Empress Catherine II "The Great" of Russia

(b. 1729, r. 1762-d.1796)

Perhaps one of the most important leaders of the Russian Empire, Catherine the Second, or "The Great," helped set the foundations for the Russian “Westernization” in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Known for her intelligence and ambitions to rule the Russian Empire, Catherine not only challenged the social norms of the time but also set the precedent for women in powerful positions.  Catherine ruled through corruption, scandal, political reforms, and land expansion.  She consolidated power from the serfs and feudal lords by continuing the political reforms started by Peter the Great.  Land expansion dramatically increased during the Polish civil war in the late 1760's and again in 1768 when a Russian victory over the Ottoman Empire resulted in new territory stretching to the banks of the Black Sea .  In addition to this, Catherine imported many great works in literature, art, and print from the Western European nations.  St. Petersburg blossomed sculptures, palaces, and educational systems.  Education and law codes further developed under her reign.  At the end of her thirty-four year reign from 1762 to 1796, Catherine had catapulted Russia into the world scene as a major world empire.     

Born on May 2, 1729, in the German city of  Stettin (Szczecin, Poland today), into the family of Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst, Catherine was christened Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst a daughter of a minor German prince in Prussian service.  Immediately following her birth Sophie faced many challenges in a society which legally subjugating its woman population.  Although she had society stacked against her, she was recognized by her father for her great ability to learn and remember concepts and ideas.  Only after she had proven her abilities did she receive formal education.  In 1744, she married Grand Duke Peter of Holstein , heir to the Russian throne.  Although Sophie was a German, she like her mother strove to be as Russian as her mother in-law Elizabeth the I.  Sophie not only studied the Russian language but also took the name Catherine II in honor of her mother Catherine the II.  In addition to this Catherine converted the Russian Orthodox Church in order to be married into the imperial line.        

Using her sexuality to obtain legitimacy for her position, Catherine was encouraged to produce an heir to the line.  In 1754, during an affair with Sergey Saltykov, Catherine bore a child named Paul.  It is not altogether clear whether Paul is the legitimate son of her husband Peter, or the son of Saltykov.    Emperior Peter III and Catherine II came to power in 1761 after Empress Elizabeth died.  The marriage to Peter was further put into jeopardy because Peter was ill equipped to handle ruling Russia Empire.  Lacking common sense and alienating the Russian Court , Peter further compounded his mistakes by withdrawing from war with Prussia in 1762.  This event coupled with the seizure of Church lands and disinheriting his son Paul resulted in Catherine’s coup on June 28, 1762.  Peter III was sent to prison where he died at the hands of his captures.      

In its own right the reign of Catherine the Great was impressive, but it was made all the more important because she was a women.   She continued Peter the Great's reforms of the Russian state, further increasing central control over the provinces. Her goal was to rationalize and reform the administration of the Russian Empire. One of the most prosperous periods for Russia , Catherine undertook a wide range of internal political reforms, and waged two successful wars against the Ottoman Empire and extend the borders of Russia .   Her achievements played a key role in the development of Russia as a modern state not only in a political sense but also in a cultural sense.  Under her rule many she directed the building of the Hermitage Museum .  Commissioning building all over Russia , Catherine founded academies, journals, libraries, and corresponded with French Encyclopedists, including Voltaire, Diderot, and d'Alembert. Also, Catherine is notorious for her love affairs, which included Gregory Orlov and Gregor Potemkin. Upon her death in 1796 she was succeeded by her son Paul I.  Her achievements would live on a help propel Russia to become a major world power after her death.   

Annotated Bibliography

Alexander, John T. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Alexander examines the life of Catherine the Great in general, but pays particular attention to issues which other books on Catherine usually omit. He first focuses on her involvement in the coup d'etat: a conspiracy against her husband Peter III. Alexander discusses Catherine's concern with the crisis in public health in Russia, including her attempts to fight smallpox, pestilence, and the plague. Catherine had many lovers throughout her life and Alexander includes the love notes written to Peter Zavadovski from the years 1776 to 1777. Alexander attacks the stories of Catherine's involvement with bestiality.  He assures readers that Catherine did not die while attempting to have sexual intercourse with a horse, but rather after suffered from an attack of apoplexy while sitting on her commode. Alexander not only discusses Catherine's life while she was Empress of Russia, but he also discusses her impact in the later centuries on stage and screen, sculpture, and painting.

