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Catherine the Great, to 1796

In 1745, a German princess named Sophie Augusta Fredrika, from Anhalt-Zerbst, married the 17-year-old grandson of Peter the Great. Seventeen years later her husband became Peter III. In those seventeen years, Sophie converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. She endured the philandering of her husband, their alienation and abject subordination to her mother-in-law.

Sophie read many books, and she had love affairs of her own. And a few months after her husband inherited the throne, she joined a revolt against him led by one of her lovers. Her husband, Peter III, conveniently died in prison in mid-July 1662, and in November Sophie was crowned in an elaborate ceremony in Moscow and became Catherine II.

Catherine II considered herself enlightened. She corresponded with learned men, including Voltaire. She wished to be a "defender of oppressed innocence," to spread education and to otherwise reform Russia. She exercised her authority over the Eastern Orthodox Church – which owned one-third of Russia's agricultural land and one-third of its serfs. Catherine confiscated much of its lands and left the church's clergy as state paid functionaries.

Catharine the Great

Catherine the Great

Catherine gave up wanting to create an "enlightened" constitution and political reforms. Wanting to keep all of her power, she joined others in believing that absolute monarchy was the best form of government – best, she believed, when done properly. Russian society appeared to her too chaotic for any sharing of power. She opposed educating common people, believing that if they were educated they would stop obeying.

Catherine knew that to rule she had to have the support of a segment of society, and to this end she tried to please the nobility. She released them from the obligation to serve the state that had been imposed on the nobility by Ivan the Terrible. She extended the nobility's power over the people living on and working their lands. Under her rule, serfdom was extended to over a million people who had previously been freed.

Catherine was opposed to educating common people, believing that if the uneducated were educated they would stop obeying.

Failing at reform that benefited common people, Catherine sought distraction for her subjects in the grandeur of imperial expansion. She sought to expand Russian rule to the Black Sea and to Constantinople, to return Christianity there and to free Moldavia and Walachia from the Ottoman Turks. Already she had expanded her influence in Poland, with the support of her new ally Frederick the Great. After Augustus III of Saxony and Poland had died (in 1763), she installed as king of Poland one of her lovers, Stanislaus Poniatowski, who became Stanislaus II. Catherine believed that his lack of qualifications for that honor would make him all the more grateful for his appointment and therefore more subservient.

In 1768, Catherine's army pushed southwest from the Dnieper River into the Balkans. They scored victories and called on Christians under Ottoman rule to rebel. Another Russian force invaded and captured the Crimea. A Russian fleet sailed from the Baltic Sea through the Strait of Gibraltar and into Ottoman waters in the Aegean Sea where, on July 6, 1770, near the island of Chios, they sank the Ottoman navy.

The Russian fleet was unable to do more for the Russian effort following this victory. The war on land was bogged down, and the Christians in Ottoman lands had failed to join the Russians. Austria was concerned about Russian expansion into the Balkans. To allay the hostility of the Habsburgs, Frederick the Great organized an agreement with Joseph II of Austria in 1772 that involved Catherine's Russia. The three heads of state were to acquire Polish territory. It was to become known as the First Partition of Poland. With this agreement the Habsburgs extended their rule into Galacia, Prussia received land between Pomerania and East Prussia (not including Danzig) and Russia expanded to the W. Dvina River (near the port city of Riga) and to the Dnieper River, halfway to the city of Minsk, adding 1.3 million subjects to Catherine's rule.

After the death of the Ottoman Sultan, Mustafa in July 1774, Ottoman resistance to the Russians weakened and the Ottomans were ready to settle with the Russians. By the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji, Russia received full possession of Azov and land south to the Kuban River; Russia's border shifted westward to the Dnieper River; Russia acquired land on the coast of the Black Sea; and it acquired a right of passage through the straits by Constantinople into the Mediterranean. The treaty proclaimed the Tatars of the Crimea autonomous within the Ottoman Empire. And Moldavia and Walachia remained within the Ottoman Empire.

Catherine was facing a peasant uprising that had begun among Cossacks in the Ural River region, led by Emelian Pugachev. The rising spread to serfs, miners in the Urals, factory workers, Bashkirs, Tatars and other minorities within Russia, and it had spread to those Christians called Old Believers. After settling with the Ottomans, Catherine sent troops released from the war against the peasant revolt. Landlords, government officials and army officers eagerly supported Catherine, and Catherine's army easily defeated the uncoordinated rebel armies. The rebel Cossack leader, Pugachev, was brought to Moscow in chains and executed in public in an especially cruel fashion.

In 1783 Catherine annexed the Crimea, and many of the Crimea's Tatars fled to Ottoman territory. That year, Irakli II of Georgia allied his multi-national state with Russia, Irakli acknowledging Russian suzerainty and Russia guaranteeing Georgian independence.

In 1786 – the year that Frederick died – Mozart's comic opera about oppression, The Marriage of Figaro, appeared. Three years later came the French Revolution. And two years after that, in the year of his death at age thirty-five, came Mozart's other comic opera about oppression: The Magic Flute.

The revolution that swept France frightened Catherine, and she turned against intellectuals in Russia who sympathized with the French Revolution. After the executions of Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette (daughter of Maria Theresa) in 1793, Catherine broke off relations with France, proclaimed six weeks of mourning and welcomed refugees from France.

In 1793, Catherine, the Habsburgs and Prussia took advantage of the turmoil in France to confiscate more Polish lands. This was to be called the Second Partition of Poland. In 1794 a national uprising by the Poles was crushed by the Russians, and in 1795 Russia, the Habsburgs and Prussia participated in what was to be known as the Third Partition of Poland. Prussia took Warsaw, the Habsburgs took Krakow and expanded northward along the banks of the Bug River, and Catherine took Courland, Brest-Litovsk and what was left of Poland.

Catherine died in 1796 at the age of 67 from what was called apoplexy.


The Romanovs, by Virginia Cowles, 1971

Catherine the Great, a PBS documentary, 2005

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