Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great Statue in St. Petersburg, Russia, May, 1997, Photo by Michael M. Miller.
Peter the Great propelled Russia into the beginning of the 18th century. Catherine completed it by decorating his creation in European pomp and principle. Catherine was a German princess who was given in marriage to peter III, the homely grandson of Peter the Great. When her husband died of mysterious circumstances in 1762, Catherine became he first foreigner ever to sit upon the Russian throne. Catherine was clever and adventurous and had fallen (instead of with her husband) deeply in love with her new homeland. She immersed herself in the problems of politics and agriculture and worked toward basing the government on philosophic principles rather than on religious doctrines or hereditary rights. Because of her European roots, Catherine held a fascination for France and avidly worked to link French culture with that of her adopted nation. She read Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rosseau and sent emissaries to study in foreign lands; she also began the education of noblewoman. The Russian aristocracy soon incorporated French culture into their daily lives, giving the noblemen a common identity. The French language also set them apart from the Russian peasantry.


Catherine described her reign as the 'thornless rose that never stings'. Along with autocratic power, she ruled with virtue, justice, and reason. By the publication of books and newspapers, and instruction by Western-trained tutors, education spread throughout the provinces, where before much of the learning originated from the Church. This allowed Russian culture to cut loose from its religious roots. Paper money was introduced, along with vaccinations, the day of Catherine's smallpox vaccination became a national feast day.

Scientific expeditions were sent to far eastern lands and hundreds of new cities were built in Russia's newly conquered territories. Along the coast of the Black Sea, the cities of Odessa, Azov and Sevastopol were constructed on the sites of old Greek settlements. With the formation of the Academy of Sciences, Russia now contributed to the Renaissance Age and would never again stand in the shadows. One of the most important figures of the time, Mikhail Lomonsov, scientist, poet, and historian, later helped to establish Moscow University.

Catherine spared no expense to redecorate St. Petersburg in the classical designs of the time. Wanting a home for the art that she began collecting from abroad, Catherine built the Hermitage. It was connected to her private apartments and also served as a conference chamber and theater. Besides the exquisite treasures kept within, the Hermitage itself was constructed of jasper, malachite, marble and gold. the Empress also had an extravagant reputation which filtered into her love life as well; she had 21 known lovers.

Unfortunately it became increasingly difficult for Catherine to maintain her autocratic rule while at the same time implement large-scale reform. Her sweeping plans for change planted the seeds for much more of a blossoming than she bargained for. The education of the aristocracy created a greater schism between them and the working class and her reforms further worsened the conditions of the peasantry. As the city took the center of culture away from the Church, more and more Old Believers were left disillusioned with her rule. Catherine tore down monasteries and torched the old symbols of Moscovy. In an Age of Reason, she had a deep suspicion of anything mystical.

Huge sums of money were also spent on constructing elaborate palaces for her favorite relations and advisors. One of these was Prince Grigory Potemkin, her foreign minister, commander-in-chief, and greatest love for almost two decades. It was he who organized a trip for Catherine down the Dnieper River to view the newly accessed Crimean territories. The prince had painted facades constructed along the route to camouflage the degree of poverty of the peasants. These "Potemkin Villages" were also to give the appearance of real towns in the otherwise uninhabited areas. Finally in 1773, Pugachev, a Don Cossack, led a rebellion of impoverished Cossacks, peasants, and Old Believers against the throne and serfdom. Pugachev was captured and sentenced to decapitation, but ended up in exile in Siberia.

It was not only the peasantry and the Church that felt alienated. The aristocracy too grew dissatisfied with the new European truths and philosophies. Those who yearned for more considered themselves a new class, the intelligentsia. Searching for their own identity amidst a surge of French principles, the intelligentsia proceeded not only to understand Voltaire's logic, but to incorporate the heart and the spirit as well.

By grasping the ideals of a foreign Enlightenment, Catherine II unknowingly gave birth to Russia's own. The catalyst of change, along with teaching people to think for themselves brought despotism into deeper disfavor and paved the road to revolution. After the fall of the Bastille, Catherine turned her back on France. In a panic, she tried to dispose of all that she had helped create. Censorship was imposed throughout Russia, and Catherine attempted to slam shut the window to the West less than a century after Peter had opened it. But from this period of discontent and new search for meaning, Russia would give birth to some of the greatest writers and thinkers of all time. The West would be captivated by the works of Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, and Lenin would later lead Russia out of five centuries of autocratic rule. Peter the Great had built the wheels and Catherine set them in motion; there was to be no turning back.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller