Catherine the Great and Russia



The Triumphs of Tsarina Elizabeth I

Elizabeth’s reign was marked by domestic reforms that continued the efforts of her father, Peter the Great, strengthening Russia’s position as a major participant in the European imperial rivalry.

Learning Objectives

Characterize Elizabeth I’s two decades in power

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Elizabeth (1709 – 1762), the daughter of Peter the Great and his second wife, Catherine I, was the Empress of Russia from 1741 until her death in 1762. She came to power as a result of a daring coup that, amazingly, succeeded without bloodshed.
  • Elizabeth aimed to continue changes made by Peter the Great. She reconstituted the senate as it had been under his reign, with the chiefs of the departments of state attending. Her first task after this was to address the war with Sweden. In 1743, the Treaty of Åbo was signed, with Sweden ceding to Russia all of southern Finland east of the Kymmene River.
  • The triumphs of Elizabeth’s foreign policy were credited to the diplomatic ability of Aleksey Bestuzhev-Ryumin, the head of foreign affairs. Bestuzhev reconciled the Empress with the courts of Vienna and London; enabled Russia to assert itself in Poland, Turkey, and Sweden; and isolated the King of Prussia by forcing him into hostile alliances. All this would have been impossible without the steady support of Elizabeth.
  • The critical event of Elizabeth’s later years was the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Elizabeth regarded the 1756 alliance between Great Britain and Prussia as utterly subversive of the previous conventions between Great Britain and Russia and sided against Prussia over a personal dislike of Frederick the Great. She therefore entered into an alliance with France and Austria against Prussia.
  • A year before the Seven Years’ War formally ended, Elizabeth died. Her Prussophile successor, Peter III, at once recalled Russian armies from Berlin and mediated Frederick’s truce with Sweden. This turn of events has become known as “the Second Miracle of the House of Brandenburg.”
  • Elizabeth was renowned throughout and beyond Russia for her fierce commitment to the arts, particularly music, theater, and architecture.

Key Terms

  • the Winter Palace: From 1732 to 1917, the official residence of the Russian monarchs in Saint Petersburg.
  • the Seven Years’ War: A world war fought between 1754 and 1763, the main conflict occurring in the seven-year period from 1756 to 1763. It involved every European great power of the time except the Ottoman Empire, spanning five continents and affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by Great Britain on one side and France on the other.
  • the Second Miracle of the House of Brandenburg: Events that led to Russia’s sudden change of alliance during the Seven Years’ War: in January 1762, the Empress Elizabeth of Russia died. Her nephew Peter, a strong admirer of Frederick the Great of Prussia, succeeded her and reversed Elizabeth’s anti-Prussian policy. He negotiated peace with Prussia and signed both an armistice and a treaty of peace and friendship.

Elizabeth of Russia

Elizabeth Petrovna (1709 – 1762), the daughter of Peter the Great and his second wife, Catherine I, was the Empress of Russia from 1741 until her death in 1762. After Peter died in 1725, his wife succeeded him as the Empress of Russia but died only two years later. Elizabeth’s half-nephew Peter II (the son of her half-brother from her father’s first marriage) succeeded her mother. After his death in 1730, Elizabeth’s first cousin, Empress Anna (ruled 1730-40), daughter of Peter the Great’s elder brother Ivan V, ruled Russia. During the reign of her cousin, Elizabeth was gathering support in the background but after the death of Empress Anna, the regency of Anna Leopoldovna (Empress Anna’s niece) for the infant Ivan VI was marked by high taxes and economic problems. As the daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth enjoyed much support from the Russian guards regiments. She often visited them, marking special events with the officers and acting as godmother to their children. The guards repaid her kindness when on the night of November 25, 1741, Elizabeth seized power with the help of the Preobrazhensky Regiment. The regiment marched to the Winter Palace and arrested the infant Emperor, his parents, and their own lieutenant-colonel, Count von Munnich. It was a daring coup and, amazingly, succeeded without bloodshed.

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Portrait of Elizabeth painted by Vigilius Eriksen in 1757.

Elizabeth remains one of the most popular Russian monarchs due to her strong opposition to Prussian policies and her decision not to execute a single person during her reign, an unprecedented one at the time.

Domestic and Foreign Policies

The substantial changes made by Peter the Great had not exercised a formative influence on the intellectual attitudes of the ruling classes as a whole, and Elizabeth aimed to change that. Her domestic policies allowed the nobles to gain dominance in local government while shortening their terms of service to the state. She encouraged Mikhail Lomonosov’s establishment of the University of Moscow and Ivan Shuvalov’s foundation of the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. She abolished the cabinet council system used under Anna and reconstituted the senate as it had been under Peter the Great, with the chiefs of the departments of state attending. Her first task after this was to address the war with Sweden. In 1743, the Treaty of Åbo, by which Sweden ceded to Russia all of southern Finland east of the Kymmene River, was signed.

