An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: Monarchs of Russia 4/4: Catherine the Great

Posted on February 12, 2014


Which leaves us with our final monarch for this little get up. She has the longest reign of any female Russian leader of all time, despite not being Russian in the first place. In what is quite the apt picture of historical gender bias, she is known more for her sex life than her merits as a leader. I’m talking about Catherine the Great of course, another who more than deserved her nickname.

You wouldn’t have put money on Sophie van Arnhalt-Zerbst becoming the empress of Russia when she was born near Stettin in the Prussian empire in 1729. Sure, she was a princess, but her family was something of a non-entity at the time. Her family did however have a particularly powerful connection; The Russian Royal Family.  It’s this connection that stopped her from dying in obscurity in Prussia, and led to her becoming one of history’s great leaders.

Not that she automatically had any claim to the Russian throne. She was married off to Prince Peter when she was but a teenager, and their relationship was fraught from the very beginning. He was military-obsessed; she was more interested in intelligent conversation and reading. He pushed Russia away at every possibility, making no effort to learn Russian, whereas Sophie learnt Russian quickly and converted to Orthodoxy. It was here that she took on her Russian name, Yekaterina (Catherine). Their marriage was doomed from the start. Rumor has it that Peter was impotent, but regardless their sexual relationship was non-existent. She embarked on a string of affairs that would make her one of the most sensational leaders in the history of our world.

Peter III became tsar in 1761, but a lengthy rule was never expected. He had embarked on a particularly pointless military campaign in Denmark, and alienated the Russian court in the process. He seized land from the church, an institution that was almost unrivalled in its popularity. Needless to say, multiple groups were planning coups at the time, and Catherine was no different. Her lover at the time was a man called Grigory Orlov, who was from a very reputable military family. Some referred to them as the kings of the barracks, which is a pretty handy title to have. Even so, having such a renowned soldier to assist her helped her ambitions greatly, and so it turned out. On June 28th 1762, Catherine took power in a bloodless coup, all be it a bloodless one that eventually saw Peter killed. So not entirely bloodless then.

Catherine proved instantly popular. She called the troops back from Denmark, and rewarded them in some way. She returned the land that her husband had taken from the church. She would form what became known as the Legislative Commission, the first time delegates from all the different social and economic classes of Russia (except the Serfs) would come together to discuss the country. Catherine was an immensely savvy young lady, and won approval from all sides. She w as incredibly hard working, and knew full well that Russia needed a period of peace in order to concentrate on matters closer to home. Whilst this peace didn’t last forever, it lasted long enough for reform to begin.

Still, her eyes couldn’t stay focused only at home for too long. Russia’s neighbors, the Polish and Ottoman Empires, were weakening. She saw a window to expand, and expand she did. She somehow managed to install a former lover on the Polish throne in the shape of Stanislaw August Poniatowski. The Russo-Turkish War of 1768-74 saw Russia take control of Southern Ukraine, North Caucasus and the Crimea. During this time the partitions of Poland also began, meaning further increase in the size of the Russian state. More importantly, Russia finally had a decent foothold on the Black Sea Coast.

She didn’t rule without trouble though. Several rebellions sprang up during her rule, most notably the Cossack rebellion of 1773 that was led by Yemelyan Pugachev. Posing as the deposed Peter III, Pugachev gained enough support to threaten Moscow. It took the Imperial army months to quell the rebellion, but quell it they did. It was at this time the Ural River was named as such, replaced the original name of Yaik. This rebellion proved to be something of a wake-up call for Catherine, and she knew she had a choice to make. Either strengthen the nobility or improve the lot of the serfs. Unsurprisingly, she went with the former.  She did however relax the censorship in the country rather dramatically, as well as vastly increasing the education that was available throughout Russia.

Further war with the Turkish Empire was on the horizon, and this broke out in 1787. The Ottomans were extremely weak at this point though, and Catherine had designs on annexing Constantinople. Poland was partitioned further, and although Constantinople wasn’t annexed Russia came out on top once more. New trade routes were established as Catherine aimed to thoroughly westernize Russia. She succeeded to a degree, but did so in a subtler manner than Peter the Great. Where Peter had dragged Russia kicking and screaming into the modern age, Catherine held the country by the hand and caressed it forwards.

It was also under her watch that St. Petersburg became one of the great capital cities of the world. She opened the Hermitage, originally a wing on the Winter Palace to house her ever-growing collection of art and now one of the most loved museums in the world. She gained 11 provinces for Russia and doubled the population. She built almost 150 new towns, strengthened the military and was responsible for the building of many new monuments.

Rather unfortunately, but to be expected considering the male slant that history takes, it is Catherine the Great’s love life that garners the most page space and noting in historical literature. I’m not going to blaze a new trail by not mentioning it, because I am inherently weak, so here we go. We’ve already seen Grigory Orlov, the man who helped her assume power. Orlov was pushed aside to make room for Grigory Potemkin, a one-eyed brute of a man who wasn’t classically handsome but by sheer force of personality would be the love of her life. Alexander Lanksoy may have been 29 years younger than Cath when their affair began, but he genuinely loved her and refused all the usual gifts she bestowed upon her lovers. He died aged 25 from diphtheria. Another youthful lover was Ivan Shuvalov, the first minister of Education for Russia. He also refused gifts, insisting instead on more altruistic endeavors.  Together they established Moscow University, as well as the Academy of Three Noble Arts in St. Petersburg, which was open to all including the children of peasants.

So she had an active passionate life. Why wouldn’t she? It’s a shame that this is focused on so readily though, as opposed to the string of accomplishments that Catherine the Great achieved during her 34 years in charge. She rightly takes her place among the great monarchs of the Russian Empire. And no she didn’t die making love to a horse, because don’t be utterly ridiculous.