in 1785, where she died in 1810.[141]

Rise of pretenders

During the eighteenth century, there were no fewer than forty-four pretenders in Russia, twenty-six of which were during Catherine's reign. Pretenders plagued Catherine the Great's reign in a way unmatched by any other period in Russian history. At least seventeen of the twenty-six pretenders during Catherine's reign appeared in one of three clusters; six from 1764–1765, six from 1772–1774, and five from 1782–1786. Pretenders did not plague Catherine's reign because of her sex or nationality since pretenders never threatened other female rulers or rulers of foreign descent in the way that Catherine II was. The rise of pretenders was not related to war or famine as neither appeared consistently with the pretenders. If there tended to be any form of famine during a pretender's rise it was during their claim to power and not inspired by it. Catherine's illegitimate rise to power through the assassination of her husband, Peter III, did not inspire the pretenders since Elizabeth, who came to power in a similar fashion to Catherine, never had the same problem. Evidence suggests that pretenders plagued Catherine's reign for economic reasons. An important correlation between the three clusters is that the economic standing of serfs was declining. The condition of serfs worsened at the start of Catherine's reign because there was a sharp increase, 47%, in the number of peasants on state land and an establishment of a poll tax. The decline of pretenders illustrates the correlation between the conditions of serfs and the appearance of pretenders in the last third of Catherine's reign because she improved legal and economic conditions for the serfs to deter future pretenders. The serfs were not the only social group that suffered from worsening economic conditions. Leading into Catherine's reign both the odnodvortsy and Cossacks faced a harsh decline in their economic standing. The odnodvortsy were particularly upset about the decline in their economic standing because they were descendants of wealthy landowning servicemen. The odnodvortsy were angered even more in some regions of Russia as land lords expanded their property claiming odnodvortsy and peasants as serfs. The declining standing of the odnodvortsy and Cossacks created motivation to become pretenders especially during the 1760s. Even more importantly the odnodvortsy and Cossacks were vital support for pretenders because of their military experience.[142]

At least sixteen pretenders during Catherine's reign claimed that they were the deposed tsar, Peter III. A less common position pretenders claimed during Catherine's reign was that of Ivan VI. Ivan VI was a potential threat to Catherine since he was exiled as an infant and could lay claim to the throne. Peter III was the more popular option for pretenders since there existed legends that he was not actually dead, allowing pretenders to convince discontented Russians they were Peter III. Peter III was also popular among Russians because of his benevolent rule. Pretenders claiming to be Peter III used his popularity among Russians to gain support. Pretenders had to be careful to establish themselves as the ruler they claimed to be without being recognised as a normal mortal and not of royal blood. One popular way to prevent recognition was to claim their right to royalty far from their home as both Emal'Ian Ivanovich Pugachev and the pretender Artem'ev did. Pretenders also had to account for where they had disappeared to for the time since their reported deaths. For example, Pugachev claimed that he spent the eleven years since Peter III's reported death wandering abroad as far as Egypt or Constantinople.[143]

Pretenders and royal marks

Many Russians believed that tsars and tsarevichs bore special marks on their bodies symbolising their royal status, which became known as royal marks. Four of the pretenders claiming to be Peter III showed royal marks to legitimise their claims. The first fake Peter to have royal marks was Gavrila Kremnev who Lev Evdokimov recognised because of a cross on Kremnev's foot. Lev Evdokimov claimed that he had worked as a chorister at the royal palace and had held the real Peter III in his arms as a child therefore giving credibility to Kremnev's claims. Despite Kremnev's marking, he never gained many supporters and was flogged and branded with the words, “deserter and pretender”. The next fake Peter III to show a royal mark of some sort was Fedot Kazin-Bogomolov in 1772. He showed a prison guard a cross on his chest and claimed he had two more on his arm and head, allowing him to gain many supporters. The government branded Kazin-Bogomolov despite his markings. The third Peter III with royal marks was the most famous of the four and the most successful pretender of the time, Pugachev. In 1773 Pugachev staged a revealing of his royal identity to a Cossack, Eremina Kuritsa, leading other Cossacks to challenge Pugachev at dinner, which resulted in him showing scars on his chest and head to the Cossacks. Pugachev claimed the scars on his chest were caused from the coup against him and that the scars on his forehead were from smallpox. Pugachev's rational reasoning for his markings caused him to continually gain supporters throughout his stand as a pretender. Unlike the first two pretenders to show royal marks, Pugachev's efforts cost him his life since his punishment was execution. The final pretender during Catherine's reign to reveal royal marks was Makar Mosiakin in 1774. Mosiakin entered a peasant hut claiming to be Peter III and then showed the peasants crosses on his arms, claiming they represented royal inheritance. According to the official report of the Mosiakin he had made the cross marks himself to convince people that he was Peter III, and he actually had some success as he managed to gain followers from various villages, going from house to house.[144]

Succession to the throne

On a date already set for a week before she died, Catherine had intended to formally announce[119] that Paul would be excluded from the succession, and that the crown would go to her eldest grandson, Alexander (whom she greatly favoured, and who subsequently became the emperor Alexander I in 1801). Her harshness towards Paul probably stemmed as much from political distrust as from what she saw of his character. Keeping Paul in a state of semi-captivity in Gatchina and Pavlovsk, she resolved not to allow her son to dispute or to share in her authority during her lifetime.

