the Great (1729-1796)
April 21 (May 2), 1729 Szczecin, Pomerania (Prussian Kingdom)
Died: November 6 (17), 1796 Tsarskoye Selo,
future Catherine the Great was born a German princess in one of the
tiny German states, but turned out to be a powerful and enlightened
ruler of the vast Russian Empire. In 1745 she was married to prince
Carl Peter Ulrich, the heir to the Russian throne (the future Emperor
Peter III). Being a bright personality with a strong sense of determination
she joined the Russian Orthodox Church, learned the Russian language
and by doing a lot of reading acquired a brilliant education. She was
proud to be a friend and an active correspondent of the best thinkers
of the time, such as the prominent French Enlightenment personalities
Rousseau and Diderot.
June 1762 Catherine took an active part in a coup against her husband
Emperor Peter III. He was overthrown and soon killed "in an accident",
while Catherine became Russia's autocratic ruler. Throughout her long
reign many reforms were undertaken and the territory of Russia was further
extended by acquiring the lands of Southern Ukraine and the Crimea.
The rights of the Russian nobility were extended, which won Catherine
popularity among the Russian social elite.
love affairs with different officers and politicians were widely publicized,
though much of what was published was not true. Nevertheless, most of
her lovers were promoted to the highest ranks and some of them proved
to be extremely talented people (for instance prince Potiomkin, a very
prominent general and politician).
the Great, being the outsider of the Romanov dynasty, wanted to establish
strong links with earlier Russian history and the Romanov tzars. She
commissioned an impressive monument to Peter the Great - the Bronze Horseman. Most experts agree that
the St. Petersburg of Catherine the Great changed its appearance significantly
and turned out to be one of the most impressive of European capitals.
the Great died in 1796 at the age of 67, having lived longer than any
other Romanov monarch. She was buried in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg.
Catherine II "the Great"
had been born Princess Sophia August Frederika on May 2, 1729 in the
Baltic seaport town of Stettin, then a part of German Pomerania. Her
father was an obscure German military princeling named Christian August,
and her mother was Princess Joanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Her
father was nominal ruler of the tiny principality of Anhalt-Zerbst,
but the greater part of his life was spent as an officer in the service
of Prussia. Little Sophia was nicknamed Feke or Figchen. Little is known
about her early life, except that which Catherine related in her unfinished
autobiography years later.
mother, Joanna, was the sister of Karl August, who had been engaged
to Elizabeth I of Russia before she took the throne. Karl August died
suddenly and unexpectantly in Petersburg in 1727. Elizabeth kept a fondness
for him and his family long after his death. In the early 1740's Elizabeth
was searching for a wife for her nephew and heir, Peter. Fidgen was
the right age and a sentimental choice for the romantic Empress of Russia.
Figchen and her mother were summoned by Elizabeth to Russia late in
1743. The potential match of the young German princess and the heir
to the Russian throne was actively promoted by her mother and the Prussian
King, Frederick, who saw the alliance as a way to further Prussian interests
at the court of St. Petersburg. He eyed Figchen carefully at a banquet
in her honor in Berlin before she left for Russia. He always claimed
he saw greatness in her, even when Sophia was a child.
the border into Russia she went from Riga to St. Petersburg and on to
Moscow, finally meeting Elizabeth on February 9, 1744. Elizabeth was
enchanted with her. Figchen immediately began to study Russian and Orthodoxy,
with the end result of abandoning Lutheranism for the Russian Church,
being re-christened Yekaterina - Catherine.
husband-to-be was a great disappointment to everyone. He was sickly,
mean spirited and ill-equipped mentally or physically to rule a vast
empire like Russia. He was also unable to consummate his marriage to
Catherine. Elizabeth didn't understand the fault was Peter's and pressured
the couple to produce a son - thus securing the dynasty. When it was
clear this wasn't going to happen, Elizabeth permitted an affair between
Catherine and a handsome Russian officer, Serge Saltykov. Catherine
conceived and bore a son, Paul, who was accepted by Peter as his own.
Immediately after his birth, little Paul was carried off to Elizabeth's
quarters and the Empress raised him as her own.
and Peter hated one another. On the death of Elizabeth on December 25,
1761, Peter ascended the throne as Peter III. He quickly showed his
mania for all things Prussian by forming an alliance with Prussia that
was to Russia's detriment. Peter ordered the proud Imperial guard regiments
to dispose of their uniforms from the days of Peter the Great in exchange
for tight-fitting uniforms in the Prussian style. He followed this with
the imposition of new, brutal military rules on the same Prussian model,
which turned the armed forces against him. Hatred of Peter grew quickly
among all classes and the country accepted with relief the coup-d'etat
of Catherine, who deposed her husband on June 28, 1762.
ascended the throne as the most pious and Orthodox Empress, Catherine
II, crowned on September 22, 1762 with tremendous pomp and ceremony
at the heart of Russian culture and Orthodoxy in the ancient Moscow
Kremlin. Her husband, Peter had been murdered by her lover Orlov, his
brother and some other henchmen some months before, and was soon forgotten.
