The Russian empress Catherine II (1729-1796), known as Catherine the Great, reigned from 1762 to 1796. She expanded the Russian Empire, improved administration, and vigorously pursued the policy of Westernization. Her reputation as an "enlightened despot," however, is not wholly supported by her deeds.
Born in the German city of Stettin on April 21, 1729, Catherine was the daughter of Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst and Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Her education emphasized the subjects considered proper for one of her station: religion (Lutheranism), history, French, German, and music.
When Catherine was 15, she went to Russia at the invitation of Empress Elizabeth to meet—and perhaps marry—the heir to the throne, the Grand Duke Peter, an immature and disagreeable youth of 16. As the Empress had hoped, the two proved amenable to a marriage plan; but Catherine later wrote that she was more attracted to the "Crown of Russia," which Peter would eventually wear, than to "his person." When Catherine had met the important condition imposed upon her as a prospective royal consort, that she be converted to the Russian Orthodox faith, she and the young Grand Duke were married in 1745.
The marriage turned out to be an unhappy one in which there was little evidence of love or even affection. Peter was soon unfaithful to Catherine, and after a time she became unfaithful to him. Whether Peter was the father of Paul and Anna, the two children recorded as their offspring, remains a moot question.
Although amorous interests were important in Catherine's personal life, they did not overshadow her intellectual and political interests. A sharp-witted and cultivated young woman, she read widely, particularly in French, at that time the first language of educated Europeans. She liked novels, plays, and verse but was particularly interested in the writings of the major figures of the French Enlightenment, such as Diderot, Voltaire, and Montesquieu.
Catherine was ambitious as well as intelligent. She always looked ahead to the time when Peter would succeed to the throne and she, as his empress, would be able to exercise great political influence. In anticipation of her future status she sought the reputation of being a true Russian. She worked diligently at mastering the Russian language and took care to demonstrate devotion to the Russian Orthodox faith and the Russian state. Thus she gave prominence to a significant difference between her attitude and that of her husband, who displayed open contempt for the country he was to rule. She assured herself of further advantage by the studied use of her charm and vivacity in cultivating the goodwill of important personages.
Ascent to Power
When Empress Elizabeth died on Dec. 25, 1761, Peter was proclaimed Emperor Peter III, and Catherine became empress. Friends warned that she might not enjoy her status for long since Peter was planning to divorce her, and she was advised to flee. She decided to ignore the warning, and the wisdom of her decision was soon demonstrated. Within a few months after coming to the throne, Peter had aroused so much hostility among government, military, and church leaders that a group of them began plotting a coup to remove him, place his 7-year-old son, Paul, on the throne, and name Catherine as regent until the boy should come of age. But they had underestimated Catherine's ambition— she aimed at a more exalted role for herself. On June 28, 1762, with the aid of her lover Gregory Orlov, she rallied the troops of St. Petersburg to her support and declared herself Catherine II, the sovereign ruler of Russia (she later named Paul as her heir). She had Peter arrested and required him to sign an act of abdication. When he sought permission to leave the country, she refused it, intending to hold him prisoner for life. But his remaining days proved few; shortly after his arrest he was killed in a brawl with his captors.
Early Reign (1762-1764)
Catherine had ambitious plans regarding both domestic and foreign affairs, but during the first years of her reign her attention was directed toward securing her position. She knew that a number of influential persons considered her a usurper and her son, Paul, the rightful ruler; she also realized that without the goodwill of the nobility and the military she could be overthrown by a coup as readily as she had been elevated by one. Her reaction to this situation was to take every opportunity for conciliating the nobility and the military and at the same time striking sharply at those who sought to replace her with Paul.
As for general policy, Catherine understood that Russia needed an extended period of peace during which to concentrate on domestic affairs and that peace required a cautious foreign policy. The able Count Nikita Panin, whom she placed in charge of foreign affairs, was well chosen to carry out such a policy.
Attempts at Reform (1764-1768)
By 1764 Catherine felt sufficiently secure to begin work on reform. In her thinking about the problems of reform, she belonged to the group of 18th-century rulers known as "enlightened despots." Influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, these monarchs believed that a wise and benevolent ruler, acting according to the dictates of reason, could ensure the well-being of his or her subjects.
It was in the spirit of the Enlightenment that Catherine undertook her first major reform, that of Russia's legal system, which was based on the antiquated, inequitable, and inefficient Code of Laws, dating from 1649. For more than 2 years, inspired by the writings of Montesquieu and the Italian jurist Beccaria, she worked on the composition of the "Instruction," a document to guide those to whom she would entrust the work of reforming the legal system. This work was widely distributed in Europe and caused a sensation because it called for a legal system far in advance of the times. It proposed a system providing equal protection under law for all persons and emphasized prevention of criminal acts rather than harsh punishment for them.
In June 1767 the Empress created the Legislative Commission to revise the old laws in accordance with the "Instruction." For the time and place, the Commission was a remarkable body, consisting of delegates from almost all levels of society except the lowest, the serfs. Like many others, Catherine had great hopes about what the Commission might accomplish, but unfortunately, the delegates devoted most of their time to the exposition of their own grievances, rather than to their assigned task. Consequently, though their meetings continued for more than a year, they made no progress, and Catherine suspended the meetings at the end of 1768. The fact that she never reconvened the Commission has been interpreted by some historians as an indication that she had lost faith in the delegates; others feel, however, that she was more interested in having the reputation of being an "enlightened" ruler than in actually being one.
