Influenced by French Enlightenment thinking, Catherine the Great carried out a number of internal reforms. The tolerance of all forms of religion as laid down in the edict was intended to show the world that a modern and enlightened monarch was ruling Russia.
Catherine read the works of Montesquieu and exchanged letters with Voltaire. She supported the sciences and the arts, made reforms to the educational system and generously encouraged German settlers to prosper in the Volga region. During her reign, St. Petersburg became one of Europe’s most beautiful capital cities.
Referring to Voltaire, she wrote in a letter to Baron Friedrich Melchior Grimm in 1778: "He is my teacher, or rather, his works have formed my thought and my intellectual development.“
But Catherine was also a woman with strong political instincts and an iron will to control. Her numerous lovers from the Russian nobility attempted unsuccessfully to influence her, even while her husband was still alive.
As a young queen, she arranged the coup of her inept husband, Peter III, from the throne. While she never directly ordered his death, she condoned it. Following his demise, nothing else prevented her from enacting complete and absolute control of Russia.
Catherine used her power to wage two successful wars against the Osman Empire. She gained direct access to the Crimean and annexed regions of Poland into the Russian Empire. Russia’s territory grew by a sizeable amount during her reign.
She ruled this enormous empire with an iron hand. Despite the impression she created of being an admiring student of the French Enlightenment movement, her internal reforms caused no long-term improvement in the country‘s social structure. Her enlightenment spirit did indeed encourage modernization, but the obvious social inequalities actually became worse under her reign.
The outdated social order continued its downwards spiral when she extended feudalism to also cover the Ukraine. This left the fate of bondsmen totally in the hands of the land-owning nobles. The desperate uprising of those deprived smallholders in 1776 was mercilessly stamped out, the leaders were publicly executed in Moscow and the few minor attempts of the state to decentralize and reorganize amounted to nothing.
Even so, Voltaire continued to believe that Catherine was a truly enlightened reformist. He maintained that she was a monarch who had at heart the best interests of her subjects, as well as the protection of human rights and the division of power.
A liberal command issued by Catherine to her officials regarding a future reform, which was never actually implemented, was enough to convince Voltaire that a Russian Renaissance was taking place. He insisted that Catherine the Great was its chief protagonist. His admiration for the Czar was unyielding.
Voltaire wrote to the queen: "May I say that I am a little confused that your name is Catherine? Heroines of old did not bear the names of saints. Ancients like Homer and Virgil would not have known how to praise a lady with such a name. But under whatever name, I prostrate myself at the feet of Your Majesty, with a deep and grateful respect.“
The monarch used this personal connection with Voltaire to have a European accomplice and champion for her plans and activities. Not all contemporary intellectuals approved of her actions. The ruling houses of Germany and Austria, too, viewed her activities with suspicion.
Catherine’s reign was full of contradictions. The tolerance edict of June 17, 1773 expressly forbade all forms of religious persecution and serves as proof of her modern and liberal attitude. This law was of great benefit to the Old Believers, the branch of the Russian Orthodox Church which had been excommunicated following the Schism of 1666.
In diametric contrast to this were the restrictions placed on the Jewish population. They were limited to designated areas of the western Czardom, which covered large parts of annexed Poland. From 1791 onwards, Jews there were ghettoized. Their social and religious activities could only be carried out in the designated zones.
This was not the only bone of contention in Catherine’s politics during her reign. Her expansionist politics and her desire for absolute power were also against the spirit of French Enlightenment. It was above all the contradictions in her personality and in her reign, which made her one of the most interesting figures in world politics.
Catherine the Great was a lady of high intellect, a tireless worker for the good of Russia, and above all, she was human and she was kind. She was a legend in her own time. Her behavior throughout her exceptional life was at all times understandable. No other ruler had her many fine qualities.