Ashby, Ruth and Ohrn, Deborah Gore, ed.  Herstory, Women Who Change the World.  New York:  Viking, 1995.
This is a great resource for understanding the basic information on Catherine the Great.  This short, but to the point summary of her life is very good at providing a starting point for research on this person.  Only basic information is given, but it does do a good job of providing information to anyone on any reading level.  No prior knowledge or advanced education in necessary to understand this work.  This is a good resource to start off with to guide a person on for a more in-depth research.  

Cowles, Virginia. The Romanovs. New York, N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1971.
This book concentrates on the lives of those related to the Romanov dynasty. Chapter IV is dedicated to Catherine The Great. Cowles focuses on Catherine's promiscuity. She goes as far as to call Catherine a nymphomaniac. When Catherine's husband took the throne of Russia, Catherine was pregnant with Grigory Orlov's child. After Orlov's involvement in overthrowing her husband from the throne of Russia, Catherine refused to marry him. In the latter portion of the book she discusses Catherine's relationship with Grigory Potemkin. He was referred to as the "cyclops of the court." He had lost an eye, and one of the stories blames the loss of this eye on Catherine's former lover, Grigory Orlov. Potemkin apparently was involved in a fight with the Orlov brothers. Although it is believed Catherine never remarried after Peter III, many letters written to Potemkin address him as 'dear husband,' 'beloved husband' and she alludes to herself as 'your wife.' Cowles also examines her love of art and literature, including her correspondences with Voltaire and Diderot. Through her love of writing, Catherine poured her heart out in letters and memoirs. Despite her hatred of France, Catherine embraced the French language and culture. French was the language of her court. Catherine thought of herself as a liberal. The book features many color photographs that were specially commissioned by Russian born photographer, Victor Kennet.

Dixon, Ursula. "Catherine the Great." Ursula's History Web.  <http://members.tripod.com/~Nevermore/CGREAT.HTM> (9 Nov 2005).
This web site by Dixon, a historian, discusses Catherine the Great and provides personal opinions of her. It contains an analysis of her ruling style, along with information about her marriage, the birth of her son, the reign of Peter III, and her reign as Empress. It includes pictures of her and those who were closely related to her and provides a bibliography. Dixon believes that Russia owes her much for her reign and that she truly earned the title "the Great." Dixon also believes that too many judge her for having promiscuous relationships while she may have just been filling her lonely hours by sharing her intellect with these men. She believes that in order to judge her greatness and see her achievements, one must distinguish between Catherine the woman and Catherine the Empress.

Gooch, G.P. Catherine The Great and Other Studies. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1966.
Gooch refers to Catherine as one of the three celebrated 'Philosophic Despots' of the eighteenth century. Gooch questions whether or not Catherine's son Paul was the legitimate heir of Peter III, or the son of one of Catherine's lovers. He further examines the poor relationship between Catherine and her son. Despite other author's accusations of Catherine's hatred of France, Gooch devotes a whole chapter to Catherine's sympathy towards Marie Antoinette and her troubles resulting from the French Revolution. She is quoted as admiring her. The book begins to lose its focus on Catherine after discussing her relationship with Voltaire. The book goes on to discuss French salons and Otto von Bismark of Germany. There is a substantial section dedicated to Voltaire and his work as a historian. There is an index to further help the reader but there is no bibliography nor are there any footnotes.

Haslip, Joan.  Catherine The Great.  New York:  G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1976.
The author of this work provides a very good detailed analysis of the life of Catherine the Great Great emphasis is placed on her thirty-four year reign.  This in-depth analysis of one of the greatest rulers of the Russian Empire attempts to understand the character of Catherine the Great.  Much of the resources in this book came from the Polish historian Monsieur Walezewski, who wrote a biography about her.  The information in the work is good but a bit dated.  In addition to this, this work requires an advanced knowledge about Catherine and the political and economic climate of the time period.  In all this is a well written piece of work.        

Kaus, Gina. Catherine: The Portrait of an Empress. New York: The Viking Press, 1935.
Kaus pays a great deal of attention to Catherine's early life. Her relationship with her siblings and the poor relationship she had with her father discussed in detail. Catherine hungered for love, something she would struggle with for her whole life. She desired a husband who would provide her with a crown more dazzling than that of Zerbst, in her native land of Germany. Her marriage to Peter III was a failure but provided her with the crown of Russia. Her extramarital affairs are discussed. After the conspiracy against her husband was successfully carried out, the Imperial Guards proclaimed her the sole ruler of Russia. There was an intense hatred between Catherine and her son Paul, and because of this, Catherine planned to make her grandson, Alexander, the successor to the throne of Russia. Grigory Potemkin loved and admired her as no one else in Catherine's life. A number of illustrations are included as well as an index.

