Catherine the Great was Empress of Russia between 9 July 1762 and November 17, 1796.
Catherine seized power from her husband, Peter III, in a coup d’etat and, seeing herself as an enlightened despot, reigned over what is regarded by many as a golden era of Russian enlightenment and expansion. She was famed not only for her leadership of Russia, but for her flamboyant approach to life and the number of lovers she took. This flamboyance gave rise to a number of legends, most notably (and almost certainly not true) that she died while having sex with a stallion.
Catherine’s Early Life
Catherine was one of the few Russian leaders to have been born outside of Russia. Her father, Prince Christian August, ruled the Prussian Principality of Anhalt-Dornbutg.
Born on 2 May 1729 as Sophie Freiderike Auguste, Catherine’s early life was a privileged one and, bright from an early age, she quickly developed a love of philosophy and literature. She also learned three languages – German, Russian and French.
Her mother, Princess Johanna Elizabeth, was well connected to royal families across Europe. She saw the opportunity to advance her family’s social standing by arranging a marriage for her young daughter.
So in 1745, at just 16 years of age, Catherine found herself married to the Grand Duke Peter, the equally young and inexperienced heir to the Russian throne.
The marriage was not a happy one and both Peter and Catherine were soon having affairs. Their marriage produced two children – a son, Paul (who would ultimately succeed Catherine as ruler of Russia), and a daughter, Anna. Given the state of the couple’s marriage, there is considerable doubt as to the legitimacy of both children.
When his mother, the Empress Elizabeth, died on 7 January 1762, Catherine’s husband Peter took the throne. His pro-Prussian tendencies (so strong that he called an end to a war with Prussia that Russia seemed to be winning) made him an unpopular leader, though, and his rule was to be very short-lived.
Seizing on discontent with Peter’s rule, Catherine plotted with nobles, including her lover Gregory Orlov, to undermine him. On learning that one of her allies had been arrested Catherine moved decisively and brought her plans forward.
With the support of troops from the Ismailovsky Regiment, on the night of the 28th June she arrested Peter and forced him to sign a document agreeing to abdicate. Within a few days, Peter was dead, killed by Alexei Orlov – brother of Catherine’s lover Gregory.
Catherine the Great – Empress of Russia
Despite being a foreigner, Catherine the Great of Russia proved a surprisingly popular ruler. Perhaps conscious of the need to constantly shore up support among the nobility, she was a pragmatic and often times populist leader of Russia.
In foreign affairs she oversaw a massive expansion of Russian territory. Dominance of Ukraine, the Crimea and the Black Sea was assured by comprehensive victories over the Ottoman Turks in the two Russo-Turkish Wars (1768-74 and 1787-92). The Polish-Russian War of 1792 led to the Partition of Poland and, together with victory in the Russo-Swedish war of 1788-1790, secured Russia’s Northern European flank.
Military success, combined with shrewd diplomacy, saw Russia gain recognition as one of Europe’s Great Powers. A commercial treaty with Great Britain was signed in 1766 and, perhaps inspired by Britain, Russia attempted to manage a balance of power in Europe by acting as an international mediator.
At the same time, expansion into Siberia brought increased wealth back home to Moscow, notably from the fur trade, and led to Russia beginning to develop friendly relations with Japan.
At home, Catherine’s interest in literature and the arts led to a flowering of culture and an increased emphasis on education in Russia. She also instituted financial reforms, including the foundation of Assignation Bank in 1769, which introduced the first paper money (known as Assignation Roubles) into Russia.
Conscious of the need to maintain stability and avoid the danger of peasant uprisings, Catherine became gradually more conservative during her reign.
She faced more than a dozen uprisings during the course of her reign. The Pugachev Rebellion (also widely known as the Cossack Rebellion) of 1773-75 is widely regarded as the largest rebellion in Russian history – serfs gathered to support Pugachev, who claimed he was Peter III, Catherine’s late husband.
In response, Catherine made some attempts to improve the lot of Russian serfs, notably giving them the right to take legal action against landowners who mistreated them. But, conscious of her relatively weak position, she avoided any dramatic reform and, instead, developed a stronger military presence throughout Russia that would be capable of responding to further uprisings.
Catherine the Great’s Lovers
Throughout her life, Catherine was renowned for her passionate nature. She in known to have taken many lovers including her early co-conspirator Gregory Orlov and the Russian statesman Gregory Potemkin.
Catherine’s lovers were usually handsomely rewarded during their affairs, often with land and titles, and she often stayed on good terms with her lovers after their affairs had ended. For example, Catherine provided the Polish Grand Duke Stanislaw Poniatowski, one of her earliest lovers, with the support needed to ensure his election as the King of Poland in 1764. Relationships didn’t always remain cordial, though. Poniatowski is a good example of this as well, as Catherine eventually forced him to abdicate.
Although it was relatively common for members of the Russian nobility to have multiple affairs Catherine’s promiscuity gave her political opponents plenty of opportunity to start damaging rumours – most notably the (almost certainly untrue) claim that proclaimed Catherine the Great had sex with a horse.
Catherine the Great’s Death
On the morning of 16 November 1796, Catherine was discovered collapsed on the floor of her dressing room. She had suffered a stroke and, despite efforts to revive her, fell into a coma. She died the following day.
Catherine’s relationship with her son Paul had never been good and it is believed that, in the months leading up to her death, Catherine had been planning to exclude Paul from the accession. Instead, she wanted to pass the throne directly to her grandson Alexander (who did later become Tsar Alexander I).
However, Catherine died before she could put her plans into effect and she was succeeded by her son Paul. One of Paul’s first acts as Emperor was to destroy any of Catherine’s documents about the succession.
Books about Catherine the Great
If you’re looking for a longer Catherine the Great biography, then we recommend starting with ‘Catherine the Great Portrait of a Woman by Robert K Massie’. This is available from Amazon.com in hardback, paperback, audio CD and Kindle ebook format.