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One of the most interesting, hard-working and powerful people to grace the pages of history during the eighteenth century was Catherine II, Empress of Russia. Historians have not always been so kind to her memory, and all too often one reads accounts of her private life, ignoring her many achievements. The stories of her love affairs have been overly misinterpreted and can be traced to a handful of French writers in the years immediately after Catherine’s death, when Republican France was fighting for its life against a coalition that included Russia.
21, 1729 in Stettin, then Germany, now Poland. Her father, Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst, was a high-ranking officer in the Prussian Army and a minor prince among the principalities in Germany. He married the much younger Princess Johanna of Holstein-Gottorp. Years before, Johanna’s brother Karl August of Holstein-Gottorp had gone to Russia to marry the Princess Elizabeth Petrovna. However the Prince died of small pox, leaving Elizabeth heart-broken. Elizabeth’s sister, Anna gave birth to a son named Peter Ulrich, however tragedy once again struck as Anna’s died of tuberculosis three months after giving birth to Peter. Peter, who eventually became Tsar Peter III, was the only surviving male descendent and the potentially heir to the throne of Russia after his father died.
In November 1741, Elizabeth seized the throne with the help of the Imperial Guards, and formally declared her nephew Peter heir to the throne. Peter was now 14 years old, and it was time for him to find a bride. Elizabeth had always remembered the family of her dead fiancée with fondness, and chose Sophie as the bride to be. The Empress Elizabeth seemed to have taken an instant liking to Sophie at an early age. Sophie began to learn the Russian language and studied the Orthodox religion, which of course pleased the Empress. On June 28, Sophie was received into the Church in a great ceremony, and as a result changed her name to Catherine. Catherine was now the second highest-ranking lady in the country. Shortly after, Peter obtained measles, which started to show all the symptoms of small pox. Catherine found him to be a most pitiful creature, and it was with dismay that she looked towards her wedding day. The royal court was back in St. Petersburg, and after several postponements, the wedding took place on August 21, 1745 in the Cathedral of Kazan. It was at this time that Catherine, who had never felt more isolated, wrote: “I should have loved my new husband, if only he had been willing or able to be in the least lovable. But in the first days of my marriage, I made some cruel reflections about him. I said to myself: If you love this man, you will be the most wretched creature on Earth. Watch your step, so far as affection for this gentleman is concerned, think of yourself, Madame.”
The young couple settled down, but the marriage was a miserable failure. 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. Her interest in the intellect caused an even greater distance between Peter and herself. The years passed and there was still no heir in sight. This of course irritated the Empress 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 as his own. Elizabeth took the baby off to her apartments, where he would remain, as long as the Empress lived. This helped to tear Peter and Catherine’s relationship even further apart. A change came over Catherine after confronting the Empress about this, and she now trusted no one. She did help Peter with his Holstein Affairs and, at the same time, befriended the British Ambassador, Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams. Sir Charles arranged secret loans for her from England, as she was always short of funds. The Seven Years War began in 1756, and Russia and Prussia were on opposing sides. The Seven Years War put an end to the friendship with the English Ambassador. England was on Prussia’s side against Russia, and the English Ambassador was called home to London.
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. Peter had formed a close relationship with Elizabeth Vorontsova, the niece of the vice-chancellor. On Christmas day 1761, the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna died and the reign of Peter III had begun. Catherine mourned the Empress sincerely. Peter’s first official action was to end any hostile relations between Prussia and his Russia. On April 24, 1762 the new Tsar signed a treaty with the King of Prussia which restored all occupied territories to Prussia. Peter began to adopt many aspects of the Prussian military, such as changing imposing new brutal rules. The Russian Army started to suffer great losses during the Seven Years’ War, thanks in part to Peter. The army started to turn against Peter, and all classes in Russia began to grow hatred to Peter.
Catherine heard rumors that Peter intended to dispose of her and make Elizabeth Vorontsova his wife. With all that Peter had done to alienate the Army, Catherine felt herself in great danger. So some of Catherine’s friends plotted to overthrow the new Tsar. The main influences behind this plan 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, when 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. The procession of carriages reached the Cathedral of Kazan, where they found the church filled with clergy, awaiting Catherine’s inauguration. Catherine took the oath as Empress and Sole Autocrat.
Peter was with his mistress Elizabeth Vorontsova, the Prussian Ambassador Baron von Goltz, and the Chancellor when a secret messenger had arrived from St. Petersburg with the news that Catherine had been proclaimed Empress. Peter was urged to confront Catherine, however he refused such confrontation. 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. Catherine did not attend the funeral.
