Catherine II Alekseevna
Catherine II Alekseevna
(Catherine the Great). Born Apr. 21 (May 2), 1729, in Stettin; died Nov. 6 (17), 1796, in Tsarskoe Selo, the present-day city of Pushkin. Russian empress from June 28, 1762.
Catherine was born Sophia Frederika Augusta of Anhalt-Zerbst. She came from a poor German princely family. In 1745 she married the heir to the Russian throne, the future Peter III. Possessing unusual abilities, will, and diligence, she mastered the Russian language, read a great deal, and acquired extensive knowledge. Soon after the accession of Peter III, who was unpopular with the highborn nobility, Catherine overthrew him with the support of the guards regiments.
The domestic and foreign policy of the second half of the 18th century, prepared by the measures of the preceding reigns, was marked by important legislative acts, striking military events, and significant territorial annexations. These achievements were connected with the activity of such important state and military figures as A. R. Vorontsov, P. A. Rumiantsev, A. G. Orlov, G. A. Potemkin, A. A. Bezborodko, A. V. Suvorov, and F. F. Ushakov.
Catherine herself took an active part in government life. A thirst for power and glory was the essential motive for her activity. Her policy was aristocratic in its class direction. In the 1760’s, Catherine concealed the aristocratic nature of her policy with liberal phraseology (such behavior was characteristic of “enlightened absolutism”). The object of her lively relations with Voltaire and the French Encyclopedists and her generous monetary gifts to them was to conceal the true nature of her policy. In 1767, Catherine convened a legislative commission and drew up the “Instruction” for it, extensively borrowing the ideas of the progressive Western thinkers. However, the commission’s work was interrupted in 1768 under the pretext of the war with Turkey. In 1765, the Free Economic Society was established, in the interests of the nobility. A general land survey was begun in 1766 in order to put the landlords’ property rights in order. A series of decrees strengthened the landlord’s authority over the peasants.
Favoritism flourished during Catherine the Great’s reign. Her favorites were generously rewarded with lands, peasants, and money. In all, she distributed 800,000 desiatinas (872,000 hectares) of populated land. The intensification of the yoke of serfdom and the prolonged wars were a heavy burden to the masses of the people. Thus, the increased peasant movement developed into the Peasant War of 1773–75 under E. I. Pugachev’s leadership. The suppression of the uprising marked Catherine’s transition to a policy of open reaction. Her principal legislative acts were the Institution for the Administration of the Provinces (1775), which strengthened the bureaucratic apparatus of the local authorities, and the Charter to the Nobility of 1785, which officially recognized the class privileges of the nobility. The growth of the revolutionary movement in Europe and of advanced social thought in Russia caused an intensification of the reactionary policy which Catherine directed personally, assisted by the Investigative Chancery of S. I. Sheshkovskii. The ideological struggle also deepened, as evidenced by the N. I. Novikov affair, the A. N. Radishchev affair, and the repressions of the press.
The principal objectives of Russian foreign policy were the Prichernomor’e with the Crimea and the Northern Caucasus—areas of Turkish rule—and the Rzecz Pospolita, which included Western Ukraine and Byelorussian and Lithuanian lands. Displaying great diplomatic skill, Catherine conducted two wars with Turkey, which were marked by the important victories of Rumiantsev, Suvorov, Potemkin, and Kutuzov and by the strengthening of Russia’s position on the Black Sea. The assimilation of new districts in southern Russia was consolidated by an active immigration policy.
Catherine began her intervention in Polish affairs with the elevation of Stanislaw Poniatowski, one of her favorites, to the Polish throne. Her intervention ended with the three partitions of the Rzecz Pospolita (1772, 1793, and 1795), accompanied by the transfer to Russia of a significant part of the western Ukrainian lands and a large part of Byelorussia and Lithuania. During the Great French Revolution, Russia took part in the coalition of reactionary European states against France.
Catherine II’s extensive literary-publicistic and journalistic activity—articles, comedies, and the satirical journal Vsiakaia vsiachina (All Sorts of Things)—served her political aims, her ideological struggle, and the government’s attempts to control people’s minds. She left behind a number of dramatic works, including the comedies Oh, the Times!, Mrs. Vorchalkina’s Nameday, and The Trickster. Catherine also wrote a number of comic operas and stories for children (The Tale of Tsarevich Khlor and The Tale of Tsarevich Fevei), as well as historical works (Notes on Russian History and Antidote). Catherine’s secretaries polished the rough drafts of her works. She left behind a voluminous correspondence, which partially served the purposes of propaganda and which is an important source for the history of her activity (her letters to Voltaire and the Encyclopedists and to Baron von Grimm, her agent abroad). Catherine’s Memoirs and additional rough drafts for them are of interest for the history of the early years of her life and the initial period of her reign.
WORKSSochineniia, vols. 1–12. St. Petersburg, 1901–07.
REFERENCESSolov’ev, S. M. “Istoriia Rossii s drevneishikh vremen.” Soch., vols. 25–29. Moscow, 1965–66.
Brikner, A. G. Istoriia Ekateriny Vtoroi, parts 1–5. St. Petersburg, 1885.
Tarle, E. V. Ekaterina Vtoraia i ee diplomatiia, parts 1–2. Moscow, 1945.
Ocherki istorii SSSR: Period feodaliima, Rossiia vo vtoroi polovine XVIII v. Moscow, 1956.
N. L. RUBINSHTEIN