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Catherine II of Russia

(Redirected from Catherine the Great)
Catherine the Great

Catherine II (Екатерина II Алексеевна: Yekaterína II Alekséyevna, April 21, 1729 - November 6, 1796), born Sophie Augusta Fredericka, known as Catherine the Great, reigned as empress of Russia from June 28, 1762, to her death on November 6, 1796. A cousin to Gustav III of Sweden and Charles XIII of Sweden, Catherine exemplified an "enlightened monarch."


Life before becoming empress

Sophie Augusta Fredericka (nicknamed Figchen) was born in Szczecin, Pomerania, to Christian Augustus, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, and Elizabeth of Holstein . In 1744, Tsarina Elizabeth selected Sophie as the wife for her nephew, Peter, her chosen successor. Sophie changed her name to "Catherine" (Ekaterina or Yekaterina) when she accepted the Russian Orthodox faith. The marriage is reputed to have been a failure due to Catherine's infidelities. She soon became popular with several powerful political groups which opposed her husband. Largely ignored, she read a great deal, including Voltaire and Montesquieu, and kept up-to-date on current events in Russia.

In 1762, after moving into the new Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, Peter succeeded to the throne as Peter III of Russia, but his eccentricities and policies alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated. Grigori Orlov , Catherine's lover at the time, headed a conspiracy that proclaimed Catherine the ruler, and Peter was murdered not six months after taking the throne, on July 17, 1762. There has been speculation that Catherine was involved in Peter's death, but her complicity has never been proven.

Internal policies

Drawing on writings by Beccaria and Montesquieu, Catherine drew up a document to reform the code of laws. A legislative commission representing all classes except the serfs was created to make this document the law, but she disbanded the commission before it took effect, possibly having turned more conservative after the Pugachev uprising of 1773 - 1774.

Catherine reorganized Russian provincial administration, granting the government greater control over rural areas because of the peasant revolt. This process reached completion in 1775. The reform created provinces and districts which were more manageable for the government. In 1785 Catherine issued a charter that: allowed the gentry to petition the throne as a legal body; freed the nobles from state service and taxes; made noble status hereditary; and gave the nobles full control over their serfs and lands. In addition, Catherine gave land in Ukraine to favored nobles and granted them serfs. She also encouraged the colonization of Alaska and of conquered areas.

Foreign affairs

Catherine's foreign minister, Nikita Panin, exercised considerable influence from the beginning of her reign. Though a shrewd statesman, Panin dedicated much effort and millions of rubles to the creation of a "Northern Accord" between Russia, Prussia, Poland, Sweden, and perhaps Great Britain, to counter the power of the Bourbon-Habsburg League. When it became apparent that his plan could not succeed, Panin fell out of favor and in 1781 was dismissed.

In 1764 Catherine placed Stanislaw Poniatowski, a former lover, on the Polish throne. Russia gained the largest part of Poland through repeated partitions among Russia, Austria and Prussia (1772, 1793 and 1795).

Catherine made Russia the dominant power in the Middle East after her first Russo-Turkish War against the Ottoman Empire (1768-1774). She attempted to partition the Ottoman Empire's European holdings after the Polish example, but achieved far less success. She annexed Crimea in 1783, a mere nine years after it had gained independence from the Ottoman Empire as a result of her first war with it. The Ottomans started a second Russo-Turkish War during Catherine's reign. This war (1787-1792) ended with the Treaty of Jassy , which legitimated the Russian claim to Crimea.

In the European political theater Catherine played an important role, acting as mediator in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778-1779) between Prussia and Austria. In 1780 she set up a group designed to defend neutral shipping against Great Britain during the American Revolution.

From 1788 to 1790 Russia was engaged in a war with Sweden, led by Catherine's cousin, the Swedish King Gustav III. Gustav began the war to reclaim the Baltic territories lost to Russia in 1720. Expecting to soundly defeat the Russians, the Swedes were faced with mounting human and territory losses. After Denmark declared war in 1789, things looked bleak for the Swedes. However, in 1790 they mounted a counteroffensive. This culminated in the Battle of Svensksund (modern-day Ruotsinsalmi in Finland), July 9-10, 1790. The Russian navy, commanded by Prince Nassau, had 32 larger and 200 smaller ships, 1200 guns, and 14,000 men; the Swedes, commanded by Gustav and by colonel lieutenant Carl Olof Cronstedt , had 200 larger and minor ships, 1000 guns, and 12,500 men. The Russian ships had some difficulty aiming their guns in the rough waters, a problem not faced by the anchored Swedish ships. At battle's end, the Russians had lost 50 to 60 ships and 9,500 men. Swedish losses were 6 ships and 6,000 to 7,000 killed. A treaty was signed August 14, 1790, returning all conquered territories to their respective nations, and peace reigned for 20 years.

Catherine took a leading role in the partitions of Poland, taking advantage of that country's decentralized and impotent government to divide its territory with Prussia and Austria. This sharing of Poland helped maintain a balance of power in 18th-century Eastern Europe.

All told, she added some 200,000 mile² (518,000 km²) to Russian territory.

Arts and culture

Catherine subscribed to the Enlightenment and considered herself a "philosopher on the throne." She became known as a patron of the arts, literature and education. She wrote comedies, fiction and memoirs, while cultivating Voltaire, Diderot and D'Alembert, all French encyclopedists who later cemented her reputation in their writings. She was able to lure the mathematician Leonhard Euler from Berlin back to Saint Petersburg.

When Radishchev published his Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1790, warning of uprisings because of the deplorable social conditions of the peasants held as serfs, Catherine had him banned to Siberia.

Personal life

Catherine was known for her sexual appetite and many lovers. She had a secret room constructed, filled with paintings and sculptures depicting the lewdest sexual acts. Even individual items of furniture were constructed out of elements depicting giant sexual organs and decorated to that theme. Paradoxically the craftsmen employed in this enterprise were the same who decorated Russia's churches. Many of the images depicted rape, Censored page and Censored page in graphic anatomical detail. However, the oft-told story that she had sex with a horse and died as a result is baseless. In fact, Catherine supposedly suffered a stroke while sitting on a commode on November 5, 1796, and died in bed next day without having regained consciousness.

She had a son, Paul, whom she did not much like. He may have been fathered by Peter or by one of Catherine's lovers: Serge Saltykov is often thought a likely candidate. Paul succeeded her to the throne as Paul I of Russia. She was buried at the St. Peter and St. Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg.

External links

  • Some of the code of laws mentioned above, along with other information:
  • Manisfesto of the Empress Catherine II, inviting foreign immigration
  • Information about the Battle of Svenskund and the war
  • Is it true about Catherine the Great and the horse? courtesy of The Straight Dope
  • Briefly about Catherine: The Enlightened Despots
Preceded by:
Peter III
Empress of Russia
Succeeded by:

Last updated: 02-06-2005 02:43:00
Last updated: 03-15-2005 09:49:31