This triumph was credited to the diplomatic ability of the new vice chancellor, Aleksey Bestuzhev-Ryumin, the head of foreign affairs. He represented the anti-Franco-Prussian portion of Elizabeth’s council and his object was to bring about an Anglo-Austro-Russian alliance. By sheer tenacity of purpose, Bestuzhev not only extricated his country from the Swedish imbroglio but also reconciled the Empress with the courts of Vienna and London; enabled Russia to assert itself in Poland, Turkey, and Sweden; and isolated the King of Prussia by forcing him into hostile alliances. All this would have been impossible without the steady support of Elizabeth, who trusted him completely in spite of the Chancellor’s many enemies, most of whom were her personal friends. However, in 1758, Chancellor Bestuzhev was removed from office, most likely because he attempted to sow discord between the Empress and her heir and his consort.

Seven Years’ War

The critical event of Elizabeth’s later years was the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Elizabeth regarded the 1756 alliance between Great Britain and Prussia as utterly subversive of the previous conventions between Great Britain and Russia and sided against Prussia over a personal dislike of Frederick the Great. She therefore entered into an alliance with France and Austria against Prussia, insisting that the King of Prussia must be rendered harmless to his neighbors for the future by reducing him to the rank of Prince-Elector. During the first six years of the war, Elizabeth focused on diplomatic (both covert and overt) and military efforts that aimed to deprive Frederick the Great and Prussia of their position as a the major European ruler and power. However,Elizabeth died in 1762, a year before the war formally ended. Her Prussophile successor, Peter III, at once recalled Russian armies from Berlin and mediated Frederick’s truce with Sweden. He also placed a corps of his own troops under Frederick’s command. This turn of events has become known as “the Second Miracle of the House of Brandenburg.”

Arts and Culture

Elizabeth was renowned throughout and beyond Russia for her fierce commitment to the arts, particularly music, theater, and architecture. The Empress had a longstanding love of theater and had a stage erected in the palace to enjoy the countless performances she sanctioned. Although many domestic and foreign works were shown, the French plays quickly became the most popular. Music also gained importance in Russia under Elizabeth. Many attribute its popularity to Elizabeth’s relationship with Alexei Razumovsky, a Ukrainian Cossack and the supposed husband of the Empress, who reportedly relished music. Elizabeth turned her court into “the country’s leading musical center.” She spared no expense, importing leading musical talents from Germany, France, and Italy. The Empress also spent exorbitant sums of money on the grandiose baroque projects of her favorite architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli. The Winter Palace and the Smolny Convent in Saint Petersburg are among the chief monuments of her reign.
Although the original construction of the Palace started under Peter the Great, Elizabeth commissioned an entirely new scheme (of the current structure) and oversaw the construction but died before its completion. The Convent, built when Elizabeth considered becoming a nun, was one of the many religious buildings erected at her behest, using the nation’s funds rather than those of the church. The Convent was one of many buildings erected for religious purposes under Elizabeth’s rule.

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The Winter Palace, from Palace Square

During the reign of Elizabeth, Rastrelli, still working to his original plan, devised an entirely new scheme in 1753 on a colossal scale—the present Winter Palace. The expedited completion of the palace became a matter of honor to the Empress, who regarded the palace as a symbol of national prestige. Work on the building continued throughout the year, even in the severest months of the winter. The deprivation to both the Russian people and the army caused by the ongoing Seven Years’ War were not permitted to hinder the progress.

The Brief Reign of Peter III

Peter III’s decision to turn Russia from an enemy to an ally of Prussia and his domestic reforms did not convince the Russian nobility to support the unpopular emperor.

