Famous Russian Women

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great (1729-96), empress of Russia (1762-96), the second of that name, who continued the process of Westernization begun by Peter the Great and made Russia a European power. Originally named Sophie Fredericke Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, Catherine was born in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) on May 2, 1729, the daughter of a minor German prince. In 1745, she married Grand Duke Peter of Holstein, heir to the Russian throne. The marriage was an unhappy one, but the intelligent and ambitious Catherine soon managed to build up a circle of supporters in Saint Petersburg. In 1754 she gave birth to a son, the future emperor Paul. Catherine's husband succeeded to the throne as Peter III in 1762. Erratic, unstable, and contemptuous of his Russian subjects, he soon alienated several important groups in Russian society. On July 9, 1762, following a pattern well established in 18th-century Russia, the Imperial Guards overthrew him and placed Catherine on the throne in his stead.

Catherine and the Enlightenment Catherine was well acquainted with the literature of the French Enlightenment, which was an important influence on her own political thinking. She corresponded extensively with Voltaire and Denis Diderot, gave financial support to them and a number of other French writers, and played host to Diderot at her court in 1773. Although this activity was partly aimed at creating a favorable image in Western Europe, she was probably sincere in her interest and her hope to apply some of the ideas of the Enlightenment to rationalize and reform the administration of the Russian Empire. Despite her interest in legal reform, however, the commission she appointed for that purpose in 1767 failed to accomplish its goals. Among Catherine's more benevolent achievements were the foundation of the first Russian schools for girls and of a medical college to provide health care for her subjects. In the early years of her reign, Catherine sought to win the support of the Russian gentry, and, in particular, of a small group of nobles. She confirmed Peter III's emancipation of the gentry from compulsory military service, granted them many other privileges, and showered her supporters with titles, offices, state lands, and serfs to work their fields. Thus, despite a professed abhorrence for serfdom, she did much to expand that institution by transferring state-owned serfs to private landowners, extending serfdom to newly acquired territories, and greatly increasing the legal control of the gentry over their serfs.

Later Conservatism Peasant unrest culminated in a great revolt (1773-75), led by the cossack Yemelyan Pugachov, that raged over much of the Volga River Basin and the Urals before it was finally crushed by military force. The revolt marked a turn toward a more reactionary internal policy. The cossack army was disbanded, and other cossacks were granted special privileges in an effort to transform them into loyal supporters of the autocracy. In 1775 a major reform of provincial administration was undertaken in an effort to ensure better control of the empire. A major reform of urban administration was also promulgated. The French Revolution increased Catherine's hostility toward liberal ideas. Several outspoken critics of serfdom such as Nikolay I. Novikov and Aleksandr N. Radishchev, were imprisoned, and Catherine seems to have been planning to join a European coalition against France when she died on November 17, 1796, in St. Petersburg. Under Catherine, the territory of the Russian Empire was greatly expanded. As a result of two wars against the Ottoman Empire (1768-74 and 1787-91) and the annexation of the Crimea (1783), Russia gained control of the northern coast of the Black Sea. Russian control over Poland-Lithuania was also greatly extended, culminating in the annexation of large tracts of territory in the three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, 1795).

Character of the Reign One characteristic of Catherine's reign was the important role played by her lovers, or favorites. Ten men occupied this semiofficial position, and at least two, Grigory Orlov and Grigory Potemkin, were important in formulating foreign and domestic policy. Although assessments of Catherine vary, she undoubtedly played a key role in the development of Russia as a modern state.