Catherine II, or Catherine the Great, empress of Russia (1762-96), did
much to transform Russia into a modern country. Originally named Sophie
Fredericke Augusta, she was born in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland), on May
2, 1729, the daughter of the German prince of Anhalt-Zerbst. At the age of
15 she went to Russia to become the wife of Peter, nephew and heir of
Elizabeth died on Dec. 25, 1761, and Catherine’s husband succeeded as
PETER III. The new ruler soon made himself unpopular, especially with
certain army officers. Led by Aleksei ORLOV (whose brother Grigori was
Catherine’s lover), the officers staged a coup in June 1762. Peter was
deposed (and subsequentle murdered), and Catherine became absolute ruler of
the largest European empire, whose language she never learned to speak
correctly and without accent.
At the age of 33, Catherine was not only a handsome woman (whose
numerous love affairs dominate the popular accounts of her life), but also
unusually well read and deeply involved in the cultural trends of her age.
She was a tireless worker and knew how to select capable assistants–for
example, Nikita PANIN in foreign affairs, Aleksandr SUVOROV in the
military, and Grigory POTEMKIN in administration. Imbued with the ideas of
the Enlightenment, Catherine aimed at completing the job started by Peter
I–westernizing Russia–but she had different methods. Unlike Peter, she
did not forcibly conscript society into the service of the state, but
rather encouraged individual initiative in pursuit of self-interest. She
succeeded to a degree with the upper classes, but did nothing for the
overwhelming majority of the population–the enserfed peasantry.
To learn the needs of the country and to gain popularity, Catherine in
1767 convoked an assembly of deputies to draft a new code of laws (for
which she wrote the guidelines–the Nakaz, or Instruction). Not much came
of the venture. In 1773, Yemelian PUGACHEV led Cossacks, peasants, and
others in a revolt that engulfed large parts of eastern Russia. The revolt,
ruthlessly crushed by the army in 1775, alerted Catherine to the necessity
for reform. In 1775, she reorganized the local administration, integrated
the Cossacks into the regular army, and put the serfs belonging to the
Russian Orthodox church under the administration of the state. In 1785, she
issued two charters–to the towns and to the nobility–to involve the
educated classes in local administration in return for protection of their
status and property rights.
In a similar spirit, Catherine established (1765) the Free Economic
Society to encourage the modernization of agriculture and industry. She
promoted trade and the development of underpopulated regions by inviting
foreign settlers such as the Volga Germans, and she founded new towns
(Odessa, for example) and enterprises on the Black Sea. Herself a prolific
writer, Catherine patronized arts and letters, permitted the establishment
of private printing presses, and relaxed censorship rules. Under her
guidance the University of Moscow and the Academy of Sciences became
internationally recognized centers of learning; she also increased the
number of state and private schools. As a result, the Russian nobility (and
some townspeople) also began to organize associations for the promotion of
schools and publications. Catherine, who did not want to surrender control
over social and cultural policy, viewed these activities with suspicion.
The outbreak of the French Revolution (1789) and the publication of
Aleksandr Radishchev’s Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow (1790), in
which the author denounced the evils of serfdom, the immorality of society,
and the abuses of government, prompted Catherine to impose repressive
measures, which in turn alienated many of the educated.
Finally, Catherine vastly expanded the Russian empire. Following two
successful wars against Turkey (the RUSSO-TURKISH WARS of 1768-74 and
1787-92), Russia secured the Crimea and thus realized a centuries-old dream
of establishing itself on the north shore of the Black Sea. The fertile
lands of the Ukraine were also opened for settlement and soon became the
granary of Europe. Catherine also participated in the partitions of Poland
(1772, 1792, and 1795), bringing a large part of that country under Russian
By the time of Catherine’s death (Nov. 17, 1796), modern Russian
society was organized and its culture had struck firm roots. Russia was
also playing a determining role in world affairs.
Bibliography: Alexander, John T., Catherine the Great: Life and
Legend (1989); Cronin, Vincent, Catherine, Empress of All the
Russians (1978); Grey, Ian, Catherine the Great (1961; repr.
1975); Maroger, Dominique, ed., Memoirs of Catherine the Great,
trans. by M. Budberg (1961); Oldenbourg, Zoe, Catherine the
Great, trans. by Anne Carter (1965); Raeff, Marc, ed.,
Catherine the Great: A Profile (1972).