Catherine the Great Biography

Explore eight surprising facts about the famous Russian ruler.

1. Catherine the Great’s name wasn’t Catherine, and she wasn’t even Russian.
The woman whom history would remember as Catherine the Great, Russia’s longest-ruling female leader, was actually the eldest daughter of an impoverished Prussian prince. Born in 1729, Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst enjoyed numerous marital prospects due to her mother’s well-regarded bloodlines.

In 1744, 15-year-old Sophie was invited to Russia by Czarina Elizabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great who had assumed the Russian throne in a coup just three years earlier. The unmarried and childless Elizabeth had chosen her nephew Peter as heir and was now in search of his bride. Sophie, well trained by her ambitious mother and eager to please, made an immediate impact on Elizabeth, if not her intended husband. The marriage took place on August 21, 1745, with the bride (a new convert to Orthodox Christianity) now bearing the name Ekaterina, or Catherine.

2. Catherine’s eldest son—and heir—may have been illegitimate.
Catherine and her new husband had a rocky marriage from the start. Though the young Prussian princess had been imported to produce an heir, eight years passed without a child. Some historians believe Peter was unable to consummate the marriage, while others think he was infertile.

Desperately unhappy in their married lives, Peter and Catherine both began extramarital affairs, she with Sergei Saltykov, a Russian military officer. When Catherine gave birth to a son, Paul, in 1754, gossips murmured that Saltykov—not Peter—had fathered him. Catherine herself gave credence to this rumor in her memoirs, going so far as to say that Empress Elizabeth had been complicit in permitting Catherine and Saltykov’s relationship. While historians today believe that Catherine’s claims were simply an attempt to discredit Peter and that he was indeed Paul’s father, there is little debate over the paternity of Catherine’s three additional children: It’s believed that none of them were fathered by Peter.

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great around the time of her wedding.

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

3. Catherine came to power in a bloodless coup that later turned deadly.
Elizabeth died in January 1762, and her nephew succeeded to the throne as Peter III, with Catherine as his consort. Eager to put his own stamp on the nation, he quickly ended Russia’s war with Prussia, an act that proved deeply unpopular to Russia’s military class. A program of liberal domestic reforms aimed at improving the lives of the poor also alienated members of the lower nobility.

These unhappy factions turned to Catherine, who was also fearful of Peter’s intentions. As tensions mounted, a plan to overthrow Peter took root. When the conspiracy was uncovered in July 1762, Catherine moved quickly, gaining the support of the country’s most powerful military regiment and arranging for her husband’s arrest.

On July 9, just six months after becoming czar, Peter abdicated, and Catherine was proclaimed sole ruler. However, what had began as a bloodless coup soon turned deadly. On July 17 Peter died, possibly at the hands of Alexei Orlov, the brother of Catherine’s current lover Gregory. Though there is no proof that Catherine knew of the alleged murder before it happened, it cast a pall over her reign from the start.

4. Catherine faced down more than a dozen uprisings during her reign.
Of the various uprisings that threatened Catherine’s rule, the most dangerous came in 1773, when a group of armed Cossacks and peasants led by Emelyan Pugachev rebelled against the harsh socioeconomic conditions of Russia’s lowest class, the serfs. As with many of the uprisings Catherine faced, Pugachev’s Rebellion called into question the validity of her reign. Pugachev, a former army officer, claimed that he was actually the deposed (and believed dead) Peter III, and therefore the rightful heir to the Russian throne.

Intelligent, ruthless, sexually insatiable: she was the most powerful woman in the world, dragging Russia ‘out of her medieval stupor and into the modern world’.

Born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, the daughter of a German prince, she was related through her mother to the dukes of Holstein.

In 1744, she arrived in Russia, as the Grand Duchess Catherine Alekseyevna, and married Peter, grandson of Peter the Great and heir to the throne. Russia at the time was ruled by Peter’s mother, the empress Elizabeth.

The marriage was an unhappy one and on her arrival in Russia, Catherine suffered from a form of pleurisy, which causes sharp pains in the chest. She had to have her blood let by a doctor four times in one day, which she claimed saved her life.

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Catherine was intelligent and ambitious. During her husband’s lifetime, she had at least three lovers and, if her hints are to be believed, none of her children were his. It is thought that she had affairs with Alexander Vasilchikov, Sergei Saltykov and Stanislaw August Poniatowski, among others.

Her husband had a mistress called Elizabeth Vorontsova. When Catherine fell pregnant with her second child, a girl called Anna who died aged four months, Peter did not believe it was his baby, causing an argument which led Catherine to spend a lot of time in her private boudoir.

When Empress Elizabeth died in January 1762, Russia was engaged in the Seven Years’ War against Prussia. Peter, now emperor, pulled Russia out of the war and allied with Frederick II of Prussia. Foolishly betraying his actions, Peter prepared to be rid of his wife.

Catherine, however, had the support of the public and the army, and was proclaimed empress on 9 July 1762. Peter III abdicated and was assassinated eight days later. She was soon crowned in Moscow, beginning a 34-year reign.

 Equestrian portrait of Catherine in the Preobrazhensky Regiment

Catherine the Great and the coup that made her Empress

During her reign, she reduced the powers of the clergy, continued to preserve friendly relations with Prussia, France and Austria and, in 1764, she specified Poland’s borders and installed one of her old lovers as king of Poland.

A follower of the Enlightenment in 1767, she assembled a group of delegates in order to determine the people’s wishes and compose a constitution. Unfortunately, it was considered too liberal and came to nothing.

