Catherine the Great and Queen Victoria:
Their Legacy and Impact
The World and the West
Catherine the Great of Russia and Queen Victoria of England were two of the most powerful rulers that the world has yet known. The legacies of their reigns are equally memorable. They are memorable for the extraordinary events that took place during their reigns, but most importantly, they are memorable because they were two women who triumphed in a man’s world. What is so interesting about these two women of power is that perhaps the only thing they shared in common was their sex. If they were to be compared in terms of color, Catherine the Great would be a fiery red, and Queen Victoria would be a pale pink. Their politics, their goals, and even the very culture surrounding their reign were almost diametrically opposites. In spite of this, both were able to make great contributions of equal importance almost in all sectors of society that had an extraordinary impact on the cultures of their countries and empires.
By comparing the events that brought both of these women to power, right away one begins to see the deep contrast of the very nature of these two rulers. Queen Victoria succeeded her uncle William IV in 1837, since upon his death, he had no children of his own and Victoria was next in line to assume the throne. The events leading up to her reign were rather peaceful and prosperous. On the other hand, the events leading up to Catherine’s reign were nothing but tumultuous. She was herself a German princess, brought to Russia because of an arranged marriage to Peter III, who was nephew and heir of Empress Elizabeth. Unlike queen Victoria’s marriage to her first cousin Prince Albert, Catherine’s arranged marriage was not at all successful. Perhaps due in part to Peter’s physical ailment that kept them from consummating their marriage, and the fact that as portrayed in Chomsky’s Catherine the Great, he was a brute of a man while Catherine was a cultured and intelligent woman, their marriage was sour from the beginning. In the end, this, as well as her eagerness to rule, was precisely what led to her rise to power. Because her marriage was a failure, she had lovers. One of her lovers was Gregory Orlov, an army officer who was able to get the army on her side. Soon after Peter’s succession in 1761, the army made Catherine Empress and upon her order, murdered Peter III.
Catherine’s and Victoria’s politics were also quite different. In Queen Victoria’s case England was a constitutional monarchy whereby her decisions were balanced by the parliament (Allen and Allen 182). In Catherine’s case she was the absolute ruler. What is most important, perhaps, is not so much that their politics were different, but that their tactics were different. Queen Victoria had Prince Albert, her husband, who dealt with most political matters while he was alive. As seen in Queen Victoria’s Empire directed by Paul Bryers, Albert’s politics were patterned by his vision of Camelot, the fable realm of King Arthur whose empire “was the greatest, judged not by the extent of its conquests, but by the belief that the strong should serve the weak, and right must triumph over evil,” according to Bryers. After his death, it was Queen Victoria’s prime ministers Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone who basically ran the show, with very little interference from the Queen. She had the capability of controlling their decisions but she did not herself take an active part in the decision-making. By contrast, Catherine the Great was extremely active in the decision making during her reign. She handpicked her own advisors that would be loyal to her wishes, unlike in Queen Victoria’s case where it was the people who chose them by voting.
Although during Queen Victoria’s reign England had the greatest empire in the world, this was not her own goal, but rather that of her Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. By comparison, and as seen in Chomsky’s Catherine the Great, expanding the empire was most certainly one of Catherine’s main goals. Queen Victoria’s goals, and that of her husband Prince Albert, included improving the standard of living of her subjects, and upholding high moral standards, as “she set the tone for the age not in terms of political power but in terms of religion, manners, and moral idealism” (Allen and Allen 182). On the other hand, Catherine the Great’s main goals were indeed the expansion and prosperity of Russia, even if this meant that it should come at the expense of the weakest of her subjects, the peasants (Allen and Allen 86). She, therefore, favored the nobles in order to ensure her own security.
In terms of morals and the cultural practices surrounding each one of their reigns, Queen Victoria and Catherine the Great again were like night and day. Because of Queen Victoria’s high morals, the Victorian period has come to be known as the age of innocence, purity, gentility, grace, and devotion to God. As seen in the film Queen Victoria’s Empire, Queen Victoria was herself a model example of her age, mourning the death of her husband for forty years by wearing black for the rest of her life. Hence, Queen Victoria would have certainly blushed had she read about some of the things that Catherine had done, such as keeping many lovers and executing the rebel leader, Pugachev, rejecting General Potemkin’s pleading against it.
After the disillusionment of her marriage to what must have been an adulterous, self-centered, buffoon of a husband, and later the betrayal of a lover, Sergei Saltykov, who was the father of her son the future Emperor Paul I, Catherine seems to have lost her faith both in the sanctity of marriage and of love. In a way, this was best since it was what propelled her rise to power. As recorded in The Grolier Encyclopedia of Knowledge, Catherine learned to manipulate men’s desires, and used their weaknesses to make herself more powerful. An example of this was her relationship with her lover Potemkin, whom she seduced and brought back from exile in order to secure the army’s loyalty and promote her own self interest.
In their own ways both Victoria and Catherine wanted the best for their country, as any ruler does, but just as their reigns were so different so was their cultural impact. Catherine’s impact was that she completely revolutionized the idea of what it meant to be a woman, for the first time perhaps since Cleopatra. She proved to the world that a woman too could be driven, ambitious, manipulative, and even ruthless in order to succeed. She proved to the world that a woman could match a man both in intellect and in will. “Nevertheless, she had drunk deeply at the well of the Enlightenment, and she was determined to become an enlightenment despot” (Allen and Allen 85).
Queen Victoria too was a source of inspiration and her cultural impact was just as great. She was a source of inspiration because she was a model wife and mother. She was a caring and gentle woman, a good Christian, and a compassionate monarch in a world driven by greed. For her, it was not enough that she and her family were kind and good, she wanted to spread goodness to all of her subjects. The kindness, and especially the tolerance that she advocated had a great impact not only on the British culture but also to all the other parts of the world under the British empire, including the United States.
Long lists can be made of the many contributions made by these two incredible women to their individual countries and empires. For Catherine, that list would include such deeds as “establishing a girls’ school, a public library, a college of medicine, and hospitals.” It would also include many reforms such as “the limited use of torture and extended religious freedom.” Furthermore, she improved trade and annexed the Crimea and a large part of Poland (Allen and Allen 85 and 86). For Victoria, the list would include such deeds as making India the “jewel of her crown” and enforcing the Indians human rights (Allen and Allen 328). It would also include the great deed of populating most of the thrones of Europe with her own very well-educated children and grandchildren. All these contributions had a tremendous impact on the cultures of their countries. Catherine’s contributions helped to elevate Russian society to the modern world. Victoria’s contributions helped promulgate the notion of humanitarianism in imperialism through education, trade, and religion. However, the major contribution of both of them that had the greatest impact on society was their very existence, as women and as rulers who influenced their male-dominated cultures. After all, their legacy continues to inspire our culture.
Allen, Michael J., and James B. Allen. World History From 1500. New York: Harper Collins,1993.
Catherine the Great. Dir Marvin J. Chomsky. Perf. Catherine Zeta Jones, Paul McGann, and Ian Richardson. A&E Special Presentation,
December 9, 2000.
“Catherine II, Empress of Russia.” Grolier Encyclopedia of Knowledge. Ed. Lawrence T. Lorimer.
Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Incorporated,1992. vol.4
Queen Victoria’s Empire. Written and directed by Paul Bryers. Devillier Donegan Enterprises. PBS and
History Channel. Videocassette. 2001.