Yekaterina Alexeevna or Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great (Russian:Екатерина II Великая, Yekaterina II Velikaya; German: Katharina die Große; 2 May [O.S. 21 April] 1729 – 17 November [O.S. 6 November] 1796), was the most renowned and the longest-ruling female leader of Russia, reigning from 9 July [O.S. 28 June] 1762 until her death in 1796 at the age of sixty-seven. Her reign was called Russia's golden age. She was born in Stettin,Pomerania, Prussia as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, and came to power following a coup d'état and the assassination of her husband, Peter III, at the end of theSeven Years' War. Russia was revitalized under her reign, growing larger and stronger than ever and becoming recognized as one of the great powers of Europe.
In both her accession to power and in rule of her empire, Catherine often relied on her noblefavourites, most notably Grigory Orlov and Grigory Potemkin. Assisted by highly successfulgenerals such as Pyotr Rumyantsev and Alexander Suvorov, and admirals such as Fyodor Ushakov, she governed at a time when the Russian Empire was expanding rapidly by conquest and diplomacy. In the south, the Crimean Khanate was crushed following victories over theOttoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish wars, and Russia colonised the vast territories ofNovorossiya along the coasts of the Black and Azov Seas. In the west, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, ruled by Catherine's former lover, king Stanisław August Poniatowski, was eventually partitioned, with the Russian Empire gaining the largest share. In the east, Russiastarted to colonise Alaska, establishing Russian America.
Catherine reformed the administration of Russian guberniyas, and many new cities and townswere founded on her orders. An admirer of Peter the Great, Catherine continued to modernise Russia along Western European lines. However, military conscription and economy continued to depend on serfdom, and the increasing demands of the state and private landowners led to increased levels of reliance on serfs. This was one of the chief reasons behind several rebellions, including the large-scale Pugachev's Rebellion of cossacks and peasants.
The period of Catherine the Great's rule, the Catherinian Era, is often considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire and the Russian nobility. The Manifesto on Freedom of the Nobility, issued during the short reign of Peter III and confirmed by Catherine, freed Russian nobles from compulsory military or state service. Construction of many mansions of the nobility, in theclassical style endorsed by the Empress, changed the face of the country. A notable example ofenlightened despot, a correspondent of Voltaire and an amateur opera librettist, Catherine presided over the age of the Russian Enlightenment, when the Smolny Institute, the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe, was established.
Catherine's father Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst belonged to the ruling German family ofAnhalt, but held the rank of a Prussian general in his capacity as Governor of the city of Stettin (nowSzczecin, Poland). Born as Sophia Augusta Fredericka (German: Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, nicknamed "Figchen") in Stettin, Pomerania, two of her first cousins becameKings of Sweden: Gustav III and Charles XIII. In accordance with the custom then prevailing in the ruling dynasties of Germany, she received her education chiefly from a French governess and from tutors. Catherine's childhood was quite uneventful. She herself once wrote to her correspondent Baron Grimm: "I see nothing of interest in it." Although Catherine was born a princess, her family had very little money. Catherine was to come to power based on her mother's relations to wealthy members of royalty.
The choice of Sophia as wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, resulted from some amount of diplomatic management in which Count Lestocq, Peter's aunt (the ruling Russian Empress Elizabeth), and Frederick II of Prussia took part. Lestocq and Frederick wanted to strengthen the friendship between Prussia and Russia in order to weaken Austria's influence and ruin the Russian chancellor Bestuzhev, on whom Empress Elizabeth relied, and who acted as a known partisan of Russo-Austrian co-operation. Catherine first met Peter III at the age of ten. Based on her writings, she found Peter detestable upon meeting him. She disliked his pale complexion and his fondness for alcohol at such a young age.
|Young Catherine soon after her arrival in Russia, by Louis Caravaque|
The diplomatic intrigue failed, largely due to the intervention of Sophia's mother, Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Historical accounts portray her as a cold, abusive woman who loved gossip and court intrigues. Johanna's hunger for fame centred on her daughter's prospects of becoming empress of Russia, but she infuriated Empress Elizabeth, who eventually banned her from the country for spying for King Frederick of Prussia. The Empress knew the family well: she herself had intended to marry Princess Johanna's brother Charles Augustus (Karl August von Holstein), who had died of smallpox in 1727 before the wedding could take place. Nonetheless, Empress Elizabeth took a strong liking to the daughter, who on arrival in Russia 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 (even though she mastered the language, she retained an accent). This led to a severe attack of pneumonia in March 1744. When she wrote her memoirs, she said she made up her mind when she came to Russia to do whatever was necessary, and to profess to believe whatever was required of her, to become qualified to wear the crown.
|Portrait by George Christoph Grooth of the Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseyevna around the time of her wedding, 1745.|
Princess Sophia's father, a devout German Lutheran, opposed his daughter's conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy. Despite his objection, on 28 June 1744 the Russian Orthodox Church received Princess Sophia as a member with the new name Catherine (Yekaterina or Ekaterina) and the (artificial)patronymic Алексеевна (Alekseyevna, daughter of Aleksey). On the following day the formal betrothal took place. The long-planned dynastic marriage finally occurred on 21 August 1745 at Saint Petersburg. Sophia had turned 16, her father did not travel to Russia for the wedding. The bridegroom, known then as Peter von Holstein-Gottorp, had become Duke of Holstein-Gottorp (located in the north-west of present-day Germany near the border with Denmark) in 1739.
