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December 9, 2017

How Catherine II became Catherine the Great

World history has generally been led by men, and very rarely, women. Although women have had little presence in the leadership of the great governments, when they did, they did it with an impressive force, such as Queen Victoria of England, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, or the Russian Empress Catherine the Great. Not everyone gets to be called “the Great,” but for Catherine II you’ll see why this Russian powerhouse gets the name, and you won’t believe how and why.

Catherine II, a Russian Empress who would be known as Catherine the Great, ruled from 1762 to 1796. Being Empress of all of Russia for thirty-four years, she vastly extended the Russian Empire and pursued the process of Westernization, which had begun during the rule of Peter I. He was also called Peter the Great and was the czar of Russia from 1682 to 1725. Peter I worked extensively to reform Russia by way of Westernizing it, and he helped establish Russia as a major power in Europe. Catherine the Great acquired land for Russia, expanding its borders into central Europe. Catherine II aspired to be the most enlightened Empress Russia had ever seen. She rose in popularity after her husband’s death, Peter III, and became an “enlightened despot.” The monarch, influenced by the Enlightenment, pursued social, legal, and educational reforms.1

Born on May 2, 1729, the future Empress’ birth name was Sophia Frederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, daughter of Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zarbst and Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp.2 Sophia (Catherine II) was not Russian at all, but was in fact born to a ruling German family. Her birthplace was in Prussia, now Szczecin in Poland. Sophia grew up loving reading and theater, and her education emphasized the issues considered fit for one of her rank: Lutheranism, literature, French, German, and music. Sophia’s intellect is what helped her become one of Russia’s most powerful rulers.

Young Catherine soon after her arrival in Russia, by Louis Caravaque | Wikimedia Commons

Sophia was ambitious as well as intelligent. At the young age of fifteen, she was called to Russia to marry Grand Duke Peter, who was only himself sixteen at the time, and was the direct heir to the Russian Empire. Sophia married Peter and changed her name to Catherine; this change came along with her carefully adapting to the Russian lifestyle. The eager Catherine not only changed her name, but also learned Russian and left behind her Lutheran faith to become Russian Orthodox. Catherine was disparate from her husband. She would describe Peter as a boy who would only ramble on about the military and played with his toy soldiers. Peter, who refused to learn Russian, showed contempt for the powerful nation of Russia.3

She assured herself of further advantage by the use of her charm and vivacity in cultivating the goodwill of important personages. The relationship between Peter and Catherine did not last very long. There was never a passionate fire fueled by love to tend to, and instead of embers left behind, there was a void. Peter would be unfaithful to Catherine, which led to her being unfaithful to Peter.4 The heir to the throne was born, Paul I, and to this day it is debated among historians if Peter III was his actual biological father.

After the death of Elizabeth, Peter’s Aunt, on January 5, 1762, Peter became Peter III, Emperor of all Russia. As Emperor, he became an unpopular leader among his people for his alliance with Prussia to wage war against Denmark.5

Peter III also withdrew from the Seven Years’ War, which gained him the dislike of his people as well as the church. Thus began the plot to remove him from the throne. Peter was Catherine’s shadow, for she was smarter, kinder, and more respectful to those around her. Peter felt threatened by his lady and was planning to divorce his wife. Catherine heard the rumor of divorce and was advised to flee, but she had other plans. Catherine overthrew Peter from right under his nose. On June 28, 1762, Catherine teamed up with Gregory Orlov, her lover, a Russian lieutenant and several soldiers from St. Petersburg, and had Peter III arrested and forced to step down.6 By this time, Peter had only been on the throne for six months. Eight days after Peter’s abdication, he was strangled by his captors. Catherine later announced her husband had passed away due to hemorrhoids. It is unclear what role Catherine had to do with her husband’s death. The monarch had an extravagant coronation in Moscow, which would mark the beginning of her reign.

Peter III of Russia, by Pietro Antonio Rotari,  circa 1845 | Wikimedia Commons

As the new Tsarina, Catherine began a revolution. By 1764, she hailed from the group of eighteenth-century rulers known as “enlightened despots.” Influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, the monarch could ensure the well-being of her subjects. This was in the heart of the Enlightenment that Catherine undertook her first major reform, that of Russia’s legal system, which was based upon the old and inefficient Code of Laws, dating from 1649.7 For over two years, inspired by the writings of Montesquieu and the Italian jurist Beccaria, she worked on the composition of the “Nakaz,” a document to guide those to whom she would entrust the task of reforming the legal system. The Nakaz opened public schools to both girls and boys, and removed physical punishment from the school system.8 Catherine also called for the outlaw of cruel punishment, and wanted every man to be declared equal. This was one of the indicators that Catherine was thinking ahead of her time. Catherine wanted a new reputation for Russians as educated and well-mannered, not as the provincials Europe had labeled them as.

