Catherine II of Russia

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Catherine II of Russia

Catherine II of Russia, called the Great (Russian: Екатерина II Великая, Yekaterina II Velikaya; 2 May 172917 November 1796 [O.S. 6 November]) — sometimes referred to as an epitome of the "enlightened despot" — reigned as Empress of Russia for some 34 years, from June 28 1762 until her death.


[edit] Early life

A minor German princess with a very remote Russian ancestry, and a first cousin of Gustav III of Sweden and of Charles XIII of Sweden, Sophie Augusta Frederica (Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst), nicknamed "Figchen", was born in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) to Christian Augustus, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, who held the rank of a Prussian general in his capacity as Governor of the city in the name of the king of Prussia. In accordance with the custom then prevailing in German nobility, she received her education chiefly from a French governess and from tutors.

The choice of Sophie as wife of the prospective tsar — Peter of Holstein-Gottorp — resulted from some amount of diplomatic management in which Count Lestocq and Frederick II of Prussia took an active part. Lestocq and Frederick wanted to strengthen the friendship between Prussia and Russia to weaken the influence of Austria and to ruin the chancellor Bestuzhev, on whom Tsarina Elizabeth relied, and who acted as a known partisan of Russo–Austrian co-operation.

The diplomatic intrigue failed, largely through the intervention of Figchen's mother, Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein, a clever and ambitious woman. Historical accounts portray Catherine's mother as emotionally cold and physically abusive, as well as a social climber who loved gossip and court intrigues. Johanna aspired to become famous through her daughter becoming a future Empress of Russia, but her pushy, arrogant behaviour infuriated the Empress Elizabeth, who eventually banned her from the country. But Elizabeth took a strong liking to the daughter, and the marriage finally took place in 1744. The Empress knew the family well because Princess Johanna's brother Karl had gone to Russia to marry Elizabeth years earlier, but had died of smallpox before the planned wedding took place.

Princess Sophie spared no effort to ingratiate herself not only with the Empress Elizabeth, but with her husband and with the Russian people. She applied herself to learning the Russian language with such zeal that she rose at night and walked about her bedroom barefoot repeating her lessons. This resulted in a severe attack of pneumonia in March 1744. When she wrote her memoirs she represented herself as having made up her mind when she came to Russia to do whatever had to be done, and to profess to believe whatever required of her, in order to become qualified to wear the crown. The consistency of her character throughout life makes it highly probable that even at the age of fifteen she possessed sufficient maturity to adopt this worldly-wise line of conduct.

Equestrian portrait of Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseyevna.

Her father, a very devout Lutheran, strongly opposed his daughter's conversion. Despite his instructions, on 28 June 1744 the Russian Orthodox Church received her as a member with the name Catherine Alexeyevna (Yekaterina or Ekaterina). On the following day the formal betrothal took place, and Catherine married the Grand Duke Peter on 21 August 1745 at Saint Petersburg. The newlyweds settled in the palace of Oranienbaum, which would remain the residence of the "young court" for 16 years.

[edit] Coup d'état

The marriage proved unsuccessful — due to the Grand Duke Peter's impotence and mental immaturity he may not have consummated it for twelve years. While Peter took a mistress (Elizabeth Vorontsova), Catherine carried on liaisons with Sergei Saltykov and Stanislaw Poniatowski. She became friends with Ekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova, the sister of her husband's mistress, who introduced Catherine to several powerful political groups that opposed her husband. Catherine read widely and kept up-to-date on current events in Russia and in the rest of Europe. She corresponded with many of the prominent minds of her era, including Voltaire and Diderot.

After the death of the Empress Elizabeth on January 5, 1762 (N.S.) or 25 December 1761 (O.S.), Peter succeeded to the throne as Peter III of Russia and moved into the new Winter Palace in St. Petersburg; Catherine thus became Empress Consort of Russia. However, his eccentricities and policies, including a great admiration for the Prussian king Frederick II, whose capital the Russian army had briefly occupied (1760) in the course of the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated. Compounding matters, he insisted upon Russian intervention in a dispute between Holstein and Denmark over the province of Schleswig. Peter's insistence on supporting his native Holstein in an unpopular war eroded much of the support he had in the nobility.

