Catherine II/The Great (1729-1796)
(Sophie Augusta Frederica of Anhalt-Zerbst)
Empress of Russia (1762-1796).
Catherine II (born Sophie Augusta) was born on 21 April, 1729 in Shtettin and died on 6 November, 1796 in St. Petersburg. She was descended from the North-West German noble family. Her genealogical tree goes back to Christian I, the king of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, the first Shlezvig-Holshtain Duke. Her maternal uncle, Adolph Fridrikh, was the king of Sweden. Nowadays his ancestors sit on the Swedish throne.
In her childhood, she studied German and French languages, history, geography, theology and took dancing and music lessons. Being a little girl, Catherine showed an independent character, persistence, vivacity of mind and inclination to outdoor games.
In 1744 she went to Russia at the invitation of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna (the daughter of Peter I) as the bride of the heir to the throne, Peter Feodorovich. She was christened according to orthodox custom under the name of Catherine Alekseevna.
In 1745 Catherine and Peter Feodorovich were married. At that time Catherine was sixteen and Peter Feodorovich was seventeen. Both of them would have to become Russian. Peter III as Catherine was called to Russia in 1742 by his aunt Elizaveta Petrovna who proclaimed him the heir to the throne. During the first eight years of their marriage there were not any matrimonial relationships between the newly-weds. Feeling a complete indifference from her husband and surrounded with evil-wishers, Catherine read a lot, acquainting herself with works on history, economy, jurisprudence, and the works by French enlighteners; she also studied Russian language, the history of Russia and Russian customs. Unlike Russian ladies, Catherine was a hardworking person: she washed her clothes, made coffee, liked to work in the garden, skillfully embroidered and sometimes was engaged in ivory carving.
Russian court treated Catherine mercilessly. The young German girl found herself in the midst of court life, with its intrigues, gossip, and flirtation. Without having support from any side, she very soon understood, that a difficult life is ahead of her and she supported herself with an ambitious dream about the Russian crown. According to different sources, she also suffered from the tyranny of Elizaveta Petrovna, who didn't allow her to take a step without her permission, to have ink and pens, or even to move furniture in her room. Almost every word she uttered was overheard and reported to Elizaveta Petrovna. She could communicate with her family only through the foreign ministry. The Empress and her husband insulted her very often, but she didn't show her suffering and never complained about the humiliation heaped upon her.
Catherine had the definite aim to become the Empress of Russia and she was ready to endure everything on the way to the Russian crown. She understood that the only way to realize her dream was to become a Russian and to be loved by Russians. That is why she industriously studied the Russian language and tried to adopt the habits of Russian court.
In 1754 Catherine gave birth to a son, the future Emperor Pavel I. The newly born was taken away from his mother as state property and was shown to her only after forty days.
The illness of Elizaveta Petrovna and her husband's indifference (he didn't even try to conceal his liaison with E.R. Vorontsova) could become the reason of Catherine's deportation. Meanwhile her ostentatious piety, her reasonableness, her sincere love for Russia didn't pass unnoticed and helped her to gain authority among nobility and common people. On the contrary, the behavior of Peter III excited indignation. During the period of his living in Russia, he never tried to study Russian culture or Russian history; he despised Russian people and Russian customs. All these facts were well known and Peter III didn't enjoy authority over Russian society. The French ambassador Mr. Breteille who lived in St.-Petersburg at that time wrote in his memoirs: "the Empress is loved and respected by all people whereas Peter is hated and despised."
Trying to strengthen her shaky situation, Catherine secretly joined in a conspiracy with N.I. Panin, K.G. Razumovsky, brothers Orlovy, E.R. Dashkova and on 28 of June she brought about a bloodless palace revolution. In the barracks of Izmalovsky regiment Catherine was proclaimed the Empress of Russia.
The news of Catherine's coming to the throne spread throughout St.-Petersburg. All citizens of the town triumphed and welcomed Catherine. Peter III began to send messengers to Catherine, trying to carry on negotiations, but all his attempts were unsuccessful. Very soon Catherine received his abdication in a written form.
Catherine's reign lasted 34 years. In all she did, she tried to emulate Peter I. In the beginning of her reign, Catherine carried out the Senate reformation (1763) that fundamentally improved the working of this institution; fulfilled the secularization of church lands (or conversion to secular property, 1764) that helped to enlarge the state treasury and improve matters of peasants; liquidated hetmanship in Ukraine; invited to Russia German colonists for the development of the Volga region, promising them defense by law, freedom of faith and tax benefits.
In 1785 Catherine worked out the following documents: the letters patent to nobility and the letters patent to towns. These documents regulated the structure of Russian society that was divided into five classes: nobility, lower middle classes, merchant class, priesthood and serfs. The letters patent to nobility confirmed all privileges of this class whereas peasants were becoming more and more dependent. Some historians of Russia suppose that Catherine is guilty of institutional serfdom. At the same time Catherine stood against serfdom but she couldn't do anything concrete in this sphere because she was afraid of riot and revolution from the nobility.
Catherine was quiet a good psychologist, she skillfully selected co-workers and wasn't afraid of bright and talented people. That is why the period of Catherine's rule is notable for a great amount of outstanding statesmen, famous commanders, talented writers and artists. Among her co-workers and consultants there were such talented people as prince Vyazemsky, the well-known Russian poet G.R. Derzhavin, brilliant military leaders P.A. Rumyantsev, A.V. Suvorov, F.F. Ushakov and G.A. Potyomkin, great diplomats as N.I. Panin and A.A. Bezborodko and others.
Historians and publicists continue to this day the discussion of Catherine's favorites. It's however an unquestionable fact that only those of her multiple favorites played a significant role in the state life, who were suitable for this purpose (G.A. Potyomkin, P.V. Zavadovsky). Others had a place only in the internal chambers of the Empress.
The time of Catherine's rule was a time of awakening of scientific, literary, and philosophic interests in Russian society. In Catherine's time many special schools and new institution of higher learning were inaugurated, including military schools and the first educational institution for women - the Smolny institute. The first public library was also inaugurated at that time in St.-Petersburg.
Catherine dedicated much time to the writing of all kinds of notes. She wrote instructive tales for children, romantic plays and even wrote the biography of St. Sergey Radonezhsky. Her writings include 12 large volumes, quite important as a historical source. She was in correspondence with Voltaire and other French enlighteners.
Catherine died on 6 November, 1796, at the age of 67. In the period of her rule the territory of Russia considerably increased. As a result of Russian-Turkish wars (1768-1774 and (1787-1791), Russia gained access to the Black Sea that guaranteed profitable conditions for trade. The territories of Kuban, Crimea, the North coast of the Black Sea, and Georgia were joined to Russia. Population increased from 19 to 34 million people, the sum of annual revenue increased from 16 to 68 million rubles, and 144 new towns were built. The Russian Army and Fleet gained 78 brilliant victories that consolidated international authority of Russia. The words "Russia" and "Russians" were uttered with profound respect first of all by the Empress Catherine II, who aspired to prove the exclusiveness and greatness of Russians for all her life.