Catherine worked to change this negative opinion by expanding opportunities in the arts. Sponsoring countless projects, a theater was built called the Hermitage Theatre in St. Petersburg, which would be used for opera and ballet performances. Catherine took up art collecting and wanted to prove just how advanced Russia was as a country. The Empress made it an obsession to collect the most beautiful works of art across the world. Collection after collection all ended up in the Hermitage at St. Petersburg. Catherine wrote a few plays herself, and was infatuated with reading; she would reach out to writers of the Enlightenment. Catherine was hungry for knowledge and began to exchange letters with French writers Voltaire and D’Alembert. Catherine later earned her nickname, “Catherine the Great,” from the writer Denis Diderot, who traveled to Russia to visit the Empress.9 Eager to write and expand her knowledge as well as keep her own collection of memories, Catherine took up writing memoirs, comedies, and fictions.

Peter III & Catherine II: August 21, 1745 | Wikimedia Commons

In June 1767, the Empress created the Legislative Commission to revise the old laws in accordance with the “Nakaz.” Intended for the time and place, the Commission consisted of delegates from all levels of society except for the serfs. Like many others, Catherine had great hopes about what the Commission might accomplish, but unfortunately, the delegates devoted almost all of their time to the annotation of their own works, rather than their assigned task. The Senate protested the suggestive change in the feudal system, which would change the system for serfs, workers who were owned as property for life. Consequently, though their meetings continued for over a year, they made no progress, and Catherine suspended the assembly at the end of 1768. The fact that she never reconvened the Commission has been viewed by some historians as an indication that she lost faith in the delegates; others feel, however, that she was more concerned about having the reputation of being an “enlightened” ruler than in actually being one.10

Despite the outcome of the Legislative Commission, Catherine continued to work to earn Russia a reputation as a thriving center of civilization.11 Art and science were emphasized under Catherine’s wing, and under her instruction, St. Petersburg became the most spectacular capital in the world, blossoming with music, theater, and painting.

Catherine had plenty of plans regarding domestic and foreign affairs, but during the first years of her rule, her attention was aimed at securing her position. She knew that her son, Paul, was the rightful ruler after Peter’s death; she also recognized that with no goodwill of the nobility and the military, she could be easily overthrown with a rebellion. Her response to this case was to take every chance for conciliating the nobility and the military, and at the same time strike deliberately at those who wanted to replace her with Paul. Catherine used her charm to wrap those who could call for a change around her finger.12

To please and contain the power of the Orthodox church, Catherine returned the land that had been taken from them by her late husband, Peter III; however, it would not be long before the Tsarina would change her mind and decide that the wealth of the church should belong to the state.13 The church ended up becoming part of the state, which meant that all of the church holdings and one million serfs would become state property and subject to taxes.

Russia saw an enormous expansion of its borders under the sovereign. With the help of her lover, Stanislaw Poniatowski, gains were made in Poland. Poniatowski was placed on the country’s throne, and because of the differences in the treatment of Orthodox Russians in Poland, a 1772 treaty was enacted; parts of Poland were divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The eastern region of Poland went to Russia. The Ottoman Empire was not in favor of Russia handling Poland, and this led to a military conflict. Ottomans waged war, and after several defeats in 1769 and 1770, Russia proved just how mighty it was. After the defeat of the Ottomans, a peace treaty was signed with them in 1774. The treaty expanded Russia even more and gave way for Russia to have a foothold on the Black Sea. This was also the rise of the love story between Gregory Potemkin and Catherine the Great.14

Prince Potemkin by James Walker | Wikimedia Commons

After the peace treaty of 1774, later that year, Cossack Yemelyan Pugachev was finally captured. Pugachev had acquired tens of thousands of followers who he led in revolt against the monarch. Pugachev’s motive for the uprising was the reports of Peter III death.15 Pugachev claimed these reports were fake and that he was indeed Peter III. After Pugachev’s capture, security and peace returned to the monarchy, and the rebellion fell.

Potemkin was described as a handsome man who was wise and disciplined. Potemkin became a significant influence and supporter in Catherine’s life, which increased her admiration for him. Potemkin gained much power from being the Tsarina’s lover, and he was sent to rule over the territories acquired in southern Russia under the Empress’ name. In the new territories, Potemkin immediately got to work starting up new cities and building up Russia’s navy in the newly claimed territory. As a war hero and wise General, Potemkin advised Catherine to invade the Crimea Peninsula in 1783, which would secure Russia’s foothold on the Black Sea. The peace treaty of 1774 with the Ottoman Empire would not last long, and ultimately led to a war that was waged from 1787 to 1792.16

Potemkin was Catherine’s favorite lover; he was smart and strong, and he had character.17 Catherine could discuss politics as well as romance with the General, and they came to a greater understanding of each other. After the flames of love cooled between the Tsarina and Potemkin, they still remained friends for many years.