In July 1762 Catherine's husband committed the grave error of retiring with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives to Oranienbaum, leaving his wife at Saint Petersburg. In the course of July 13 and July 14, the revolt of the Leib Guard removed Peter from the throne and proclaimed Catherine as reigning empress. The bloodless coup succeeded; Ekaterina Dashkova, a confidante of Catherine, remarked that Peter seemed rather glad to have rid himself of the throne, and requested only a quiet estate and a ready supply of tobacco and burgundy in which to rest his sorrows.

Six months after his ascension to the throne and three days after his deposition, on July 17, 1762, Peter III died at Ropsha at the hands of Alexei Orlov (younger brother to Gregory Orlov, then court favorite and a participant in the coup) in a supposedly accidental killing, the result of Alexei's over-indulgence in vodka. During the Soviet period, historians assumed that Catherine had ordered the murder, as she also disposed of other potential claimants to the throne (Ivan VI and Princess Tarakanova) at about the same time. But today it is agreed by almost all historians that Catherine was probably not involved in the killing.

Catherine, although not descended from any previous Russian emperor, succeeded her husband and became reigning empress, following an earlier precedent when Catherine I succeeded Peter I in 1725. Her ascension manifesto justified her succession by citing the "unanimous election" of the nation. However a great part of nobility regarded her reign as a usurpation, tolerable only during the minority of her son Grand Duke Paul. In the 1770s and 1780s a group of nobles connected with Paul (Nikita Panin and others) admitted the possibility[citation needed] of a new coup that would depose Catherine and transfer the crown to Paul, whose power they envisaged restricting in a kind of constitutional monarchy. These plans however never came to effect, and Catherine reigned until her death.

[edit] Foreign affairs

Image:Buberel Coronation coach Catherine the Great.jpg
The coronation coach of Catherine the Great as exhibited in the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

During her reign Catherine extended the borders of the Russian Empire southward and westward to absorb New Russia, Crimea, Right-Bank Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Courland at the expense of two powers — the Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. All told, she added some 200,000 miles² (518,000 km²) to Russian territory, and she further shaped the Russian destiny to a greater extent than almost anyone before or since, with the possible exceptions of Lenin, Stalin, and Peter the Great.

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 setting up a "Northern Accord" between Russia, Prussia, Poland, and Sweden, to counter the power of the BourbonHabsburg League. When it became apparent that his plan could not succeed, Panin fell out of favor and Catherine dismissed him in 1781.

[edit] Russo–Turkish Wars

Catherine made Russia the dominant power in south-eastern Europe after her first Russo–Turkish War against the Ottoman Empire (17681774), which saw some of the greatest defeats in Turkish history, including the Battle of Chesma (1770) and the Battle of Kagul (1770). The Russian victories allowed Catherine's government to obtain access to the Black Sea and to incorporate the vast steppes of present-day southern Ukraine, where the Russians founded the new cities of Odessa, Nikolayev, Yekaterinoslav (literally: "the Glory of Catherine"; the future Dnepropetrovsk), and Kherson.

Catherine annexed Crimea in 1783, a mere nine years after it had gained independence from the Ottoman Empire as a result of her first war against the Turks. The Ottomans started a second Russo-Turkish War (1787–1792) during Catherine's reign. This war proved catastrophic for them and ended with the Treaty of Jassy (1792), which legitimized the Russian claim to Crimea.

Catherine II of Russia

[edit] Relations with Western Europe

In the European political theater, Catherine remained ever conscious of her legacy and longed for recognition as an enlightened sovereign. She pioneered for Russia the role that England would later play with aplomb throughout most of the nineteenth and early twentieth century — that of international mediator in disputes that could, or did, lead to war. Accordingly, she acted as mediator in the War of the Bavarian Succession (17781779) between Prussia and Austria. In 1780 she set up a group designed to defend neutral shipping against Great Britain during the American Revolution, and she refused to intervene in that revolution on the side of the British when asked.