In 1768, she went to war with Turkey, so as to concentrate on the importance of national grandeur. The war inspired patriotism in Catherine’s subjects but, in 1773, a former officer of the Don Cossacks inspired the greatest uprising in Russia prior to 1917.

The movement spread rapidly and, in June 1774, Cossack troops prepared to march on Moscow. At this point, Russia won the war with Turkey and Catherine crushed the rebellion.

Catherine now realised that she needed to exercise more control over the people and that serf liberation would be intolerable to the owners, on whom she depended, and who would throw the country into chaos once they lost their income. Catherine thus focused on strengthening a system that she had labelled as inhuman.

She also enjoyed a reputation for being a patron of the arts, education and culture, writing a guide for the education of young noble women in 1764, as well as establishing the Smolny Institute the same year.

What did Catherine accomplish? And what did she fail to achieve?

Contrary to Catherine’s dire prediction, Peter’s death, while casting a pall over her rule, did not completely overshadow her legacy. “Amazingly,” writes Montefiore, “the regicidal, uxoricidal German usurper recovered her reputation not just as Russian tsar and successful imperialist but also as an enlightened despot, the darling of the philosophes.”

Several years into her reign, Catherine embarked on an ambitious legal endeavor inspired by—and partially plagiarized from—the writings of leading thinkers. Called the Nakaz, or Instruction, the 1767 document outlined the empress’ vision of a progressive Russian nation, even touching on the heady issue of abolishing serfdom. If all went as planned, according to Massie, the proposed legal code would “raise the levels of government administration, of justice, and of tolerance within her empire.” But these changes failed to materialize, and Catherine’s suggestions remained just that.

Though Russia never officially adopted the Nakaz, the widely distributed 526-article treatise still managed to cement the empress’ reputation as an enlightened European ruler. Her many military campaigns, on the other hand, represent a less palatable aspect of her legacy. Writing for History Extra, Hartley describes Catherine’s Russia as an undoubtedly “aggressive nation” that clashed with the Ottomans, Sweden, Poland, Lithuania and the Crimea in pursuit of additional territory for an already vast empire. In terms of making Russia a “great power,” says Hartley, these efforts proved successful. But in a purely humanitarian light, Catherine’s expansionist drive came at a great cost to the conquered nations and the czarina’s own country alike.

Political cartoonMany of the political cartoons depicting Catherine capitalized on her relatively uncommon status as a female monarch. In this satirization of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, the empress assumes the rule of obstinate heroine Katherina, while British commander William Pitt adopts the role of Petruchio, the man who puts her in her place. Library of Congress

In 1774, a disillusioned military officer named Yemelyan Pugachev capitalized on the unrest fomented by Russia’s ongoing fight with Turkey to lead hundreds of thousands into rebellion. Uniting Cossacks, peasants, escaped serfs and “other discontented tribal groups and malcontents, Pugachev produced a storm of violence that swept across the steppes,” writes Massie. Catherine was eventually able to put down the uprising, but the carnage exacted on both sides was substantial.

On a personal level, Pugachev’s success “challenged many of Catherine’s Enlightenment beliefs, leaving her with memories that haunted her for the rest of her life,” according to Massie. While the deeply entrenched system of Russian serfdom—in which peasants were enslaved by and freely traded among feudal lords—was at odds with her philosophical values, Catherine recognized that her main base of support was the nobility, which derived its wealth from feudalism and was therefore unlikely to take kindly to these laborers’ emancipation.

Catherine commissioned a replica of Raphael’s Vatican loggias for the Hermitage. Ad Meskens via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Catherine’s failure to abolish feudalism is often cited as justification for characterizing her as a hypocritical, albeit enlightened, despot. Though Hartley acknowledges that serfdom is “a scar on Russia,” she emphasizes the practical obstacles the empress faced in enacting such a far-reaching reform, adding, “Where [Catherine] could do things, she did do things.”

Serfdom endured long beyond Catherine’s reign, only ending in 1861 with Alexander II’s Emancipation Manifesto. While the measure appeared to be progressive on paper, the reality of the situation remained stark for most peasants, and in 1881, revolutionaries assassinated the increasingly reactionary czar—a clear example of what Hartley deems “autocracy tempered by assassination,” or the idea that a ruler had “almost unlimited powers but was always vulnerable to being dethroned if he or she alienated the elites.”

After Pugachev’s uprising, Catherine shifted focus to what Massie describes as more readily achievable aims: namely, the “expansion of her empire and the enrichment of its culture.”

Catherine’s contributions to Russia’s cultural landscape were far more successful than her failed socioeconomic reforms. Jaques says that Catherine initially started collecting art as a “political calculation” aimed at legitimizing her status as a Westernized monarch. Along the way, she became a “very passionate, knowledgeable” proponent of painting, sculpture, books, architecture, opera, theater and literature. A self-described “glutton for art,” the empress strategically purchased paintings in bulk, acquiring as much in 34 years as other royals took generations to amass. This enormous collection ultimately formed the basis of the Hermitage Museum.

Catherine commissioned Étienne Maurice Falconet’s imposing equestrian monument of Peter the Great. Godot13 via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

In addition to collecting art, Catherine commissioned an array of new cultural projects, including an imposing bronze monument to Peter the Great, Russia’s first state library, exact replicas of Raphael’s Vatican City loggias and palatial neoclassical buildings constructed across St. Petersburg.

The empress played a direct role in many of these initiatives. “It’s surprising that someone who’s waging war with the Ottoman Empire and partitioning Poland and annexing the Crimea has time to make sketches for one of her palaces, but she was very hands on,” says Jaques. Today, the author adds, “We’d call her a micromanager.”

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