Catherine had a total of twelve lovers throughout her life. She could not remarry because of her position in the hierarchy, and managed her lovers by showering them with gifts, titles, and money. As Catherine grew older, her lovers got younger. After her son Paul I, whom she gave birth to while with Peter III, the monarch gave birth to three more children.18

Catherine the Great  by Van de Pas | Wikimedia Commons

As the Tsarina grew older, her energy and patience declined. She would grow increasingly concerned for her son, the heir to the throne, as he developed mental instability. Paul I was aggressive and ill-tempered, and Catherine doubted Paul’s ability to rule the empire that she had worked so hard to bring up. The monarch planned to appoint Peter’s son, Alexander as her successor.19

To Catherine’s misfortune, in November of 1796, the Empress suffered a stroke. The stroke caused her to fall into a coma, and she would never see the light of day again. In 1796 the Empress of all Russia took her last breath, and she was buried at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg in a gold coffin. Catherine the Great was succeeded by her eldest son, Paul I. After five years of reigning, Paul, I saw the same fate as his father. Paul was assassinated and his son, Alexander I, assumed power.20

Catherine’s reign marked the Golden Age of Russia. She was a patron of the arts, encouraged education and culture as well as providing the opportunity for women to be as educated as men. The great country of Russia became a center of civilization and saw a growth like no other under the Empress’ reign. Even after her death, some of the changes she pushed for in her Nakaz were put into action.21 Catherine the Great once said, “I praise loudly. I blame softly,” and “A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache.” Becoming the Empress of Russia is not easy, and Catherine knew what she was getting into, but as a result of her work and determination she was able to do so much good for Russia and for her people. This is why she is given the name Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia.

Russian Expansion Map | Wikimedia Commons


  1. Mark Cruse, The Memoirs of Catherine the Great (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 100-103.
  2. New World Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Catherine II of Russia,” by Rick Sanchez.
  3. Victoria Ivleva, “Catherine II as Female Ruler: The Power of Enlightened Womanhood,” E-Journal of Eighteenth-Century Russian Studies 3, no.1 (2015): 25-27.
  4. New World Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Catherine II of Russia,” by Rick Sanchez.
  5. New World Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Catherine II of Russia,” by Rick Sanchez.
  6. New World Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Catherine II of Russia,” by Rick Sanchez.
  7. New World Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Catherine II of Russia,” by Rick Sanchez.
  8. New World Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Catherine II of Russia,” by Rick Sanchez.
  9. Encyclopedia Britannica, November 2017, s.v. “Catherine the Great,” by Zoe Oldenbourg-Idalie.
  10. New World Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Catherine II of Russia,” by Rick Sanchez.
  11. Encyclopedia Britannica, November 2017, s.v. “Catherine the Great,” by Zoe Oldenbourg-Idalie.
  12. Encyclopedia Britannica, November 2017, s.v. “Catherine the Great,” by Zoe Oldenbourg-Idalie.
  13. Encyclopedia Britannica, November 2017, s.v. “Catherine the Great,” by Zoe Oldenbourg-Idalie.
  14. Britannica, November 2017, s.v. “Catherine the Great,” by Zoe Oldenbourg-Idalie.
  15. Encyclopedia Britannica, November 2017, s.v. “Catherine the Great,” by Zoe Oldenbourg-Idalie.
  16. New World Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Catherine II of Russia,” by Rick Sanchez.
  17. Encyclopedia Britannica, November 2017, s.v. “Catherine the Great,” by Zoe Oldenbourg-Idalie.
  18. Susan Jaques, The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia (New York: Pegasus Books, 2016), 35-40.
  19. Encyclopedia Britannica, November 2017, s.v. “Catherine the Great,” by Zoe Oldenbourg-Idalie.
  20. Marc Raeff, “Russia in the Age of the Catherine the Great,” The Journal of Modern History 54, no.3 (1982): 632-635.
  21. Encyclopedia Britannica, November 2017, s.v. “Catherine the Great,” by Zoe Oldenbourg-Idalie.

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Recent Comments

Natalia Flores

Catherine the Great is one of my favorite historical figures and it brings me great pleasure to learn more about her personal life. I knew of her political accomplishments and what good she did for the people of Russia. Though, it did surprise me that she had so many lovers and how she would skillfully keep them satisfied by giving them land and titles. It was also a bit disturbing how the article mentioned that when she got older her lovers got younger…



9:43 am

Tyler Sleeter

Very informative article. While I had heard of Catherine the Great and knew she was one of the great female rulers of history, I did not know much about her before reading your article. It surprised me to know that she took over rule of the country after her husband, the rightful heir, had died, making her story more interesting. I always assumed that she was the heir to the throne. I also did not realize that her reign was the golden age for Russia. It always seemed a little depressing to me that Russia was so transformed by the Bolshevik revolution and the eventual years as the USSR.



9:43 am

Erin Vento

I had read about Catherine the Great in European History as one of the enlightened absolutist rulers that had come about (and I had heard the debate on whether she actually did anything enlightened or just played politics), but there was so much about her personal life I had never heard! I really liked how the article was really detailed and took us through her whole life without getting boring.



9:43 am

Fumei P.

Catherine ll definitely earned the title “Great”. She was a dedicated leader from the beginning, she demonstrated this by changing her name, learning Russian and even renouncing her Lutheran faith to practice Russian Orthodox. She was most certainly beyond her time, we can see that in the “Nakaz,” which opened public schools to both girls and boys, and removed physical punishment from the school system. The qoute “I praise loudly. I blame softly” by Catherine ll is also a testiment to her successful leadership style.



9:43 am

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