For more than 30 years, Catherine II ruled Russia with such energy and flair that she stamped an entire epoch with her name. She is admired as Catherine the Great by most Russians because the country became strong enough under her rule to threaten the other great powers, and her brilliant court was conversant with the most interesting cultural developments in Europe. Her critics point to her unscrupulous methods, undisciplined private life, and lack of compassion for the poor. She identified her own interests with those of the Russian state and worked without respite for its glorification.
Catherine was born a princess on May 2, 1729, but not in Russia. She was named Sophie Freiderike Auguste at her birth in the German principality of Anhalt-Zerbst. Her father, Christian August, served as a general in the Prussian Army, and her mother was Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. This connection to Holstein brought additional power to the family. Catherine received her formal education from a tutor, who taught her religion, history, and French.
At age 15, Catherine traveled to Russia, where she met the youth whom her parents had arranged for her to marry. Karl Ulrich was the German duke of Holstein-Gottorp, but he was also the grandson of Peter I and was in line to inherit the Russian throne as Grand Duke Peter. Catherine assumed the title Grand Duchess Catherine Alekseyevna and married Peter the following year in 1745. Peter was a difficult man with personality disorders and a fondness for alcohol who brought Catherine a great deal of humiliation during the 18 years of their marriage. Her ambition to remain attached to the future ruler of Russia kept Catherine in the loveless marriage, though she deceived her husband with several lovers.
In January 1762, Empress Elizabeth died, and the throne passed to Peter, who became Peter III. Though he was unfit in many ways to rule an empire, Peter's most alarming drawback at the moment of his ascension was his devotion to Frederick II of Prussia, with whom Russia was at war. Peter made peace with Frederick and also made plans to thwart Catherine's ambitions and have her removed from the court, but Catherine too had plans. Moreover, Catherine had the support of the military and the Streltsy, or royal guard, who helped her to seize power. She also had the support of much of the aristocratic class, who admired her sophisticated nature. When Catherine had herself proclaimed empress in mid-1762, Peter abdicated and retired to his country estate, where he was killed one week later, undoubtedly by Catherine's supporters.
Though she had usurped the throne, Catherine was truly dedicated to the future of Russia and was determined to increase its strength and power. She was also excited by the idea of fomenting a national culture, one that shared the ideals of the Enlightenment but was more than just an imitation of intellectual movements in France. She threw herself into the duties of a ruler, moving on several fronts at once. Though Catherine admired the ideas of such Enlightenment theorists as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Baron de Montesquieu, she knew that the reforms they suggested would be difficult to implement in Russia.
Catherine nevertheless convened a commission in 1767 to compile a new code of laws and provided the delegates with a Nakaz, or set of instructions, so voluminous and liberal it surprised many. She had worked on the Nakaz for two years, writing much of it but borrowing heavily from Enlightenment authors. She asserted that all subjects should be equal before the law, torture should be abolished, capital punishment used only in extreme circumstances, and religious dissent should be tolerated. She did not advocate dismantling serfdom but did raise questions about its legitimacy. Yet the delegates to the commission, from all walks of life, could not agree among themselves on anything, and the commission eventually dissolved without producing anything.
Frustrated by the obstacles to internal reform, Catherine turned to the arena of foreign affairs to build the prestige of the empire and her place within it. In 1768, war with Russia's traditional enemy, the Ottoman Empire, brought early victories and seemed quite popular. As the fighting dragged on, however, it caused certain hardships that were intensified by the outbreak of a plague in Moscow. It was under these conditions that a rebellion erupted in the Ural Mountains in 1773 and spread popular uprisings across a wide swath of the empire.
The rebellion was led by Emelyan Pugachev, a former leader of the Don Cossacks. It spread swiftly throughout southeast Russia as some 30,000 rebels captured towns and cities, burned the houses of noblemen, and tortured government officials. Pugachev readied his troops to invade Moscow in 1774, but fortunately for Catherine, the war with Turkey was concluded at this time, and she was able to deploy her best troops against the peasant rebels. It did not take long for the veteran force to crush the rebellion, and Pugachev was executed in 1775.
The severity of the rebellion changed Catherine's attitude toward Russia's poor majority, however. Having once believed the condition of serfdom to be inhumane, Catherine now worked to better systematize the bondage of Russia's agricultural laborers. She imposed serfdom where it had not existed previously, as in the Ukraine, and used the forced labor of 95% of the population to help finance her other projects. Ten years later, in 1785, she would issue the Charter of the Nobility that ended the obligations of noblemen toward the government and exempted them from direct taxes and corporal punishment.
Catherine engaged in administrative reforms that made government more efficient and pursued the expansion of the education system. She began elementary schools in some districts, high schools appeared in the major cities, and she organized a college of medicine at the University of Moscow. In the field of health, she encouraged the use of inoculations and quarantines, effective against smallpox. The government also undertook a massive building campaign.
It was after the defeats of Pugachev and the Ottoman Turks that Grigori Potemkin began his career as a political adviser to Catherine, who did not, as a rule, delegate important matters to others. Although she had many lovers—her voracious sexual appetite caused scandalous talk—and on numerous occasions accepted their advice in the political realm, she maintained control. Potemkin, her chief minister from 1774 until 1791, and with whom she had an affair for two years, was the one man among her advisers who exerted great power. Potemkin was an experienced diplomat, and his audacious advice prompted Catherine in her expansion of the empire.
Catherine handled foreign relations realistically and aggressively and had already annexed territory along the Baltic coast and through the partition of Poland even before Potemkin came to power. It was Potemkin, however, who planned the acquisition of the Crimea from the Turks. Catherine wanted to obtain Bessarabia and control the Black Sea, Constantinople, and the Dardenelles Straits. In 1783, Potemkin arranged the annexation of Crimea from that principality's khan, a crucial acquisition that established Russian power on the Black Sea. Catherine soon established the city of Odessa, which fulfilled the Russian desire for an important warm-water port. Unsatisfied, Catherine was determined to end the Turkish presence in Europe. In 1787, Russia entered into an alliance with Austria and again went to war on the Ottomans. A treaty five years later resulted in the Turks finally withdrawing their troops from between the Bug and Dnieper rivers and confirmed Catherine's complete control of the Crimea.
In 1793, Catherine again sent Russian troops into Poland and in cooperation with Prussia, arranged a second partition. This time, Catherine obtained most of Lithuania and the western Ukraine. A third partition occurred in 1795 after an uprising led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko. The arrangement gave Catherine the rest of Lithuania and the Ukraine, along with Courland, while Prussia and Austria also received substantial territory. Poland was thus eliminated as an independent nation; all told, the partitions resulted in Russia gaining 190,000 square miles.
Catherine's "enlightened absolutism" never encompassed republicanism—indeed, she opposed the French Revolution as too extreme. For the most part, her Enlightenment reforms did not extend beyond society's upper levels, and tensions long present in Russia worsened. To monarchists, Catherine appeared highly successful, gaining territory and forging both a truly national state and a European power. However, the peasants suffered enormously, and the government often functioned chaotically. When Catherine died in St. Petersburg on November 17, 1796, she left behind a nation whose exterior appearance hid huge internal problems.