Catherine's father, Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, held the rank of a Prussian general in his capacity as Governor of the city of Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) in the name of the king of Prussia. Though born as Sophie Augusta Frederica (Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, nicknamed "Figchen") a minor German princess in Stettin, Catherine did have very remote Russian ancestry, and two of her first cousins became Kings of Sweden: Gustav III and Charles XIII. In accordance with the custom then prevailing amongst German nobility, she received her education chiefly from a French governess and from tutors. The choice of Sophie as wife of the prospective tsar — Peter of Holstein-Gottorp — resulted from some amount of diplomatic management in which Count Lestocq and Frederick II of Prussia took an active part. Lestocq and Frederick wanted to strengthen the friendship between Prussia and Russia to weaken the influence of Austria and to ruin the chancellor Bestuzhev, on whom Tsarina Elizabeth relied, and who acted as a known partisan of Russo–Austrian co-operation.
The diplomatic intrigue failed, largely due to the intervention of Sophie's mother, Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, a clever and ambitious woman. Historical accounts portray Catherine's mother as emotionally cold and physically abusive, as well as a social climber who loved gossip and court intrigues. Johanna's hunger for fame centered on her daughter's prospects of becoming empress of Russia, but she infuriated Empress Elizabeth, who eventually banned her from the country for spying for King Frederick of Prussia (reigned 1740-1786). Nonetheless, Elizabeth took a strong liking to the daughter, and the marriage finally took place in 1745. The empress knew the family well because she had intended to marry Princess Johanna's brother Charles Augustus (Karl August von Holstein), who had died of smallpox in 1727 before the wedding could take place.
Princess Sophie spared no effort to ingratiate herself not only with the Empress Elizabeth, but with her husband and with the Russian people. She applied herself to learning the Russian language with such zeal that she rose at night and walked about her bedroom barefoot repeating her lessons. This resulted in a severe attack of pneumonia in March 1744. When she wrote her memoirs she represented herself as having made up her mind when she came to Russia to do whatever seemed necessary, and to profess to believe whatever required of her, in order to become qualified to wear the crown. The consistency of her character throughout life makes it highly probable that even at the age of fifteen she possessed sufficient maturity to adopt this worldly-wise line of conduct.
Her father, a very devout Lutheran, strongly opposed his daughter's conversion. Despite his instructions, on June 28, 1744 the Russian Orthodox Church received her as a member with the name Catherine (Yekaterina or Ekaterina) Alexeyevna. On the following day the formal betrothal took place, and Catherine married the Grand Duke Peter on August 21, 1745 at Saint Petersburg. The newlyweds settled in the palace of Oranienbaum, which would remain the residence of the "young court" for 55 years.
The unlikely marriage proved unsuccessful — due to the Grand Duke Peter's impotence and immaturity, he may not have consummated it for 12 years. While Peter took a mistress (Elizabeth Vorontsova), Catherine carried on liaisons with Sergei Saltykov, Charles Hanbury Williams and Stanislaw Poniatowski. She became friends with Ekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova, the sister of her husband's mistress, who introduced her to several powerful political groups that opposed her husband. Catherine read widely and kept up-to-date on current events in Russia and in the rest of Europe. She corresponded with many of the prominent minds of her era, including Voltaire and Diderot.
After the death of the Empress Elizabeth on 5 January 1762, Peter succeeded to the throne as Peter III of Russia and moved into the new Winter Palace in St. Petersburg; Catherine thus became Empress Consort of Russia. However, the new tsar's eccentricities and policies, including a great admiration for the Prussian king, Frederick II, alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated. Compounding matters, Peter intervened in a dispute between Holstein and Denmark over the province of Schleswig (see Count Johann Hartwig Ernst von Bernstorff). Peter's insistence on supporting his native Holstein in an unpopular war eroded much of his support among the nobility.
In July 1762, Peter committed the political error of retiring with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives to Oranienbaum, leaving his wife in Saint Petersburg. On July 13 and July 14 the Leib Guard revolted, deposed Peter, and proclaimed Catherine the ruler of Russia. The bloodless coup succeeded; Ekaterina Dashkova, a confidante of Catherine, remarked that Peter seemed rather glad to have rid himself of the throne, and requested only a quiet estate and a ready supply of tobacco and burgundy.
Six months after his accession to the throne and three days after his deposition, on July 17, 1762, Peter III died at Ropsha at the hands of Alexei Orlov (younger brother to Gregory Orlov, then a court favorite and a participant in the coup). Soviet-era historians assumed that Catherine had ordered the murder, as she also disposed of other potential claimants to the throne (Ivan VI and Princess Tarakanova) at about the same time, but many modern historians believe that she had no part in it.
Catherine, although not descended from any previous Russian emperor, succeeded her husband, following the precedent established when Catherine I succeeded Peter I in 1725. Her accession-manifesto justified her succession by citing the "unanimous election" of the nation. However a great part of nobility regarded her reign as a usurpation, tolerable only during the minority of her son, Grand Duke Paul. In the 1770s a group of nobles connected with Paul (Nikita Panin and others) contemplated the possibility of a new coup to depose Catherine and transfer the crown to Paul, whose power they envisaged restricting in a kind of constitutional monarchy. However, it did not result in anything, and Catherine reigned until her death.
Foreign affairs: (Main article: Russian history, 1682–1796)
During her reign Catherine extended the borders of the Russian Empire southward and westward to absorb New Russia, Crimea, Right-Bank Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Courland at the expense of two powers — the Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. All told, she added some 200,000 miles² (518,000 km²) to Russian territory.
