Feb 262012

Catherine II “the Great”

(born 1729, reigned 1762-1796)

Note the biography by Robert K. Massie:
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Catherine the Great wasn’t Russian. Or more accurately, she wasn’t born Russian. She was a German Princess, born in Prussia (today a part of Poland) as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. She was brought to Russia at the age of 16 to marry the future Peter III. She reigned for over 34 years, the longest-reigning Russian monarch, and died in 1796 at the age of 67.

Peter III, a grandson of Peter I, ruled only six months before he was deposed by Catherine and ultimately assassinated. Catherine had reason to depose him, as he wasn’t fit to rule – whether he was insane or had the mind of a child, depending on the conclusions historians draw. In any case, insane or handicapped, he didn’t have the mental resources to rule a country.

From the beginning, as soon as it was clear that she was destined to rule Russia, she dedicated herself to learn the language and to be a good ruler. She did learn to speak Russian fluently, even if she never quite lost her German, and converted to Orthodoxy in 1744. At the beginning of her reign she was a great supporter of the European enlightenment. She planned to introduce and in some cases actually began to introduce liberal reforms into Russia. There were even rumors that she would free the serfs, but in her mind, tying the serfs to the land more securely helped expand and modernize the army, and one of the great problems she created was the plight of the serfs, which wasn’t alleviated until the mid-19th century. accent

On the other hand, Catherine was a great supporter of the Arts. She wrote in several languages and corresponded with leading Western European intellectuals of the time: French encyclopedists like Voltaire and Diderot, economists like the Englishman Arthur Young and the Frenchman Jacques Necker; the Swiss scientist Leonhard Euler and the German Peter Simon Pallas. She was interested in education and increased the number of schools in Russia, and she greatly increased educational opportunities for women. Under her aegis, the Smolny Institute for Noble Girls was founded. At first, as its name indicates, it was reserved for girls of noble birth, but soon it open its doors to the middle class as well.

Catherine founded was was to become the Hermitage museum in Petersburg. At first, it was her personal collection, which soon outgrew the space it was allocated and required wings to be specially built for it. The museum as such would be open to the public in 1852 under Nicholas I.

Catherine not only patronized the arts but was herself a writer of comedies, fiction, and memoirs.

Under Catherine, Russia also extended its borders southward into the Crimea and Central Asia, and all through Siberia into Alaska. Her reign marked the end of the Mongol Khanate – what remained of the Golden Horde, and victories over the Turks. At the same time, a weakened Polish commonwealth was divided by treaty, and thus eliminated as a sovereign state, between Russia, Austria, and Prussia.

Catherine’s early reforms were halted by three events. The first one was the uprising of Emelyan Pugachev in 1773-1775. The second was the American Revolution in 1776, and the third, the French revolution in 1789.

Both the American and the French Revolutions, although very different in intent, scope, and consequences, may have been perceived as signs that any weakening of the monarch’s power could lead to chaos, and explain Catherine’s reaction.

Pugachev was more than a mere peasant rebel. He was a cunning leader and managed to rally a number of cossacks and other rebels around him under the pretense that he was actually Peter III, having survived the attempted assassination against him. His very success in convincing his followers, as well as his success as bandit leader, eventually led to his demise – his capture and execution.

Pushkin used the events of the Pugachev rebellion as a historical background for his novel The Captain’s Daughter.

Catherine died unexpectedly of a stroke at the relatively young age of 67 in 1796. She was succeeded by her son Pavel (Paul) I, who was himself murdered in a palace revolt in 1801. Pavel was succeeded by his own son, Aleksandr I.

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