Learning Objectives

Recall the events of Peter III’s time as tsar

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Peter III was emperor of Russia for six months in 1762. It was his aunt, Empress Elizabeth, that chose him as her successor. Elizabeth invited her young nephew to Saint Petersburg, where he was received into the Orthodox Church and proclaimed heir in 1742.
  • Empress Elizabeth arranged for Peter to marry his second cousin, Sophia Augusta Frederica (later Catherine the Great). They married in 1745 but the union was unhappy. The traditionally held view of Peter as a person of weak character and many vices is mainly drawn from the memoirs of his wife and successor.
  • After Peter succeeded to the Russian throne, the pro-Prussian emperor withdrew Russian forces from the Seven Years’ War and concluded a peace treaty with Prussia. Russia thus switched from an enemy of Prussia to an ally. The decision proved to be extremely unpopular in his own court and greatly contributed to Peter’s quick demise.
  • One of Peter’s most widely debated reforms was a manifesto that exempted the nobility from obligatory state and military service (established by Peter the Great) and gave them freedom to travel abroad. Although the exemption from the obligatory service was welcomed by the Russian elites,  the overall reform did not convince them to support their emperor, who was generally considered as taking little interest in Russia and its matters.
  • Catherine staged a coup and had her husband arrested, forcing him to sign a document of abdication and leaving no one to dispute her accession to the throne. On July 17, eight days after the coup and just six months after his accession to the throne, Peter III died at the hands of Alexei Orlov.

Key Terms

  • the Seven Years’ War: A world war fought between 1754 and 1763, the main conflict occurring in the seven-year period from 1756 to 1763. It involved every European great power of the time except the Ottoman Empire, spanning five continents and affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by Great Britain on one side and France on the other.
  • the Second Miracle of the House of Brandenburg: Events that led to Russia’s sudden change of alliance during the Seven Years’ War: in January 1762, the Empress Elizabeth of Russia died. Her nephew Peter, a strong admirer of Frederick the Great of Prussia, succeeded her and reversed Elizabeth’s anti-Prussian policy. He negotiated peace with Prussia and signed both an armistice and a treaty of peace and friendship.
  • casus belli: A Latin expression meaning “an act or event that provokes or is used to justify war” (literally, “a case of war”).

Peter III

Peter III (1728 – 1762) was emperor of Russia for six months in 1762, chosen by his unmarried, childless aunt, Empress Elizabeth, as her successor. Young Peter of Holstein-Gottorp lost his mother, Elizabeth’s sister Anna, at three months old and his father at the age of 11. Elizabeth invited her young nephew to Saint Petersburg, where he was received into the Orthodox Church and proclaimed heir in 1742. Empress Elizabeth arranged for Peter to marry his second cousin, Sophia Augusta Frederica (later Catherine the Great). The young princess formally converted to Russian Orthodoxy and took the name Ekaterina Alexeievna (Catherine). They married in 1745 but the union was unhappy. The traditionally held view of Peter as a person of weak character with many vices is mainly drawn from the memoirs of his wife and successor. She described him in extremely negative terms and this image of Peter has dominated in historical works, although some recent biographers painted a more positive picture of Peter’s character and rule.

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Peter III by Alexei Antropov, 1762

Peter III’s temperament became quite unbearable for those who resided in the palace. He would announce trying drills in the morning to male servants, who later joined Catherine in her room to sing and dance until late hours. Catherine became pregnant with her second child, Anna, who only lived to four months, in 1759. Due to various rumors of Catherine’s promiscuity, Peter was led to believe he was not the child’s biological father, but Catherine angrily dismissed his accusation. She spent much of this time alone in her own private boudoir to hide away from Peter’s abrasive personality.

Reign

After Peter succeeded to the Russian throne, the pro-Prussian emperor withdrew Russian forces from the Seven Years’ War and concluded a peace treaty with Prussia, an event known as the Second Miracle of the House of Brandenburg. It’s sometimes simply called the Miracle of the House of Brandenburg, which also refers to a surprising development during the Seven Years’ War, when Russia and Austria failed to follow up their victory over Frederick the Great at the Battle of Kunersdorf in 1759) He gave up Russian conquests in Prussia and offered 12,000 troops to make an alliance with Frederick the Great (1762). Russia thus switched from an enemy of Prussia to an ally — Russian troops withdrew from Berlin and marched against the Austrians. This dramatically shifted the balance of power in Europe. Frederick recaptured southern Silesia and subsequently forced Austria to the negotiating table. The decision proved to be extremely unpopular in his own court and greatly contributed to Peter’s quick demise.

As Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, Peter planned war against Denmark to restore parts of Schleswig to his Duchy. He focused on making alliances with Sweden and England to ensure that they would not interfere on Denmark’s behalf, while Russian forces gathered at Kolberg in Russian-occupied Pomerania. Alarmed at the Russian troops concentrating near their borders, unable to find any allies to resist Russian aggression, and short of money to fund a war, the government of Denmark threatened in late June to invade the free city of Hamburg in northern Germany to force a loan from it. Peter considered this a casus belli and prepared for open warfare against Denmark, but lost his throne before starting the war.