Kornilov, Alexander.  Modern Russian History.  New York:  Russell & Russell, 1970.
This work is an historical analysis of the progression from the medieval Russian Empire to the fall of the Empire to the communists.  This compressive work devoted about to the achievements and importance of Catherine's thirty-four year reign.  This work although very good, it does require advanced knowledge of Russian history and the political climate of the time.  This work stresses Catherine's importance in land reforms, political reforms, education reforms, financial reforms, and cultural reforms.  It credits Catherine for forging a strong national state, extending the borders, the start of capitalism, and land reforms.       

Lentin, Tony. "The Return of Catherine The Great." History Today, December 1996, 16-20.
This article celebrates the bicentenary year of her death. There is suddenly a new wave of scholarly interest after an international conference in St. Petersburg. The article focuses on her accomplishments during her reign. She provided Russia with three and a half decades of political stability. She dedicated herself to the Enlightenment and putting those ideas into practice through legislation. She believed passionately in the power of the printed word. She encouraged book production and the translation of foreign works into Russian. The article highlights some of Catherine's most important reforms brought about during her reign. It also refers to some of the newest sources available on Catherine The Great and Lentin includes them in his citations.

Madariaga, Isabel De.  Catherine the Great.  New Haven, London:  Yale University Press, 1990.
Madariaga's work is a great resource for understanding the life and importance Catherine the Great was to the Russian Empire.  This work not only identifies her achievement but it also describes in detail her she came to power in Russia.  A great emphasis is places on two areas in the work, first her achievements as a ruler and second her achievements as a women ruler.  Focusing on Catherine's education, social, and economic policies, this work fully illustrates her accomplishments as a leader of an empire.  In addition to this, the author details how important she was because she was a women.  This greatly enhances the work of Madariaga and further makes this a good resource.  

Masson, Charles. Secret Memoirs of the Court of Petersburg. 2nd ed. New York, N.Y.: Arno Press, 1970.
Masson examines Catherine's " favorites " or lovers whom she held in high esteem during her life. There are also documents, which question whether Russia would suffer the same fate as France and succumb to revolution. Chapter six examines the conditions in Russia that might have led up to a revolution. Masson comments on the debauchery occurring in Russia that went seemingly unpunished. Masson discusses female run governments in general and especially the female leaders of Russia before Catherine II. Catherine The Great tried to better the lives of Russian women. She gave them some positions of power and founded the Smol'ny Institute, Russia's first girls' school, in 1769. Catherine's love for knowledge and education were to be passed along to her grandsons but not in such elaborate fashion as she had planned. Their education was based on the great thinkers such as Locke, and Rousseau. Catherine imported many French scholars to educate the Russians, and he contributes this as a factor to why so many Russians, including Catherine, were taken by French culture. This book focuses in general on the influences in Catherine's life.

O'Malley, Lurana Donnels. "Masks of the Empress." Comparative Drama, Spring 1997, 65-85.
O'Malley reviews Catherine The Great's first play, Oh These Times. She discusses Catherine's use of plays as a way of expressing her political messages and priorities. Her attitude toward superstition and her attitude towards Moscow are major themes of the play. Moscow signified everything that needed change in her Enlightened Russia. The play also is a reflection of her moral and religious beliefs. This article enlightens the reader to yet, another of Catherine's talents. This article is an example of one of the enjoyments of Catherine's life and how she used it to further influence the lives of her subjects.

Pallasart Web Design.  "Empress Catherine II "the Great" <http://www.alexanderpalace.org/palace/catherine.html> (24 October 2005).
This is a very useful website which gives an accurate account of Catherine's life.  This basic biography does little in the analysis of her rule but basic biographical information is useful.  This is a good resource for starting the research on Catherine's life and her accomplishment  The site is well kept and informative but it is not known how often it is updated.  Also contained on this site is a list of other Russian rulers.  

