Women of History: Yekaterina Alekseyevna (Catherine the Great)

Author’s Note:  Catherine’s name in Russian (in English) is spelled in two ways: Yekaterina(which I choose to use here) and Ekaterina.  I try my best to use the name closest to what they were actually called.  Many times I have found foriegn monarchs names anglicised, so I try to find out what they would be called by their own people.

  Also there is many Wikipedia sources in the Further Reading.  While I enjoy Wikipedia, I use it only as a starting off point, and always suggest those who are interested in learning more to do the same.  The same goes for any encyclopedia.  There is so many sources out there, online and in print.  
Portrait of Empress Catherine II(a)

We travel slightly west in our pick this week, traveling to Imperial Russia and focusing on Catherine the Great (Yekaterina Alekseyevna), Empress of Russia and one of the more well-known of the Tsars despite the fact she did not inherit the throne, but took it by force and her son would attempt to take away her legacy.

Yekaterina wasn’t born Russian at all.  She was born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg on May 2, 1729 in Stettin, Prussia (in what is now Poland). Her Father was Prince Christian August of Anhalt Zerbst, and her mother was Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp.  Her family was part of the ruling family of Anhalt, and her father held the role of Governor of her home city of Stettin (Now Szczecin). Despite the titles, her family was not wealthy.She relied on her wealthier relatives to gain any prestige.  Her father ruled alongside his brothers the principality of Anhalt-Zerbst, although as a younger brother he didn’t have the prestige that his elder brother John Augustus had.  However he outlived his brothers, and ended up ruling the principality for a short period from 1743 to his death in 1747.  Sophie’s brother Frederick Augustus would rule the principality from 1747 till 1793.  The Principality was a minor one in Prussia, and did not have the status that some of her wealthier relatives did, such as her cousins who became the Kings of Sweden.

Her childhood was average for a German princess.  She was taught by tutors and governesses (often French).  She would spend the first 14 years of her life in Prussia, before her life would change dramatically when the eyes of Russia turned to her to help cement their unstable monarchy.

The start of Sophie’s transformation into Yekaterina begin with politics.  The current regent of Russia was Empress Elizabeth, the aunt of Peter III who would be her successor. Elizabeth was the daughter of Peter I of Russia, better known as Peter the Great, and was the last direct descendant of the direct male line in the Romanov dynasty.  She had won her crown through coup and revolt.

The line of succession in Russia ran through the male heirs.  Peter I of Russia had only one son, Alexis Petrovich, who had died several years before his father.  When Peter died, his wife Catherine ruled for a short period before joining her husband.  The Crown then went to their grandson, Peter II.  However, Peter II had a similarly short reign.  He had no male heirs, and the only remaining descendants of Peter I were female.  Elizabeth was Peter the Great’s youngest daughter.  Her cousin Anne was allowed to rule for 10 years before her death in 1740, but at that point her only male heir was an infant boy crowned as Ivan VI.  This allowed Elizabeth to easily take over the crown.  But she would need an heir to stabilize the throne from 15 years with 5 Tzars.

She had no children, and her heir would be her nephew, the son of her older sister Anna Petrovna, Grand Duchess of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp.  Her son Karl, known as the Grand Duke Peter (and later Peter III) in Russia would be her heir, and she brought him to Russia for that purpose.  Peter would never adjust to Russia well, preferring his home of Prussia which would cause problems later on.

Tzar Elizabeth and  King Frederick II of Prussia decided that they wanted to strengthen ties between Prussia (of which the principality of Anhalt-Zerbst was a part of) and Russia. It was decided that this would be done through marriage, in particular the marriage of Elizabeth’s heir Peter to Princess Sophie.

She met her future husband for the first time when she was ten years old.  Peter would fail to make a good impression on Sophie, something which never seemed to change despite their marriage.

When she was 15 she traveled to Russia to marry Peter.  She decided to immerse herself in the culture of her new home, which she would never leave after her marriage.  She taught herself Russian and converted to Russian Orthodox.  At this point she was renamed Yekaterina Alekseyevna, and she became a “Romanov” on August 21, 1745 at the age of 16 when she married Peter von Holstein-Gottorp, her cousin and the heir to the Russian throne.

Yekaterina and Peter’s marriage was not a happy one.  Both found other partners to spend their time with, although Yekaterina grew to have a reputation for outlandish choices (the reliability of this is debatable).  She and her husband did not get along.  While Yekaterina threw herself into the country she had married into, Peter much prefered the country they had been born into: Prussia.  This would make an impression on those around them.

Yekaterina’s relationship with her husband would continue to grow worse over the years, especially after the birth of their son, Paul.  Paul was taken away from his mother and raised by his grandmother instead, which would cause the two to always have a difficult relationship.

It would all come to a head in 1762.  Peter’s Aunt Elizabeth, The Tzar of Russia, passed away early that January, and Peter ascended to the throne as Peter III. His reign would only last six months.  His personal policies and eccentricities would push away the support of his nobility, making it easy for a coup to develop.  The Coup was successful and on July 9, 1762, Peter was forced to sign abdication papers, leaving his estranged wife Yekaterina as the Empress of Russia.

He would die 8 days later.  Many over the years believed that Yekaterina was involved in his death, but there is little evidence to support that theory.  He was killed by his guards, led by Alexei Orlov, who was the brother of one of Yekaterina lovers Grigory.

Yekaterina would rule Russia for the rest of her life.  For some, she would simply be a regent, holding the title for her son, Paul.  For others, she was the true Empress.

