Catherine the Great: Biography, Quotes & Facts

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Catherine the Great was a German born Russian Queen. Her reign was noted for cultural, artistic, educational, and political reforms as well as territorial expansion.

German Background of a Russian Tsar

Catherine the Great made history as the first female ruler in Russian history. Catherine was born Sophie Friederike Auguste in May 1729 in Stettin, Prussia - now Szczecin, Poland. She took the name Catherine when she married into the Russian royal family. Her father, Christian Auguste was a German prince of modest means. Her mother, Johanna Elizabeth, largely ignored him as was hoping for a son, and Catherine was raised by her governess. Her fortune though was about to change with an arranged marriage.

Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great Photo

Catherine in Russia

At age 15, she was invited to the Russian court by the Empress Elizabeth, to meet the Grand Duke Peter III, the grandson of Peter the Great. Their marriage was largely a political one, and neither showed much genuine affection for the other. While married to Peter, she carried the title of Grand Duchess but that was soon to change. They had four children together, but only one son, Paul. Both took lovers, and many of Catherine's lovers played a key political role during her reign.

Peter III
Peter III

Catherine Becomes Queen

The story of Catherine's rise to power is one of immense intrigue. Peter III was seen as weak, and made enemies early on with the nobles, the church hierarchy, and the military. Catherine, on the other hand, worked hard to curry favor with these same groups. A plot hatched to toss out Peter, and replace him with their seven-year old son Paul, and name Catherine as co-ruler on the assumption that she would play a secondary role. They were wrong. With the assistance of her lover, Grigory Orlov, and with the backing of the military, she had Peter arrested and forced to abdicate. He was subsequently killed by his captors, though her role in this is still debated. With Peter gone, she declared herself sole ruler of Russia and became Queen.

Catherine on the Balcony of the Winter Palace
Catherine on the Balcony of the Winter Palace

Catherine the Great

Catherine was no fool, and well knew that her position was tenuous, given she was both a foreigner and a woman of which she was the first in Russian history. She skillfully sought to curry the favor of the nobility. This was typical for the age, when loyalties were often bought through political appointment and land grants. The following sentiment by Catherine highlights her philosophy of ruling: 'I shall be an autocrat: that's my trade. And the good Lord will forgive me: that's his.'

Catherine and the Ottomans

Catherine's reign was also marked by foreign conquests. As part of a long-running feud with Poland, Catherine annexed part of Poland and put one of her former lovers, Stanislaw Poniatowshi on the throne. Russia also waged war against the Ottoman Turks. Russia coveted the warm water ports of the Black Sea region. Russian military success was decisive, and Catherine annexed portions of the Crimea, Black Sea, and the Ukraine. Here again one of her chief advisors on expansion into these regions was Grigory Potemkin, a former lover and political confidant of hers. A major consequence of these affairs was the reestablishment of Orthodox Churches in Ottoman regions. A negative aspect was the expansion of serfdom, a condition of bondage akin to slavery, into the Ukraine, a region in which it was previously unknown.

Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great

Catherine and the Pugachev

Catherine faced a bizarre internal threat in the Pugachev Rebellion of 1773-1775. Pugachev was a Cossack minority, who claimed to be Catherine's deceased husband, Peter III. In reality, it was a rebellion led by a motley group of disgruntled serfs and ethnic minorities who chafed under harsh Russian rule. Catherine used the full weight of the military to squash it, and it led to a number of reforms. One such was the 'The Instruction' which laid out several political reforms. One such measure theoretically put all Russian people - regardless of social rank or economic status - on equal footing in the eyes of the law. It's most notable aspect though was the creation of more provincial governments and administrative posts in Russia's far-flung empire. One negative side of this was that Catherine tightened the control that nobles had over Russian serfs. Despite her 'enlightened views' serfs suffered worst under Catherine.

St. Catherine Cathedral
St. Catherine Cathedral

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