Catherine the Great takes up a rare role in the history of Russian rulers and Emperors. In many ways she was a woman of firsts, as well as being the c
Catherine the Great takes up a rare role in the history of Russian rulers and Emperors. In many ways she was a woman of firsts, as well as being the country’s longest ruling female leader. From the circumstances of her ascendance to the throne, all the way to the successes of her long rule, the Empress Catherine the Great was certainly a shining star in Russia’s long history. As a key player in some of the world’s most important happenings, Catherine shone as a bright beacon for many. Bringing Russia to an all new height of success, this powerful female ruler became the head of one of the world’s greatest powers of the time. Join us today as we learn the details of her ascension, her most important achievements, and as we try to piece just how exactly she managed to revitalize one of the world’s largest countries.
The Young Empress Catherine: Destined for Glory
Empress Catherine was born on 2 nd of May 1729, as Princess Sophie Augusta Fredericka Von Anhalt Zerbst Dornburg, in the Baltic Sea port of Stettin in Pomerania, now Szczecin in Poland. She was born into a ruling German family of Anhalt. Her father, Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst was a serving officer in the Prussian army and the governor of Stettin. Her mother was Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Even though it was a noble, princely family, they were not overly wealthy. Her father owned a somewhat meager amount of land in Anhalt Zerbst, south of Berlin, and on the whole had little political influence. Some would argue that this small, noble family had something far more lucrative and powerful – and that was their connections!
These connections would be a great boon for the young princess later on in her life, as her aspirations would get her to an entirely new world and into a position of immense power . But to understand this ambition and drive that belong to all great rulers of the world, we need to reflect on Catherine’s early years.
It is likely that while growing up she had great admiration for her father. When he married her mother, Johanna Elizabeth who was at the time 16 years old, Prince Christian August was 37. He is remembered as a tactful, serious, and decisive man of a martial provenance, while her mother was a young, beautiful, and courtly princess who enjoyed the flamboyance of courtly life.
As the result of her admiration of her father, the young Princess Sophie Augusta was somewhat of a tomboy and was nicknamed “Fike” and “Figschen”. In her memoirs she remembers her tutor and governess, Elizabeth Cardel, a French Huguenot, to whom she showed an inquisitive, tactful, and intelligent young mind from an early.
One important person in the life of the young princess was her godmother, the dowager Duchess Elizabeth Sophie Maria of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, who helped raise her and even paid her dowry later on. The duchess welcomed Princess Sophie Augusta to her court in Brunswick, which was often the gathering place for many important figures.
Portrait of the Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseyevna around the time of her wedding, by George Christoph Grooth, 1745. ( Public Domain )
It is noted that the princess and the future empress was not an overly pretty young woman, a fact that she herself mentioned in her memoirs. She described herself as being too pale, with blue eyes and dark hair. Even though she was not considered beautiful per se, she was encouraged by her mother to visit her godmother in Brunswick in the hopes of finding a suitable match for her future. And as history would show us – that she did.
Meeting the Future Emperor
Princess Sophie Augusta first met the young man who was to be her future husband in 1739, when she was only ten years old. He was her second cousin, Duke Karl Peter of Holstein-Gottorp and only one year older. Young Duke Karl was certainly in a more prosperous position in the noble world as his father was the nephew of the childless Swedish King Charles II. Although Karl Peter’s chances of becoming the next king of Sweden increased when his father died, that was not the most important branch of his family tree. His mother, Anna Petrovna, was the daughter of late Russian Emperor Peter I (Peter the Great, 1672-1725). In 1742, this young Duke was proclaimed the heir to the Russian throne.
Coronation portrait of Peter III by Lucas Conrad Pfandzelt ( Public Domain )
The young Princess’ parents sprang into action and worked on strengthening the connection between Sophie Augusta and Duke Karl Peter, who was now known as Emperor Peter III. She began studying the Russian language, and her portrait was sent to the Russian court in order to rekindle the flame in young Peter. Soon after, the princess journeyed to Russia, determined to do anything that was asked of her in order to qualify for the royal position. She converted to Eastern Orthodoxy while suffering a serious bout of pleuritis, and soon after received the new Russian name of Ekaterina Alekseyevna (Catherine, daughter of Aleksey). On 29 th June 1744, she was formally betrothed to Peter III. The marriage, which was a long planned dynastic union, happened soon after on 21 st of August 1745, when Catherine was just 16 years old.
Catherine wrote in her memoirs that as her marriage progressed, she grew increasingly bored with her husband who was inclined to read Lutheran prayer books. She devoted her time to reading Voltaire and many works of classic literature. She cited Tacitus as causing a “revolution” in her, as she understood from his works what power politics truly were. Furthermore, she had not consummated her marriage with her husband, but wrote that her virginity was lost to a chamberlain, Count Sergei Saltykov, her first lover.
Soon after, rumor of Catherine’s promiscuity began to circle, as she was known to have several lovers , including prominent counts and nobles like Grigory Potemkin, Stanislaw Poniatowski, Grigory Orlov, and several others. Catherine stated in her memoirs that her son, Paul I of Russia, was in fact the son of Sergei Saltykov and not of Peter III as was believed.
