Catherine the Great was born the daughter of a German Prince on 2nd May 1729 and died in 1796 as the Empress of Russia. Catherine’s reign is often referred to as the Golden Age of Russia as she successfully expanded her borders, maintained friendly relations with Europe’s leading powers, encouraged Enlightened thinkers and won strategic battles. Many believe the myth that she died during an intimate moment with a horse which stems from her active sex life,yet she did far more for Russia than produce court gossip…
1) Catherine’s birth name was Sophie Friederike Auguste Von Anhalt-Zerbst but changed her name to Catherine in 1744 when she moved to Russia to marry Peter, grandson to Peter the Great, the heir to the throne and converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity.
2) The rumours of her sex life spread quickly through the court. She was very sexually active and took many lovers. She was very open about that part of her life and it is rumoured that none of the children she had whilst married to Peter were legitimate.
3) Empress Elizabeth died during Russia’s Seven Year War against the Prussians. The new Tsar, Peter III was deeply unpopular and made enemies amongst the military, government and clergy alike. He attempted to make a deal with the Prussians with the intent of removing Catherine yet she had the support of the army and the population. Peter was forced to abdicate and Catherine was proclaimed Empress of Russia in 1762. He soon died suspiciously in prison a few days later.
4) She won a great victory against Turkey in 1774. This inspired a surge in patriotism throughout Russia which helped her squash a Cossack uprising of the same year.
5) During her reign, Catherine reduced the power of the clergy and maintained friendly relations with France, Prussia and Austria. She also reformed one of the most archaic systems in Russia: the legal system. The new system promoted equal treatment of all people under the law and switched the focus from harsh punishment to crime prevention.
6) As an Enlightenment ruler, driven by the desire to offer the best for her people, she promoted westernisation and modernization throughout the country. Through tactical battles she was also able to expand Russia’s borders to the Black Sea and further into central Europe.
7) Catherine was a great patron of the arts and education and even wrote a guide detailing the eduction of noble women in 1764. She wrote on a wide range of genres including comedies and fiction whilst also supporting rising French talent such as Voltaire. Under her reign, St Petersburg became one of Europe’s major centres of culture and music and theatre prospered.
8) To encourage economic growth, Catherine promoted underpopulated areas of Russia as ideal locations for settlement in order to attract foreign investment.
9) Catherine was known as a ‘friend of Enlightenment’ yet when the French Revolution challenged the divine right of royalty and questioned the aristocracy she felt threatened. She had no intention of giving up her autocratic rule.
10) For all her Enlightened ideas, Catherine did nothing to encourage the emancipation of the serfs. She understood that her security and power stemmed from the nobility and if she were to take away serfdom, the stability of her rule would be exceedingly uncertain.