The most powerful Empress in the history of Russia, unstoppable conqueror, enlightened monarch and a patron of arts and literature; Catherine the Great was a ruler like no other. Once a German princess and an Empress Consort, ‘’Semiramis of the North’’ seized the throne of Russia from her husband and kept it until her death, expanding Russian territory massively, reforming the country into a modern and progressive state and putting Russian Empire on the global map as a force to be feared.
Early life and marriage to Peter III
Born Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt, Catherine the Great originally came from a Prussian noble family. Due to her family connections, she was personally chosen by the Empress Yelisaveta of Russia at the age of 14 to become the future wife of then 15 year old Peter Fyodorovich, heir to the Russian throne. Peter was too of Prussian heritage, which resulted in his strong despise towards Russian culture, lack of desire to learn the language and heavy political inclination towards Prussia.
In contrast, Catherine converted to Ortodox Christianity from Lutheranism, took on a Russian name Екатерина, mastered the language and embraced Russian traditions completely. This, along with her persistence in studying politics, the theory of state and military affairs, made her highly popular among the members of Sankt Petersburg court. The long-anticipated wedding took place on 21. August, 1745., in Sankt Petersburg. It’s questionable whether the marriage was ever consummated, as many sources point to Peter having mistress named Yelisaveta Vorontsova, and Catherine enjoying the company of many government officials and generals such as Grigory Orlov, Sergei Saltykov, Alexandar Vasilchikov and Grigory Potemkin. Catherine and Peter both implied that Sergei Saltykov, a nobleman of Romanov blood, actually fathered Grand Duke Paul I, their only official son.
In 1762., after the death of Empress Yelisaveta, the rule of Emperor Peter III and Empress Consort Catherine begins. His first act as an Emperor was a reformation of military techniques and uniforms to make them more similar to German ones; This was met with widespread resistance and disgust from the aristocracy, common folk and Catherine herself. In the following months, Peter issued a number of other reforms and laws, which were all highly damaging to Russia, but extremely aligned with Prussian national interests. This caused the little support he had left to completely disappear, and Catherine publicly issued documents in which she strongly criticized her husband.
Coup and coronation of Catherine II
Peter was aware of both his poor popularity and large support his wife had from aristocrats and royal guard. Envious and angry, he allegedly intended to lock her in a convent as a prisoner. These rumors made their way to Catherine, who knew she had no more time to waste. On the July 8th, 1762., five months into the rule of Peter III, Catherine rallied the royal soldiers with the help of her lover, general Grigory Orlov. She asked for protection from her husband and loyalty of the royal guard, declaring herself Catherine II. Peter was arrested the same night and forced to abdicate from the throne. The coup was met with widespread approval, and Sankt Petersburg celebrated the day and night away.
Due to Peter’s cruelty and disrespect towards Catherine during their marriage, she refused to grant him a safe exile. Instead, she entrusted brothers Orlov with Peter’s personal safety. Eight days after the coup, Peter was brutally murdered by Alexei Orlov, brother of her long-time lover, general Grigory Orlov. After Peter’s death, Catherine released a statement claiming her husband, former Emperor, has died of hemorrhoids, much to the amusement of European courts. It was her way of adding insult to injury, and the final time she has ever addressed her late husband. Catherine, former Empress Consort was crowned as Catherine II, Empress of All Russia in Moscow on 22. September 1762., aged 33.
Rule of Catherine the Great
Numerous sources show Catherine as a ruler of great diplomatic skill, analytical mind and impressive understanding of state and military affairs. Her rule has been described as enlightened absolutism, meaning she was a monarch who fostered education, freedom of speech and religious tolerance. With the support and aid of the royal guard, she has managed to successfully shield herself from conspiracies and constrain the influence of aristocracy. Yet, her true strength showed in foreign policy, which is what she’s best known and celebrated for. Catherine outmaneuvered her numerous opponents, resolved the long-standing Polish and Turkish issue, significantly expanded the borders of Russian Empire and established it as the most powerful force in Europe.
At the time of Catherine’s rule, the power of a monarch was measured by the size of population, territory and army members. Catherine was well aware of her status and intimidation enormous Russian Empire installed in Europe. During her rule, Catherine expanded the territory of Russia for more than 500.000 km2 (territory of today’s France). This was done mostly off the backs of Ottoman Empire and Poland. Russo-Turkish war started in 1768., only to end six years later following devastating defeats Turkey has suffered. Ottoman Empire was forced to sign a peace treaty and surrender by European countries which feared they might become casualties of Catherine’s Imperial ambitions.
During the same time, Prussia and Austria fought Catherine for influence over Poland. This eventually resulted in the divide of Polish territory in 1773., when Russia was given a large chunk of land that is today mostly a part of Belorussia.
In the following years, Ottoman Empire was becoming weaker by the minute, which Catherine used to pursue her conquests further to the south. She added Crimea to Russian territory in 1783., and the rumors about her Greek plan, rise of New Byzantine Empire and ambitions to take over Constantinople shook Turkey to its core. Ottomans has no choice but to declare war in 1787., in a desperate attempt to stop Russian progress by regaining the lost territories of Crimea and Novorossya. Due to Russia’s new-found alliance with Austria, Turkey’s chances of winning the second war were non-existent. Ottomans suffered defeats at Chochim, Jassy, Ochakov, Focsani, Rymnik, Ismail fortress and Machin. Drained and exhausted, Turkey surrendered in 1792., by recognizing Russian Crimea and a new Russo-Turkish border on the Dniester river by signing a Treaty of Jassy. During the Catherinian age, Russian territory expanded by more than 500.000 km2, and the population of Russia went from 18 to 35 million people, making Catherine the Great one of the greatest, if not the single greatest, conqueror in the history of Russia.
In 1767., Catherine released a legal doctrine whose purpose was to both instruct the newly formed All-Russian Legislative Commission and inform Russian and international elites of the direction her rule is taking. In 22 chapters of Nakaz (Наказ Екатерины II Комисии о составлении проекта нового уложения), Catherine passed many progressive stances, such as equality of all men before law, abolishment of death penalty and punishment of prisoners (innocent until proven guilty). She tackled many state, criminal and civil issues, making sure Nakaz is translated in many languages and spread throughout Europe. The most powerful government figure of the time was her current lover, general Grigory Potemkin.
Well-known as a patron of arts and education, Catherine created a system of free schooling for both girls and boys. She founded the Smolnsky Institute for noble girls, and Novodevichii institute for common girls, first high-education institutions for girls in Europe. Empress founded the Imperial Library of Russia, today known as National Library of Russia, where she attempted to gather all books that were ever printed in Russia, or in the Russian language. Her personal art collection has grown into what is today known as Hermitage Museum, one of the largest and oldest in the world;
The palace she resigned in, Winter Palace in Sankt Petersburg, is home to Hermitage today. Catherine remodeled military education, as she made sure soldiers studied sciences, philosophy, etics, international law and history. Religion wise, she was a rather indifferent ruler, as she nationalised church land and refused to give government seats to religious figures. However, she supported religious tolerance, as she permitted Islam the status of a religion equal to Christianity and Judaism in Russian Empire.
The rule of Catherine the Great ended on 17. November, 1796., after her death at the Winter Castle in Sankt Petersburg. Her legacy and influence on the Russian history remain alive untill present day, which goes to further prove her rule was rightfully called ”The Golden Age of Russia”.