Catherine the Great (1729-1796), empress of Russia (1762-1796), continued the process of Westernization begun by Peter the Great and made Russia a European power. She was born a German princess in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) as Sophie Fredericka Augusta von Anhalt-Zerbst and in time turned out to be a powerful and enlightened ruler of the vast Russian Empire. In 1745 she was married to prince Carl Peter Ulrich, the heir to the Russian throne (the future Emperor Peter III). She bore three children to whom she was a devoted and caring mother. Being a bright personality with a strong sense of determination, she joined the Russian Orthodox Church, learned the Russian language and by doing a lot of reading acquired a brilliant education. She was proud to be a friend and an active correspondent to the best thinkers of the time, such as the prominent French Enlightenment personalities Rousseau and Diderot.
After the death of her husband she became Russia's autocratic ruler. Throughout her long reign many reforms were undertaken and the territory of Russia was further extended by acquiring the lands of Southern Ukraine and the Crimea. The rights of the Russian nobility were extended, which won Catherine popularity among the Russian social elite.
Catherine's more benevolent achievements included the foundation of the first Russian schools for girls and of a medical college to provide health care for her subjects. In 1776 she created a major cultural institution, the Great Theater in Moscow, which became a cradle of wonderful music and ballet achievements and is widely recognized today in the international artistic world. She established the Free Economic Society (1765) to encourage the modernization of agriculture and industry. She promoted trade and the development of underpopulated regions by inviting foreign settlers, and she founded new towns. University of Moscow and Academy of Science became an internationally recognized learning center under her sponsorship. Being very well educated and knowing the importance of education she also increased the number of state and private schools.
Catherine undertook major reforms of provincial and urban administrations to ensure better control of the empire. She aimed at completing the job started by Peter I -- westernizing Russia--but she chose different methods. Unlike Peter, she didn't force society into service of the state, but rather encouraged individual initiative in pursuit of self-interest. She succeeded to a degree with the upper class, but didn't quite do it with the majority of the population -- the peasantry.
Catherine the Great, being the outsider of the Romanov dynasty, wanted to establish strong links with earlier Russian history and the Romanov tsars. She commissioned an impressive monument to Peter the Great - the Bronze Horseman. Most experts agree that the St. Petersburg of Catherine the Great changed its appearance significantly and turned out to be one of the most impressive European capitals.
Under Catherine, the territory of the Russian Empire was greatly expanded, especially through two wars with the Ottoman Empire (1768-1774 and 1787-1791) and the annexation of Crimea (1783), which gave Russia control over the northern coast of the Black Sea.
Catherine the Great died in 1796 at the age of 67, having lived longer than any other Romanov monarch. She was buried in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. At the time of her death modern Russian was organized and its culture had struck firm roots. Russia was also playing a determining role in world affairs.
Catherine was born in 1729 in Stettin, Prussia, which is now Szczecin, Poland. Her original name was Sophie Fredericke Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst and she was a German princess. Sophie moved to Russia in 1744 and was married in 1745 to the Grand Duke Peter of Holstein. Sophie converted her religion from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodox, and her husband Peter became Peter III of Russia in 1762. However, her husband was not very well liked and did much to antagonize his people and the courts, so Sophie and the imperial guard overthrew him, and Sophie was declared empress Catherine II.
Much of what Catherine did when she ruled led to improvements in Russia. She won two important wars against the Ottoman Empire, expanding Russia to the Black Sea's shores. Agreements were made with Austria and Prussia that created partitions with Poland, and more area in Europe belonged to Russia. Like Peter the Great, Catherine supported westernization, improving the Russian government through the influence of the west. She bolstered the autocratic government in the Age of Enlightenment with Montesquieu's The Spirit of Laws prayerbook. She also convened the Legislature Commission to try a political reform, but this produced no results.
Probably the greatest hardship in Catherine's reign, the thing that caused the most changes in both government and the Russian's attitude towards Catherine, was the Pugachew Rebellion. This was a rebellion started by a man named Yemelyan Pugachew who claimed he was Catherine's husband, Peter III. In truth, Catherine's husband had been killed by one of her lovers' brothers, but Pugachew played on the doubt that he actually died. Pugachew gained many supporters from many of the different classes in Russia, and took the city of Kazan' and was close to getting Moscow. However, Pugachew and his supporters were no match for the Russian army, and they were defeated. Pugachew was surrendered by his men, tried in Moscow, and executed after being pronounced guilty.
