Catherine II, or Catherine the Great, empress of Russia (1762-96), didmuch to transform Russia into a modern country. Originally named SophieFredericke Augusta, she was born in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland), on May2, 1729, the daughter of the German prince of Anhalt-Zerbst. At the age of15 she went to Russia to become the wife of Peter, nephew and heir ofEmpress ELIZABETH. Elizabeth died on Dec. 25, 1761, and Catherine’s husband succeeded asPETER III. The new ruler soon made himself unpopular, especially withcertain army officers. Led by Aleksei ORLOV (whose brother Grigori wasCatherine’s lover), the officers staged a coup in June 1762.
Peter wasdeposed (and subsequentle murdered), and Catherine became absolute ruler ofthe largest European empire, whose language she never learned to speakcorrectly and without accent. At the age of 33, Catherine was not only a handsome woman (whosenumerous love affairs dominate the popular accounts of her life), but alsounusually well read and deeply involved in the cultural trends of her age.She was a tireless worker and knew how to select capable assistants–forexample, Nikita PANIN in foreign affairs, Aleksandr SUVOROV in themilitary, and Grigory POTEMKIN in administration. Imbued with the ideas ofthe Enlightenment, Catherine aimed at completing the job started by PeterI–westernizing Russia–but she had different methods. Unlike Peter, shedid not forcibly conscript society into the service of the state, butrather encouraged individual initiative in pursuit of self-interest. Shesucceeded to a degree with the upper classes, but did nothing for theoverwhelming majority of the population–the enserfed peasantry. To learn the needs of the country and to gain popularity, Catherine in1767 convoked an assembly of deputies to draft a new code of laws (forwhich she wrote the guidelines–the Nakaz, or Instruction).
Not much cameof the venture. In 1773, Yemelian PUGACHEV led Cossacks, peasants, andothers in a revolt that engulfed large parts of eastern Russia. The revolt,ruthlessly crushed by the army in 1775, alerted Catherine to the necessityfor reform. In 1775, she reorganized the local administration, integratedthe Cossacks into the regular army, and put the serfs belonging to theRussian Orthodox church under the administration of the state. In 1785, sheissued two charters–to the towns and to the nobility–to involve theeducated classes in local administration in return for protection of theirstatus and property rights.
In a similar spirit, Catherine established (1765) the Free EconomicSociety to encourage the modernization of agriculture and industry. Shepromoted trade and the development of underpopulated regions by invitingforeign settlers such as the Volga Germans, and she founded new towns(Odessa, for example) and enterprises on the Black Sea. Herself a prolificwriter, Catherine patronized arts and letters, permitted the establishmentof private printing presses, and relaxed censorship rules. Under herguidance the University of Moscow and the Academy of Sciences becameinternationally recognized centers of learning; she also increased thenumber of state and private schools. As a result, the Russian nobility (andsome townspeople) also began to organize associations for the promotion ofschools and publications.
Catherine, who did not want to surrender controlover social and cultural policy, viewed these activities with suspicion.The outbreak of the French Revolution (1789) and the publication ofAleksandr Radishchev’s Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow (1790), inwhich the author denounced the evils of serfdom, the immorality of society,and the abuses of government, prompted Catherine to impose repressivemeasures, which in turn alienated many of the educated.
Finally, Catherine vastly expanded the Russian empire. Following twosuccessful wars against Turkey (the RUSSO-TURKISH WARS of 1768-74 and1787-92), Russia secured the Crimea and thus realized a centuries-old dreamof establishing itself on the north shore of the Black Sea. The fertilelands of the Ukraine were also opened for settlement and soon became thegranary of Europe. Catherine also participated in the partitions of Poland(1772, 1792, and 1795), bringing a large part of that country under Russianrule.
By the time of Catherine’s death (Nov. 17, 1796), modern Russiansociety was organized and its culture had struck firm roots. Russia wasalso playing a determining role in world affairs.
Bibliography: Alexander, John T., Catherine the Great: Life andLegend (1989); Cronin, Vincent, Catherine, Empress of All theRussians (1978); Grey, Ian, Catherine the Great (1961; repr.1975); Maroger, Dominique, ed.
, Memoirs of Catherine the Great,trans. by M. Budberg (1961); Oldenbourg, Zoe, Catherine theGreat, trans. by Anne Carter (1965); Raeff, Marc, ed.
,Catherine the Great: A Profile (1972).