- Catherine the Great -

Ekaterina (or Yekaterina) II of Russia (Екатерина II Алексеевна) (April 21, 1729 - November 6, 1796), also known as Catherine the Great, reigned as empress of Russia from June 28, 1762 to her death in 1796. A cousin to Gustav III of Sweden and to Charles XIII of Sweden. Ekaterina exemplified a so-called "enlightened monarch".

Life before becoming empress

Originally named Sophie Augusta Fredericka (and nicknamed Figchen), Catherine was born in Stettin, Pomerania, to Christian Augustus, the prince of Anhalt-Zerbst in Germany, and Elizabeth of Holstein. In 1744, Tsarina Elizabeth chose Sophie as the wife for her nephew, Peter, whom she intended to become her heir. Sophie changed her name to "Catherine" (Ekaterina or Yekaterina) when she accepted the Russian Orthodox faith. The marriage proved unhappy. Catherine soon became popular with powerful political groups which opposed her husband. Largely ignored, she read a great deal, including Voltaire and Montesquieu, and kept up-to-date on current events in Russia.

In 1762, after moving into the new Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, Peter succeeded to the throne as Peter III of Russia, but his eccentricities and policies alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated. Grigori Orlov, Catherine's lover at the time, headed a conspiracy that proclaimed Catherine the ruler, and Peter was murdered not six months after taking the throne, on July 17, 1762.

Internal policies

Using the writings of Beccaria and Montesquieu, Catherine drew up a document to reform the code of laws. A legislative commission that represented all classes except the serfs was created to make this document the law, but she disbanded the commission before it took effect, possibly having turned more conservative as a result of the Pugachev peasant uprising in 1773 - 1774.

Catherine re-organized Russian provincial administration, granting the government greater control over rural areas because of the peasant revolt. This process reached completion in 1775. The reform created provinces and districts, which were more manageable for the government. In 1785 Catherine issued a charter that: allowed the gentry to petition the throne as a legal body; freed the nobles from state service and taxes; made noble status hereditary; and also gave the nobles full control over their serfs and lands. In addition, Catherine gave land in the Ukraine to favoured nobles and granted them serfs. She also encouraged the colonization of Alaska and of conquered areas.

Foreign affairs

In 1764 Catherine placed Stanislaus Poniatowski, a former lover, on the Polish throne. Russia gained the largest part of Poland through repeated partitions between Russia, Austria and Prussia (1772, 1793 and 1795).

Catherine made Russia the dominant power in the Middle East after her first Russo-Turkish War against the Ottoman Empire from 1768-1774. She attempted to partition the Ottoman Empire's European holdings after the Polish example, but achieved far less success. She annexed the Crimea in 1783, a mere nine years after it had gained independence from the Ottoman Empire as a result of her first war with it. The Ottomans started a second Russo-Turkish War during Catherine's reign. This war lasted from 1787 to 1792 and ended with the Treaty of Jassy, which legitimated the Russian claim to the Crimea.

In the European political theatre Catherine played an important role during her reign, acting as a mediator in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778 - 1779) between Prussia and Austria. In 1780 she set up a group designed to defend independent ships from Great Britain during the American Revolution.

All told, she added about 200,000 square miles to Russian territory.

Arts and Culture

Catherine subscribed to the Enlightenment and considered herself a "philosopher on the throne". She became known as a patron of the arts, literature and education. She wrote comedies, fiction and her memoirs, while making the acquaintance of Voltaire, Diderot and D'Alembert, all of who were French encyclopedists that later cemented her reputation in their writings. She was able to lure the mathematician Leonhard Euler from Berlin back to Saint Petersburg.

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 had him banned to Siberia.

Personal life

Catherine was known for her sexual appetite and her many lovers. She had a secret room constructed, filled with paintings and sculptures depicting the most raunchy sexual acts imaginable. Even the individual items of furniture were constructed out of elements depicting giant sexual organs and decorated in tune with the theme. Ironically the craftsmen employed for this purpose were the very same who decorated Russia's churches. Many of the images depicted rape, pedophilia and bestiality in realistic and graphic anatomical detail. However, the often-told story that she had sex with a horse and died as a result is baseless. In fact, Catherine suffered a stroke while sitting on a commode on November 5, 1796, and subsequently died in bed without having regained consciousness.

She had a son, Paul, whom she did not like very much. He may have been fathered by Peter or by one of Catherine's lovers: Serge Saltykov is often thought to have been a likely candidate. Paul succeeded her to the throne as Paul I of Russia after her death. She was buried in the Saint Peter and Paul fortress in Saint Petersburg.

See also: Russian Imperial Expansion and Maturation - Catherine II

Persons Associated with Catherine II: Denis Diderot, Voltaire

External links

Preceded by:
Peter III
List of Russian Tsars Succeeded by: