Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great, was a Prussian princess who became the queen consort of Russia through her marriage to Peter III. She then orchestrated a coup to overthrow her husband and became the Empress of the Russian Empire in July 1762. Catherine was Czarina for a period of 34 years till her death in November 1796, making her the longest-ruling female leader in the history of Russia. Though she is considered one of the greatest Russian monarchs, the serfs were mostly dissatisfied during her reign leading to a number of revolts, most prominently the Pugachev’s Rebellion of 1773-75. Catherine is also known for her numerous love affairs. She kept lovers till her death at the age of 67 and certain sources cite their number as high as 22. Catherine had at least four children, of which only her eldest son Paul is considered legitimate. Know about the family, life, rise to power, reign, revolts, affairs and death of Catherine the Great through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 Her mother had little interest in her and Catherine was instead close to her governess

Catherine was born Princess Sophie Fredericka Auguste on 2nd May 1729 in the city of Szczecin in Pomerania, Kingdom of Prussia. Her father Christian August was a German prince of the House of Ascania who served as general in the Prussian army of King Frederick William I; and from 1742, became ruler of a Principality known as Anhalt-Zerbst. Her mother Johanna Elisabeth was a princess of the House of Holstein-Gottorp. Sophie was the first of five children of Christian and Johanna. In accordance to the customs prevailing in German aristocratic families, she was educated primarily by a French governess, named Babette. Apart from studying religion and history, she learned three languages: German, French and Russian. Johanna’s attitude towards Sophie was ambivalent and Sophie instead developed a close relationship with her governess. However, after the death of her brother Wilhelm Christian, her mother started to see Sophie as a mean to improve her own situation.

Catherine the Great's parents
Catherine II’s parents – Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp & Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst

 

#2 She got the name Catherine on being converted to the Russian Orthodox faith in 1744

Czarina Elizabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great who had assumed the Russian throne in 1741, invited the 15-year-old Sophie along with her mother to Russia in 1744. Elizabeth knew Johanna’s family well and had initially intended to marry her brother Charles Augustus, who had died of smallpox before the wedding could take place. Unmarried and childless, Elizabeth had chosen her nephew Peter, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, as her heir. Even though Elizabeth disliked Johanna and eventually banned her from the country, she took a strong liking to Sophie, who did all she could to please Elizabeth. Despite the objection of her father due to his being a devout German Lutheran, Princess Sophie converted to the Russian Orthodox faith on 28th June 1744 and was given a new name, Yekaterina, or Catherine.

Portrait of Catherine II as a young girl
Portrait of Catherine soon after her arrival in Russia

 

#3 There is speculation that her son Paul was not fathered by her husband Peter

Catherine married her second cousin Peter, heir to the Russian throne, on 21st August 1745 in Saint Petersburg. She was 16 years old while Peter was 17. Their marriage proved to be unsuccessful and they both soon began extramarital affairs. Peter took a mistress named Elizabeth Vorontsova while Catherine had an affair with Sergei Saltykov, a Russian military officer. On October 1, 1754, a son was born to Catherine who was named Paul. Due to Catherine’s promiscuity, it is speculated whether Peter was the child’s biological father and some claim that Paul’s actual father was Sergei Saltykov. This belief was further enhanced by Catherine, who later wrote in her memoirs that Paul was not fathered by Peter and that, in fact, they had never consummated the marriage. Most historians today however believe that Catherine’s claims were an attempt to discredit Peter. The basis of their opinion that Peter was Paul’s father is similarity in their appearance and character.

Emperor Peter III of Russia
Coronation portrait of Emperor Peter III of Russia – Husband of Catherine

 

#4 Catherine the Great orchestrated a bloodless coup to overthrow her husband Peter III

Empress Elizabeth died on 5th January 1762 and Peter succeeded to the throne of Russia as Emperor Peter III while Catherine became empress consort. Throughout the 1750s, Catherine had cultivated relations with powerful political groups opposed to her husband. She was in fact introduced to some of these groups by Ekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova, the sister of her husband’s mistress. On becoming emperor, Peter III ended Russia’s war with Prussia and introduced a number of liberal reforms that alienated him from the Russian military class and nobility. Catherine collaborated with these factions and began plotting an overthrow of her husband. On the night of 8th July 1762, Catherine was informed that one of her co-conspirators had been arrested. She acted swiftly; had her husband arrested; and forced him to sign a document of abdication. On 17th July 1762, 8 days after the coup, Peter III was murdered by Alexei Orlov. Alexei was the younger brother of Grigory Orlov, Catherine’s lover at the time and the person who led the coup. There is no evidence to prove that Catherine ordered the assassination of her husband or knew about it beforehand.

Coronation of Catherine II of Russia
Painting of the Coronation of Catherine the Great

 

#5 The Russian Empire became stronger and larger than ever before during her reign

A day after the coup, on 9th July 1762, Catherine declared herself Catherine II, the sovereign ruler of the Russian Empire. Her official coronation took place in Moscow on 22nd September 1762. During her reign, Catherine II successfully led Russia against the Ottoman Empire making her nation one of the dominant countries in Europe. Apart from victories against the Ottoman Empire, Russia under her leadership defeated the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth leading to the partitioning of Poland and division of its territory between Russia, Prussia and Austria with Russia gaining the largest share. By the end of the reign of Catherine the Great, the Russian Empire had grown larger and stronger than ever before. It had expanded rapidly by conquest and diplomacy with around 200,000 square miles (518,000 square kilometers) being added to its territory.

Map of the Russian Empire
Map of the Growth of the Russian Empire

 

#6 Her reign worsened the conditions of the serfs in Russia

When Catherine II came to the throne in 1762, Russian population of around 20 million consisted to up to 10 million serfs. Serfs were peasants in permanent bondage to land owned by the other classes. They had initially held some rights but as the power of the landowners increased, their rights diminished and by mid 18th century, they had practically become slaves. Catherine II was well versed with the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe like the Rights of Man and was intellectually opposed to serfdom. However, she soon realized that emancipation of the serfs would not be tolerated by the nobility and the other classes on whose support she depended. Catherine implemented several policies which worsened the conditions of the serfs and they were discontented by her rule. Thus despite her many achievements, the condition of around half of the population deteriorated during her reign.

 

#7 The largest peasant revolt in Russian history took place during her reign

Due to the difficult social and economic conditions the serfs had to face during the reign of Catherine II, there were more than a dozen rebellions she had to counter. The principal revolt among these was the Pugachev’s Rebellion of 1773-75. The Cossacks are self-governing and semi-military communities who reside primarily in Russia and Ukraine. They were behind a number of revolutions in Russia to abolish slavery and maintain independence. Ural Cossacks, or cossacks settled by the Ural River, were the driving force behind the Pugachev’s Rebellion. It was led by Yemelyan Pugachev, an ex-lieutenant of the Russian Imperial army. He called into question the validity of Catherine’s reign; and proclaimed that he was in fact the deposed Peter III. After initial success, he formed an alternative government and proclaimed an end to serfdom. Catherine II ultimately sent a massive force under General Michelsohn which crushed the revolt. Yemelyan Pugachev was captured and publicly executed in January 1775. Pugachev’s Rebellion was the largest peasant revolt in Russia’s history.

Yemelyan Pugachev
Yemelyan Pugachev – Leader of the Pugachev’s Rebellion

 

#8 Catherine II had numerous lovers and she usually rewarded them generously

The sexual promiscuity of Catherine the Great is well known. She had numerous relationships throughout her life up till the time she died at the age of 67. According to some sources she had around 12 male lovers in her life while others say that the number was as high as 22. These included Stanisław Poniatowski, who probably fathered her daughter Anna Petrovna and was later aided by Catherine to become King of Poland; Grigory Orlov, who instrumental in the coup against her husband and fathered her son Alexei Bobrinsky; and Grigory Potemkin, who spent many years as her favorite, was an important statesman and held the post of the head of Russian forces during her reign. It is said during her later years, Potemkin selected lovers for her, who were usually much younger to her. She was always generous to them, even after the affair had ended. One of them, Pyotr Zavadovsky, received 50,000 rubles, a pension of 5,000 rubles and 4,000 peasants after she dismissed him in 1777.

Grigory Potemkin
Grigory Potemkin – Perhaps the most prominent lover of Catherine the Great

 

#9 She considered her grandson as a more suitable heir than her eldest son

On 16th November 1796, Catherine II collapsed from a stroke while in the toilet. Worried due to her absence, her servants finally broke in and brought her to the bedroom. The royal physician declared that she had suffered a stroke. Despite all attempts to revive her, she entered into a coma. Catherine the Great died the following day in the Royal residence in St Petersburg, Russia. She was 67 years old. Catherine had a stormy relationship with her eldest son Paul. He was taken away from her when he was a child and raised by Empress Elizabeth. Even when Catherine became empress, she kept him away from state matters further alienating him. Catherine raised Paul’s son Alexander and considered him a more suitable heir than his father. However, she died before she could make this public. Paul I succeeded Catherine as Czar of Russia. His policies proved to be unpopular and after 5 years of reign he was assassinated by conspirators. Alexander I succeeded his father as Emperor in 1801 and ruled till his death in 1825.

Paul I of Russia
Paul I of Russia – Son of Catherine II who succeeded her

 

#10 Catherine the Great is regarded as one of the greatest rulers of Russia

The reign of Catherine the Great lasted for a period of 34 years from 9 July 1762 to 17 November 1796. This makes her the longest-ruling female leader in the history of Russia. Apart from expanding and strengthening the Russian Empire, Catherine II implemented numerous important reforms in education and administration; and encouraged the development of economy, trade and the arts. Among other things, the Smolny Institute in St Petersburg, the first educational establishment for women in Russia, was founded by her in 1764; and the Hermitage Museum, one of the largest and oldest museums in the world, began as her personal collection. Catherine II presided over the period known as the Russian Enlightenment, which saw the flowering of the arts and sciences; and had a significant and profound impact on Russian culture. Such was the impact of Catherine that period of her rule is referred to as the Catherinian Era and is often called the Golden Age of the Russian Empire.

Catherine the Great statue
Marble statue of Catherine II in the guise of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts

 

Catherine the Great and Serfdom

Even though Catherine was intellectually opposed to serfdom, she had to keep in mind that she couldn’t anger the powerful people who supported her and this led her to implement policies which were not in favor of the serfs. Detractors of Catherine the Great blame her for the poor conditions of the serfs and imply that, as around half of the Russian population was dissatisfied during her reign, her other achievements come to nothing. However, it should be kept in mind what was the attitude of other nations at the time. George III, who ruled the United Kingdom around the same time as Catherine was Czarina of Russia, looked the other way while the English participated in the African slave trade, which was much worse than serfdom in Russia. Thus, despite the Age of Enlightenment, the elite of Europe fared no better in their attitudes and actions. Similar hypocrisy can be seen in America where Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal”, was a lifelong slave owner. Twelve American presidents owned slaves, eight of them while in office.

1 COMMENT

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