War and Revolt (1768-1774)
Foreign affairs now began to demand Catherine's major attention. She had sent troops to help the Polish king Stanislas (a former lover) in suppressing a nationalist revolt aimed at reducing Russia's influence in Poland. In 1768 the Polish rebels appealed to Turkey for aid, and the Turkish sultan, grateful for an opportunity to weaken a traditional enemy, declared war on Russia. But his act was based on serious miscalculation, and his forces were soundly beaten by the Russians. This turn of events led Austria to threaten intervention on Turkey's behalf unless Catherine agreed not to take full advantage of her victory. Faced by this dangerous alternative, she agreed to show restraint in return for a portion of Polish territory. Thus in 1772 Austria and Russia annexed Polish territory in the First Partition of Poland. Two years later, after lengthy negotiations, Catherine concluded peace with Turkey, restricting herself to relatively modest but nonetheless important gains. Russia received as a territorial concession its first foothold on the Black Sea coast, and Russian merchant ships were allowed the right of sailing on the Black Sea and through the Dardanelles.
Even before the conclusion of peace with the Turks, Catherine had to concern herself with a revolt led by the Cossack Yemelyan Pugachev. It proved to be the most ominous internal threat she ever had to face. The rebel leader claimed that reports of Peter III's death were false and that he himself was the deposed emperor. He convinced many serfs, Cossacks, and members of other dissatisfied groups that when Catherine II was deposed and "Peter III" was returned to the throne their oppression would be ended. Soon tens of thousands were following him, and the uprising, which started in the south and spread up the Volga River, was within threatening range of Moscow. Pugachev's defeat required several major expeditions by the imperial forces, and a feeling of security returned to the government only after his capture late in 1774. The revolt was a major landmark in Catherine's reign. Deeply alarmed by it, she concluded, along with most of the aristocracy, that the best safeguard against rebellion would be the strengthening of the local administrative authority of the nobility rather than measures to ameliorate the condition of the lower classes.
Domestic Affairs (1775-1787)
Much of Catherine's fame rests on what she accomplished during the dozen years following the Pugachev uprising, when she directed her time and talent to domestic affairs, particularly those concerned with the administrative operations of government. Her reorganization in 1775 of provincial administration—in such a way as to favor the nobility—stood the test of time; but her reorganization of municipal government 10 years later was less successful.
Catherine attached high importance to expanding the country's educational facilities. She gave serious consideration to various plans and in 1786 adopted one providing for a large-scale educational system. Unfortunately she was unable to carry out the entire plan; but she did add to the number of the country's elementary and secondary schools, and some of the remaining parts of her plan were carried out during succeeding reigns.
Another of Catherine's chief domestic concerns was the enhancement of Russia's economic strength. To this end she encouraged trade by ending various restrictions on commerce, and she promoted the development of underpopulated areas by attracting both Russians and foreigners to them as settlers.
The arts and sciences received much attention during Catherine's reign not only because she believed them to be important in themselves, but also because she saw them as a means by which Russia could attain a reputation as a center of civilization. Under her direction St. Petersburg was beautified and made one of the world's most dazzling capitals. With her encouragement, theater, music, and painting flourished; stimulated by her patronage, the Academy of Sciences reached new heights. Indeed, during her reign St. Petersburg became one of the major cultural centers of Europe.
Foreign Affairs (1787-1795)
Catherine gradually came to believe that it would be possible to strip Turkey of both Constantinople and its European possessions if only Austria would join Russia in the undertaking. And, having gained Austria's lukewarm support, she began the deliberate pursuit of a policy so intolerably aggressive toward Turkey that in 1787 the Sultan finally declared war on Russia. As in past encounters, the Russian forces proved superior to the Turks, but they required 4 years to achieve victory. By the Treaty of Jassy (1792) Catherine won from Turkey a large area on the Black Sea coast and gained Turkish agreement to Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. But she was not able to carry out her original plan of annexing Constantinople and Turkey's European territory, since Austria had withdrawn its support of this action and other powers vigorously opposed it.
While the Russo-Turkish War was in progress, Polish nationalists again tried to strengthen the Polish state and end Russian influence within it. As before, their efforts were futile, leading only to unqualified disaster for their unfortunate country—the Second Partition of Poland (1793), in which Russia and Prussia annexed Polish territory; and the Third Partition (1795), in which Russia, Austria, and Prussia divided what remained of an independent Poland.
Problem of Succession
As she grew older, Catherine became greatly troubled because her heir, Paul, who had long been given to violent and unpredictable extremes of emotion, was becoming so unsettled and erratic that she doubted his fitness to rule. She considered disclaiming him as heir and naming his oldest son, Alexander, as her successor. But before she was able to alter her original arrangement, she died of a stroke on Nov. 6, 1796.
Further Reading on Catherine the Great
The Memoirs of Catherine the Great, edited by Dominique Maroger (trans. 1955), covers her life until 1762. Documents of Catherine the Great, edited by W. F. Reddaway (1931), includes the texts of the "Instruction" and her correspondence with Voltaire. Ian Grey, Catherine the Great: Autocrat and Empress of All Russia (1962), is a thorough and sound biography. Gladys S. Thomson, Catherine the Great and the Expansion of Russia (1947), provides a useful, brief survey of Catherine's reign. Kazimierz Waliszewski, The Romance of an Empress: Catherine II of Russia (1894), is still a fascinating and important work.