Catherine II of Russia
Catherine II of Russia who is commonly referred as Catherine the Great was the Russian Empress from 1762 until her death in 1796. Catherine’s real names were “Yekaterina II Velikaya”. She was in the category of the “Enlightened despots” who were rulers influenced by the enlightened principles that embraced religious tolerance, freedom of speech, press and property.
Catherine was born as Sophie Augusta Fredirica to her father Christian August., the Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst and her mother Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein Gottorp. She thus was from a noble family. She received her education from a French governess and included other tutors. Catherine’s parents were devout Lutherans.
In 1745 she was to married to Tsar Peter of Holstein Gottorp becoming the Princess. Because of her ambition to get married and become a princess, she abandoned her father’s religion and instead converted to Orthodox Church. The eminent marriage also forced her to learn French, which she did with so much effort to an extent that she got a severe pneumonia attack, because of walking barefoot in her bedroom repeating the Russian lessons.
Her and her husband Peter settled in the Palace of Oranienbaum. Unfortunately her husband was immature and impotent and became unfaithful to her. This eventually led to the breakup of their marriage.
Catherine read widely on and befriended many powerful political groups that opposed her husband. Empress Elizabeth died on 1762 and Peter succeeded her to become Peter III of Russia. This made them move to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Automatically Catherine became the Empress. By then they had a son named Paul who was the heir-apparent in case of the father’s death.
In July of that year, there was a bloodless coup where Peter was dethroned by the Leib Guard who were the military personal guards of the Emperor of Russia. The throne was bequeathed to Catherine; she reigned till she died in 1796. After six months as a Prince and three days after disposition, Peter III died at Ropsha.
Catherine the great was very intelligent, hardworking and had a very strong will. Her ambition to become the Empress of Russia saw her strike sharply at those who seemed to try and replace her with the rightful heir of the throne, Paul her eldest son. In her reign Catherine broadened Russian Empires’ boarders both to the south and the north absorbing new Russia, Crimea, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus and Courland.
Catherine was eventually able to expand the Russian territory to 518,000 kilometer squared. This was not an easy task bearing in mind that the expansion was at the expense of the Ottoman Empire and the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. She was able to achieve all this through a very shrewd statesman named Nikita Panin.
In her initial years of her reign, Catherine directed most of her efforts towards making her position in the throne more stable. This was to enable her have an extended period of peace in order for her to be effective in other domestic affairs and foreign affairs. She understood the essence of a cautious foreign policy, which Panin did on her behalf. Panin fell out with her after his plans to counter the power of the Bourbon and Habsburg who had formed a league failed.
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It was not until 1764 that she felt secure and stable enough to start working on reformation towards improving social conditions in Russia. For such expansive reformation Catherine utilized the ideas of the enlightenment. It was through such ideas that she undertook to change Russia’s old legal system that was inefficient because it was based on the code of laws that dated from 1649.
Towards this end she came up with a proposal she called “The instructions” which was circulated through out Europe and turned out to be a sensation. This is because it provided for a very advanced level of legal system. The legal system was to be enshrined on the principles of equal protection and prevention of criminal acts. This was as opposed to the previous method of meting out harsh punishment.
In 1767 Catherine formed a legislative commission to revise the old laws using “The instruction” as the basis. The commission failed the set purpose leading to the suspension of the review. After Panin fell out with Catherine in 1781, she replaced him with Alexander Bezborodko who was a Ukrainian born councilor.
Because of her ideas from the Enlightment, Catherine commissioned the Court betskoy whose sole purpose was to draw up plans to ensure the provision of education for all boys and girls through out Russia. The type of education she advocated for was the European style. As a result of her efforts schools and universities were established throughout Russia. This led to the foundation, for the first time of special girls’ schools in Russia. This also led to the establishment of a medical college whose sole purpose was to provide adequate health care for all the citizens. One good example is the Smolny Institute for girls, which was founded in St. Petersburg.
Catherine rarely used violence to consolidate power and strengthen her grip on Russia. However, she resorted to other methods that usually proved very effective. For example during her time the church had become quite powerful, to weaken it she seized the church’s wealth and then employed the clergy as state employees.
Foreign affairs demanded much of her attention between 1768 and1774. Catherine made Russia as the most powerful empire during this time. This came about after the first Russo-Turkish war against the Ottoman Empire. This war included the Battle of Chesma (1770) and the battle of Kagul (1770).
This war began after Catherine sent Russian troops to support her former lover Stanislaw Poniatowski, who she wanted to suppress a revolt that had come about because of Russia’s influence in Poland. The revolution got support from Turkey and Austria. However, after two years lengthy negotiations with Turkey led to ceasefire. Catherine was very persuasive which came in handy at this time.