One of Peter’s most widely debated reforms was a manifesto that exempted the nobility from obligatory state and military service (established by Peter the Great) and gave them freedom to travel abroad. The manifesto obliged nobles to educate their children and ostracized the nobility considered lazy and unproductive. Although the exemption from the obligatory service was welcomed by the Russian elites,  the overall reform did not convince them to support their emperor, who was generally considered as taking little interest in Russia and its matters. A case of Peter’s religious policies serves as a demonstrative example of how the pro-Prussian emperor was perceived in Russia. His pro-Lutheran stand has been interpreted by some recent biographers as the introduction of religious freedom, while Peter’s contemporaries (and many historians) saw it as an anti-Orthodox attitude proving Peter’s lack of understanding of his own empire.

Overthrow

In July 1762, barely six months after becoming emperor, Peter took a holiday with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives to Oranienbaum, leaving his wife in Saint Petersburg. On the night of July 8, Catherine the Great received the news that one of her co-conspirators had been arrested by her estranged husband and that all they had been planning had to take place at once. She left the palace and departed for the Ismailovsky regiment, where Catherine delivered a speech asking the soldiers to protect her from her husband. Catherine left with the regiment to go to the Semenovsky Barracks where the clergy was waiting to ordain her as the sole occupant of the Russian throne. She had her husband arrested and forced him to sign a document of abdication, leaving no one to dispute her accession to the throne. On July 17, eight days after the coup and just six months after his accession to the throne, Peter III died at the hands of Alexei Orlov. Historians find no evidence for Catherine’s complicity in the supposed assassination.

From German Princess to Russian Tsarina

Born to the family of impoverished German aristocracy, Catherine the Great’s fate was decided when she was chosen
to become wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter III, whom she eventually overthrew to become the Empress of Russia in 1762.

Learning Objectives

Detail Catherine the Great’s journey from German Princess to sole ruler of Russia

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Catherine II of Russia reigned Russia from 1762 until her death in 1796. Born Sophia Augusta Fredericka to Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, and Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp in Stettin, Pomerania, her fate was decided after she was chosen to become wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter of Holstein-Gottorp (as Peter III).
  • Catherine spared no effort to ingratiate herself not only with the Empress, but also with her husband and with the Russian people. She applied herself to learning the language and wrote that when she came to Russia she decided to do whatever was required of her to become qualified to wear the crown.
  • Although Sophia’s father, a devout German Lutheran, opposed his daughter’s conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, in 1744 the Russian Orthodox Church received Princess Sophia as a member with the new name Catherine and the (artificial) patronymic Alekseyevna (daughter of Aleksey). On the following day, the formal betrothal took place in Saint Petersburg.
  • Count Andrei Shuvalov, chamberlain to Catherine, is credited as the source of rumors regarding the monarch’s intimate affairs. These rumor led many, including Peter, to believe that her two children were not fathered by her husband.
  • After the death of Empress Elizabeth in 1762, Peter succeeded to the throne as Emperor Peter III and Catherine became empress consort. The tsar’s eccentricities and policies, including a great admiration for Frederick the Great of Prussia, alienated the same groups that Catherine cultivated.
  • Catherine staged a coup and had her husband arrested, then forced him to sign a document of abdication, leaving no one to dispute her accession to the throne. Eight days after the coup and just six months after his accession to the throne, Peter III died at the hands of Alexei Orlov. Historians find no evidence for Catherine’s complicity in the supposed assassination.

Key Terms

  • the Seven Years’ War: A world war fought between 1754 and 1763, the main conflict occurring in the seven-year period from 1756 to 1763. It involved every great European power of the time except the Ottoman Empire, spanning five continents and affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by Great Britain on one side and France on the other.
  • enlightened despotism: Also known as enlightened absolutism or benevolent absolutism: a form of absolute monarchy or despotism inspired by the Enlightenment. The monarchs who embraced it followed the participles of rationality. Some of them fostered education, and allowed religious tolerance, freedom of speech, and the right to hold private property. They held that royal power emanated not from divine right but from a social contract whereby a despot was entrusted with the power to govern through a social contract in lieu of any other governments.

Early Life

Catherine II of Russia (1729 – 1796) was the longest-ruling female leader of Russia, reigning from 1762 until her death in 1796 at the age of 67. Born Sophia Augusta Fredericka to Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, and Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp in Stettin, Pomerania, she received education chiefly from a French governess and from tutors. Although Sophia was born a princess, her family had very little money. She came to power based on her mother’s relations to wealthy members of royalty.