As she recalls herself in her memoirs, as soon as she arrived in Russia she fell ill with a pleuritis which almost killed her. She says she owes her survival to frequent bloodletting; in one single day she had four phlebotomies. Her mother, being opposed to this practice, fell into the Empress' disfavour. When her situation looked desperate, her mother wanted her confessed by a Lutheran priest; she however, awaking from her delirium, said: "I don't want any Lutheran; I want my orthodox father." This raised her in the empress' esteem.
The newlyweds settled in the palace of Oranienbaum, which remained the residence of the "young court" for many years to come.
Count Andrei Shuvalov, chamberlain to Catherine, knew the diarist James Boswell well, and Boswell reports that Shuvalov shared private information regarding the monarch's intimate affairs. Some of these rumours included that Peter took a mistress (Elizabeth Vorontsova), while Catherine carried on liaisons with Sergei Saltykov, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov (1734–1783), Stanisław August Poniatowski, Alexander Vasilchikov, and others. She became friends with Princess Ekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova, the sister of her husband's mistress, who introduced her to several powerful political groups that opposed her husband. Peter III's temperament became quite unbearable for those who resided in the palace. He would announce trying drills in the morning to male servants who would later join Catherine in her room to sing and dance until late hours. Catherine became pregnant with her second child, Anna, who would only live to be four months old, in 1759. Due to various rumours of Catherine's promiscuity, Peter was led to believe that he was not the child's biological father and is known to have proclaimed, "Go to the devil!" when Catherine angrily dismissed his accusation. She thus spent much of this time alone in her own private boudoir to hide away from Peter's abrasive personality.
Of the period before her accession to the Russian throne, Catherine said: "Happiness and unhappiness are in the heart and spirit of each one of us: If you feel unhappy, then place yourself above that and act so that your happiness does not get to be dependent on anything.'"
Catherine's apparent whole-hearted adoption of all things Russian (including Orthodoxy) may have prompted her personal indifference to religion. She did not allow dissenters to build chapels, and she suppressed religious dissent after the onset of the French Revolution.
Politically, Catherine exploited Christianity in her anti-Ottoman policy, promoting the protection and fostering of Christians under Turkish rule. She placed strictures on Roman Catholics (ukaz of 23 February 1769), mainly Polish, and attempted to assert and extend state control over them in the wake of the partitions of Poland. Nevertheless, Catherine's Russia provided an asylum and a base for re-grouping to the Society of Jesus following thesuppression of the Jesuits in most of Europe in 1773.
Catherine took many different approaches to Islam during her reign. Between 1762 and 1773, Muslims were actively prohibited from owning any Orthodox serfs. They were also pressured into Orthodoxy through monetary incentives. Catherine promised more serfs of all religions, as well as amnesty for convicts, if Muslims chose to convert to Orthodoxy. However, the Legislative Commission of 1767 offered several seats to people professing the Islamic faith. This Commission promised to protect their religious rights, but did not do so. Many Orthodox peasants felt threatened by the sudden change, and burned mosques as a sign of their displeasure. Catherine chose to assimilate Islam into the state rather than eliminate it when public outcry against equality got too disruptive. After the "Toleration of All Faiths" Edict of 1773, Muslims were permitted to build mosques and practice all of their traditions, the most obvious of these being the pilgrimage to Mecca, which had been denied previously. Catherine created the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly to help regulate Muslim-populated regions, as well as regulate the instruction and ideals of Mullahs. The positions on the Assembly were appointed and paid for by Catherine and her government, as a way of regulating the religious affairs of her nation.
In 1785 Catherine approved the subsidisation of new mosques and new town settlements for Muslims. This was another attempt to organise and passively control the outer fringes of her country. By building new settlements with mosques placed in them, Catherine attempted to ground many of the nomadic people that wandered through southern Russia. In 1786 Catherine assimilated the Islamic schools into the Russian public school system, to be regulated by the government. The plan was another attempt to force nomadic people to settle. This allowed the Russian government to control more people, especially those who previously had not fallen under the jurisdiction of Russian law.
Russia often treated Judaism as a separate entity, where Jews were maintained with a separate legal and bureaucratic system. Although the government knew that Judaism existed, Catherine and her advisers had no real definition of what a "Jew" is, since the term meant many things during her reign.Judaism was a small, if not nonexistent, religion in Russia until 1772. When Catherine agreed to the First Partition of Poland, Jews were treated as a separate people, defined by their religion. In keeping with their treatment in Poland, Catherine allowed the Jews to separate themselves from Orthodox society, with certain restrictions. She levied additional taxes on the followers of Judaism; if a family converted to the Orthodox faith, that additional tax was lifted.Jewish members of society were required to pay double the tax of their Orthodox neighbours. Converted Jews could gain permission to enter the merchant class and farm as free peasants under Russian rule.
In an attempt to assimilate the Jews into Russia’s economy, Catherine included them under the rights and laws of the Charter of the Towns of 1782.While this presented some benefits for Jews—they received recognition as equals to any Orthodox citizen—many people attempted to take advantage of this equality. Orthodox Russians disliked the inclusion of Judaism, mainly for economic reasons; many Jews were bankers and merchants. Catherine tried to keep the Jews away from certain economic spheres, even with a ruse of equality; in 1790, she banned Jewish citizens from Moscow’s middle class.
In 1785 Catherine declared that Jews were officially foreigners, with foreigners’ rights. This reestablished the separate identity that Judaism maintained in Russia throughout the Jewish period of failed assimilation. Catherine’s decree also denied Jews the rights of an Orthodox or naturalised citizen of Russia. Taxes doubled again for those of Jewish descent in 1794, and Catherine officially declared that Jews bore no relation to Russians.
|Portrait of Catherine II the Legislatress in the Temple Devoted to the Goddess of Justice, by Dmitry Levitsky|