Catherine II, or Catherine the Great, empress of all Russia, did much to continue the process of Westernization reforms began by Peter the Great. Catherine was devoted to art, literature, science, and politics. Many people say she had a great gift and was a great leader, thus she was awarded with the name the Great She helped develop schools, hospitals, and many other organizations for the country. She was a shrewd leader and autocrat and helped to continue and further reforms made by Peter the Great, finally making Russia a permanent European power.
Originally named Sophie Frederick Augusta, Princess of Anholt-Zerbst, she was born in Stettin on May 2, 1729, the daughter of the German prince of Anholt-Zerbst . At the age of fifteen she went to Russia and married Grand Duke Peter of Holstein, Peter the Greats grandson, nephew to Elizabeth the Empress of Russia at that time, and heir to the Russian throne. Catherine was disappointed with her marriage, but decided to stick it out and concentrate on building herself a powerful group of allies. Catherine occupied herself with reading everything she could lay her hands on.
She discovered satisfaction in the works of Plato and Voltaire. The years passed and there was still no heir in sight. This of course irritated Empress Elizabeth who wanted to secure a powerful dynasty, and could not do so without the presence of a male heir. She thought it must be Catherine’s fault because she was not attracted to her husband. However, it was Peter that was not able to produce a male son, so Elizabeth permitted an affair between Catherine and a Russian military officer named Serge Saltykov.
Catherine finally gave birth to a son, whom the Empress named Paul, on September 20, 1754. Peter accepted it the child his own, and three years later on December 20, 1957, she gave birth to her daughter, Anna Petrovna Romanov. Elizabeth died on December 25, 1761, and Catherines husband succeeded as Peter III. Erratic, unstable, and contemptuous of his Russian subjects, the new ruler soon made himself unpopular, especially with certain German officers. Catherine fell in love with an officer in the Imperial Guard, named Gregory Orlov, whose four other brothers were also guards.
They were not of high birth, but to Catherine they were the embodiment of the Russian Army. Some of Catherine’s friends had plotted to over throw the Czar. The main influences behind this plot were Princess Dashkova, the sister of Peter’s mistress, and all five Orlov brothers. Catherine was waiting to be summoned by Peter to attend the feast he had planned for his name day, Alexis Orlov slipped past the Holstein Guards and told Catherine of their plan for a coup d’etat.
Catherine went to the Ismailovsky regiment looking for their support saying “I have come to you for protection. The Emperor has given orders to arrest me. I fear he intends to kill me. ” The soldiers believed her and had her support. When the procession of carriages reached the Cathedral of Kazan, they found the church filled with clergy, awaiting Catherine’s inauguration. Catherine then took the oath as Empress and Sole Autocrat. Peter signed an act of abdication and left the thrown without a drop of blood even shed.
By order of the Empress, Peter was taken to a nearby estate in the village of Ropsha and was to be under surveillance. Six days later she received the news that Peter had died after an apparent argument with his guards. However, Peter was murdered by Catherine’s lover, Gregory Orlov, and Catherine was placed on the throne in his place. Catherine was fascinated with the philosophies and theories of the Enlightenment, and was well acquainted with the literature of the French Enlightenment, which was an important influence on her own political influence.
She corresponded extensively with Voltaire and Denis Diderot, gave financial support to them and a number of other French writers, and played host to Diderot at her court in 1773. Although, this gesticulation of hospitality was partially aimed at creating a favorable image in Western Europe, she was probably sincere in her interest and her hope to apply some of the ideas of the Enlightenment to rationalize and reform the administration of the Russian Empire. She had new monuments erected throughout Russia and transformed St.
Petersburg into a truly European city of Imperial pretensions. Her great love for Russia and pride in her country comes through to us when we look at this beautiful collection of paintings done by the world’s greatest masters, acquired not for personal indulgence, but as an effort to make Russia respected. Imbued with the ideas of the Enlightenment, Catherine aimed at completing the job started by Peter the Great–westernizing Russia–but she had contradictory methods. Rather then forcing society to reform, she encouraged individual initiative in pursuit of self-interest.
In the early years of her reign, she sought to win the support of the Russian gentry, and, in particular despite her interest in legal reform, the commission she appointed for that purpose failed to accomplish its goals. But eventually, she learned how to select capable assistants–for example, Nikita Panin in foreign affairs, Alexandre Suvorov in the military, and Grigori Potemkin in administration. Conservatism Peasant unrest culminated in a great revolt (1773-75), led by Cossack Yemelyan Pugachov, that raged over much of the Volga River Basin and the Ural Mountains before it was finally ruthlessly crushed by military force.
The Cossack army was disbanded, and other Cossacks were granted special privileges in an effort to transform them into loyal supporters of the autocracy. The revolt alerted Catherine to the necessity for reform. In 1775, Catherine reorganized the local administration and integrated the Cossack troops into the Russian army. She drafted the Fundamental Law of 1775, which was the basis of her domestic policy, which lasted until 1861. By now she was a complete autocrat with viceroys and governors helping her rule the land.
In 1787, another Russo-Turkish war broke out. Once again, the Russians responded with great strength, making great advances southward. By the end of this conflict, Russia had gained the areas of Georgia and Crimea. In 1785, she issued two charters–to the towns and to the nobility–to involve the educated classed in local administration in return for protection of their status and property rights. In similar spirit, Catherine established the Free Economic Society to encourage the modernization of agriculture and industry.
On September 22, 1762 in the old Assumption Cathedral in the heart of Moscow’s Kremlin, Catherine received her crown. After her return to St. Petersburg, she turned to the affairs of state, often working relentlessly from early morning to late at night. She decided that the prevailing task would be to improve techniques in the agricultural regions, and this was accomplished as the Free Economic Society was established. She sent experts to study the soil and propose suitable crops.
She made grants to landowners to learn the techniques that were being used in England, and to buy machines that were being invented there. She encouraged introduction of modern methods to breed sheep and cattle, and she promoted horse breeding. She saw that more workers were needed to work the under populated areas. Catherine turned to advertisements in foreign newspapers, mostly German, inviting settlers and offering attractive terms. The response was excellent. Next she turned to mining and sent geologists to access the ores from Russia’s seemingly barren lands.
She founded the first School of Mines in St. Petersburg, complete with an underground mine where trainees could learn the trade under realistic conditions. The total number of factories during her reign was increased from 984 to 3161. . By the simple act of abolishing export duties, she achieved remarkable results. The budget showed a deficit of 17 million rubles, in a country of only 100 million people. As early as 1765 three quarters of the Empress Elizabeth’s debt was repaid, and a budget deficit had been turned into a surplus.
In 1786, Catherine issued the Statue for Schools for all of Russia. It said that every district town was to establish a minor school with two teachers and every provincial town a major school with six teachers. When she reorganized the provinces in 1775, she decreed that each provincial capital must have a hospital. Each county with a population between 20,000 and 30,000 should have a doctor, a surgeon, an assistant surgeon, and a student doctor. Finally, Catherine vastly expanded the Russian empire.
Following the two successful wars against Turkey (the Russo-Turkish Wars of 1768-74 and 1787-92), Russia secured the Crimea and thus realized a centuries-old dream of establishing itself on the north shore of the black Sea. The fertile lands of the Ukraine were also opened for settlement and soon became the granary of Europe. Catherine also participated in the partitions of Poland (1772,1792, and 1795) bringing a large part of that country under Russian rule. Upon the death of Catherine on November 17, 1796, modern Russian society was organized and its culture had struck firm roots. Russia was also playing a determining role in world affairs.