The choice of Sophia as wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter of Holstein-Gottorp (as Peter III), was a result of diplomatic arrangements, most notably by Peter’s aunt, Empress Elizabeth. Catherine first met Peter at the age of 10. Based on her writings, she found him detestable when they met, which did not change after the two got married. Empress Elizabeth appreciated and liked Sophia, who upon her arrival in Russia in 1744 spared no effort to ingratiate herself not only with the Empress, but also with her husband and with the Russian people. She applied herself to learning the language with such zeal that she rose at night and walked about her bedroom barefoot, repeating her lessons (she mastered the language but she retained a foreign accent). This led to a severe attack of pneumonia in March 1744. In her memoirs, she wrote that when she came to Russia she decided to do whatever was required of her to become qualified to wear the crown.

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Young Catherine soon after her arrival in Russia, by Louis Caravaque, ca. 1745.

The choice of Sophia as wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, resulted from diplomatic management in which Count Lestocq, Peter’s aunt (the ruling Russian Empress Elizabeth), and Frederick the Great of Prussia took part. Lestocq and Frederick wanted to strengthen the friendship between Prussia and Russia to weaken Austria’s influence and ruin the Russian chancellor Bestuzhev, on whom Empress Elizabeth relied and who acted as a known partisan of Russo-Austrian co-operation.

Conversion and Marriage

Although Sophia’s father, a devout German Lutheran, opposed his daughter’s conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, in 1744 the Russian Orthodox Church received Princess Sophia as a member with the new name Catherine and the (artificial) patronymic Alekseyevna (daughter of Aleksey). On the following day, the formal betrothal took place in Saint Petersburg. Sophia was 16 and her father did not travel to Russia for the wedding. The newlyweds settled in the palace of Oranienbaum, which remained the residence of the “young court” for many years to come.

Count Andrei Shuvalov, chamberlain to Catherine, is credited as the source of information rumors regarding the monarchs’ intimate affairs. Peter was believed to have taken a mistress (Elizabeth Vorontsova), while Catherine carried on liaisons with Sergei Saltykov, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, Alexander Vasilchikov, Grigory Potemkin, Stanisław August Poniatowski, Alexander Vasilchikov, and others. Some of these men eventually became her trusted political or military advisors. She also became friends with Princess Ekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova, the sister of her husband’s mistress, who introduced her to several powerful political groups that opposed her husband.

Peter III’s temperament became quite unbearable for those who resided in the palace. He would announce trying drills in the morning to male servants, who later joined Catherine in her room to sing and dance until late hours. In 1754, Catherine and Peter welcomed a son, the future tsar Paul I.  There is considerable speculation as to the actual paternity of Paul. It is suggested that his mother had engaged in an affair—to which Empress Elizabeth consented—with a young officer named Serge Saltykov and that he was Paul’s father. However, Peter never gave any indication that he believed Paul was not his son. He also did not take any interest in parenthood, but Empress Elizabeth,certainly did. She removed young Paul from his mother by ordering the midwife to take the baby and follow her. Catherine was not to see her child for another month and then only briefly during the churching ceremony. Six months later Elizabeth let Catherine see the child again. Paul had in effect become a ward of the state and in a larger sense, the property of the state, to be brought up by Elizabeth as she believed he should be — as a true heir and great-grandson of her father, Peter the Great. Catherine became pregnant with her second child, Anna, who died as an infant in 1757. Due to the rumors of Catherine’s promiscuity, Peter was led to believe he was not the child’s biological father.

The Coup

After the death of Empress Elizabeth in 1762, Peter succeeded to the throne as Emperor Peter III and Catherine became empress consort. The imperial couple moved into the new Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. The tsar’s eccentricities and policies, including a great admiration for Frederick the Great of Prussia, alienated the same groups that Catherine cultivated. Furthermore, Peter intervened in a dispute between his Duchy of Holstein and Denmark over the province of Schleswig, which many at his court saw as a step towards unnecessary war. Peter’s shift in the official position of Russia from the enemy to the ally of Prussia during the Seven Years’ War eroded much of his support among the nobility. Domestic reforms, including a manifesto that exempted the nobility from obligatory state and military service (established by Peter the Great), did not convince the Russian elites to support their emperor.

In July 1762, barely six months after becoming emperor, Peter took a holiday with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives in Oranienbaum, leaving his wife in Saint Petersburg. On the night of July 8, Catherine received the news that one of her co-conspirators had been arrested by her estranged husband and that all they had been planning had to take place at once. She left the palace and departed for the Ismailovsky regiment, where Catherine delivered a speech asking the soldiers to protect her from her husband. She left with the regiment to go to the Semenovsky Barracks where the clergy was waiting to ordain her as the sole occupant of the Russian throne. She had her husband arrested and forced him to sign a document of abdication, leaving no one to dispute her accession to the throne. On July 17—eight days after the coup and just six months after his accession to the throne—Peter III died at the hands of Alexei Orlov. Historians find no evidence for Catherine’s complicity in the supposed assassination.