From 1788 to 1790, Russia fought the Russo-Swedish War against Sweden, instigated by Catherine's cousin, the King Gustav III of Sweden. Expecting to simply overtake the Russian armies still engaged in war against the Ottoman Turks and hoping to strike Saint Petersburg directly, the Swedes ultimately faced mounting human and territorial losses when opposed by Russia's Baltic Fleet. After Denmark declared war on Sweden in 1789, things looked bleak for the Swedes. After the Battle of Svensksund in 1790, the parties signed the Treaty of Värälä (August 14, 1790) returning all conquered territories to their respective nations, and peace ensued for twenty years.

[edit] Partitions of Poland

In 1763 Catherine placed Stanisław Poniatowski, her former lover, on the Polish throne. Although the idea came from the Prussian king, Catherine took a leading role in the partitions of Poland in the 1790s, afraid that the May Constitution of Poland (1791) might lead to a resurgence in the power of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and that the growing democratic movements inside the commonwealth might become a threat to the European monarchies.

After the French Revolution of 1789, Catherine rejected many of the principles of the Enlightenment which she once viewed favorably. In order to stop the reforms of the May Constitution and to prevent the modernization of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, she provided support to a Polish anti-reform group known as the Targowica Confederation. After defeating Polish loyalist forces in the Polish War in Defense of the Constitution (1792) and in the Kosciuszko Uprising (1794), Russia completed the partitioning of Poland, dividing all of the Commonwealth territory with Prussia and Austria (1795).

[edit] Arts and culture

Main article: Russian Enlightenment
Marble statue of Catherine II in the guise of Minerva (1789 - 1790), by Fedot Shubin.

Catherine did subscribe to the Enlightenment and considered herself a "philosopher on the throne". She showed great awareness of her image abroad, and ever desired that Europe should perceive her as a civilized and enlightened monarch, despite the fact that in Russia she often played the part of the tyrant. Even as she proclaimed her love for the ideals of liberty and freedom, she did more to tie the Russian serf to his land and to his lord than any sovereign since Boris Godunov.

Catherine had a reputation as a patron of the arts, literature and education. The Hermitage Museum, which now occupies the whole of the Winter Palace, began as Catherine's personal collection. At the instigation of her factotum, Ivan Betskoi, she wrote a manual for the education of young children, drawing from the ideas of John Locke, and founded the famous Smolny Institute for noble young ladies. This school would become one of the best of its kind in Europe, and even went so far as to admit young girls born to wealthy merchants alongside the daughters of the nobility. She wrote comedies, fiction and memoirs, while cultivating Voltaire, Diderot and D'Alembert — all French encyclopedists who later cemented her reputation in their writings. The leading economists of her day, such as Arthur Young and Jacques Necker, became foreign members of the Free Economic Society, established on her suggestion in Saint Petersburg. She lured the scientists Leonhard Euler and Peter Simon Pallas from Berlin to the Russian capital.

As much subtle as forceful, Catherine enlisted to her cause one of the great minds of the age, Voltaire, with whom she corresponded for fifteen years, from her accession to his death in 1778. He lauded her with epithets, calling her "The Star of the North" and the "Semiramis of Russia" (in reference to the legendary Queen of Babylon). Though she never met him face-to-face, she mourned him bitterly when he died, acquired his collection of books from his heirs, and placed them in the Imperial Public Library.

Within a few months of her accession, having heard that the French government threatened to stop the publication of the famous French Encyclopédie on account of its irreligious spirit, she proposed to Diderot that he should complete his great work in Russia under her protection. Four years later she endeavoured to embody in a legislative form the principles of Enlightenment which she had imbibed from the study of the French philosophers. She called together at Moscow a Grand Commission — almost a consultative parliament — composed of 652 members of all classes (officials, nobles, burghers and peasants) and of various nationalities. The Commission had to consider the needs of the Russian Empire and the means of satisfying them. The Empress herself prepared the Instructions for the Guidance of the Assembly, pillaging (as she frankly admitted) the philosophers of the West, especially Montesquieu and Cesare Beccaria. As many of the democratic principles frightened her more moderate and experienced advisers, she wisely refrained from immediately putting them into execution. After holding more than 200 sittings the so-called Commission dissolved without getting beyond the realm of theory.