Not many people at European courts believed that Catherine would last long. Another German without a drop of Russian blood in her veins, and the true heir, Peter the Great’s grandson murdered. Catherine herself knew how fragile her position really was. She kept the statesmen who had been active under Elizabeth and under Peter. She even kept Chancellor Vorontzov. Nikita Panin was put in charge of foreign affairs. With his help she formed a greater alliance with Prussia. This alliance was established to stop Austrian and French influence on Russia’s borders and to keep Poland and Sweden as weak countries. Catherine conducted much of her Foreign Policy by letter, writing to her fellow Sovereigns, most notably Frederick of Prussia. When Catherine met the Senate for the first time at the Summer Palace, she was stunned by the realities of the country’s financial and social situation. The budget showed a deficit of 17 million rubles, in a country of only 100 million people. Everywhere people complained about corruption, extortion and injustice. Catherine left the sheltered world of a civilized court and stepped into an ignorant, disorganized, unruly, and often diseased Russia. She decided to concentrate on increasing Russia’s wealth, and since Russia was primarily agricultural, she began with the land.
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. She also paid special attention to the mining of silver. Furs had long been a resource of Russian wealth and she encouraged the existing trade in Siberia. She decreed that anyone could start a new factory, except in the two capitals, which were overcrowded. A whole range of industries began to emerge: linen, pottery, leather goods and furniture. Catherine also founded factories for textiles outside the Moscow region, including linen in the area of Yaroslov and leather and candles in the central Volga region. The total number of factories during her reign was increased from 984 to 3161. She turned to England and brought over Admiral Knowles to build warships and dockyards.
By the simple act of abolishing export duties, she achieved remarkable results. Russia’s primary exports were timber, hemp, flax, raw leather, furs, linen, cloth and iron. After the Treaty of Kyakhta was signed in 1768, camel caravans were soon passing to and from Manchuria. Russia exported furs, leather and linens to China, and imported cottons, silks, tobacco, silver and tea, among other commodities from China. As early as 1765 three quarters of the Empress Elizabeth’s debt was repaid, and a budget deficit had been turned into a surplus. A decree issued by Catherine in 1764 to all governor-generals instructed them to take accurate census, map their provinces and report on agriculture and trade. They were to build and repair roads and bridges, oversee the fighting of fires, and ensure that orphanages and prisons were properly administrated.
Catherine now turned to education. There were few schools in Russia. She started to convert a convent in St. Petersburg into a boarding school for girls, the Smolny Institute. She sent for Daniel Dumaresq, who had been a colleague of hers at Oxford and installed him as a member of the Educational Committee. 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. She did not deal with the founding of Universities, as she knew that Russia lacked qualified teachers for such institutions. However, she did increase the number of grants to study abroad.
When she looked at public health at the beginning of her reign, she found that its need was just as great as it was for education. She knew that children were plagued most by smallpox. So she brought Dr. Thomas Dimsdale, who had published a paper on how to treat smallpox, to St. Petersburg. Catherine volunteered to set an example by being the first person to be administered this vaccine. Dimsdale declared the vaccination a success and many followed her example. Catherine bought houses in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where Dr. Dimsdale could operate vaccination hospitals. In 1763, Catherine founded Russia’s first College of Medicine, which consisted of a director, a president and eight members. The College was instructed to train Russian doctors, surgeons and apothecaries to serve in the provinces. Peter the Great had built military hospitals, while Catherine founded hospitals for civilians.
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. Catherine’s efforts prompted her gentry to follow her example. Baron von Kleichen founded a 300 bed hospital in St. Petersburg, which in the 1790’s the College added 250 more beds. These are some of the visible results of Catherine’s domestic reforms. There would be many more during her long reign, but one can get an idea of her tireless striving for improvements.
Catherine was also an enthusiastic collector of the arts. She built up the Imperial art collection from a dozen works to an incredible 3926. She commissioned the building of Palaces and pumped millions of rubbles into the creation of the Hermitage, which can still be seen today. She built a theater where artists that were invited to Russia could perform operas and plays. Catherine, herself tried her hand at writing several operas, and some were performed there. Later in life she wrote stories for her grandchildren. 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.