Catherine, though not descended from any previous Russian emperor of the Romanov Dynasty (she descended from the Rurik Dynasty, which preceded the Romanovs), succeeded her husband as empress regnant. She followed the precedent established when Catherine I (born in the lower classes in the Swedish East Baltic territories) succeeded her husband Peter the Great in 1725. Historians debate Catherine’s technical status, some seeing her as a regent or as a usurper, tolerable only during the minority of her son, Grand Duke Paul. In the 1770s, a group of nobles connected with Paul considered a new coup to depose Catherine and transfer the crown to Paul, whose power they envisaged restricting in a kind of constitutional monarchy. However, the plan failed and Catherine reigned until her death.

The period of Catherine’s rule, the Catherinian Era, is often considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire and Russian nobility. She enthusiastically supported the ideals of the Enlightenment, thus earning the status of an enlightened despot. As such, she believed that strengthening her authority had to occur by improving the lives of her subjects. This philosophy of enlightened despotism implied that the sovereign knew the interests of his or her subjects better than they themselves did. The monarch taking responsibility for the subjects precluded their political participation. Catherine presided over the age of the Russian Enlightenment and sought contact with and inspiration from the major philosophers of the era. In one of her letters to Dennis Diderot, she referred to how she saw her responsibility as the empress:

You philosophers are lucky men. You write on paper and paper is patient. Unfortunate Empress that I am, I write on the susceptible skins of living beings.
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Catherine II of Russia visits Mikhail Lomonosov in 1764. 1884 painting by Ivan Feodorov.

As a patron of the arts and an advocate of Enlightenment ideals, she presided over the age of the Russian Enlightenment, In this painting, she is visiting Mikhail Lomonosov, a Russian polymath, scientist and writer, who made important contributions to literature, education, and science. Among his discoveries was the atmosphere of Venus and the Law of Mass Conservation in chemical reactions. He was also a poet and influenced the formation of the modern Russian literary language.

Catherine’s Domestic Policies

Catherine the Great enthusiastically supported the ideals of the Enlightenment, thus earning the status of an enlightened despot, although her reforms benefited a small number of her subjects and did not change the oppressive system of Russian serfdom.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate Catherine the Great’s domestic policies and to what extent she can be considered an enlightened despot

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The period of Catherine’s rule (1762-1796), the Catherinian Era, is often considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire and Russian nobility. She enthusiastically supported the ideals of the Enlightenment, thus earning the status of an enlightened despot.
  • An admirer of Peter the Great, Catherine continued to modernize Russia along Western European lines. However, military conscription and economy continued to depend on serfdom, and the increasing demands of the state and private landowners led to increased levels of reliance on serfs. Consequently, the unrest intensified and more than fifty peasant revolts occurred between 1762 and 1769. These culminated in Pugachev’s Rebellion, the largest peasant revolt in Russia’s history.
  • Catherine believed a “new kind of person” could be created by inculcating Russian children with European education. However, despite the experts’ recommendations to establish a general system of education for all Russian Orthodox subjects from the age of 5 to 18, excluding serfs, only modest action was taken. An estimated 62,000 pupils were educated in some 549 state institutions near the end of Catherine’s reign, a minuscule number of people compared to the size of the Russian population.
  • Catherine converted to the Russian Orthodoxy as part of her immersion in the Russian matters but personally remained largely indifferent to religion. Her religious policies aimed to control populations and religious institutions in the multi-religious empire and were not an expression of religious freedom.
  • Catherine did not advocate democratic reforms but addressed some modernization trends, including dividing the country into provinces and districts, further increasing the power of the landed oligarchs, and issuing the Charter of the Towns, which distributed all people into six groups
    as a way to limit the power of nobles and create a middle estate.
  • Catherine had a reputation as a patron of the arts, literature, and education. She cultivated and corresponded with French encyclopedists but did not support a free-thinking spirit among her own subjects as much as among famous French philosophers.