This enabled Russia gain a foothold on the Black Sea. Acquisition of the right to the Black Sea was an important milestone. This was because Russian merchant ships acquired the right of sea whereby they could sail and passing through the Dardanelles which was an important European waterway.
Also from the negotiations the vast steppes of modern South Ukraine were incorporated in the Russia Empire. In 1783 Catherine, in her quest for expansion annexed the Crimea, this led to the second Russo- Turkish war (1787-1792) where the Ottoman Empire sort to regain the lands it had lost to Russia during the first Russo Turkish war (1768-1774).
The Ottoman troops lost miserably which led to the signing of the Treaty of Jassy. The treaty led to the end of the Second war and led to the confirmation of Russia’s dominance in the Black Sea. This was because from this treaty Russia’s claim to the Crimea was legitimatized.
In 1773 in the Volga River Basin a peasant revolt led by Cossack started but was crushed by the Imperial forces when Cossack was captured in 1774, this was the only time that peace was realized for some time which enabled Catherine concentrate on domestic affairs, especially affairs that concerned the functioning of the government. It was during this time that the education standards were raised.
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Catherine played a very important role in shaping the role of Russia in the field of diplomacy. In the European foreign issues, Russia under Catherine played a very instrumental role in mediating on disputes that sometimes led to war. She mediated in the War of the Bavarian succession (1778-1779), between Prussia and Austria. It was through Catherine also that Russia witnessed the partitioning of Poland, where all the commonwealth territory with Prussia and Austria were divided.
After all these expansion Russia turned into a vast empire that was in position to compete with other European neighbors.
On the art and sciences scene, Catherine played a critical role. She viewed art and science as a means through which Russia could be recognized as a civilization centre.
St Petersburg was turned into a great and dazzling capital. Through her patronage, theatre, music, painting and other form of art improved tremendously. She developed a manual for the education of children which she borrowed from the ideas of John Locke a famous English Philosopher.
She established the famous Smolny Institute. It was established for the purpose of educating ladies from noble families and rich merchants. This institute became one of the best institutes not only in Russia, but the whole of Europe as well.
Catherine was a prolific writer and exchanged ideas and correspondence leading philosophers and writers like Voltaire and Diderot. She wrote plays, fables Satires and memoirs.
The Russian age of ‘age of Imitation’ happened during her reign where the Russians imported and studied the classical works from Europe.
She spent millions of Rubles to build the Hermitage art collection. Today, Hermitage Museums that occupies the whole of the Winter Palace is one of the largest Museums in the world with one of the largest art collections totaling to over three million.
Despite her great support of art, during her reign there was censorship of the press and publications and sometimes writers were exiled. For example Radishcev after publishing The Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow which addressed the poor leaving standards of the peasant serfs, he was exiled to Siberia.
After converting from Lutheran to Orthodoxy, Catherine became indifferent to religion. Thus she never hesitated to suppress any religious dissent and never allowed dissenters to build chapels. However she exploited the Christian faith by promoting the protection of Christians under the Turkish rule. This was to ensure the weakening of the Ottoman Empire.
After the partitioning of Poland she sort to control the Roman Catholics. On the other hand, Russia became a safe haven for The Society of Jesus whose members were running away from the persecution of Jesuits across Europe.
Catherine the Great personal life was characterized by multiple lovers. She had a total of around 13 lovers in her reign that included Alexander Potemkin. Potemkin was a former lover who she had fallen off with but he continued to select future lovers for her.
Catherine was kind to her lovers even after breaking up with them. She had a reputation of rewarding them handsomely.
- Alexander, John.T “Catherine II, Bubonic Plague, and the Problem of Industry in Moscow” The American Historical Review, Vol. 79, No.3. (Jun, 1974), pp.637-671.
- Cruse, Mark. The memoirs of Catherine the Great. New York: Modern Library, 2005.
- Dukes, Paul. Catherine the Great and the Russian Nobility: A Study Based of the Legislative Commission of 1767.Cambridge at the University Press, 1967
- Haslip, Joan. Catherine the Great: A Biography .New York: G.P Putnam’s, 1977
- Rasmussen, Karen “Catherine II and the Image of Peter I” Slavic Review, Vol. 37, No. 1. (Mar., 1978), pp.51-69.
- Thomas, Gladys Scott. Catherine the Great and the Expansion of Russia. London: The English Universities Press, 1947
- Waters, Brenda Meehan-“Catherine the Great and the Problem of Female Rule” Russian Review, Vol. 34, No. 3. (Jul., 1975), pp.293-307.
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