Throughout all of this domestic reform, there were problems that took place outside of her empire. In 1768, Turkey and Russia had gone to war; the Turks were suffering great losses. In 1772, Frederick of Prussia convinced Catherine that a partition of Poland was necessary and she complied. After many decisions, it was agreed that Poland would be separated into three regions. Russia, Prussia and Austria would each take one of these regions. In 1773, Yemelian Pugachev led the Cossacks, which were independent tribes of fierce warriors, and others in revolts that encompassed large parts of eastern Russia. The Cossacks fought with the Russians against the Turks to resist the government’s attempt to absorb them into the government. These Cossack revolts showed Catherine how important these people were. In 1775, Catherine granted special privileges to the Cossacks, gaining in return their loyal support. The Russians had been at war once again with the Turks and were gaining land at a fast pace. These confrontations caused Catherine to realize that reforms were necessary for her survival. She began to abandon some of her principles and slipped deeper into the role of an autocrat, at the same time maintaining the look of an enlightened ruler. By 1774, the Russian army had gained great advances on the Turks and reached the Black Sea. At the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji, the Turks handed over access to the Black Sea, Crimean peninsula and other Turkish waters to the Russians.
In 1775, Catherine reorganized the local administration and integrated the Cossa 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. By the time 1793 came, uprisings were occurring in Poland and the government in Poland was trying to establish a constitutional monarchy. Once word of this broke out, Catherine sent in her Russian forces and the second partition of Poland occurred. Two years later, in 1795, the third partition of Poland occurred due to the uprisings of peasants and serfs. Catherine would no longer tolerate Poland; she dissolved Poland into Russia, gaining many of the Kievan lands, something many Russians value. “In 1796 the peasantry – private serfs and state peasants – compromised one million privately owned serfs under the control of the state. Catherine began to attack the Orthodox Church, just as Peter the Great had done. Catherine seized its wealth and turned its prelates and priests into state employees under her control. As the church became more dependent on the state, the clergy declined in great numbers. The government began to close many monasteries; Catherine made the church subservient to the state. Catherine, however, granted a toleration law to Old Believers and revoked their double taxation law. Catherine wanted to bring the Russian people back to Russia. To attract colonists and improve her image, she granted the freedom of worship to Protestants and Catholics.
When her son Paul was old enough, she arranged a marriage to a German princess. Paul’s wife died in childbirth, but her son Alexander survived. In 1776, he married Princess Dorothea of Wuertemberg, who was re-named Maria Federovna. Catherine raised Alexander, just as Elizabeth had done with Paul. The succession of her family line was never a worry for Catherine. It was her great regret during her long reign that she was unable to abolish serfdom. She realized that she would alienate the nobility with such an act, who depended on the labor of the serfs for their great estates. She did, however, issue several decrees for the humane treatment of the serfs. Catherine hoped that her grandson Alexander would be in a stronger position to free the people.
After she had distanced herself from Gregory Orlov, another important public figure appeared on the scene. Gregory Potemkin was a man of exceptional ability, and she soon entrusted him with important affairs of State. Through him, Catherine was able to annex the Crimea from the Turks, a region of great importance. In the 1780’s Potemkin was the most important man in Russia. Catherine’s Empire now reached from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Some Historians state that there was a possibility that Catherine may have married Potemkin in a secret ceremony. We do know that they had a loving relationship for some year, however there is no solid proof that such a marriage existed. He was deeply devoted to Catherine till his death.
Catherine possessed majesty without being pompous like the many before her. Over the years she lived through hurtful criticism, rebellion, war and estrangement from her son, whom she thought was incapable of ruling Russia. Paul never forgave his mother for how she treated him and for the involvement she played in the death of Peter III, whom he always believed to be his farther. Catherine had planned to bypass him as heir to the throne, leaving it to her grandson Alexander. She was a woman alone without her own family, except her beloved grandchildren. We can read how devastated she was, when as Grand Duchess, she had learned of the death of her beloved father. She felt much guilt at the time because she had gone against her father’s wishes and changed her religion.
As Empress, she showered her grandsons with much love, but some suggest that this was a void she tried to fill with the many relationships she formed with men. Perhaps we misunderstand her many attachments. She loved to teach, and she had much knowledge to give. We can see from her many letters to Baron von Grimm, that she took pride in the education of her young protégés. Perhaps what many historians interpret as promiscuous behavior, was nothing more than her filling the lonely hours by sharing her vast knowledge with the young men she deemed worthy of her attention. She had long and lasting relationships with Orlov and Potemkin, and it seems that she was capable of being faithful and devoted.
Russia owes her much. After a long reign of thirty-four years, Catherine died of a stroke on November 17, 1796. History knows her as Catherine the Great, a title she was offered during her lifetime and rejected. “I leave it to posterity to judge impartially what I have done” she said at the time; and Catherine has done well. Domestically, She dealt with peasant revolts, pretenders, and noble opposition. Abroad, she increased Russia’s territory, prestige and international importance. Regardless of her much emphasized personal life and sexual relations, she deserves the title because she earned it.
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