Catherine the Great- the making of a Leader Emma Webster-Catherine the Great

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How did the environment of the Russian court and Palace contribute to the development of catherine's character?

Catherine the Great-

The making of a Leader

Emma Webster-Catherine the Great


Catherine the Great was possibly one of the most influential rulers in Russian history, reigning over Russia for 33 years between 1762 and 1796. In these 34 years her achievements stretch from military accomplishments such as expanding Russia’s borders to social reforms inspired by the enlightenment.

Her ability to accomplish so much in her rule stemmed from her strong, ambitious, charming, and knowledgeable character and her acute understanding of the needs of the Russian people. But how did this great woman develop from the minor German princess; Sophia of Anhalt Zerbst? Well, Catherine’s experiences within the Russian palace and court helped to shape her into the powerful ruler she became.
Catherine’s Relationship with Peter

One key factor which influenced Catherine was her marriage with Grand Duke Peter. In 1744, Catherine (then Sophia) was sent to Russia and told she was to marry Grand Duke Peter; nephew of Empress Elizabeth and heir to the Russian throne. Their relationship was disastrous; the two being completely incompatible! Peter was childish and difficult which contrasted with Catherine’s maturity and her thirst for intellectual challenge.

In 1745 Catherine married Grand Duke Peter at age sixteen. Even at this young age Catherine was ambitious for the throne, an ambition which grew from her life in the court. For years Catherine shared a bed with a man she’d once caught torturing a rat inside her chambers! This experience helped to create her strong and motivated character with a reluctance to give in. This motivation incited by the dissatisfaction she had for Peter was a key factor contributing to her coup, where she overthrew her husband and seized the throne in 1762.
Not only did Peter disappoint Catherine on an intellectual and personal level but he failed to satisfy her intimately. On Their wedding night Catherine waited for Peter’s return but when he arrived he was drunk and fell instantly asleep. Catherine felt a deep sense of rejection from this, intensified when she discovered he was having an affair. The hurt Peter caused her aided in turning her into a woman who wasn’t dependent on men. She began an untraditional love life, taking on lovers to please her in a way Peter couldn’t. In fact during her life Catherine had between twelve and thirteen lovers. Catherine became a leader who chose her own men and did not wait for them to come to her.

In the Russian palace and court Catherine was not only isolated by Peter but Empress Elizabeth imposed Catherine with a regime of solitude. Early on Catherine’s mother was permanently sent away for medaling in Russian affairs and Catherine was banned from even writing to her, completely severing the contact Catherine had with her family.

Catherine was also socially isolated within the court, many of her friends were removed and some were even sent into exile. Again, leaving Catherine alone. Catherine’s lovers also added to her solitude. Contrary to popular belief, Catherine was emotionally attached to her lovers. While Empress Elizabeth excused Catherine’s affair with Sergey Saltykov, upon the birth of her son Paul, Saltykov was sent away to Sweden to announce the birth of the heir to the throne. An event similar to this happened with her second lover, Poniatowski. Catherine was sincerely in love with Poniatowski but war in 1758 forced him to flee, leaving Catherine alone with an unborn child. She was emotionally distraught and to make matters worse Empress Elizabeth took all Catherine’s children at birth to raise them herself.
Catherine within the palace was forced away from almost everyone she held dear, yet not once did she give in. This again helped to establish her motivated spirit which stayed with her throughout her reign, making her hard working and unrelenting in her efforts with reform and expanding Russia. Her solitude also would have helped to make her independent and strong. When so many people Catherine loved were stripped from her the only person left she could rely on was herself.
Reading and the Enlightenment

Constant isolation caused great boredom for Catherine so she took refuge in books. Even before coming to Russia Catherine had a passion for knowledge but the Russian palace gave her the opportunity to read extensively. Firstly she learnt Russian language, culture and history to please the desires of Empress Elizabeth. This did have benefit for Catherine as it gave her a diverse understanding of the needs of the Russian people within her reign.

