Catherine II the Great - Biography

Recognized worldwide as a noteworthy historical figure, Catherine the Great was one of the most prominent rulers of Russia and a figure deserving of admiration. During her rule from 1762 to 1796 the Russian Empress Catherine II made such progress in political power that it is hard to find similar examples in world history. She expanded the territory of the Russian Empire and improved its administration, following the policy of Westernization. She was reputed to be an 'enlightened despot,' however she was also praised for her generosity and humanity. Many historians associate her with all the significant events and trends in Russia's expanding world role. Though she always rejected the appellation 'the Great,' it endured. She was often compared to Peter the Great. One of her contemporaries described the essence of her rule, saying that Peter the Great created people in Russia, and Catherine put her heart into them. She reformed Russia gradually and calmly finished what Peter had done forcibly. Prince Pyotr Vyazemsky described the different approaches of these two outstanding sovereigns as follows: the Russian man wanted Russians to become Germans, and the German lady tried to make them Russians again.

Sophia Frederica Augusta was born in Germany, in the city of Stettin in Prussian Pomerania, on 2 May 1729 into the family of Christian Augustus, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst. She spent her youth, which she always remembered with pleasure, in an atmosphere of intelligence, passion for knowledge and good humor, but also austerity. Her father was very religious and strict. He enjoyed the title of prince, but was also a commanding officer of a regiment of the Prussian army. Catherine’s mother, Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, was very self-willed. She originated from the family of Holstein-Gottorp and was related to the monarchs of Prussia, Denmark and Sweden. She brought Catherine up in a most severe manner. Later Catherine herself recollected that she was always ready to get a slap in the face from her mother. Princess Sophia lived until her fifteenth birthday in Stettin. She occasionally visited Hamburg with her mother and spent her summers in Brunswick and Berlin.

In 1743 she was introduced into the Lutheran Church at the desire of her mother, though she easily changed her religion to the Russian Orthodox faith soon after her marriage to the Russian Prince Peter. Her parents were very concerned that their daughter marry and make a good match.

In 1744 Catherine’s mother received an invitation from Empress Elizabeth of Russia to visit the country with her daughter, which meant she was planning to marry the heir to the Russian throne, Peter, to Catherine. However, Catherine had already met her husband to-be, who was one of her cousins. He was only 11 when they were introduced, but he was already reputed to be addicted to alcohol. Catherine didn’t experience any affection for her cousin, but was ready to obey her parents’ decision. Moreover, she realized that marrying the heir to the Russian throne would open the door to a most brilliant life, so coveted by the young and ambitious princess. Sophia followed Peter to Russia in 1744, where she was converted to Orthodoxy and renamed Catherine. She was one year younger than Peter Fedorovich, the nephew of Elizabeth, the then reigning monarch of Russia. Their marriage was decided upon by their respective families.

The two were absolutely incompatible with each other. Still, Catherine tried to keep up appearances in front of the court and was patient with her silly and eccentric husband, as long as such pretence served her ambitious purposes. These two people unfortunately brought together by circumstances were destined to break up. Catherine, unlike her husband, was a woman of great talent, intelligence and ambition. Her strong and masculine mind, so eager to learn, had been trained and developed with all the learning and accomplishments of the age. She came to Russia with the intention of achieving a memorable career. Her husband, on the contrary, had an unstable personality, tempestuous, devoid of talent, and his education had been totally neglected. His disposition was good, but his mind was uncultivated. He constantly felt the superiority of his more gifted spouse. To add to this, Catherine had a graceful and beautifully proportioned figure. Peter’s inferiority was the first step to their mutual dislike, which led to fatal results for Peter.

Peter soon started cheating on Catherine, and she repaid in kind having her own favorites. Whether Peter was the father of Paul and Anna, the two children recorded as their offspring, remains a murky question, as five years of marriage brought no pregnancy and some said Peter could not have children.

One of Catherine’s ardent passions was Sergey Saltykov, the prince’s chamberlain. He had been a favorite among the ladies of the court, and he attempted to win Catherine’s affections. A handsome man with graceful manners, Saltykov won Catherine’s love. According to some historians, Catherine was advised to conceive an heir with Saltykov, and Paul, who after Catherine’s death became Emperor Paul I, was presumably fathered by him and raised by Empress Elizabeth. Two other favorites, Grigory Orlov and Stanislaw August Poniatowski, are said to have fathered two additional children - a boy and a girl that only lived sixteen months - who were never publicly acknowledged.

Although most of these men came from distinguished families and had outstanding political careers (Stanislaw Ponyatowski, for example, became the king of Poland in 1764), none used his status close to the Empress to affect state policy, with the exception of Grigory Potemkin, with whom Catherine was deeply in love in the mid-1770s and whom, a significant number of experts believe, she married secretly in 1774. Her last favorite was said to be the young and eccentric Platon Zubov. None of the men she had ever been devoted to was devoid of his title or his fortune after his relationship with Catherine ended. On the contrary, she scattered wealth and titles among them.

Although love was an important part of Catherine's life, it did not overshadow her everlasting learning process and political interests. A sharp-witted and educated young woman, she read widely, particularly in French, which was at that time the first language of educated Europeans. She liked novels, plays and verse but was particularly interested in the writings of the major figures of the French Enlightenment such as Diderot and Voltaire. She spoke German, French and Russian. Catherine worked hard to master the Russian language, though she never managed to totally lose her accent. Catherine spelled badly but read, wrote and spoke Russian well. She quickly absorbed Russian culture, mastering the customs and history of the empire. The most literate ruler in Russian history, Catherine constantly patronized cultural life; in particular a flurry of satirical journals and comedies were published anonymously with her significant participation. Extensive traveling demonstrated in Catherine a great thirst for exploring the empire. She also knew to demonstrate devotion to the Russian Orthodox faith and the Russian state.

An instinctive politician, she cultivated friendships among the court elite. But her road to the Russian throne was thorny. ...

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