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Catherine the Great of Russia - World Leaders in History

Rising from minor Pomeranian nobility to Empress of all Russia, Catherine II changed the political map of both her empire and the European continent.

5. Early Life

Catherine II, or Catherine the Great, was born in Stettin, Prussia, on May 2, 1729. Her father, Christian August, was the prince of a small German principality. Her mother paid little attention to her, favoring her sickly younger brother and leaving Catherine to be raised by the family's governess. After Catherine’s brother died at the age of 12, her mother began to realize that she could climb the social ranks by marrying her young daughter off into a more elite family. With this in mind, in 1744 mother and daughter travelled to Russia, where they met the Grand Duke Peter. He and Catherine married in 1745, and Catherine became a Grand Duchess.

4. Rise to Power

Catherine’s new husband had little interest in spending time with his Prussian wife, so she became very independent. At this time, it was said that she preferred to spend her leisure time reading. After he became emperor in 1761, Peter started acting cruelly toward her and toward his citizens. This soon led to his becoming unpopular among the common people, elites, and nobles alike in Russia at the time. Tired of his tyranny, Catherine organized a political coup against her own husband. She did not intend to kill him, but Peter ended up being assassinated in the midst of the ensuing actions. Catherine was then crowned Empress and Autocrat of all the Russias in September of 1762.

3. Contributions

As Empress, Catherine first worked to undo some of the ill effects resulting from the late Peter’s poor leadership, including smoothing relationships with the Russian elite and the Orthodox Church. Later, she crafted a legal document, called the Nakaz, which emphasized the equality of all men, and outlawed torture and capital punishment. In 1767, she invited representatives from across the country to a Legislative Commission to share the opinions and ideas of people from different classes. However, these efforts to weaken the feudal system were more symbolic than practical and, in 1785, she passed the Charter of Nobility, which only expanded the power of the upper classes, and did little for the common man and serfs. She also extended Russia’s borders, famously playing a key role in the partition of Poland between the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian empires, and proved the strength of the Russian Army to skeptical European nations through the waging of several wars. She championed education and the arts, and founded several universities across Russia.

2. Challenges

Catherine managed to rise above her husband’s cruelty and become highly independent and ambitious. Her ambitions even extended to her romantic life. Even though she could not remarry after Peter’s death, and had to appear chaste for the public, she was said to have a voracious sexual appetite. She had relationships with as many as twelve lovers during her lifetime, which was also a way for her to expand her influence and territories for her empire. One prominent example was her affair with the Polish noble Stanisław II August, who she placed on the throne of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the final years before its partition. The Russian people generally liked her, but she did face several coup attempts during her reign. The most threatening of these coups was led by Emelyan Pugachev, who claimed to himself be the late emperor Peter, whom he said had never actually died, and tried to “retake his rightful throne". Catherine did not take him seriously until he gained a substantial following among dissatisfied peasants. Only then did she eliminate him and his followers by force with the Russian military. After his defeat, Pugachev was executed.

1. Death and Legacy

Catherine suffered a stroke in 1796, and died in a coma a few days later. She still remains a source of national pride for most Russians, although historians from other parts of the globe have more mixed opinions. Many criticize her failure to improve living conditions and expand rights for the serfs living under her rule. However, today she is positively remembered as an ambitious and intelligent woman, famous primarily for her military conquests and her expansion of Russian borders.

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