Catherine solidified her position by awarding her supporters with high
government positions and grants of land, money and serfs.
quickly began to make changes in government and society based on the
convictions she had assimilated during her study of French philosophes
of the Enlightenment and the authors of ancient Rome. She was deeply
disappointed by the difficulty of imposing foreign precepts - even if
they were rational ones - of government on Russia. It became easier
and easier to abandon her principals. Catherine slipped deeper and deeper
into autocracy - all the while maintaining the facade of an enlightened
ruler. The ruin of the Orthodox church, which had begun under Peter
the Great, was continued under Catherine, who seized its wealth and
turned its prelates and priests into state employees.
built marvelous new monuments across Russia and transformed St. Petersburg
into a truly European city of Imperial pretensions. The arts, music
and education where patronized by her, and Catherine pumped millions
of rubles into the creation of the Hermitage collection, which today
is the delight of Russia and the world. No other Russian monarch appreciated
beauty as much as Catherine, she set the stage for the emergence of
a national Russian culture that would emerge as something unique and
wonderful in the 19th century.
was out of the question and she probably never took a husband again;
although it has been rumored that she and a later lover, Potemkin, were
secretly married in the Church of St. Samson in Petersburg. Much has
been made of Catherine's libido. She has entered history with a mixed
reputation due to the young men who entered her life in it's later years.
Had she been a man, no one would have spoken of it, and many of the
most famous tales about her are untrue. She dealt with the issue of
her affairs head-on and justified it to herself as the need of an autocrat
for companionship and diversion.
her life she was estranged from her son, Paul, who grew up hating his
mother for her condescending treatment of him and her role in the murder
of his imagined father, Peter III, which he believed was more direct
than history has proven. Paul never accepted the fact that his father
was Serge Saltykov. The enmity between mother and son was mutual. Catherine
felt Paul was foolish and unbalanced. Once on the throne he was sure
to undo all of her accomplishments. He rashly boasted of this many times
in Russia and on journeys abroad. Catherine planned to bypass Paul and
leave her crown to his first son and her favorite grandson, Alexander.
Feeling she had a number of years left, she did not make the arrangements
for the transition to Alexander and upon her death from a heart attack
on November 6, 1796 the throne passed to Paul.
achievements were many. She left Russia much stronger, more prosperous
and beautiful than she had found it. That she failed in much she had
set out to do had less to do with her and more to do with human nature.
Catherine was unable to transform Russia through her will alone. Since
she was unwilling to use terror or force to transform society, she chose
a more patient path, hoping to gradually raise the level of culture
by legislation, education, and example. She single-handedly grafted
onto Russian rootstock the bud-wood of western culture, which was taken
and remolded two generations later into something marvellous.
Princess Sophie Fredericke Auguste (Sophia Augus Frederika) von Anhalt-Zebst,
the future Catherine the Great, is born in Stettin, Germany (now Poland).
Sophie is summoned by Elizabeth I of Russia.
Sophie and her mother, Johanna, arrive in Moscow to meet Elizabeth on
February 9. Sophie embraces the Orthodox religion and becomes Catherine
Catherine marries Peter Feodorovich, the Grand Duke of Holstein, heir
to the Russian throne, in St. Petersburg.
Catherine's father, Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst, dies.
Catherine takes a lover, Serge Saltykov, a Russian officer.
Catherine gives birth to Paul, future Emperor of Russian. Many believe
the father to be, not Peter, the Grand Duke, but Saltykov.
Russia's victory over the Prussians
Catherine takes a new lover, Gregory Orlov. Death of Johanna of Anhalt-Zerbst,
Empress Elizabeth dies on December 25 and Catherine’s husband,
Peter, is crowned emperor.
To the chagrin of the Russian nobility, Peter III signs a treaty with
Frederick of Prussia on April 24. Catherine, supported by the Imperial
Guard, overthrows Peter and becomes Catherine II. Peter III dies while
held prisoner by the Orlovs. Catherine denies complicity.
Catherine confirms the privileges of the nobility. Begins to collect
art from all over Europe and exhibits it at the newly built Hermitage.
Russia invades Lithuania.
Count Betskoy is commissioned to draw up plans for the education of
both boys and girls. This begins Catherine's drive for European-style
education. Schools and universities were founded throughout her reign
including the Smolny Institute for Girls in St. Petersberg.
Catherine writes her Nakaz(Instructions). Catherine reforms St. Petersburg’s
local administration by creating the position of gorodskoi golova (mayor).
Treaty of Friendship with England.
Influenced by the French Enlightenment, Catherine forms a commission
for legal reform.
Russia declares war on Turkey.
Russia conquers the Crimea.
Signatures of conventions with Prussia and Austria with the objective
of partitioning Poland. Armistice with Turkey.
Catherine persuades French writer Denis Diderot to come to the Russian
Court. Cossack Yemelyan Pugachov leads a peasant revolt in the Volga
River Basin. Orlov falls from favor.
Potemkin becomes Catherine's lover. Catherine oversees the creation
of a Magistrat (municipal council) which becomes the city Duma in 1786.
War with Turkey ends with Treaty of Kuchuk Kainardji.
Trial and death of Pugachev. Catherine reforms the provincial and urban
Alliance with Prussia. Problems in the Crimea.
Catherine acquires Voltaire’s entire library after his death.
Alliance between Russia and Austria.
Potemkin annexes Crimea from Turkey
Catherine tours Crimea. Turkey declares war on Russia.
Catherine imposes a protectorate on Poland. War with Sweden.
Catherine, fearful that the revolution in France might spread, begins
to undo many of her liberal reforms.
Peace with Sweden
Death of Potemkin. Treaty of Jassy is signed between Turkey and Russia.
Second partition of Poland.
Insurrection in Poland. Third partition of Poland.
Catherine dies. Catherine
died in bed of illness (contrary to scandalous rumors)
after nine chamberlain Zakhar Zotov, not having been summoned as anticipated,
peeked in her bedroom and found nobody. In a closet adjacent he discovered
the Empress on the floor. With two comrades Zotov tried to help her
up, but she barely opened her eyes once before emitting a faint groan
as she exhaled and lapsed into unconscious from which she never recovered."
(Page 324, Catherine the Great by John T. Alexander, Oxford, 1989)