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Who Was Catherine the Great?

By Alison McAdams
Updated May 23, 2024
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Ekaterina II of Russia (21 April 1729 — 6 November 1796), called Catherine the Great, was the Romanov Tsarina of Russia from June 28, 1762 until her death in 1796. Born in Stettin, Pomerania, to petty German nobility, Catherine the Great married the Romanov crown prince Peter, grandson of Peter the Great, in 1745. By the time Peter was crowned Peter III of Russia in 1762, Catherine had been influenced by French Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu, Diderot, and Voltaire.

Unhappy in her marriage and alienated from the Russian court, she quickly allied with the Enlightened political groups in Russia that opposed her husband's accession. Catherine the Great and her lover, Grigori Orlov, deposed Peter only months after he took the throne. Catherine was promptly crowned Tsarina and shortly thereafter Peter was murdered by her loyalists.

Initially it appeared that Catherine would bring the Enlightenment to Russia. She quickly drafted a liberal set of laws that freed the serfs, indentured peasants comprising roughly 49% of the total population of Russia. Within two years, however, she disbanded the commission that was established to enact it. Such sudden progressive reforms may have been premature; in the 1760s, Russia's population was entrenched in an class system that had developed over several centuries. Only 2% of the population could read.

Catherine the Great expanded Russia over 200,000 square miles (518,000 sq. km) through wars and annexation. She acquired Crimea, won two wars against the Ottoman Empire, and secured shipping access to the Black Sea. She also procured about a third of Poland's land and people by negotiations with Austria and Prussia.

Catherine was an avid writer, librettist, and generous patron of the arts and education. She assembled an impressive art collection, built the first Russian school for girls in 1769, and encouraged book publishing. She also built plazas, monuments. and an art academy to Westernize Russia's image.

In 1774, Catherine put down a Cossack rebellion lead by Emilian Pugachev, a soldier who had instituted a parallel government founded on granting freedom to the serfs. Pugachev's defeat signaled a sweeping change in Catherine's domestic policy. She created new district divisions and decentralized control to regional administrations. The Tsarina accorded nobles new privileges that gave them absolute power over their serfs.

When Catherine the Great died of a stroke in 1796, her son, Paul assumed the throne. Paul I of Russia ruled for only four years until he was murdered by soldiers and his first son, Alexander, claimed the throne.

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Discussion Comments
By anon262862 — On Apr 21, 2012

Was Catherine mother to Nicholas II or how long after her did he come?

By anon254311 — On Mar 12, 2012

Why was it difficult for her to promote reform? What were the effect of these reforms on each nation? What reforms did she neglect? Why did she limit reforms? Why did she think she was an enlightened deposit?

By BostonIrish — On Jan 18, 2011

@Renegade

I recently watched a documentary in which she was portrayed as a thin, beautiful seductress, who had that kind of power over people. Personally, I found it to contrast drastically with her more full-bodied portrait. The show seemed to be making her out to be someone she wasn't.

By Renegade — On Jan 17, 2011

@arod2b42

I would disagree, I think that it is clear that Catherine was a feminine leader who was ahead of her time in terms of deciding to do things her own way. She was a skilled seductress who used her magnetic image to get things done, and forged a new path for Russia.

By arod2b42 — On Jan 15, 2011

Russia's history is littered with figureheads who were operating under the influence of invisible bureaucratic forces. The few leaders who really were leaders are men such as Ivan the Terrible, who hated the Boyars and wrenched power for himself through brilliant politics and caustic rhetoric. It doesn't seem that Catherine was as skilled in independence, coming to the throne at the age of 14, it is likely that she was guided by disloyal progressive political factions. Perhaps her compliance with them is what earned her the title of "Great," whereas Ivans autonomy earned him the title "Terrible."

By anon157 — On Apr 17, 2007

why was catherine the great called "great"?

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