Key Terms

  • Cossacks: A group of predominantly East Slavic-speaking people who became known as members of democratic, self-governing, semi-military communities, predominantly located in Ukraine and in Russia. They inhabited sparsely populated areas and islands in the lower Dnieper, Don, Terek, and Ural river basins and played an important role in the historical and cultural development of both Russia and Ukraine.
  • enlightened despotism: Also known as enlightened absolutism or benevolent absolutism, a form of absolute monarchy or dep or despotism inspired by the Enlightenment. The monarchs who embraced it followed the participles of rationality. Some of them fostered education and allowed religious tolerance, freedom of speech, and the right to hold private property. They held that royal power emanated not from divine right but from a social contract whereby a despot was entrusted with the power to govern through a social contract in lieu of any other governments.
  • Hermitage Museum: A museum of art and culture in Saint Petersburg, Russia. One of the largest and oldest museums in the world, it was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been open to the public since 1852. Its collections, of which only a small part is on permanent display, comprise over three million items.
  • Pugachev’s Rebellion: A 1773-75 revolt in a series of popular rebellions that took place in Russia after Catherine II seized power in 1762. It began as an organized insurrection of Cossacks against a background of profound peasant unrest and war with the Ottoman Empire. It was the largest peasant revolt in Russia’s history.
  • the Smolny Institute: Russia’s first educational establishment for women, established under Catherine the Great’s rule, that continued to function under the personal patronage of the Russian Empress until just before the 1917 revolution.

Catherine II: Enlightened Despot

The period of Catherine’s rule (1762-1796), the Catherinian Era, is often considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire and the Russian nobility. She enthusiastically supported the ideals of the Enlightenment, thus earning the status of an enlightened despot. As such, she believed that strengthening her authority had to occur by improving the lives of her subjects. This philosophy of enlightened despotism implied that the sovereign knew the interests of his or her subjects better than they themselves did. The monarch taking responsibility for the subjects precluded their political participation.

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Portrait of Empress Catherine the Great by Russian painter Fyodor Rokotov, 1763.: Catherine reformed the administration of Russian guberniyas and many new cities and towns were founded on her orders. An admirer of Peter the Great, she continued to modernize Russia along Western European lines although her reforms did not benefit the masses and military conscription and economy continued to depend on serfdom.

Serfdom

An admirer of Peter the Great, Catherine continued to modernize Russia along Western European lines. However, military conscription and economy continued to depend on serfdom, and the increasing demands of the state and private landowners led to increased levels of reliance on serfs. Catherine confirmed the authority of the nobles over the serfs in return for the nobles’ political cooperation. This was one of the chief reasons behind ongoing rebellions. The unrest intensified as the 18th century wore on, with more than fifty peasant revolts occurring between 1762 and 1769. These culminated in Pugachev’s Rebellion, when,between 1773 and 1775, Yemelyan Pugachev rallied the peasants and Cossacks and promised the serfs land of their own and freedom from their lords.

In the 18th century, the peasantry in Russia were no longer bound to the land, but tied to their owners, which made Russian serfdom more similar to slavery than any other system of forced labor that existed at the time in Europe. A landowner could punish his serfs at his discretion and under Catherine the Great gained the ability to sentence his serfs to hard labor in Siberia, a punishment normally reserved for convicted criminals. The only thing a noble could not do to his serfs was to kill them. The life of a serf belonged to the state. Historically, when the serfs faced problems they could not solve (such as abusive masters), they appealed to the autocrat. They continued doing so during Catherine’s reign though she signed legislation prohibiting the practice. While she eliminated some ways for people to become serfs, culminating in a 1775 manifesto that prohibited a serf who had once been freed from becoming a serf again, she also restricted the freedoms of many peasants. During her reign, Catherine gave away many state-owned peasants to become private serfs (owned by a landowner).

Pugachev launched the rebellion in mid-September 1773. He had a substantial force composed of Cossacks, Russian peasants, factory serfs, and non-Russians. Despite some victories, by late 1774 the tide was turning, and the Russian army’s victory at Tsaritsyn left 9,000 to 10,000 rebels dead. By early September, the rebellion was crushed. Pugachev was betrayed by his own Cossacks when he tried to flee and he was beheaded and dismembered in 1775 in Moscow.

Education

Catherine believed a “new kind of person” could be created by inculcating Russian children with European education. However, despite the experts’ recommendations to establish a general system of education for all Russian Orthodox subjects from the age of 5 to 18, excluding serfs, only modest action was taken. The Moscow Foundling Home (Moscow Orphanage), charged with admitting destitute and extramarital children, was created to experiment with new educational theories. However, due to extremely high mortality rates, it failed to serve that purpose. Shortly after the Moscow Foundling Home, Catherine established the Smolny Institute for Noble Girls to educate females. The girls who attended the Smolny Institute, Smolyanki, were often accused of being ignorant of anything that went on outside the walls of the Smolny buildings. Within the walls of the Institute, they were taught impeccable French, musicianship, dancing, and complete awe of the Monarch.

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The Smolny Institute, the first Russian Institute for Noble Maidens and the first European state higher education institution for women, by S.F. Galaktionov, 1823.