Titles and styles

  • 2 May 1729 – 21 August 1745: Her Serene Highness Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst
  • 21 August 1745 – 5 January 1762: Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Catherine Alekseievna of Russia
  • 5 January 1762 – 9 July 1762: Her Imperial Majesty The Empress of All the Russias (as Empress consort)
  • 9 July 1762 – 17 November 1796: Her Imperial Majesty The Empress and Autocrat of All the Russias (as Empress Regnant)

The Empress is parodied in Offenbach's operetta La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867).[145]

Ernst Lubitsch's silent film Forbidden Paradise (1924) told the story of Catherine's romance with an officer.

Marlene Dietrich portrayed Catherine the Great in the film The Scarlet Empress (1934).

The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934) is a film starring Elisabeth Bergner and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Lubitsch remade his 1924 silent film as the "talkie" A Royal Scandal (1945), also known as Czarina.

Jeanne Moreau played a version of Catherine in the farce comedy film Great Catherine (1968).

The British/Canadian/American TV miniseries Young Catherine (1991), starring Julia Ormond as Catherine and Vanessa Redgrave as Empress Elizabeth, is based on Catherine's early life.

The television movie Catherine the Great (1995) stars Catherine Zeta-Jones as Catherine and Jeanne Moreau as Empress Elizabeth.

Her rise to power and subsequent reign are portrayed in the award-winning Russia-1 television series Ekaterina. Its first season premiered in 2014 and the second in 2017, with a third yet to be produced.

The Channel One Russia television series Catherine the Great was released in 2015.

Catherine (portrayed by Meghan Tonjes) is featured in the web series Epic Rap Battles of History, in the episode "Alexander the Great vs Ivan the Terrible" (July 12, 2016), pitted against the titular characters, as well as Frederick the Great and Pompey the Great.[146]

The HBO television miniseries Catherine the Great (2019) stars Helen Mirren.


List of prominent Catherinians

Pre-eminent figures in Catherinian Russia include:

See also


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Further reading

  • Alexander, John T. (1988). Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-505236-7.
  • Bilbasov Vasily A. History of Catherine the Great. Berlin: Publishing Frederick Gottgeyner, 1900. At in DjVu and PDF formats
  • Bogdanovich Modest I. Russian army in the age of the Empress Catherine II. Saint Petersburg: Printing office of the Department of inheritance, 1873. At in DjVu and PDF formats
  • Brickner Alexander Gustavovich. History of Catherine the Great. Saint Petersburg: Typography of A. Suvorin, 1885. At in DjVu and PDF formats
  • Cronin, Vincent. Catherine, Empress of All the Russias. London: Collins, 1978 (hardcover, ISBN 0-00-216119-2); 1996 (paperback, ISBN 1-86046-091-7)
  • Dixon, Simon. Catherine the Great (Profiles in Power). Harlow, UK: Longman, 2001 (paperback, ISBN 0-582-09803-3)
  • Herman, Eleanor. Sex With the Queen. New York: HarperCollins, 2006 (hardcover, ISBN 0-06-084673-9).
  • Malecka, Anna. "Did Orlov buy the Orlov", Gems and Jewellery, July 2014, pp. 10–12.
  • The Memoirs of Catherine the Great by Markus Cruse and Hilde Hoogenboom (translators). New York: Modern Library, 2005 (hardcover, ISBN 0-679-64299-4); 2006 (paperback, ISBN 0-8129-6987-1)
  • Smith, Douglas, ed. and trans. Love and Conquest: Personal Correspondence of Catherine the Great and Prince Grigory Potemkin. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois UP, 2004 (hardcover, ISBN 0-87580-324-5); 2005 (paperback ISBN 0-87580-607-4)
  • Troyat, Henri. Catherine the Great. New York: Dorset Press, 1991 (hardcover, ISBN 0-88029-688-7); London: Orion, 2000 (paperback, ISBN 1-84212-029-8)
  • Troyat, Henri. Terrible Tsarinas. New York: Algora, 2001 (ISBN 1-892941-54-6).
Catherine the Great
Cadet branch of the House of Anhalt
Born: 2 May 1729 Died: 17 November 1796
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Peter III
Empress of Russia
9 July 1762 – 17 November 1796
Succeeded by
Paul I
Russian royalty
Title last held by
Martha Skowrońska
Empress consort of Russia
5 January 1762 – 9 July 1762
Title next held by
Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg

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