As a ruler, Yekaterina would be successful.  She expanded the boundaries of Russia to include parts of the Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and other parts of Eastern Europe.  She fostered relationships with other European strongholds to strengthen Russia’s ties.  This included acting as a mediator in disputes within Europe.

She did however find herself in several wars, mostly to protect the boundaries she had gained.  It was during her reign that Russia began to be interested in the Kuril Islands, which continues to be a dispute between Japan and Russia.

She developed Russia economically by trying to modernize the economy.  She promoted agricultural development, and the development of paper money.  She also promoted education, the arts and literature.  Her collection of art was the start of what would become the Hermitage Museum at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, Russia.   She was greatly inspired by the Enlightenment movement in Europe, although later political changes in Europe and the Americas would sour her view on them.

She promoted European-style education systems, and put together a committee to work on a general education program for Russian citizens. She created several libraries, purchasing books from great leaders of the Enlightenment movement and adding them to the collections in Russia. She started art collections and promoted universities and schools.

In 1766, she called together a Grand Commission made up of over 600 members of all classes of Russian Society as well as some foreign visitors to develop governmental changes that would affect them all.  The Grand commission would not achieve much other than the right to say they met and tried. However, it was only the first step in Yekaterina’s reorganization of the aging government she found herself in charge of.  She began to organize her country into provinces and districts, developing more local governments that had representatives sent to speak to her.

One topic that would come up again and again during her reign was the subject of Serfdom.  Yekaterina had a mixed reaction to Serfdom. She improved conditions for industrial serfs, but did not end the practice of serfdom.  Her friends and former lovers were often given gifts of land – and the serfs that went with it.  She appeared intellectually to dislike the idea of serfdom, but it wouldn’t be till her grandson that the serfs would be freed from their slavery, only years before the United States freed their own. in 1773, 10 years after being crowned Tsar, Yekaterina would be forced to face this problem.  A man named Yemelyan Pugachov helped lead a revolt of the Cossacks and serfs while claiming to be her late husband, Tzar Peter III.  She managed to quash the rebellion,  and execute Pagachov, but it would not be the last time the problem of serfdom would arise in Russia.  The disparity of the classes would be a lingering issue in Russia till the end of the Romanov rule over it.

Her remarkable reign has often been reduced to the legends about her love life.  Over the course of her life she had many lovers, often men she made into advisors on her committees. Some of her lovers left their own imprint on history, like Grigory Potemkin (military leader, promoter of science education, and potientially Yekaterina’s secret husband),  Stanislaw Poniatowski (the last king of Poland) and Grigory Orlov who would be the father of Yekaterina’s only recognized illegitimate child and one of the leaders of the coup that led to Yekaterina’s reign itself.  Legends about her sexual exploits would plague her legacy.  She would have various lovers, and many were younger but legend would always add to the number.  She was also said to collect erotic furniture.  After her death rumors came out that she had died while having sex with a horse – when in fact she had died in her bed, in a coma as a result of a stroke.

Along with her eldest Paul, Yekaterina had at least two more children.  Her eldest Paul would be her heir and the next Tzar, her daughter Anna Petrovna would die at only two years old. Neither of the other two children would be legitimate, and the legitimacy of her first two children would always be debated.  Her only officially recognized illigetimate child was Alexei Bobrinsky, her child with Grigory Orlov. Bobrinksy would later be made a count by his older half-brother.  Rumors of other children have been made, but nothing has been concluded as possible.

Yekaterina Alekseyevna died as a result of a stroke on November 17, 1796 at the age of 67.  She had reigned for 34 years, the longest of any female Monarch in Russia. During her reign, Russia became a force of power in Europe, expanded its borders in various directions (including Alaska on the American continenet), and started its transformation into its modern state.

Her son Paul I ascended to the throne, despite her wish that he be skipped in favor of her grandson, Alexander.  During his short reign he would pass the Pauline Laws, which would restrict the succession to male heirs only, unless there were none to be found.  He also attempted to reverse many of his mother’s policies, although whether it was out of spite or actual disagreement can be debated.  It was also thought that some of the more wild rumors about his mother’s exploits were planted by Paul himself, having never really forgiven his mother for the coup against his father Peter, and have never grown close to her having been raised by his grandmother instead.

Her grandsons Alexander I and Nicholas I would both be Tzar, and would continue to implement reform.  It would only be 121 years after her death that her family would continue to reign over Russa, and she would be the last female Tzar.

Yekaterina’s legacy is mixed and often one must sort through the rumors and legends to find the facts.  Occasionally the two are the same, but often they are not.  She changed Russia in how it organized itself and was an advocate for education.  Yet on the other hand, she gave away people as gifts to her ex-boyfriends and other people she was close to.  She did nothing to change the status of the majority of her constituents – the serfs- which would later cause societal change with her great-great grandson. She gave up on the Enlightenment movement when she saw how it affected the Americas when the United States (and later France) revolted and won independence from its Monarch.

Still, her life is an interesting one to follow, and she was another woman in history who did not let societal traditions keep her from doing what she needed to do. Perhaps that is the best legacy of hers.

Further Reading:

Wikipedia: Catherine the Great

Wikipedia: The Kuril Islands Dispute

Wikipedia: The Pauline Laws

St Petersburg.com: Biography of Catherine the Great

When Catherine the Great Invaded Crimea

Serfdom- Catherine the Great

Documentary Films: Getting to Know the Real Catherine the Great

Icons of Power: Catherine the Great

Encyclopedia Britannica: Yemelyan Pugachov

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