Catherine the Great (Catherine II): Life, Reign & Death

Catherine II

Catherine II, Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796

Catherine the Great, also known as Catherine II, was an 18th-century Prussian-born princess that went on to become empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796. She took the throne after leading the 1762 palace coup d’état against her own husband, Peter III of Russia. Although her reign started off brilliantly with liberal ideas and the rule of law, Catherine gradually descended into an authoritarian ruler. The only consolation was that she was able to expand the boundaries of Russia southward into the Black Sea area.

As at the time of Catherine the Great’s death, in 1796, serfdom was even more prevalent, and freedoms and individual liberties in the Russian Empire were completely abysmal. The article below provides a comprehensive look at the ambitious life, reign, and accomplishments of Catherine the Great- Russia’s longest-ruling female monarch.

Birth and Early Childhood of Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great was born – on May 2, 1729 – in a small German principality called Anhalt-Zerbst (modern-day Szczecin, Poland). Her birth name was Sophie Friederike Auguste Prinzessin von Anhalt-Zerbst (Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst). Her parents were Christian August and Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Christian August was a prince of a small principality in Germany. He achieved enormous fame as a general serving under Frederick William I of Prussia. On the other hand, Johanna Elisabeth was a princess that hailed from the duchy of Holstein. Holstein was a region located in the southern part of present-day Germany.

Growing up, Catherine received significantly less attention than her younger brother, Wilhelm Christian. Her mother, Johanna, showered all her attention and motherly love on Wilhelm Christian. Catherine was left in the care of her governess, Babette. Sadly, Wilhelm Christian died when he was 12 years old.

Shortly after Wilhelm’s death, Johanna devised a scheme to use Catherine as a means to get into high and influential places across Europe, especially the courts of St. Petersburg. Johanna made good bond with Empress Elizabeth of Russia.  Catherine, on the other hand, could not wait to get married in order to break free from her mother’s control.

It was during one of such visits to the courts of St. Petersburg that Johanna and Empress Elizabeth of Russia decided to pair Sophie with the future emperor of Russia, the Grand Duke Peter (later Peter III).  Peter was the nephew of Empress Elizabeth. Technically speaking, Catherine and Peter were distant cousins themselves by virtue of Peter’s relationship to the duchy of Holstein-Gottorp.

Catherine II’s Marriage to the Grand Duke Peter, Future Emperor of Russia

Catherine the Great (Catherine II)

Catherine the Great’s husband, Tsar Peter III (1728-1762)

At the age of 15, on August 21, 1745, Catherine got married to Peter. In spite of her father’s apprehension, she accepted the Russian Orthodox faith in order to seal the union with Peter.

Upon her marriage to Peter, she was given the name Catherine Alekseyevna. Her full title became Grand Duchess Catherine Alekseyevna (or Ekaterina Alekseyevna). Catherine and Peter went on to have four children: Paul Petrovich (later Tsar Paul I, Emperor of Russia), Anna (1757-1759), Alexei (1762-1813), and Elizabeth Temkina (1775-1854).

Empress Elizabeth, Catherine’s aunt-in-law, took her under her wings and prepared her for her future role as empress consort of Russia. The two women kept a very close bond. However, Catherine’s relationship with her husband Peter was rocked by lots of indifference and scandals. Peter was believed to be a very neurotic, childish and uncaring young man. He was commonly described as a complete drunk, a womanizer and an idiot. He openly supported and adored Frederick II of Prussia- Empress Elizabeth’s greatest enemy.

Realizing how feeble-minded Peter was, the childless Elizabeth decided to focus more attention on Catherine. The young duchess was groomed to become a strong and ambitious empress consort.

The future empress spent most of her time reading extensively. She acted in ways that received the admiration of the Russian court and noblemen. She was also held in high regard by the public. Catherine was often described as charming, levelheaded and moderately beautiful.

However, both Catherine and Peter engaged in a series of extramarital affairs all throughout the course of their marriage. There were even rumors that Peter wasn’t the biological father of the four children that Catherine bore. Suspecting that her husband was close to divorcing her, Catherine started harboring ambitions of one day ruling Russia all by herself.

Catherine Becomes Empress Consort of Russia

On January 5, 1761, Empress Elizabeth passed away. The crown was passed on to her inept and very much unloved nephew, Peter. Catherine’s husband rose to become Peter III, Emperor of Russia. Catherine, by virtue of her marriage to Peter III, became empress consort of Russia.

Peter’s reign as emperor was a disastrous one. He was hardly fluent in Russian, and many viewed him as a pro-Prussia emperor. He allowed his Holstein relatives from Prussia dictate how his government should be run. At the time of Peter III’s coronation, Russia was in the process of dishing out a comprehensive defeat to Prussia during the Seven Years’ War.

Peter’s first act as emperor was to pull Russia out of the Seven Years’ War with Prussia. He formed a strong alliance with Frederick II of Prussia. He could barely hide his strong love for Prussia. By this time, the relationship he had with Catherine was strained at best. There were even rumors of him planning to send her packing or divorce her.

Catherine’s Alliance with the Military and the Russian Orthodox Church

Peter continued in his wayward rule. He dispossessed large parcels of lands and properties that belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church. He also lashed out at several ministers and high ranking officers in the Russian military. By so doing, he became an enemy of the noblemen and the military.

