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Catherine II of Russia

- Catherine the Great -

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


Life before becoming empress

Sophie Augusta Fredericka (nicknamed Figchen) was born in Szczecin, Pomerania, to Christian Augustus, the prince of Anhalt-Zerbst in Germany, and Elizabeth of Holstein . In 1744, Tsarina Elizabeth chose Sophie as the wife for her nephew, Peter, whom she intended to become her heir. Sophie changed her name to "Catherine" (Ekaterina or Yekaterina) when she accepted the Russian Orthodox faith. The marriage proved unhappy. Catherine 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 much speculation that Catherine was somehow involved in Peter's death, but her complicity has never been proven.

Internal policies

Using the writings of Beccaria and Montesquieu, Catherine drew up a document to reform the code of laws. A legislative commission that represented 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 as a result of the Pugachev uprising in 1773 - 1774.

Catherine re-organized 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 also gave the nobles full control over their serfs and lands. In addition, Catherine gave land in the Ukraine to favoured nobles and granted them serfs. She also encouraged the colonization of Alaska and of conquered areas.

Foreign affairs

Catherine's foreign minister, Nikita Panin, excercized 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 he was dismissed.

In 1764 Catherine placed Stanislaus Poniatowski, a former lover, on the Polish throne. Russia gained the largest part of Poland through repeated partitions between 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 from 1768-1774. She attempted to partition the Ottoman Empire's European holdings after the Polish example, but achieved far less success. She annexed the 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 lasted from 1787 to 1792 and ended with the Treaty of Jassy , which legitimated the Russian claim to the Crimea.

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

From 1788 to 1790 Russia was engaged in a war with Sweden, led by Catherine's cousin 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 Swedish. However, in 1790, the Swedish mounted a counteroffensive. This culminated at the Battle of Svensksund (modern-day Ruotsinsalmi in Finland), lasting from July 9-10 of 1790. The Russian navy, led by commander Prince Nassau, had 32 larger and 200 smaller ships, 1200 guns, and 14,000 men; the Swedish, 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 in aiming their guns in the rough waters, a problem not presented with the anchored Swedish ships. At the battle's end, the Russians lost 50 to 60 ships and 9,500 men. Swedish losses were 6 ships lost and 6,000 to 7,000 killed. A treaty was signed on August 14 which returned all conquered territory to their respective nations, and a peace reigned for 20 years.

All told, she added about 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 her memoirs, while making the acquaintance of Voltaire, Diderot and D'Alembert, all of who were French encyclopedists that 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 her many lovers. She had a secret room constructed, filled with paintings and sculptures depicting the most raunchy sexual acts imaginable. Even the individual items of furniture were constructed out of elements depicting giant sexual organs and decorated in tune with the theme. Ironically the craftsmen employed for this purpose were the very same who decorated Russia's churches. Many of the images depicted rape, pedophilia and zoophilia in realistic and graphic anatomical detail. However, the often-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 subsequently died in bed without having regained consciousness.

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

See also

External links

  • Some of the code of laws mentioned above, along with other information:
  • A manifesto written by Catherine, inviting foreign immigration:
  • Information about the Battle of Svenskund and the war

Preceded by:
Peter III
Empress of Russia Succeeded by:

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45