Catherine the Great Builds a New Russia

Catherine the Great as painted by the Danish artist Vigilius Eriksen
Catherine the Great as painted by the Danish artist Vigilius Eriksen

by Ray Setterfield

November 6, 1796 — One of history’s most formidable women, Catherine the Great, died on this day. She had been Empress of Russia for 34 years, the longest reign of any female Russian leader.

Catherine was responsible for the Westernisation and modernisation of Russia and during her reign extended its borders by appropriating over 200,000 square miles of territory, adding Crimea and much of Poland.

By the end of her reign, 29 provinces had been reorganised; more than 100 new towns had been built while old ones were expanded and renovated; trade had flourished; Russia had successfully flexed her military muscles; and Catherine’s court had become a magnet for the finest minds in Europe. Her admiring contemporaries dubbed her “the Great.”

It all seemed very unlikely when she was brought to Russia as a 15-year-old in 1744. At the time the country was ruled by a daughter of Peter the Great, Czarina Elizabeth, who had assumed the throne in a coup just three years earlier.

Unmarried and childless, Elizabeth had chosen her nephew Peter as her heir and she was now seeking a wife for him.

Fitting the bill was the daughter of a minor German prince – Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, who had been born in 1729 at Stettin, then part of Prussia (now Szczecin in Poland).

After being received into the Russian Orthodox Church, and changing her name to Ekaterina, or Catherine, Sophie married Grand Duke Peter in 1745. She was 16, he was 17. She disliked him from the start and their marriage was a disaster.

She was pretty, vivacious, ambitious and blessed with a prodigious intellect but he, according to Catherine’s journals, was “a drunk, a simpleton, and somebody who took pleasure in beating men and animals.”

Czarina Elizabeth died in 1762, and her nephew succeeded to the throne as Emperor Peter III, with Catherine as his consort.

In a move deeply resented by the military, Peter withdrew from the Seven Years' War and formed an alliance with Russia’s enemy, Prussia. He then upset Russian nobility by introducing liberal reforms to improve the lives of the poor. He angered the Church and he was widely disliked because of the poor way he treated his wife.

So when Catherine was led to believe that Peter planned to divorce her, she had strong support for her response: she overthrew him and took the throne for herself. The coup d’état came just six months after Peter had been crowned Emperor.

Eight days after he was deposed Peter died while in custody, officially after a severe attack of colic and a stroke. He was just 34 and most historians believe that Catherine arranged for him to be murdered, though no proof ever emerged. True or not, with him out of the way Catherine became Empress of Russia and was formally crowned on September 22, 1762.

She was childless for the first eight years of her marriage but she gave birth to a son, Paul, in 1754. Though it is generally accepted that he was Peter’s son, the paternity of Catherine’s three later children is much more open to question with historians widely believing that none of them were fathered by Peter.

By the time her husband had become Emperor, Catherine was having an affair with a dashing artillery officer, Grigory Orlov, and she went on to have a series of lovers throughout her life. Her last paramour, Platon Zubov, was 22 when Catherine, aged 60, enjoyed his services.

Despite her achievements, Catherine ignored any concern she may at one time have felt for the plight of serfs. Swayed by her dependence on the nobility to control the country, she gave the nobles greater control over their land and serfs and guaranteed their privileges. It meant a significant decline in the already low status and rights of serfs.

Catherine suffered a stroke on November 5, 1796, and died aged 67 the following day at the Winter Palace, Saint Petersburg, where she had built a fabulous art collection still admired to this day.

Her son was to take the throne as Emperor Paul I. He always believed he should have done so after the death of his father. Paul had long resented his mother’s position which he thought was rightfully his and he was jealous of the favours that she showered upon her lovers whilst he was virtually ignored.

Immediately after her death Paul ordered that the remains of his father, the deposed Peter III, be exhumed and transferred to a place of honour at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.

Grigory Orlov, Catherine’s first lover, who had been involved in the former Emperor's overthrow and possibly his death, was made to walk ahead of Peter's coffin in the funeral cortege, holding the Imperial Crown. Orlov was 60 by this time.

Emperor Paul also ordered the bones of former military commander Grigory Potemkin, another of his mother's lovers, to be dug up from his grave and scattered.

However, Paul’s crusade of revenge would not last long. His reign ended after four years when he was assassinated by conspirators. And Catherine then triumphed from beyond the grave when the throne was handed to Paul’s son, Alexander. All along he had been her preferred choice over Paul as her successor.

Published: October 2, 2020
Updated: January 25, 2022

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