Catherine II was born on 2 May 1729 in the town of Stettin (now Szczezin) in Pomerania, where her father, Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst, commanded a regiment in the Prussian army (he was later promoted by King Frederick II from major general to the rank of fieldmarshal). She was christened Princess Sophie Auguste Friederike or “Figchen” for short.
Catherine’s mother, Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, was twenty-two years younger than her husband, with whom she did not get along. Contemporaries and historians have speculated that the girl’s father may have been Frederick the Great or Russian diplomat Ivan Betskoi. The latter theory is supported by the fact that when she became empress, Catherine always kissed Betskoi’s hand when she entered the room and allowed him to sit in her presence, while everybody else had to stand. During a phlebotomy, she is alleged to have said: “Let all the German blood flow out of me, so that only the Russian remains.”
Princess Sophie received a good education at home. She knew French well, spoke Italian and understood English. She enjoyed reading books on history and philosophy. The future empress had a quick brain, forceful character, pleasant manners and the ability to create a favourable impression on others. Unfortunately, she was tone deaf. People also noted the girl’s egoism and ambitious nature.
On 26 January 1744, Sophie and her mother arrived in Russia at the invitation of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, who wanted Sophie to marry her nephew and heir. The first Russian town on their route was Riga, where the princess was met by an escort headed by the legendary story-teller Baron Karl Friedrich Hieronymus von Münchhausen. After converting to Russian Orthodoxy as Catherine Alexeyevna on 28 June 1744, she married the future Peter III in St Petersburg on 21 August 1745.
Catherine soon realised that her marriage was not likely to be happy or a success. She and her new husband were two very different people, who clearly had nothing in common. Peter was infantile and immature, cowardly and bad-mannered. His wife, on the other hand, was clever, proud and ambitious.
Throughout the 1750s, particularly after the birth of her son Paul in 1754, Catherine cultivated relations with powerful political groups opposed to her husband. The German princess dreamt passionately of fame and power – and moved slowly but surely towards this goal. In December 1761, Elizabeth Petrovna died and was succeeded by Peter, whose eccentric behaviour and anti-Russian policies quickly alienated his new subjects. Everything was ready for Catherine’s plan to overthrow her husband and seize power for herself.
Catherine cunningly portrayed herself as the innocent victim of a despotic husband, while conducting a secret love affair with an artillery officer called Grigory Orlov. With the help of Orlov and his brothers, she established close ties with the imperial guards. When Peter publicly insulted his wife at a banquet on 9 June 1762, the conspirators decided to act. On 28 June 1762, the emperor was overthrown in a palace coup and Catherine declared empress in his place. After signing his act of abdication, Peter was taken to the hunting palace at Ropsha, where he died a week later in unclear circumstances.
Catherine was crowned empress of Russia at the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow on 22 September 1762. She ruled the country for the next thirty-four years, becoming one of the world’s most famous and successful sovereigns. Ironically, the reign of this German princess brought more benefit to Russia than under her native-born predecessors. The time of Catherine the Great is rightfully called the golden age of the autocracy and the Russian Empire. Never before and never again would the Russian state be so rich and powerful.
Catherine the Great left such a mark in Russian history that even Pyotr Chaadayev, who was extremely critical of Russia’s significance in world history and politics, was obliged to confess: “It is superfluous to speak of the reign of Catherine II, which was so national in character. Perhaps never before was a nation so identifiable with its government as the Russian people was in those years of victories and welfare.” These words were written about a woman who overthrew the legal sovereign – her own husband – despite not having any claim to the throne, and successfully clung to power in an age of palace coups. A foreign woman who, to the end of her days, always spoke Russian with a German accent.
Catherine’s reign witnessed the expansion of the country’s borders, the stunning military victories of Rumyantsev, Potemkin, Suvorov and Ushakov and the consolidation of Russia’s authority as a force to be reckoned with in Europe. Besides the military and political successes, Europeans were also impressed by the wealth and splendour of the Russian court – the sumptuous receptions, balls, masquerades, theatrical performances and numerous firework and light shows held in honour of victories on land and sea.
The secret of the great success of the German princess was her ability to manoeuvre and adapt to circumstances, foresee and avoid danger, and always promote the interests of Russia. She relied on real strength, trusted no one and always acted with energy and acumen. Catherine wrote of the importance of only passing laws that can be implemented and testing public opinion before attempting anything. When the hour comes, act with courage and decision – and never look back.
After deposing her husband, Catherine relied on different ways to secure her hold on the throne. She generously rewarded the members of the conspiracy, but tried to dissociate herself from them. The empress’s endearing approach and benevolence towards everyone won the hearts and minds of her subjects. She took care to create the image of a great ruler, as witnessed by her magnificent coronation in Moscow in September 1762.
Catherine tried hard to be a real Russian tsaritsa. She studied the Russian language, although she never lost her accent, closely observed Orthodox traditions and even introduced Russian national dress at the court. She wrote: “I owe everything to Russia, even my name!” But the German-born princess had a European upbringing and a Western mind. She corresponded with enlightened French philosophers and did much to introduce their ideas into Russia.
