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Catherine the Great: German-Born Empress of Russia

27. December 2012 by Lorena 0 Comments

When the Russian royal family sought a wife for Peter III, the son who would become the next tsar, they decided that the best relationship would be one that could strengthen their ties with Prussia. Despite a lack of wealth and the interference of a meddling mother, the young Sophia Augusta Fredericka charmed Empress Elizabeth, Peter’s mother. Although Sophia took an immediate dislike to her fiancé due to his drinking habits and pale complexion, her ambition to become Empress of Russia led her to accept him. According to her memoirs, Sophia decided to do or say whatever would help her gain the throne. 


Sophia was soon baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church and took the name Catherine. She worked hard to learn Russian, and often stayed up all night repeating her lessons to herself. After years of planning, she married Peter III at the age of 16.


Her marriage to Peter was tumultuous. Peter had a harsh temper and a demanding nature which alienated many members of the court. He angered members of Russia’s military by demanding daily parades and harshly punishing those who fell out of formation or were sloppy. Catherine spent most of her time in her rooms to avoid him. The two spent most of their time apart and each had many other lovers.


Peter ascended to the throne on January 5, 1762 after the death of Empress Elizabeth. He instituted many policies that made him extremely unpopular. Through the sister of Peter III’s mistress, Catherine met and became friends with many members of the court who wanted Peter off the throne. Dissatisfied nobles hatched a conspiracy to remove Peter and install Catherine on the throne. When one of her co-conspirators was arrested in June of 1762, plans for the coup were accelerated. With the support of the nobility and the military, Peter was arrested and assassinated and Catherine rose to the throne.


She was technically only Empress Regent, ostensibly waiting for her son to come of age. However, Catherine the Great ruled from 1762 until her death in 1796. She ruled Russia longer than any other woman in history. 


Catherine was strongly influenced by Enlightenment thinking, and sought to modernize the country. She increased Russia’s population by inviting people from Prussia and other European countries to Russia with a promise of land. She also expanded Russia’s territory to include Southern Ukraine and other areas. Under her rule, the cities of Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson and the future Dnepropetrovsk were founded. Russia came to be recognized as one of the great powers of Europe.


Catherine the Great is credited with beginning The Russian Enlightenment; the age of her rule is considered the Golden Age of Russia. She was a patron of the opera in Russia, and even wrote a number of opera librettos. Catherine considered education a priority, and founded Europe’s first school for young women, the Smolny Institute for Noble Girls. She also eventually created public primary and high schools that were free of charge and open to all members of the free classes in Russia.


The French philosopher Voltaire was one of her correspondents. They wrote one another from her ascension until his death in 1775. When he died, she acquired his books from his heirs and added them to the National Library of Russia.


She called together councils to attempt to make Russia more democratic, but, many nobles were nervous about ideas that may have reduced their power in the country. However, under her rule, serfs gained some power to petition local governments, and nobles were freed from obligatory military service.


In 1796, one week before Catherine the Great was to announce that her grandson, Alexander I, was to be her successor, she suffered a stroke. Catherine fell into a coma and never recovered. Although her son Paul I became the next tsar, he only ruled for six years. After Paul I’s death, Alexander I became Tsar, in accordance with Catherine’s wishes.


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Pictures: WikiCommons