The building was commissioned from Giacomo Quarenghi by the Society for Education of Noble Maidens and constructed in 1806–08 to house the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, established at the urging of Ivan Betskoy and in accordance with a decree of Catherine in 1764. The establishment of the institute was a significant step in making education available for females in Russia.

Catherine introduced some educational reforms despite the lack of a national school system. The remodelling of the Cadet Corps in 1766 initiated many educational reforms. The Corps began to take children from a very young age and educate them until the age of 21, and the curriculum was broadened from the professional military curriculum to include the sciences, philosophy, ethics, history, and international law. In 1786, the Russian Statute of National Education was promulgated. The statute established a two-tier network of high schools and primary schools in guberniya capitals that were free of charge, open to all of the free classes (not serfs), and co-educational. Two years after the implementation of Catherine’s program, a member of the National Commission inspected the institutions established. Throughout Russia, the inspectors encountered a patchy system. While the nobility put up appreciable amounts of money for these institutions, they preferred to send their children to private, more prestigious institutions. Also, the townspeople tended to turn against the junior schools and their pedagogical methods. An estimated 62,000 pupils were educated in some 549 state institutions near the end of Catherine’s reign, a minuscule number of people compared to the size of the Russian population.

Religion

Catherine converted to the Russian Orthodoxy as part of her immersion in the Russian matters but personally remained largely indifferent to religion. Her religious policies largely aimed to control populations and religious institutions in the multi-religious empire. She nationalized all of the church lands to help pay for her wars, largely emptied the monasteries, and forced most of the remaining clergymen to survive as farmers or from fees for services. However, in her anti-Ottoman policy, she promoted the protection and fostering of Christians under Turkish rule. Although she placed strictures on Roman Catholics in the Polish parts of her empire, Russia also provided an asylum to the Jesuits following their suppression in most of Europe in 1773.

Catherine took many approaches to Islam during her reign but her pro-Islam policies were all an attempt to control Muslim populations in the empire. After the Toleration of All Faiths Edict of 1773, Muslims were permitted to build mosques and practice freely. In 1785, Catherine approved the subsidization of new mosques and new town settlements for Muslims. By building new settlements with mosques placed in them, Catherine attempted to ground many of the nomadic people who wandered through southern Russia. In 1786, she assimilated the Islamic schools into the Russian public school system to be regulated by the government. The plan was another attempt to force nomadic people to settle.

Russia often treated Judaism as a separate entity and Jews were under a separate legal and bureaucratic system. After the annexation of Polish territories, the Jewish population in the empire grew significantly. Catherine levied additional taxes on the followers of Judaism, but if a family converted to the Orthodox faith that additional tax was lifted. In 1785, she declared Jewish populations to be officially foreigners, with foreigners’ rights. Catherine’s decree also denied them the rights of Orthodox or naturalized citizens of Russia. Taxes doubled again for those of Jewish descent in 1794 and Catherine officially declared that Jews bore no relation to Russians.

Administration and Intellectual Life

Catherine did not advocate democratic reforms but addressed some of the modernization trends. In 1775, she decreed a Statute for the Administration of the Provinces of the Russian Empire. The statute sought to efficiently govern Russia by increasing population and dividing the country into provinces and districts. In 1785, she conferred on the nobility the Charter to the Nobility, increasing further the power of the landed oligarchs. Nobles in each district elected a Marshal of the Nobility, who spoke on their behalf to the monarch on issues of concern to them, mainly economic ones. In the same year, Catherine issued the Charter of the Towns, which distributed all people into six groups as a way to limit the power of nobles and create a middle estate.

Catherine had a reputation as a patron of the arts, literature, and education. The Hermitage Museum, which now occupies the whole Winter Palace, began as Catherine’s personal collection. Within a few months of her accession in 1762, having heard the French government threatened to stop the publication of the famous French Encyclopédie on account of its irreligious spirit, Catherine proposed to Diderot that he should complete his great work in Russia under her protection. She wrote comedies, fiction, and memoirs while cultivating the French encyclopedists, who later cemented her reputation in their writings. Catherine enlisted Voltaire to her cause,and corresponded with him for 15 years, from her accession to his death in 1778. During Catherine’s reign, Russians imported and studied the classical and European influences that inspired the Russian Enlightenment. She also became a great patron of Russian opera. However, she did not support a free-thinking spirit among her own subjects as much as among the famous French philosophers. When Alexander Radishchev published his Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1790 (one year after the start of the French Revolution) and warned of uprisings because of the deplorable social conditions of the peasants held as serfs, Catherine exiled him to Siberia.