Raeff, Marc. "Autocracy Tempered by Reform or Regicide." The American Historical Review, October 1993, 1143-55.
The article examines the neglect of Catherine the Great's reign in Russia. He discusses new biographies written about the successive rule of Catherine II, Peter III, and Paul I. Raeff blames Communism for the neglect of this period of Russian History. With Communism's collapse in Russia there is now a renewed interest in people such as Catherine the Great.

Reddaway, W.F. Documents of Catherine The Great. New York: 1971.
This book was written in French, and later translated into English. The book is a reproduction of the correspondences between Catherine and Voltaire between the years 1762 and 1777. The letters reveal Catherine's philosophies in law, punishment, trade and commerce, and education. The book discusses Peter the Great's inspiration in regard to Catherine's projected code. Reddaway offers his commentary and analysis after each chapter. A timeline relevant to the correspondence of Catherine and Voltaire is included at the end of the book. It includes what was happening in philosophy, in Britain, within the European continent, and in Russia.

StanKlos.com. "Catherine the Great, Ekaterina Alexeevna, 1729-1796, Empress Of All Russia." Virtualology. 2000. <http://www.virtualology.com/virtualmuseumofhistory/internationalhall/worldleaders/CATHERINETHEGREAT.ORG/> (9 November 2005).
A picture of her autograph and briefly annotated links to several other sites.  

"The Empress of Opera." Civilization, 1 February 1997, 15.
Although the article is short in length, it discusses some important elements of Catherine's life. For example, her correspondence with French philosophers and the many lovers she had throughout her life are examined. Supposedly tone-deaf, Catherine devoted some of her time to opera. She wrote librettos for operas that were composed by musicians who she imported to St. Petersburg. Her most extravagant work was the dramatic History of Oleg. Oleg was a ninth-century Russian prince. Her work expressed her political views. The article makes it a point to mention that since she was Empress, she could easily get her librettos published. Despite this fact, contemporary audiences applauded her work.

Thomson, Gladys Scott. Catherine the Great and the Expansion of Russia. Aylesbury, London: English Universities Press, LTD., 1950.
Thomson presents a thorough view of Catherine the Great from her childhood until her death. Thomson discusses Catherine's young life in Germany and her incompatibility with Peter III. Thomson attributes reading as the basis for her involvement in politics. A major portion of the book is spent on her foreign policy and her dealings with Lithuania, Poland, and the defeat of Turkey. The relationship between Grigory Potemkin is discussed in great detail. The book also examines the continuation of Peter The Great's improvements and modernization of Russia. Because of this concept of modernization, Catherine built statues and public gardens and promoted music, theater, and dancing. She built an academy to supervise all the branches of art throughout Russia. She also founded a royal school of theater. Catherine was especially concerned with smallpox and plague, so she stimulated improvements in the science of medicine. The relationship between Catherine and her grandsons is another section of importance in this book. There is an annotated bibliography included at the end of the book for further reading on Catherine The Great.

U.S. Library of Congress. "Early Imperial Russia."Country Studies US. n.d.  <http://countrystudies.us/russia/4.htm> (9 November 2005).
This site focuses on the Imperial Expansion of Russia during the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. It describes the annexation of many areas as the result of various treaties, as well as the the results from partitioning Poland. It also discusses the Pugachev Uprising which led to Catherine's determination to reorganize Russia's administration. Overall it shows how Catherine set the foundation for the nineteenth century empire. It provides useful information about Catherine's role in Russia and her attempt to make its administration more effective.

Van de Pas, Leo. "Catherine II "the Great." Worldroots. http://worldroots.com/brigitte/gifs/cath2russia.jpg. (9 November 2005).
On a site about the ancestors and relations to the author, he includes a portrait of the elderly monarch. 

Waliszewski, K. The Romance of an Empress. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1905.
Although this book was dedicated to Catherine's entire life, chapter eleven provided valuable insight to Catherine as a writer. It was in her works written for the stage that the pen of Catherine is most prolific(p356). She does a bit of everything in literature, but she concentrated especially on dramatic writing. She wrote plays that were satirical, philosophical, social, or religious. Waliszewski provides the reader with a detailed account of Catherine's life. Its only flaw is that there is no bibliography, index, or endnotes of any kind.



This page has had hits since 15 December 2005. URL: http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/catherine.html
Original Written by Melissa Toscani, 1998
Revised by Tricia Tait, November 2000
Revised by Andrew Wakefield December 2005
Last Revision: 2010 May 20
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