Catherine's foreign minister, Nikita Panin, exercised considerable influence from the beginning of her reign. Though a shrewd statesman, Panin dedicated much effort and millions of rubles to setting up a "Northern Accord" between Russia, Prussia, Poland, and Sweden, to counter the power of the Bourbon–Habsburg League. When it became apparent that his plan could not succeed, Panin fell out of favor and, in 1781, Catherine had him replaced with a Ukrainian-born minister Alexander Bezborodko.
Arts and culture (Main article: Russian Enlightenment) Catherine's patronage furthered the evolution of the arts in Russia more than that of any Russian sovereign before or after her. She subscribed to the ideals of the Enlightenment and considered herself a "philosopher on the throne". She showed great awareness of her image abroad, and ever desired that Europe should perceive her as a civilized and enlightened monarch, despite the fact that in Russia she often played the part of the tyrant. Even as she proclaimed her love for the ideals of liberty and freedom, she did more to tie the Russian serf to his land and to his lord than any sovereign since Boris Godunov (reigned 1598-1605).
Catherine had a reputation as a patron of the arts, literature and education. The Hermitage Museum, which now occupies the whole of the Winter Palace, began as Catherine's personal collection. At the instigation of her factotum, Ivan Betskoi, she wrote a manual for the education of young children, drawing from the ideas of John Locke, and founded the famous Smolny Institute for noble young ladies. This school would become one of the best of its kind in Europe, and even went so far as to admit young girls born to wealthy merchants alongside the daughters of the nobility. She wrote comedies, fiction and memoirs, while cultivating Voltaire, Diderot and D'Alembert — all French encyclopedists who later cemented her reputation in their writings. The leading economists of her day, such as Arthur Young and Jacques Necker, became foreign members of the Free Economic Society, established on her suggestion in Saint Petersburg. She lured the scientists Leonhard Euler and Peter Simon Pallas from Berlin to the Russian capital.
Catherine enlisted Voltaire to her cause, and corresponded with him for 15 years, from her accession to his death in 1778. He lauded her with epithets, calling her "The Star of the North" and the "Semiramis of Russia" (in reference to the legendary Queen of Babylon). Though she never met him face-to-face, she mourned him bitterly when he died, acquired his collection of books from his heirs, and placed them in the Imperial Public Library.
Within a few months of her accession, having heard that the French government threatened to stop the publication of the famous French Encyclopédie on account of its irreligious spirit, she proposed to Diderot that he should complete his great work in Russia under her protection. Four years later she endeavoured to embody in a legislative form the principles of Enlightenment which she had imbibed from the study of the French philosophers. She called together at Moscow a Grand Commission — almost a consultative parliament — composed of 652 members of all classes (officials, nobles, burghers and peasants) and of various nationalities. The Commission had to consider the needs of the Russian Empire and the means of satisfying them. The Empress herself prepared the "Instructions for the Guidance of the Assembly", pillaging (as she frankly admitted) the philosophers of Western Europe, especially Montesquieu and Cesare Beccaria. As many of the democratic principles frightened her more moderate and experienced advisers, she refrained from immediately putting them into execution. After holding more than 200 sittings the so-called Commission dissolved without getting beyond the realm of theory.
During Catherine's reign, Russians imported and studied the classical and European influences which inspired the Russian "Age of Imitation". Gavrila Derzhavin, Denis Fonvizin and Ippolit Bogdanovich laid the groundwork for the great writers of the nineteenth century, especially for Alexander Pushkin. Catherine became a great patron of Russian opera. However, her reign also featured omnipresent censorship and state control of publications. When Radishchev published his Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1790, warning of uprisings because of the deplorable social conditions of the peasants held as serfs, Catherine exiled him to Siberia.
The circumstances of Catherine's whole-hearted adoption of things Russian (including Orthodoxy) may have prompted her personal indifference to religion. She did not allow dissenters to build chapels, and she suppressed religious dissent after the onset of the French Revolution. Politically, she exploited Christianity in her anti-Ottoman policy, promoting the protection and fostering of Christians under Turkish rule. She placed strictures on Roman Catholics (ukaz of February 23, 1769), and attempted to assert and extend state control over them in the wake of the partitions of Poland. Nevertheless, Catherine's Russia provided an asylum and a basis for re-grouping to the Society of Jesus following the suppression of the Jesuits in most of Europe in 1773.
Catherine suffered a stroke while in the bathroom (November 5, 1796), and subsequently died in her bed at 10:15 the following evening without having regained consciousness. The rumor held that Catherine died when a horse fell on her during an act of bestiality. This and other salacious stories have survived the test of time and remain widely repeated even today. She was buried at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg. Even though Catherine II was one of the greatest female Russian rulers of all times, there was an extensive criticism of her reign. In spite of her image as an "enlightened despot", Catherine abandoned attempts to lighten the burden of peasant serfs after the Pugachev Rebellion of 1773-75. The degree of her growing intolerance became evident in her treatment of Radishchev. Catherine's devotion to her favorites, particularly Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin, often blinded her to the corruption that surrounded her rule, hence the force of the metaphor of the Potemkin villages. Among the many crimes laid at Catherine's door the murder of Tsar Ivan VI of Russia stands out. Rumor said that Catherine had backed a plan by Vasily Mirovich to pretend to liberate the former Emperor. Whatever the plan, his gaolers killed Ivan VI, and the authorities arrested and later executed Mirovich. Catherine played a part in the death of another pretender to the throne, Princess Tarakanova, who represented herself as Elizabeth's daughter by Alexis Razumovsky. The Empress dispatched Alexey Orlov to Italy, where he managed to seduce and capture Tarakanova. When brought to Russia, Tarakanova went to prison in the Peter and Paul Fortress, where she died of tuberculosis. While Catherine probably had no direct role in the murder of her own husband, Peter III, she did nothing to punish those responsible for the crime and even promoted them.
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