Portrait of Count Sergei Saltykov , 1726- 1765 (Public Domain )
As a result of these rumors, Peter III became increasingly agitated and abrasive towards his wife and everyone else in the court. He confronted his wife about her promiscuity and suspected that his son was not truly his.
Forced to Act: Coup D’état
When Peter III became Emperor in 1762, he immediately introduced new eccentric and unorthodox policies, which alienated him from prominent nobles and groups which were created by Catherine. Suspecting a conspiracy against him, Peter III arrested one of Catherine’s close associates on 8 th July 1762. This caused Catherine to put her plan of overthrowing her husband and securing the throne for herself into action earlier than planned.
With the help of a veteran army regiment and the clergy, she had Peter III arrested the next day and forced him to sign an abdication before witnesses, making her ascendance clear and undisputed. Just eight days after this coup, on 17 th July 1762, Peter III was assassinated by Alexei Orlov, the brother of Grigory Orlov, Catherine’s lover.
Early in her reign as empress, Catherine sought to appease both the church and the army, as she feared being toppled and defeated by her enemies. Her first orders were to reverse some of late Peter’s decisions, and she recalled all troops that he sent west to fight against Denmark. She also lavishly decorated and promoted all those nobles who backed her during the coup. Even though Catherine was never truly religious and observed the church with much skepticism, she nonetheless returned the church’s lands and properties which Peter III had taken, most likely to gain the church as a staunch ally.
Grand Cascade of Peterhof Palace and Samson fountain, St. Petersburg, Russia ( Mistervlad / Adobe Stock)
One of her earliest social and political reforms was the so-called “Nakaz”, a document that sought to reform Russia’s legal system and the way it operated. She sought to outlaw both torture and capital punishment, declaring all men as equal. At that time, Russia’s nobles all owned serfs, who were bound to the land they worked and were essentially owned by the noble. They had no rights whatsoever, and a noble could kill a serf without any repercussions. Catherine was a part of this noble system both by birth and position, and she owned some 500,000 serfs – a considerable number, but she nonetheless made efforts to address the issue of equality and serfdom, giving them more rights. Serfs were able to file complaints against the landowner, following proper judicial systems. This gave the serfs a bureaucratic role in the country’s system, one that they didn’t have before. Catherine most likely did this in order to appease the peasants and prevent any further revolts.
Russia’s Path to Greatness
Another very important aspect of Catherine’s rule is related to arts, culture and education, qualities that had been seriously neglected in Russia up to that point. Before Catherine came to the throne, many of the high European courts and nobles had a somewhat negative view of Russia, considering it old fashioned, backwater, and simply put, provincial. Catherine, who was from those same European courts, an avid reader and cultured, sought to drastically change this situation and create a more favorable impression of Russia.
Paintings on the ceiling in one of the rooms of the Catherine the Great’s Palace in Pushkino in St. Petersburg ( julietta24 / Adobe Stock)
This saw the construction of the first boarding school for girls in Saint Petersburg, as well as free schools all across Russia, which greatly increased educational opportunities throughout the state. Furthermore, Catherine ordered the creation of a theater, specifically for opera and ballet performances and even authored several librettos of her own. She also collected art, acquiring quite a few prized pieces that she proudly displayed in her residence in Saint Petersburg. As in her youth, Catherine retained her love of philosophers, writers of the Enlightenment movement , and Voltaire with whom she exchanged several letters.
Portrait of François-Marie Arouet aka Voltaire by Nicolas de Largillière, c. 1724 (Public Domain)
Not everything was focused on education and domestic affairs – Catherine knew war as well. During her reign, Russia significantly expanded its borders and became an even greater power. She appointed her old lover, the Polish Count Stanislaw Poniatowski to the throne of Poland, a cunning decision that allowed her to make significant gains in that country’s eastern regions. She took the east while giving northern and western parts to Prussia and Austria in 1772, an act that lead to a military conflict with Turkey.
After managing to achieve several key victories, Catherine showed that she was capable of skillfully expanding and defending her nation’s interests. In 1774 she managed to make peace with the Ottomans and increased Russian presence in Crimea. In 1783 she confirmed this presence by conquering the Crimean Peninsula and expanding Russia’s borders to the Black Sea – a key strategic foothold. Several years later, another clash with the Ottomans erupted, this time lasting for 5 years – from 1787 to 1792.
Victory of Ochakiv, December 1788 painted by January Suchodolski ( Public Domain )
On 16 th of November 1796, Catherine rose early and started her usual daily routine. At 9 o’clock she was found on the floor of her chambers, with a weak pulse and a purplish face. The royal physician diagnosed a stroke, and even with the efforts made to help her, Catherine lost consciousness and fell into a coma. She was given her last rites and died the following evening at age 67. Catherine the Great was buried in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.
The Legacy of Catherine the Great
The reign of this magnificent empress gives us insight into the mind of an ambitious and skilled ruler who was years ahead of her own time.
Monument to Empress Catherine II (konstan / Adobe Stock)
Through a devoted pursuit of her ambitions and hard work, as well as the exploitation of circumstances at the right time, Catherine rose to the greatest royal heights, and even managed to solidify her rule and expand Russia to its zenith. Notes can be certainly taken from such an impressive ruler.
Top image: Portrait of Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796) (cropped) by Fydor Rokotov Source: Public Domain