After the Pugachew Rebellion, Catherine instituted many changes of government to try to reunite the Russian classes once more. These changes resolved around decentralization, the distribution of functions and power, gentry's participation. The land units were subdivided into provinces and then into districts to give the local governments more power. The courts and the procedures of the judicial branch of government were further organized. Catherine tried to separate the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, but failed. She extended the serfdom throughout Russia and transfered the church property to the state. She also started colonization of the Volga river and southern Russia.
However, Catherine's main interest was also in culture and education. She established boarding schools like the Smolny Institute for Girls and the Russian Academy of Letters. Public publishing houses were licensed and because works could now be published, journalism flourished. Hospitals and medical colleges were founded, surgical and medical equipment was being made in Russia, and they were leading the war in disease control.
Right when Catherine was preparing to fight France during the French Revolution, Catherine had a stroke and died in 1796. Catherine's son, Paul, took over her throne after her death. Catherine did so much for Russia during her reign that she was called Catherine the Great more often than Catherine II. Her greatness gives her a place in my list.
Catherine the Great assumed power in 1762 after a coup d' etat, which she engineered together with officers of the Royal Guard. Unlike her husband, she was well loved by the country's elite and received a very good press in Europe thanks to her contacts with many figures of the French Enlightenment.
Catherine's court was extremely luxurious. She was the first to move into the newly built Winter Palace. Catherine started a royal art collection which later became the world-famous Hermitage. Several additional buildings (the Small Hermitage and the Old Hermitage) were commissioned for the growing royal collection of art. The Hermitage Theater was built and the area around the palace was put in order and built up with the finest houses and palaces.
The most prominent embankments on the left bank of the Neva river were upgraded to their present red granite look and the marvelous wrought iron fence of the Summer Gardens was built by Yuri Felten in 1773-86.
Under Catherine's patronage science, the arts and trade flourished. New buildings for the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Fine Arts and the first Public Library (now the Russian National Library) were constructed and the large Gostiny Dvor trading complex was opened on Nevsky Prospect. Many educational institutions were established.
In Tsarskoye Selo ( now Pushkin) several additions to the royal palace were built. One of these new wings (the Cameron Gallery) served as the living quarters for Catherine the Great herself. The lovely park which surrounds the palaces still bears the stamp of Catherine's lively and luxurious court.
Among Catherine's many reforms was the reform of St. Petersburg local administration. In 1766 the position of gorodskoi golova (a mayor) was established. In 1774 a Magistrat (municipal council) was formed, and in 1786 it was transformed into the city Duma.
A monument to Catherine the Great was built in 1873 in a garden just off Nevsky Prospect (by the Public Library and the Alexandrinsky Theater. Thousands of people come to visit her tomb in the Peter and Paul Cathedral
Consolidation Under Catherine the Great
After the death of Peter the Great in 1724, there were a series of weak rulers dominated by the military. In 1761 the retarded Peter III became tsar, but was rapidly replaced as the effective power by his wife, Catherine the Great. Catherine continued the policy of autocratic centralization and suppressed the uprising of peasants under Emelian Pugachev. Catherine flirted with Enlightenment ideas and attempted legal reforms along Enlightenment concepts.
However, Caterine also favored centralization and a strong tsarist hand, and she strengthened the power of the nobility over the Russian peasantry. The nobility continued to serve as the primary source of recruits for the bureaucracy and military. Landlords gained almost absolute jurisdiction over the peasants who resided on their estates. Catherine turned rapidly against Western ideas during the French Revolution and censored Russian intellectuals who criticized autocracy. Catherine pressed the attack on the Ottoman Empire, gaining lands in the Crimea.
Russia colonized Siberia, and explorers reached Alaska and the California coast. Catherine directed an aggressive foreign policy against Prussia and Poland. In 1772, 1793, and 1795, Russia participated in the partition of Poland, which ceased to exist as an independent state. In some ways, Russian expansion was reminiscent of the early United States.