Catherine the Great's attempts to westernize and modernize Russia were ambitious and initially successful but failed to have much of a lasting impact. Even before she assumed power, Catherine was already considered one of the most enlightened members of the Russian court and was well-regarded by her supporters for her...
Catherine the Great's attempts to westernize and modernize Russia were ambitious and initially successful but failed to have much of a lasting impact. Even before she assumed power, Catherine was already considered one of the most enlightened members of the Russian court and was well-regarded by her supporters for her liberal ideas. Upon assuming power, she quickly set about continuing many of the reforms begun by Peter the Great a generation earlier.
One of her earliest reforms was to secularize the property of the clergy. This was no small task as the church owned about one-third of Russia's territory, including the serfs who worked the land. As such, the power and political influence of the Russian Orthodox Church was greatly reduced.
Catherine greatly wanted to institute a constitution based on the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers from western Europe. However, despite her best intentions, the various factions in Russia were unable to come to any substantive agreement and the idea never developed into a reality.
Catherine did do much to modernize Russia. Scores of new cities and town were built during her reign. Public infrastructure projects abounded as well, including new waterworks and roads as well as industrial projects. However, many of these efforts only ended up benefiting a small portion of the overall population.
Upon assuming the throne, Catherine had made clear her desire to liberate the nation's serfs. She felt that serfdom was an inhumane institution and that freeing this population would help bring Russia into the modern world and align it with the other nations of Europe. However, she soon learned the realities of the situation when she witnessed just how important the support of the nobility was during the 1773-75 uprising led by Yemelyan Pugachov. This episode convinced Catherine that the masses could be dangerous if not controlled by a loyal and powerful military and nobility. Consequently, she abandoned her plans to liberate the serfs. In fact, she completely reversed course by extending serfdom over the formerly free population of Ukrainians and took away what few freedoms the serfs had enjoyed up until then.
In short, even though Catherine the Great made a number of significant attempts and modernizing Russia, many of these fell far short of her original intentions and had little lasting legacy.