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Catherine the Great,1729–96, czarina of Russia (1762–96).
Rise to Power
A German princess, the daughter of Christian Augustus, prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, she emerged from the obscurity of her relatively modest background in 1744 when Czarina ElizabethElizabeth,
1709–62, czarina of Russia (1741–62), daughter of Peter I and Catherine I. She gained the throne by overthrowing the young czar, Ivan VI, and the regency of his mother, Anna Leopoldovna.
..... Click the link for more information. of Russia chose her as the wife of the future Czar Peter IIIPeter III,
1728–62, czar of Russia (1762), son of Charles Frederick, dispossessed duke of Holstein-Gottorp, and of Anna Petrovna, daughter of Peter the Great. He succeeded to the throne on the death of his aunt, Czarina Elizabeth.
..... Click the link for more information. . Accepting the Orthodox faith, she changed her original name, Sophie, to Catherine. Her successful effort to become completely Russian made her popular with important political elements who opposed her eccentric husband. Neglected by the czarevich, Catherine read widely, especially Voltaire and Montesquieu, and informed herself of Russian conditions. In Jan., 1762, Peter succeeded to the throne, but he immediately alienated powerful groups with his program and personality. In June, 1762, a group of conspirators headed by Grigori OrlovOrlov, Grigori Grigoryevich, Count
, 1734–83, Russian nobleman. One of the first lovers of Catherine II, he and his brother led the conspiracy that deposed Peter III and put her on the throne.
..... Click the link for more information. , Catherine's lover, proclaimed Catherine autocrat; shortly afterward Peter was murdered.
Catherine began her rule with great projects of reform. She drew up a document, based largely on the writings of BeccariaBeccaria, Cesare Bonesana, marchese di
, 1738–94, Italian criminologist, economist, and jurist, b. Milan. Although of a retiring disposition, he held, in the Austrian government, several public offices, the highest being counselor of state.
..... Click the link for more information. and Montesquieu, to serve as a guide for an enlightened code of laws. She summoned a legislative commission (with representatives of all classes except the serfs) to put this guide into law, but she disbanded the commission before it could complete the code. Some have questioned the sincerity of Catherine's "enlightened" outlook, and there is no doubt that she became more conservative as a result of the peasant rising (1773–74) under PugachevPugachev, Emelian Ivanovich
, c.1742–75, Russian peasant leader, head of the peasant rebellion of 1773–74. A Don Cossack, he exploited a widespread peasant belief that Peter III had not actually been murdered.
..... Click the link for more information. .
The nobility's administrative power was strengthened when Catherine reorganized (1775) the provincial administration to increase the central government's control over rural areas. This reform established a system of provinces, subdivided into districts, that endured until 1917. In 1785, Catherine issued a charter that made the gentry of each district and province a legal body with the right to petition the throne, freed nobles from taxation and state service and made their status hereditary, and gave them absolute control over their lands and peasants. Another charter, issued to the towns, proved of little value to them. Catherine extended serfdom to parts of Ukraine and transferred large tracts of state land to favored nobles. The serfs' remaining rights were strictly curtailed. She also encouraged colonization of AlaskaAlaska
, largest in area of the United States but one of the smallest in population, occupying the northwest extremity of the North American continent, separated from the coterminous United States by W Canada.
..... Click the link for more information. and of areas gained by conquest. She increased Russian control over the Baltic provinces and Ukraine.
Catherine attempted to increase Russia's power at the expense of its weaker neighbors, Poland and the Ottoman Empire. In 1764 she established a virtual protectorate over Poland by placing her former lover Stanislaus Poniatowski on the Polish throne as Stanislaus IIStanislaus II,
1732–98, last king of Poland (1764–95). He was born Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski. His mother was a member of the powerful Czartoryski family, which furthered Stanislaus's career. He was (1756–58) Polish ambassador to St.
..... Click the link for more information. . Catherine eventually secured the largest portion in successive partitions of Poland among Russia, Prussia, and Austria (see Poland, partitions ofPoland, partitions of.
The basic causes leading to the three successive partitions (1772, 1793, 1795) that eliminated Poland from the map were the decay and the internal disunity of Poland and the emergence of its neighbors, Russia and Prussia, as leading European powers.
..... Click the link for more information. ).
Catherine's first war with the Ottoman Empire (1768–74; see Russo-Turkish WarsRusso-Turkish Wars.
The great eastward expansion of Russia in the 16th and 17th cent., during the decline of the Ottoman Empire, nevertheless left the shores of the Black Sea in the hands of the Ottoman sultans and their vassals, the khans of Crimea.
..... Click the link for more information. ) ended with the Treaty of Kuchuk KainarjiKuchuk Kainarji, Treaty of
, 1774, peace treaty signed at the end of the first of the Russo-Turkish Wars undertaken by Catherine II of Russia against Sultan Mustafa III of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey).
..... Click the link for more information. , which made Russia the dominant power in the Middle East. Catherine and her advisers, particularly PotemkinPotemkin, Grigori Aleksandrovich
, 1739–91, Russian field marshal and favorite of Catherine II. He studied at Moscow Univ. and then entered the army. His part in the coup (1762) that made Catherine czarina brought him to her notice.
..... Click the link for more information. , developed a program known as the Greek Project, which aimed at a partition of the Ottoman Empire's European holdings among Russia, Austria, and other countries. However, her attempts to break up the Ottoman Empire met with limited success. In 1783 she annexed the Crimea, which had gained independence from the Ottoman Empire by the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji. Her triumphal tour of S Russia, accompanied by Potemkin, provoked the Ottomans to renew warfare (1787–92). The Treaty of Jassy (1792) confirmed the annexation of the Crimea and cemented Russia's hold on the northern coast of the Black Sea.
Catherine also extended Russian influence in European affairs. In 1778 she acted as mediator between Prussia and Austria in the War of the Bavarian SuccessionBavarian Succession, War of the,
between Austria and Prussia, 1778–79. With the extinction of the Bavarian line of the house of Wittelsbach on the death of Elector Maximilian Joseph in 1777, the duchy of Bavaria passed to the elector palatine, Charles Theodore, of the
..... Click the link for more information. , and in 1780 she organized a league to defend neutral shipping from attacks by Great Britain, which was then engaged in the war of the American Revolution.
Character and Legacy
Catherine increased the power and prestige of Russia by skillful diplomacy and by extending Russia's western boundary into the heart of central Europe. An enthusiastic patron of literature, art, and education, Catherine wrote memoirs, comedies, and stories, and corresponded with the French Encyclopedists, including Voltaire, Diderot, and d'Alembert (who were largely responsible for her glorious contemporary reputation). She encouraged some criticism and discussion of social and political problems until the French Revolution made her an outspoken conservative and turned her against all who dared criticize her regime. Although she had many lovers, only Orlov, Potemkin, and P. L. Zubov (1767–1822) were influential in government affairs. She was succeeded by her son Paul IPaul I,
1754–1801, czar of Russia (1796–1801), son and successor of Catherine II. His mother disliked him intensely and sought on several occasions to change the succession to his disadvantage.
..... Click the link for more information. .
See biographies by H. Troyat (1984), J. T. Alexander (1989), and R. K. Massie (2011); study by I. DeMadariaga (1982).