Catherine the Great

Born in 1729 in the Kingdom of Prussia, Catherine the Great, also known as Catherine II of Russia, helped Russia become one of the major powers of Europe during her reign. Under her leadership, Russia became more modernized and employed more sophisticated methods of foreign policy. Married to Peter III in 1745, Catherine succeeded to the throne after her husband was deposed in 1762. Catherine is additionally noted for expanding Russia’s borders and supporting the arts.

Catherine’s father was Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst and her mother was Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. She was born Sophie Augusta Frederika in Stettin, Germany (now Poland), but accepted the name Catherine at the time of her conversion to the Russian Orthodox church the day before her formal betrothal to Peter III. Peter III was the nephew of Empress Elizabeth of Russia and her successor. He inherited the throne when she died in 1762; his reign was quite short-lived as the bloodless coup stripped his power later that same year. However, he was assassinated a few days after he was deposed. He had married Catherine at the bequest of Empress Elizabeth; she knew her family having been engaged to Catherine’s uncle (he died before they could wed) and admired Catherine.

Historians write frankly that Catherine was devoted to Russia, but displeased with her husband. They had one son, Paul, but Catherine also bore an illegitimate son and daughter. While Catherine accepted the coup deposing her husband and she immediately seized power over other considerations (with greater connections to the royal family), she has not been historically associated with her husband’s assassination. Though many factions considered Catherine a usurper to the throne, she was supported nonetheless as the mother of Paul.

Catherine strengthened her position as ruler by working intensely over affairs of state, modernizing her country, and expanding the empire substantially. She built the Hermitage and greatly expanded the imperial art collection. Catherine died of a stroke in 1796. She had preferred to name her grandson Alexander as heir to the throne; she raised him as Empress Elizabeth had raised her son Paul until her death, but Paul became Tsar upon the death of his mother and Alexander eventually inherited the throne from his father. Catherine famously maintained correspondence with many figures of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire. She promoted education by creating schools and universities. She is also credited with transforming St. Petersburg into a glittering city that rivaled the grandeur of other European capitals.