For the Glory and the Good of the Nation - Catherine the Great

  During the late 18th century, she was the most powerful and the most well-known woman in Europe. Her extraordinary life is not easily summarized – especially since she has told it so vividly herself in her autobiographical memoirs written during the several decades of her reign.  A modest German princess in a negligible Principality of Anhalt-Zerbst in her birth, the sole empress of the largest European empire in her deathbed, she is still one of the most prominent figures in Russian history. The emperors that came after her have either praised her as the true heir of Peter the Great or tried to erase her achievements by wrapping them all in a veil of iniquity. 

Born in 1729, princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg was betrothed to the young tsar-to-be and her second cousin, Peter, at the age of 16. This was the will of empress Elizabeth of Russia (reigning 1741-1762), the aunt of Peter and a usurper of her own right. In 18th century, Europe was engulfed in a series of tentative wars, where established empires such as Russia, Austria and France tried to hold on to the status quo and forestall new liberal and dangerous ideas from spreading across the Europe while keeping an eye on the ambitions of the German empire of Prussia. Young Catherine spent her restrictive life in the Young Court under the watchful eye of her grandiose mother-in-law. She did not give a hoot about her husband – a peculiar personality who liked to play with tin soldiers and whose face was more or less ruined after an outbreak of smallpox, and who to top it all was more interested in spending time with his lover. Catherine immersed herself in books. She read Montesquieu and Tacitus, learned Russian and developed good relationships with foreign diplomats and important Russian officers who became her co-conspirators against her husband. The seeds of her later fascination with the concept of enlightened absolutism were sowed during her time as a Grand Duchess.

Young Grand Duchess conversed almost immediately to Eastern Orthodoxy on her move to Russia. She took the Orthodox name of Yekaterina. Religion was just about a tool for her, but she used it smartly. Portrait by Georg Christoph Grooth in 1745.

  During her reign, Catherine always wanted to be recognized as an enlightened sovereign. She was in long-lasting correspondence with some of the most famous philosophers of the time, such as the Frenchmen Voltaire and Diderot. She worked hard to renew and standardize the juridical codes of her empire, to create a just and rational regime. Catherine was so eager to emphasize her goodwill and humanity in her letters, plays and memoirs, that her true intentions have been questioned both by her contemporaries and followers. Catherine was a usurper after all – she needed more proof than any regular ruler would need to reassure everyone that she was the right person to rule Russia. When Elizabeth died in 1761, Catharine was pregnant and socially isolated in the court. Peter was declared the tsar in January 1762, but plans of revolution were already in progress, thanks to Catherine’s co-conspirators among the Guard officers such as the Orlovs. In July, Peter was arrested and imprisoned in Ropsha settlement, where he was conveniently killed in midst of a fight shortly thereafter.

Peter III made some progressive process especially when it came to the status of serfs, and his favor of the Prussian king and the background of financial crisis angered many nobles. His plans to wage war against Denmark were the last straw. Portrait of Peter and Catherine by Georg Christoph Grooth circa 1745.

 Catherine did not think for a moment that her husband would have made a better ruler than herself. A bigger threat was her own son, Paul, who according to Catherine was not the son of Peter but nevertheless always considered him as his father. Catherine was well aware that some of the officials who had helped her to ascend to power wanted her only to rule as a temporary regent for her son. She wanted to prove that she was the righteous successor to her husband’s grandfather, Peter the Great, by finishing the imperial and domestic projects of the legendary first emperor of Russia. She had great success in both west and south, as the Russo-Turkish wars and the Partitions of Poland spread the empire towards the Black Sea along the lines of Dniester and Bug in the South and towards the current western borders of Belarus and Ukraine in the East. The cruelty of the Russian storming of the Turkish city of Ismail and later Polish Warsaw provoked criticism in the West. The social standing of the serfs is a great example to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the whole enlightened monarch project – Catherine failed to address the arbitrary domination that nobles had over their serfs. Especially the revolutionary unrest that started to spread from Europe towards the end of the century had Catherine shifting towards stricter conservatism.

During her reign Catherine had many favorites among the officials, who supported her both politically and emotionally. She promoted her favorites and had open affairs with them. Stanisław Poniatowski, Grigory Orlov and nobleman and high officer Grigory Potemkin (in the picture) were among the most prominent. Portrait by unknown after Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder (original c. 1784-1788).

It seems scarcely wrong to summarize that Russia was one of the empires that emerged as winners form the skirmishes of the 18th century. Not least thanks to Catherine, the Turkish threat on the Black Sea had been curbed, Poland disappeared from the map and treaties or alliances between Sweden, Prussia and Austria were in effect for the time being. Not only a diligent and rigorous ruler, Catherine had always been a charming conversationalist, often leaving her guests in a sense of awe. The empire grew violently in her time of reign, but in the field of culture she truly implemented the spirit of enlightenment: she offered to sponsor the publication of the French Encyclopédie and translated many philosophical works into Russian, imported great works of European art and supported theater, opera, sculpture and classical architecture. The Hermitage Museum was one of her favorite projects. She also endorsed many educational reforms with the aim of creating a uniform educational code and make education reachable to young girls and all the free classes. In hindsight, the programs were not very successful, but Catherine’s zeal for more universal education cannot be questioned.

Smolny Institute founded by Catherine, the first state higher education institute for women in Europe. Galaktionov S. F. 1823.

The rather absolute way the Russian monarch was ruling (especially the British would read this as arbitrary) was bound to irritate and annoy the western observers. The great power she wielded, and the hypocrisy detected in her actions made Catherine a target of shameless satire: and in true spirit of the times it was often her gender that was attacked in cartoons and journals. She was judged for promiscuity, although Catherine was no more ‘licentious’ than her male contemporaries. After her death in 1796, her son Paul ruled the empire for five years and seemed to be doing his all to expunge the achievements of his mother. For example, he intended to bury his mother to an anonymous grave and converted her favorite palace into stables. Paul was strangled in March 1801. The opponents of Paul and later Nicholas I (1825-1855) used the example of Catherine’s reign to highlight the alleged decline of the empire in the field of culture and humanism.

Even long after her death, Catherine’s reputation is bipartite. She crafted new, more humanistic foundations for the regime while being more conservative with the question of serfdom than her predecessor and successor. Her reign is remembered as the golden era of Russian culture, while it was shadowed by cases of violence, such as the death of Peter III in an ambiguous situation. Also, while she was undoubtedly a great patron of arts, she did not truly respect the religious parts of Russian traditional culture and did not always enjoy high culture herself. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that without her Russia would not be what it is today.


This article is largely based on the book Catherine the Great by Simon Dixon (Profile Books 2010). All the pictures are from Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain in the United States and in their country of origin.