Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Catherine the Great

Catherine II, empress of Russia (born 2 May 1729)


A few weeks ago, we noted the birth of the first Catherine to rule Russia as its empress--today we note the birth of the second, the Catherine who is known as "the Great," who ruled as empress from 9 July 1762 until her death, 17 November 1796.

Catherine about the time of her marriage,
1745, in a portrait by Louis Caravaque
Born Sophia Augusta Fredericka, the daughter of the impoverished German prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, the young princess met her future husband, who would become Peter III, when she was just a child--neither the girl nor her future husband was impressed. Despite their mutual dislike, the match was made; Sophia Augusta Fredericka's mother wanted a marriage between the two, and the Empress Elizabeth of Russia, Peter's aunt, liked the girl, who arrived in Russia in 1744.

Once in Russia, Sophia Augusta Fredericka was determined to do whatever she needed to do in order to become empress of Russia--she devoted herself to the study of Russian, and she converted from Lutheranism to the Eastern Orthodox faith. That's when Sophia Augusta Fredericka became Catherine (or, in Russian, Ekaterina). No matter how little she like her proposed bridegroom, she married him when she was sixteen, on 20 August 1745. Now husband and wife, both took lovers. 

Nevertheless, Catherine gave birth to several children, including a son, Paul, in 1754; three other children, two daughters who did not survive infancy, and a son who did, either were or might have been fathered by various lovers. (There were many pretenders to the Russian throne during and after Catherine's life--the dynastic situation was complicated by, among other things, Catherine's supposed illegitimate children.)

Catherine as "legislator" in 
The Temple of the Goddess of Justice, 1783,
by Dmytry Levytsky
Empress Elizabeth of Russia died on 5 January 1762--by 9 July, Peter III had been removed from the throne in a coup d'etat, his empress consort, Catherine, proclaimed as his successor. Eight days later, on 17 July, Peter was assassinated. Catherine's formal coronation as empress regnant followed two months later, on 12 September 1762.

Catherine would remain on the throne for more than thirty years--she died at the age of sixty-seven. Her accomplishments were many--for some, her reign represents a "golden age" for Russia. The country succeeded in territorial expansion to the south and the west; she developed the economy of Russia, particularly in the area of banking; the arts and education flourished.

There is a vast literature about Catherine the Great, who is one of the most well-known figures in history, and my own knowledge about her is very limited--but Robert Massie's Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is very well reviewed and has been highly recommended to me. You might be interested in the BBC In Our Time podcast on Catherine the Great--it's a very good introduction. 

Less well known than her political life is her literary life. Catherine found the time to write a huge number of letters; plays, both comedy and tragedy; she began (but didn't finish) a reply to a French astronomer's less-than-complimentary book, the Voyage en SibĂ©rie, about his travels in Russia; and a work of political theory, The Instruction of Catherine the Great. But you might want to start with her Memoirs, available in a very affordable Modern Library edition.