From an early age, Catherine was a voracious reader of French literature. After seizing power, she corresponded with Voltaire and Jean le Rond d’Alembert and invited Denis Diderot to St Petersburg. The principles of the Enlightenment were an important influence on the formation of the empress’s policies. Many ideas found their way into her programme of reforms. At the same time, she herself remained an absolute ruler.
Catherine made the autocracy less tyrannical, but believed that great deeds should only be done in small steps. She hoped to gradually pave the way for the development of a civil society in Russia. To the very end of her life, the empress worked on the creation of a “constitution” – a code of laws governing each different class. All subjects would have rights and privileges, upheld by the law, including freedom of thought, speech and conscience.
Catherine’s first reforms of the 1760s actually increased the power of the autocracy. She changed the composition of the Senate in 1763 and abolished the office of hetman in the Ukraine in 1764. The church lands were formally secularised and acquired by the crown in 1764, turning a million peasants into the property of the state.
In 1766, Catherine convened a grand commission to compile a new code of laws. Members of all classes – nobility, merchantry and peasantry – gathered from all over the country. The empress presented the commission with her famous Nakaz or “Instructions for the Guidance of the Assembly.” This was a statement of legal principles, proclaiming the equality of all men before the law and disapproving of the death penalty, torture and serfdom.
The “Instructions” later formed the basis for the class, legal and local government reforms of Catherine II. In 1785, the Charter to the Nobility and the Charter to the Towns granted the nobility and the towns a limited degree of self-government, including their own courts. Other important decrees allowed free printing houses and abolished corporal punishment for the nobility and merchantry.
Catherine passed a series of important education reforms. A network of “foundling hospitals” – boarding schools for orphaned and abandoned children – was opened to create a tiers-état of entrepreneurs, merchants and artisans. Education was also provided by private and boarding schools (there were almost fifty of them in St Petersburg by 1784). In 1764, Ivan Betskoi founded the Smolny Institute, where girls of noble origin could receive a good education. A similar school was opened for the daughters of the middle classes at the Novodevichy Convent in St Petersburg.
The reign of Catherine II was a period of great achievement in the arts. Neoclassical architects designed elegant new buildings in St Petersburg, Moscow and elsewhere. Dmitry Levitsky painted his celebrated portraits of the Smolny girls. Other famous masters were Fyodor Rokotov, Vladimir Borovikovsky and Nikolai Argunov. Fedot Shubin brought cold marble to life, while Étienne-Maurice Falconet sculpted the Bronze Horseman.
European operas and ballets were mounted on the stages of the numerous public and private theatres. Their repertoires included the plays of Alexander Sumarokov, Denis Fonvizin and Vasily Kapnist, the odes of Gavrila Derzhavin and the music of Dmytro Bortniansky and Maxim Berezovsky.
During Catherine’s reign, the Russian Empire expanded southwards and westwards. The empress fought and won two wars against the Ottoman Empire (1768–74, 1787–91). Russia annexed the Crimea and consolidated its hold on the Black Sea coast, where new towns were founded. Catherine’s armies were led by such brilliant military commanders as Pyotr Rumyantsev and Alexander Suvorov.
Russia enjoyed several naval victories under Catherine II. In 1770, after sailing from the Baltic to the Mediterranean Sea, Count Alexei Orlov blocked and burnt the Turkish fleet in Çesme Bay. The new naval base of Sebastopole was founded in the Crimea in 1783. Under the command of Admiral Fyodor Ushakov, the Russian fleet won several major victories over the Turkish navy, establishing its control over the Black Sea.
Russia gained new territories in the west after agreeing on three partitions of Poland with Prussia and Austria in 1772, 1793 and 1795. Although Catherine supported the other European monarchs in their wars against revolutionary France (1792–96), she managed to avoid direct involvement.
Like all great people, Catherine had a complex character. She combined kindness and humanity with cunning, cynicism and deceit. Ambitious and vain, she desired universal worship and was prepared to cross all moral boundaries in the pursuit of power. The empress possessed remarkable charm and the ability to get along with all sorts of different people. She was able to inspire others and win them over to her cause.
Catherine attempted to appoint and surround herself with people personally devoted to her. She relied not on the old aristocracy, whom she regarded as a potential threat, but on members of undistinguished families. Besides her various favourites, she entrusted the running of the country to such people as Alexander Bezborodko, Ivan Betskoi, Ekaterina Dashkova, Alexei Orlov, Pyotr Rumyantsev, Vasily Chichagov, Stepan Sheshkovsky and Alexander Suvorov.
Alexander Suvorov’s father Vasily had helped Catherine to overthrow her husband in 1762 and she knew his son from an early age. A talented military commander, Alexander was made a count of the Holy Roman Empire and awarded all the major Russian orders. Their correspondence offers a fascinating insight into their relationship. When Suvorov took the Polish capital during the Kościuszko Uprising of 1794, he sent the empress the following dispatch: “Hurrah! Warsaw. Suvorov.” She replied: “Bravo! Fieldmarshal. Catherine.” Yet while appreciating Suvorov’s abilities, she never let him forget that he was only one of many cohorts.
Both during and after her marriage to Peter III, Catherine took a large number of lovers. In April 1762, she gave birth to Grigory Orlov’s son, who was known as Alexei Bobrinsky. In July 1775, she bore Prince Grigory Potemkin a daughter called Elizaveta Temkina. The empress is even believed to have secretly married Potemkin shortly after he became her lover in 1774.
Although Catherine twice bore children to her favourites, these men were more than just her lovers. Unlike such other Russian empresses as Anna Ioannovna or Elizabeth Petrovna, for whom favourites were merely a whim, Catherine elevated the practice to a state institution. She herself claimed to be doing the government a service by educating and promoting talented young individuals, who then performed the dual role of lover and statesman.
There were a total of ten favourites under Catherine the Great – Grigory Orlov (1760–72), Alexander Vasilchikov (1772–74), Prince Grigory Potemkin (1774–76), Pyotr Zavadovsky (1776–77), Semyon Zorich (1777–78), Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov (1778–79), Alexander Lanskoi (1779–84), Alexander Yermolov (1785–86), Count Alexander Dmitriyev-Mamonov (1786–89) and Prince Platon Zubov (1789–96). The most famous was Prince Grigory Potemkin, whose name is synonymous with much of the reign of Catherine II.
Grigory Potemkin is best known for colonising the sparsely-populated, wild lands of southern Russia. In the 1780s, he founded the new towns of Kherson, Sebastopole, Odessa and Nikolaev. Thousands of Russian and European settlers built fortresses, factories, canals and shipyards, planted forests and adapted the steppe for agriculture. All this was achieved by the sheer will, mind and energy of Potemkin.
The institution of favourites brought both benefits and drawbacks. Although Prince Potemkin enjoyed Catherine’s complete trust, many regarded him as crankish and even mentally ill. The empress spent enormous sums of money on her lovers (historians have calculated that they cost Russia the exact sum of 95.5 million roubles). She generously presented crown peasants to various favourites, increasing the total number of serfs in the country. The empress gave away a total of 800,000 souls.
Andrei Bolotov wrote that “under the all-powerful Prince Potemkin, for several years, we had only one recruitment drive ... and absolutely everything was embezzled by the prince and his minions and favourites.” The conscripts were often plundered and regarded as private property. Alexander Bezborodko claimed that in 1795 as many as fifty thousand men were missing from an army of 400,000.
By the end of Catherine’s reign, the Russian army was in a sorry state. General Louis Alexandre de Langéron observed sadly: “All you have to do to become a cavalry officer in Russia is to be able to ride a horse.” Andrei Bolotov wrote: “In the guards regiments, the sub-colonels and majors did what they liked. Even the secretaries were ready to confer ranks on anyone for money. Service in the guards was an outright comedy.”
The Preobrazhensky Regiment alone numbered several thousand warrant officers and sergeants. With the full knowledge of the commanders, secretaries accepted bribes for including noblemen, merchants, clerks, apprentices and priests in the regiment. The official lists included infants and sometimes even unborn children – before the sex of the baby was known. None of these people served, but simply lived in their houses or estates, advancing from rank to rank. Upon reaching the position of over-officer, they transferred to the army, where they were promoted another two ranks – without knowing the slightest thing about military service.
Things were little better in the civil service. Towards the end of Catherine’s reign, eleven thousand cases lay unanswered in the Senate. The bureaucracy was riddled with corruption. Nothing could be done without paying a bribe. Catherine’s wars exhausted the exchequer. Money was not backed by gold and there was a large public deficit. The prices of such essential foodstuffs as bread and salt rose sharply, hitting the poor hardest. In the countryside, landowners chopped down forests for firewood, without bothering to plant new trees. Many other negative phenomena flourished in Russia under Catherine.
The final years of Catherine’s reign witnessed a weakening of her political talents and previous zest for reform. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 frightened the empress, who became increasingly intolerant and reactionary. When Alexander Radischev published a critical report on the state of the nation, called A Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow (1790), Catherine had him exiled to Siberia. Other victims of her wrath were the writer Nikolai Novikov and the playwright Yakov Knyazhin.
Catherine’s sudden shift towards conservatism was encouraged by her last lover, Platon Zubov. Young and handsome, he was a vain and empty-headed profligate, who helped the ageing empress to temporarily ward off any thoughts of impending death.
Catherine had previously written about how she imagined she would die – surrounded by close friends and the gentle sounds of music. But death came upon her without warning on 6/17 November 1796, when she suffered a massive stroke in the Winter Palace. With great difficulty, several servants dragged the empress’s corpulent body onto a mattress on the floor, where she died several hours later, without regaining consciousness.
Although Catherine did not leave a will, there is good reason to believe that one existed, excluding her son from the succession and passing the throne to her eldest grandson, Alexander. But the document was allegedly discovered by Paul, who threw it onto the fire. It was the end of an era and the dawning of a new age...