CATHERINE THE GREAT (1729- 1796) Russian
Sophia Augusta Frederica, the princess of Anhalt-Zerbst Bernburg was fourteen when she was brought to Moscow as a prospective match for Grand Duke Peter, the nephew of Empress Elizabeth. She was brought up on the finest traditions of French culture and had a keen mind was married to the slow-witted boy in August 1745. His German wife had become converted to Greek Orthodox Church and received the name Catherine Alekseyevna and became an empress with his elevation into Czar Peter III(1762).
The Empress of Russia won over her subjects paradoxically enough over her husband who was pro-German! In 1762 the untimely death of the Czar opened way for her to become the sole ruler of Russia.
She left her personal mark on Russian history in four ways: as a lover, domestic reformer, as a woman of culture and in her foreign policies.
She began as a reformer championing the cause of the under dog.
Catherine’s domestic policy can be divided into two periods: before and after Pugachev’s mutiny. During the first period she wanted to create an image of a philosopher on the throne. Enlightened absolutism met with opposition and swung to the other extreme. She crushed the rebellion of the serfs in 1773 and made nobility the most privileged class in the country.
Her foreign policy was based on her relations with Poland and Turkey. She annexed a large part of Turkish territory as a result of Russian-Turkish war and her empire had access to Black Sea, Crimea and the Caucasus. Russia was interested in Poland as a “buffer” country between it and the stronger neighbours. A year before her death she annexed Poland.
A marriage brought Catherine to Russia and a marriage removed her. She was interested in a prospective match for her great granddaughter and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden refused to sign the contract. She was upset. A week later she died of a stroke.
Catherine had a reputation as a patron of the arts, literature and education. The Hermitage Museum began as Catherine’s personal collection. She wrote a manual for the education of young children, drawing from the ideas of John Locke, and founded (1764) the famous Smolny Institute, admitting young girls of the nobility.
She wrote comedies, fiction and memoirs, while cultivating Voltaire, Diderot and d’Alembert – all French encyclopedists. Soon after her accession in 1762, having heard that the French government threatened to stop the publication of the famous French Encyclopédie on account of its irreligious spirit, Catherine proposed to Diderot that he should complete his great work in Russia under her protection. Voltaire was another with whom she corresponded with him for 15 years, till his death in 1778. He lauded her accomplishments, calling her “The Star of the North” and the “Semiramis of Russia. Though she never met him face-to-face, she mourned him bitterly when he died, acquired his collection of books from his heirs, and placed them in the National Library of Russia.