Portrait of Catherine in an advanced age, with the Chesme Column in the background.

Catherine's patronage furthered the evolution of the arts in Russia more than that of any Russian sovereign before or after her. Under her reign, Russians imported and studied the classical and European influences which inspired the "Age of Imitation". In a major contribution to the arts in Russia, she established the Imperial Ballet School, today known as the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, the school of the famous Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet. Gavrila Derzhavin, Denis Fonvizin and Ippolit Bogdanovich laid the groundwork for the great writers of the nineteenth century, especially for Pushkin. Catherine became a great patron of Russian opera (see Catherine II and opera for details). However, her reign also featured omnipresent censorship and state control of publications. 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 exiled him to Siberia.

[edit] Personal life

Catherine, throughout her long reign, took many lovers, often elevating them to high positions for as long as they held her interest, and then pensioning them off with large estates and gifts of serfs. After her affair with Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin, he selected a candidate who had both the physical beauty as well as the mental faculties to hold Catherine's interest (e.g., Alexander Dmitriev-Mamonov). Some of these men loved her in return: she had a reputation as a beauty by the standards of the day, and always showed generosity towards her lovers, even after the end of an affair. The last of her lovers, Prince Zubov, 40 years her junior, proved the most capricious and extravagant of them all.

Catherine behaved harshly to her son Paul. In her memoirs, Catherine indicated that her first lover, Sergei Saltykov, had fathered Paul; but Paul physically resembled her husband, Peter. (Her illegitimate son by Grigori Orlov, Alexis Bobrinskoy {later created Count Bobrinskoy by Paul}, she sequestered from the court.) It seems highly probable that she intended to exclude Paul from the succession, and to leave the crown to her eldest grandson Alexander, afterwards the emperor Alexander I. Her harshness to Paul stemmed probably as much from political distrust as from what she saw of his character. Whatever Catherine's other activities, she emphatically functioned as a sovereign and as a politician, guided in the last resort by interests of state. Keeping Paul in a state of semi-captivity in Gatchina and Pavlovsk, she resolved not to allow her son to dispute or to share in her authority.

Image:Nevsky catherine.jpg
Mikhail Mikeshin's monument to Catherine in Saint Petersburg.

Catherine suffered a stroke while taking a bath on November 5 1796, and subsequently died at 10:15 the following evening without having regained consciousness. She was buried at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg. Palace intrigue generated several myths about the circumstances of her death that put her in rather unfavorable light. Because of their sexual nature, they survived the test of time and remain widely known even today.

[edit] Trivia

  • The Russian slang word for money babki (old women), refers to the picture of Catherine II printed on pre-Revolution 100-ruble bills [1].
  • German chancellor Angela Merkel has a picture of Catherine II in her office, and characterises her as a "strong woman".
  • One of Serbia's most famed rock/New Wave bands "Ekatarina Velika" (Catherine the Great) (1982–1994) took its name from Catherine II of Russia.
  • Catherine commissioned the famous "Bronze Horseman" statue, which stands in Saint Petersburg on the banks of the Neva, and had the boulder upon which it stands imported from several leagues away. She had it inscribed with the Latin phrase "Petro Primo Catharina Secunda MDCCLXXXII", meaning "Catherine the Second to Peter the First, 1782", in order to lend herself legitimacy by connecting herself with the "Founder of Modern Russia". This statue later inspired Pushkin's famous poem.

[edit] List of great Catherinians

Ivan Betskoy | Alexander Bezborodko | Yakov Bulgakov | Gavrila Derzhavin | Dmitry Levitsky | Aleksey Orlov | Nikita Panin | Grigory Potemkin | Nicholas Repnin | Peter Rumyantsev | Mikhailo Shcherbatov | Alexander Suvorov | Fyodor Ushakov | Catherine Vorontsova

[edit] Further reading

[edit] External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Preceded by:
Peter III
Empress of Russia
28 June 17626 November1796
Succeeded by:
Paul I

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Catherine II of Russia

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