Things You Should Know About Catherine the Great

This month I’ve been listening to a spectacular biography of Catherine the Great. I’ve learned a lot about her and I think you should learn about her too. Catherine (Yekaterina Alexeyevna) ruled Russia from 1762 until her death in 1796, making her the longest-ruling monarch and female leader in the country’s history. She came to power after a coup d’état to overthrow her husband and grew to be a great power in Europe.

So, without further ado, here are six and a half things you should know about Catherine the Great.

Catherine, 1754 Louis Caravaque [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Catherine, 1754
Louis Caravaque [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1. Catherine wasn’t Russian.
Catherine was born as Sophie Friederike Auguste in Prussia in 1729. Empress Elizabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great who had connections with Sophie’s family, brought her to Russia in 1744 as the future bride of Archduke Peter. The fifteen year-old girl embraced Russia. She converted to the Russian Orthodox faith (becoming Catherine) and committed herself to learning everything she could about the Russian language and customs. This would serve her well in the end, as her husband Peter rejected all things Russian angering his future subjects.

2. Catherine came to power through a coup.
Catherine’s husband Peter III ruled for only six months before she took power in a July 1762 coup d’état, arresting her husband and forcing him to abdicate. [Hit up a history source to learn more about the problems with Peter, the promises made to him during the abdication, and his death a week later.] In the eyes of many – including some of Catherine’s own supporters – her son, Paul, should have been put on the throne with her ruling as regent until he came of age. After all, Paul was officially the next in line for the throne. Catherine followed the precedent of Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great, who ruled after his death. Complicating the situation more, there was another former-infant tsar held in captivity who had been overthrown by Empress Elizabeth [look him up too, poor guy had a sad life]. Catherine was often worried about the security of her position.

3. Catherine believed in the philosophies of the Enlightenment and corresponded with some of the great minds of her time.
Catherine was a big supporter of Enlightenment ideas and tried to reform Russian policies, politics, and culture to align. Some of her efforts were successful, some were not. She corresponded with some of the greatest minds of her time (and some of the greatest minds of all time), including Voltaire and Diderot. She went farther than correspondence though, welcoming scholars to visit her in Russia, supporting them with gifts and employment, and bringing their work to Russia.

Oil on canvas portrait of Empress Catherine the Great by Russian painter Fyodor Rokotov, 1763 By Ф. С. Рокотов (http://www.art-catalog.ru/index.php) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Oil on canvas portrait of Empress Catherine the Great by Russian painter Fyodor Rokotov, 1763
By Ф. С. Рокотов (http://www.art-catalog.ru/index.php) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

4. Catherine’s children – including future emperor Paul, probably – were illegitimate.
According to her memoirs, Catherine and Peter’s marriage was not consummated and her four children were products of affairs (although one child was born after her husband’s death). There has been some argument amongst historians over whether Paul, Catherine’s first child, was actually illegitimate or if it was a rumor to further discredit Peter. I don’t know, I think I’m going to go with Catherine on this one. It seems unlikely given the state of their marriage that they could pull it together to procreate nine years after walking down the aisle. I think she took matters into her own hands to produce the heir who would secure her position in Russia.

5. Catherine wrote her own epitaph well before her death in 1796.
The inscription on her tomb reads “Catherine II rests here. She came to Russia in 1744 to marry Peter III. At the age of 14 she took a three-sided decision: to enchant her husband, Empress Elizabeth and the people of Russia. And she used every single chance to succeed in this. Eighteen years of loneliness and boredom made her read many books. As she mounted to the Russian throne she did her best to give her people happiness, freedom and wellbeing. She forgave people easily and hated nobody. She was charitable, good-tempered and loved life. She was a true republican in her politics and was kind-hearted. She had friends. She worked easily. She loved social life and the arts.”

Catherine II, 1794 Dmitry Grigorievich Levitzky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Catherine II, 1794
Dmitry Grigorievich Levitzky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

6. Catherine is remembered more for her sexual prowess than her accomplishments.
Catherine had twelve lovers in her lifetime. These men provided the love and companionship she badly needed. Some of these relationships were long and loving, others were just a bit of fun. She may have secretly married one (FYI: not unusual even in the Russian atmosphere at the time – Elizabeth I may have secretly married one of her lovers and Peter the Great secretly married a peasant before announcing it and making her Catherine I several years later). Since Catherine is a woman, she is judged for these relationships in ways her male counterparts are not. Even for other royals who are also remembered for their romantic shenanigans – I’m thinking Henry VIII here – these types of unofficial relationships are rarely included. In reality, Catherine’s relationships weren’t really a concern for her contemporaries until the age gap between her and her lovers grew out of proportion. Of course, that is a double standard that still exists today.

6 1/2. Catherine did not have sex with a horse.
Seriously, guys. Shouldn’t that be obvious? Lazy history is full of rumors originally started to discredit or elevate historical figures. Don’t believe stories that sound unbelievable without checking the facts. While we are at it: George Washington didn’t chop down that cherry tree. Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake.” Paul Revere didn’t make his midnight run alone. And Elvis really is dead.

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2 comments

  1. I’ve seen several versions of the events of the 1762 coup. One is that she took advantage of the coup but was not involved in the planning; another is that she was very involved in the planning. You note that she had her husband arrested–are you saying, then, that she was involved in the plot from the beginning? J.

    1. My source is Robert Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. He says she was involved in the planning – I can’t remember if he claimed she was involved from the very beginning or carefully encouraged the conspirators and became involved when it turned out to be a solid plan. Either way, he considers her a co-conspirator.

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