|Major Contributions of Catherine the Great of
Russia and Queen Victoria of England to Their Cultures
Dr. Priscilla Oguine
April 14, 2003
Two of the most important and influential reformers of their countries’cultures were Catherine the Great of Russia and Queen Victoria of England. Both of them made great contributions to their empires. Empress Catherine the Great added western ideas to the Russian empire, which was at the time well behind in the “enlightenment thinking style.” Yet, her other contribution was the conquering of many countries and lands as contained in World History from 1500 by J. Michael Allen & James B and the film of Catherine the Great directed by Marvin J. Chomsky. Queen Victoria of England, on the other hand, was more involved with caring for her own people and giving them an example of herself on how to live a good moral life by restoring moral values to England after Henry VIII’s scandalous reign. Another of her major contributions to the English nation was the conquest of India, which gave many benefits to the country as can be seen by viewing Queen Victoria’s Empire written and directed by Paul Bryers. All of these contributions greatly changed both countries’ cultures for the years to come.
Some of the cultural practices at that time in Russia as well as in most of Europe were the idea of “trading” female royalty for peace, alliance, and using them for their ability to produce children. Empress Catherine was no exception to this practice and was used for this reason. Born in Germany in 1729, she was a German princess named Sophie who was a very beautiful and very intelligent young lady. At the age of fifteen, she was a perfect wife for Grand Duke of Russia who was to become Czar Peter III of Russia. Peter III could not perform sexually and Catherine was assigned a lover who would make her
pregnant as shown in the film. This incident made Catherine look on men as instruments only to be used. Peter III became the Car of Russia in 1762 but was very quickly assassinated by Catherine and her fellow conspirator Grigori Orlov. Catherine became the empress of Russia and ruled for thirty-four years as Catherine the Great, building on the foundation laid by her grandfather-in-law Peter the Great.
Catherine had begun her reign with a strong will to turn the Russian culture toward the western ideas and to improve the living standards of serfs in Russia. To achieve this, she was always reading books of western philosophers and thinkers and these ideas really formed her character. ”She had drunk deeply at the well of the Enlightenment, and she was determined to become enlightened despot “(Allen & Allen 85 ). Also, she wanted Russia to have this knowledge and to appreciate the western culture. Catherine built many schools and libraries that helped her with this goal. For instance, “she founded two hospitals, a college of medicine, a public library, and a girls’ school. She brought in Western art, architecture, literature, music, and western ideas of all sorts” (Allen & Allen 85). As for the serfs, Catherine started by reducing the use of torture and granting more religious freedom. At that time the main religion in Russia was Eastern Orthodox. For instance, “She also limited the use of torture and extended religious freedom “ ( Allen & Allen 85 ). These improvements in Russia had changed its culture and shifted it towards the Western Europe.
Both economically and politically, Catherine the Great had improved Russian trade and its boundaries. She started by a war with the Ottoman Empire that was caused
by the Russian “need” to have ports for trade in the Black Sea. By the end of the war Russia controlled most of it. In 1783 Catherine had conquered Crimea located at the coast of the Black Sea. During her reign Russia began to seize land on the northern American coastline. This later on led to forming of a colony in Alaska that was eventually bought by United States and is one of its states up to the present day. “One of the most important results of Catherine’s expansionism was the partition of Poland”(86). “Catherine made a pact with Germany and Austria to invade Poland and split its land between them. The invasion was successful and by it, Russia gained two million people to its population. Some other lands include Ukraine and Baltic provinces,” as shown in the film Catherine the Great. Most of the lands were “enslaved” by Russia up to the recent times when they finally got their independence back. Conquering these lands made Russians’ culture more aggressive toward its neighbors.
On the other hand, Queen Victoria ruled for sixty-four years, which many thought to be the longest reign in British history. Princess Alexandria Victoria was born on May 24, 1819, to the Duke and Duchess of Kent in Kensington Palace. Her uncle, King George IV, was the ruling king of England at that time. In 1840 she became the wife of Prince Albert of Germany. Queen Victoria was 21 at that time. Prince Albert was a very peaceful man who inspired Victoria a lot with his ideas. His ideas were derived from the fable realm of King Arthur and his empire based on the belief that the “strong should serve the weak and good must triumph over evil,” as seen in the film. It was also Albert who initiated the first International Trade Exhibition, according to Paul Bryers, the director of the documentary, Queen Victoria’s Empire. He nurtured a peaceful culture.
Victoria’s reign was known as “The Golden Age of England,” and it was no surprise,
because it was set upon values found in the tale of King Arthur and the round table.
One of the biggest contributions made by Victoria toward the culture of England was setting her moral values as the standard for every Englishman. These values were later known as Victorian Values. Victoria’s life was the main example of her values. During her husband’s life, she was always loyal and faithful to him. And even after Albert’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria mourned him for forty years, unlike Catherine who had a hand in the assassination of her husband. Victoria refused to appear in public for three years after his death and did not show up in the parliament for another five years as recorded in Queen Victoria’s Empire. Also, during the period of colonization of India, Victoria always opposed any racism, which was shown to the Indians by the British in the East Indian Company or by any other foreigner. Queen Victoria gave the Indians the right of free choice of religion. The Indian people respected her so much that she trusted them enough to even assign two Indian soldiers to accompany her wherever she would be in public. In 1877 Victoria took the title “Empress of India.” Still up to the present day England, these values set by Victoria are honored in British culture.
During Victoria’s reign India became a British colony. At first, the East India Company owned it, but later on, Queen Victoria took control of India. The “Company was replaced by direct British crown rule “(Allen & Allen 328). Most of the goods that
came from India strengthened the British economy. By the end of the century, England was making two thirds of all the products in the world, making India the jewel in the
crown of the empire; “India was the ’jewel in the crown’ of Queen Victoria”( Allen & Allen 328 ). India was so important to England that Benjamin Disraeli, the former Prime
Minister of Great Britain “purchased“ the Suez Canal, so there would be a shorter route to India. This got England involved in a conflict with countries such as Turkey, Russia and Egypt. This conflict in the Middle East still exists today but for a slightly different reason. By making India a colony, England began its journey to become an imperialistic country, which it still is right now. British culture is full of conquests that started with the colonization of India and many African countries where they also introduced British culture. Therefore, during her reign, the British Empire became the greatest in the world.
Finally, Russian and British cultures changed dramatically over those periods of time. The Russian culture reformed by Catherine the Great had finally been exposed to the western ideas and western culture that brought only prosperity to its people, especially the nobles. As for Queen Victoria, the major contribution was her “softening” of the British people, who were always brutal and barbaric to the foreigners, with her peaceful and moral values, and providing England with such a period when intellectual, scientific and industrial enterprises flourished, and were exported to the rest of the world, especially America. Queen Victoria is, without a question, the most important and popular ruler in Great Britain. There is no doubt that the contributions, made by these two women leaders, will definitely continue to influence the cultural aspects of generations to come in Russia and Great Britain.
Allen, Michael J. & James B. Allen. World History from 1500. New York: Harper
Collins Publishers, 1993.
Catherine the Great. Directed by Marvin J. Chomsky. Perf. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul
McGann, and Ian Richardson. A&E Special Presentation Videocassette Dec. 9,
Queen Victoria’s Empire. Written and Directed by Paul Bryers. Produced by Devillier
Denegan Enterprises. PBS and History Channel Special Presentation. Video- Cassette 2003.