Catherine the Great

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: One of the early englightened monarchs, Catherine attempted to create a uniform Russian government with a modern Westernized code of laws that represented all levels of Russian society with the exception of the serfs. In the forty-four years of her reign, she sculpted Russia into one of the great world powers of the time and laid the foundation for what would become modern Russia.

Early Life

Catherine the Great was born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst in Stettin, a seaport in Pomerania. Her parents, Prince Christian August and Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, were minor members of the German aristocracy. As a result of her strained relationship with her mother, Sophie developed into an independent young woman. Russian monarchs held the prerogative of choosing their successors, and her cousin Duke Karl Peter Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp had been summoned to Russia by the childless Empress Elizabeth as the heir to the throne. It only remained to find him a wife, and, after several months of searching, Elizabeth decided on Sophie, and both she and her mother were invited to Russia in January, 1744.

Elizabeth was pleased with her choice, and Peter fell in love with the princess. On June 28, 1744, Sophie converted to Russian Orthodoxy, was given the name Catherine, and on the following day the couple were publicly engaged. From the time he arrived in Russia, Peter, whose health was never good, had a series of illnesses which left him permanently scarred and most probably sterile. Their marriage, which occurred on August 21, 1745, was not consummated immediately and probably not at all.

Married to a man who displayed a mania for Prussian militarism and who preferred to play with toy soldiers and conduct military parades than be with her, Catherine was left to develop her own interests. She began to read, a pastime almost unheard of in the Russian court, and mastered the technique of riding astride, an activity in which she took great pleasure, often going for long rides. Neither interest could overcome the lack of an heir, which, as the empress pointed out to her on more than one occasion, was Catherine’s only reason for being. Starved for affection and more than a little aware that her position depended on producing a child, she took a lover, Sergei Saltykov. Twice she became pregnant and miscarried, but on September 20, 1754, Catherine delivered a male child, Paul Petrovich, who was probably the son of Saltykov.

The empress took control of the child from the moment he was delivered, and Catherine was once again left alone. Totally barred from any involvement in the political life of the court, she consoled herself with reading the works of such writers as Voltaire, Cornelius Tacitus, and Montesquieu. Saltykov was replaced by Count Stanislas August Ponistowski, and, in 1761, she met and fell in love with Count Grigory Orlov. During this time her husband’s behavior became more and more eccentric. Russia was at war with Prussia, yet Peter made no secret of his pro-Prussian sentiments, even going so far as to supply Frederick II with information concerning Russian troop movements.

Elizabeth died in December, 1761, leaving Catherine’s husband, Peter III, as the new emperor. Catherine was six months pregnant with Orlov’s child at the time, a son who was born in April, 1762, but no one really noticed. Peter III immediately ended the war with Prussia and then allied himself with Prussia to make war on Denmark, declaring himself more than willing to serve Frederick II. Added to this insult to Russian patriotism, Peter outraged the Church by reviling Russian Orthodox ritual and by ordering the secularizing of church estates and the serfs bound to those estates. Most important to his final overthrow, he offended the elite Guards, dressing them in uniforms that were completely Prussian in appearance and constantly taunting the men.

In June, 1762, Catherine, with the support of the powerful Orlov family and the Guards, acted. In a bloodless coup, she seized the crown in St. Petersburg and published a manifesto claiming the throne. Dressed in a Guard’s uniform and astride her stallion Brilliant, she led her troops against her deposed husband in his stronghold at Peterhoff. He offered his abdication, and, with its acceptance, Catherine became Empress of Russia.

Life’s Work

Catherine began her reign by declaring that she had acted only because it was the will of the people. Aware that she had come to the throne by the might of the powerful Orlov family and with the backing of the Guards, she realized the need not to antagonize the nobility or the Church. As a result, her manifesto justifying her seizure of the throne explained her actions as needed to establish the correct form of government, an autocracy acting in accord with Russian Orthodoxy, national custom, and the sentiment of the Russian people. While her words were a welcome relief from the brief reign of Peter III, her actions were not unilaterally accepted—after all she was a German by birth and had no blood claim to the throne, even if she was ultimately claiming it for her son. To complicate matters, Peter III died, in all probability murdered at the behest of the Orlovs, and in 1764 Ivan VI, himself deposed by Elizabeth, was killed...

(The entire section is 2192 words.)