Catherine the Great Research Paper

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Although she was well known for her skilled foreign policy, the German-born Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia from 1762 until 1796, may have been equally well known for her promiscuity and the controversy surrounding her seizure of power. She opened schools to women and granted freedom to the wealthy but refused to abolish serfdom.

Catherine II, also called Catherine the Great, a German princess who married into the Russian royal family, is one of most important leaders in Russia’s history. She is well known in the Western world because of her extremely active extramarital love life and because she is speculated to have taken over Russia’s throne by killing her husband, Peter III (1728–1762). During her thirty-four-year reign (1762–1796), Catherine the Great ruled as the most powerful and important autocrat in Russia since Peter the Great (1672–1725).

Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, later Catherine the Great, was born in 1729 to two minor German royals who had no real power or fame. As Sophie grew up, she exhibited a great intelligence. She had a strong tendency toward rational thinking and frequently enraged her tutor by trying to find logical explanations for sacred dogmas. Later, this way of thinking manifested itself in Catherine’s passion for Enlightenment philosophy.

In 1744, Sophie’s life changed forever when she was invited to St. Petersburg by Empress Elizabeth (1709– 1762), who reigned as Russia’s czar from 1741–1762, to meet her nephew, Karl Peter Ulrich, later Peter III, the heir to Russia’s throne. Upon meeting Sophie, the empress discovered many excellent reasons to choose her for Peter’s bride. Because Sophie’s family was so obscure, the empress thought that Sophie would easily renounce her German allegiance. In addition, Sophie was Protestant, and therefore thought to be more willing to convert to the Russian Orthodox faith. True to the empress’s supposition, Sophie willingly converted to Russian Orthodoxy and was given the new name Yekaterina (Catherine) Alekseyevna.

In 1745, Catherine married Peter III. Peter III had grown up in Germany and considered himself to be German in every respect. He had an intense dislike for all things Russian. He also hated his wife who, although of German blood, considered herself to be Russian. Catherine, in return, hated her husband. They had one child, Paul (1754–1801), who was raised entirely by Empress Elizabeth. With no real purpose at home or at court, Catherine became restless. She began to take extramarital lovers. There is even some debate as to whether Peter III was Paul’s biological father.

On 25 December 1761, Empress Elizabeth died and Peter III was crowned czar. Quickly, he lost favor with his subjects. Upon coming to power, Peter spoke mostly German. He made horrible jokes about Russians. He even changed the Russian army’s uniform to look more German. The worst of Peter’s early actions, however, came in 1762. Before her death, Empress Elizabeth had been fighting a war with Prussia; after her death, Peter III signed a treaty restoring power to the Prussian king. This stolen victory cemented Peter III’s unpopularity with the Russian people.

On 28 June 1762, Catherine initiated an instant, bloodless, and popular coup d’etat. Peter, who did not try to resist, was captured and placed under house arrest. Several days later, he was mysteriously assassinated. Catherine denied complicity. There are a plethora theories about the circumstances under which the deposed czar was murdered. One speculation is that Peter’s guards strangled him to death. Another hypothesis is that Catherine’s lover killed him on Catherine’s orders. Although the truth is not known, those closest to Catherine held that when Catherine received the news of her husband’s death, she fainted. She later said, “My reputation is ruined! Never will posterity forgive me for this involuntary crime” (Troyat 1980, 137). Apparently, Catherine was not remotely sad about her husband’s death; she was merely nervous about its repercussions on her political career. Publicly, the czar was said to have died of natural causes. Not one person disputed this claim.

When Catherine II came to power, she made it abundantly clear that she would not give up the throne to her son when he came of age. Catharine’s first real success was in foreign policy utilizing the Russian-Prussian alliance. In 1763, King Augustus III (1696–1763) of Poland died. The Russian-Prussian alliance backed the election of Catherine’s former lover, Stanislaw II Augustus Poniatowski (1732– 1798) to replace him. Because he had no royal ties, Poniatowski remained loyal to his Russian backers. This was a brilliant foreign policy move on Catherine’s part. The first of three partitions of Poland had occurred. The second partition occurred in 1793. In 1795, the final Polish partition took place and Poland ceased to exist. Catherine had additional military victories in Turkey, where she led two successful wars in 1768–1774 and in 1787–1791. Those wars, in conjunction with the annexation of the Crimea in 1783, effectively removed the Tartar threat to Russian security and established Russian control over the northern coast of the Black Sea.

Catherine also initiated many influential domestic policies. She improved the dismal situation of women when, in 1783, she put Princess Dashkova (1744– 1810) in charge of the Academy of Arts and Sciences. Princess Dashkova was the first woman who was not a part of the royal family to hold any position of power in Russia. In addition, Catherine opened up the first schools for women.

Catherine’s main goal for Russia was to reorder and systemize its class structure. To that end, Catherine set out the 1785 Charter of the Towns, which stated that the more wealthy the individual, the more rights that individual would be granted. On the same day, she put out the Charter of the Nobility, which granted various freedoms to the nobility, including freedom from corporal punishment. While Catherine gave a great deal of rights and freedoms to the nobility, she did not free the serfs. About 90 percent of Russia’s peasant class was serfs and, while Catherine was against serfdom, she did not abolish it. Catherine knew that the nobles would stop at nothing, including killing the czar, to prevent the end of serfdom.

On 6 November 1796, Catherine died and was succeeded by her son, Paul I. Throughout Catherine’s life there had been a deep hatred between mother and son. When Paul came to power, his goal was to exact revenge on his mother. He did this with his Law of Succession, which eliminated the possibility of any woman ever ruling Russia again. Catherine the Great, therefore, was truly the first and last of her kind, a unique leader in both Russian and world history.


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  13. Troyat, H. (1980). Catherine the Great. New York: Meridian.
  14. Waliszewski, K. (1905). The romance of an empress. New York: D. Appleton.

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