Catherine’s reading did not stop there, topics such as politics, history and philosophy greatly interested her. One of her major influences was books of the French enlightenment. This movement saw a shift from the church to an age where knowledge, reason, science and social reforms were highly valued. Catherine read comprehensively in this area and corresponded with Voltaire and Diderot leading philosopher in enlightened thinking. The ideas inspired her causing her to shape herself into an enlightened woman and leader.
The principles of the enlightenment Catherine discovered; are rooted in Catherine’s policies. Upon gaining power Catherine quickly lessened the power the church had relating with the enlightened views. She also aimed to increase the importance of knowledge and art within Russian civilization. To do this she acquired world class literature and art from Diderot and established fine, new schools and educational academies across the nation. Health and science were other key issues she addressed by establishing more hospitals and encouraging emerging scientific developments. For example during a small pox epidemic, Catherine introduced the idea of inoculation, a technique foreign to the time. She led by example and got herself inoculated from a diseased child as well as introducing the process to schools and hospitals.
One of the most radical enlightened moves Catherine made was her “Great Instructions” published in 1767. This was a legislation outlining a renewal of the legal system with focus on providing equal protection under the law. Her “Instructions” were clearly based on her philosophical reading as well as her understanding of other countries politics. A group of 600 men was put together as a Legislative Commission to revise the old laws in accordance with her instructions. Sadly the commission made no progress and in 1768 it was scrapped. Although the refreshing of the legal system wasn’t completed the “Instructions” are a clear example of Catherine’s enlightened way of thinking she developed while within the court and palace.
The Threat of the Court

Catherine is commonly described as being kind and sympathetic but when it came to the throne she was ruthless. Russian court was a cut throat environment divided into separate factions supporting different people. Political opponents could be imprisoned, tortured and sometimes even murdered if they fell from power and even the ruler wasn’t safe as coups were common. It was an environment where people would do anything for power and Catherine discovered that was what she would have to do to acquire power. In fact Ivan VI, an heir to the throne was imprisoned from childhood by Elizabeth as she felt he threatened her position. This was the brutal world in which Catherine was thrust into at age 15.

Catherine had to learn fast the ways of the court if she was to survive. She had no power base herself and her position was precarious. Firstly she realised that she had to maintain stable relations with the Empress and Grand Duke Peter as her position solely depended on them. No matter how hard this seemed Catherine had to make it work as both had the ability to incarcerate her is she displeased them.
Catherine closely studied the workings and people of the court, developing a wide knowledge. This facilitated her ability to seize the throne and the court. One learning from the court which influenced her rule was that to maintain a position you needed to create a constant image of power. As the slightest sign of weakness was an opportunity for others to pounce. Catherine maintained a forceful image of herself during her rule which also repelled questions of her legitimacy.
Creating Allies

One of the most important things Catherine found in the court was the need to create allies, as she needed a support network. This need meant that Catherine learnt to be very charming and developed diplomatic talents serving her well in her coup and rule. Catherine was able to get on very with people of all classes, making her an excellent ruler; in fact there are several accounts of her servants actually falling in love with her! Catherine learnt what to say and who to say it to and thus develop many important allies within the Russian court.

One important ally she created was the British ambassador Charles Hanbury Williams. He was a key ally, supporting her ambitions for a political role as well as turning Britain into an ally for her. She created such a strong relationship with him that he actually lent her 10 000 pounds allowing her buy information and further create allies. Another very important alliance she fabricated was with her lover Grigory Orlov and his brother who were both guard officers. This alliance provided her with political muscle within guard regiments. This alliance was crucial in helping her gain the support of the guards and facilitating her ability to take the throne and maintain power until her death in 1796. Catherine established her diplomatic talents and tremendous ability to befriend people within the Russian court, these gifts served her for her whole life.

Catherine was thrust into the environment of the Russian court at a young age so naturally the experience shaped her character. While it can’t be fully concluded to what extent the Russian palace and court affected her, it is obvious the hardships and events she endured assisted in developing her into a wise, enlightened, independent, motivated and powerful ruler of Russia.


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