The Russian military then decided to sway towards Catherine. In her, they found someone who was capable of halting Peter III in his tracks and possibly overthrow him. Catherine entered into a very strong alliance with influential generals of the army, as well as the aggrieved priests from the Orthodox Church.

Unlike her husband, Catherine was expected to be a much more stable and liberal ruler. She attracted the support of the “enlightened” community as well.

When the time came for her to make the move, Catherine took it by the scruff and marched towards the tsar’s (emperor) palace.

The Palace Coup of July 8, 1762

With huge power bases in Moscow and St. Petersburg, empress consort Catherine marched her way through St. Petersburg and declared herself the new ruler of Russia. Her husband Peter III was forced to step down on July 8, 1762. Catherine and her fellow conspirators placed Peter III under house arrest at Ropsha.

Historians believe that Catherine’s palace coup was orchestrated in association with her lover, Alexei Grigoryevich Orlov— a high-ranking military official and a member of the Guards regiments stationed at St. Petersburg.

Less than two weeks into his captivity, on July 17, Peter III was gruesomely murdered. Autopsy results showed that Peter’s died from strangulation. Although Catherine claimed innocence, it is possible that either she or Orlov gave out the order for Peter III’s assassination. However, the public did not really care that much, neither did the military nor the Orthodox Church.

Catherine becomes Catherine II, Empress of Russia

At the start of the 1762 autumn, Catherine was enthroned Empress of Russia in a very spectacular coronation ceremony at Moscow. Sharply opposite to the policies of her late husband Peter III, Catherine adopted policies that rewarded the church and the military very handsomely. She also spoke fluent Russian, and she was seen as a very patriotic ruler. She returned previously seized lands to the Orthodox Church. Catherine also made the church a large and influential part of the state.

Catherine the Great’s Love Affair with Grigory Potemkin

After the death of her husband, Peter, the empress never remarried. It has been estimated that Catherine had about 12 different high and low profile affairs. The most significant of those affairs was the one with Grigory Potemkin.

Grigory was a loyal servant of Catherine. He was pivotal in securing vital wins against the Turks during Russia’s wars with Turkey in 1774 (the Russo-Turkish Wars). Catherine was taken aback by his bravery and intelligence, and soon the two were rumored to be lovers. Grigory’s reputation and economic gains skyrocketed due to this close relationship with the empress. As her trusted minister and advisor, Grigory had significant sway over the empress.

Furthermore, many of the grand projects that Catherine was associated with were supervised by Grigory himself. His astute diplomatic skill was crucial in drafting Catherine’s foreign affair policies. The two went on to maintain complete respect and admiration for each other for a very time.

In 1783, Grigory played a major role in helping Russia wrestle Crimea out the hands of the Ottomans. He had an insatiable appetite for Russia expansion and the acquisition of new territories. Russia’s boundaries encompassed areas in the Caucasus Mountains down to the northern parts of the Black Sea.

In a trip that was planned by Grigory himself, Catherine visited her newly acquired regions in Crimea in 1787. The event was attended by several allies of hers, which included the emperor of Austria and the king of Poland. Historians have often referred to this trip as “Cleopatra’s fleet”.

Catherine’s descent into an autocratic leadership

The uprisings in the southeast forced Catherine to have a complete rethink about her leadership style. Gradually, she abandoned her notions of freedom and liberty. Her grip on her people became increasingly firmer. She also abandoned the idea of liberating the serfs from noblemen. Any move against the noblemen- a staunch backer of her reign- would have resulted in catastrophic outcomes for the empress.

In newly conquered lands and places in Ukraine, Catherine allowed serfdom to perpetuate. She even introduced serfdom into places where serfdom was very alien.

Steadily, the plight of the peasants got worse by the day. Virtually all the lands in the empire were owned by those close to her. Her ministers were allowed to do whatever pleased them. Peasants, who made a significant portion of the Russian population, had their rights and freedoms drastically curtailed. Some were forced into labor camps, others died from biting economic suppression. The elites, which Catherine allowed to roam freely, consistently sponged off the peasants. Basically, it was the sweat and toils of the peasants that Catherine used to fund her military campaigns and interventions that benefited the rich and wealthy.

As at the time of her death, serfdom and peasants suppression was at an all-time high- higher than when she seized power from her husband.

Catherine the Great’s response to the French Revolution

To some extent, the events that were brewing in France during the French Revolution frightened Catherine. She had long professed her love for the philosophies of the Enlightenment Period; however, the idea of her abdicating her throne never once crossed her mind. She was ready to fight tooth and nail in order to keep the status quo of divine right and rule. She once said, “I am an aristocrat, it is my profession.”

Russian Empress Catherine paid close attention to the events; she was taken aback upon hearing the news of the gruesome execution of Louis XVI of France. She constantly worried that the French Revolution could kick start a revolution in her own empire. This was because Catherine had very little faith in her son, Paul- the heir to the throne. She doubted his ability to keep the Russian empire together, long after she was gone.

Catherine the Great’s death and Successor

After sustaining a fall in her bathroom, due to a stroke, Catherine died peacefully in her bed on November 17, 1796. She died at the Winter Palace in Pushkin, Russia.

She was 67. Her body was laid to rest close to her husband, Peter III, at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. Her only son, and heir to the throne, Paul ascended to the throne.

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