Catherine the Great

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Portrait by Alexei Antropov, ca. 1773.

Catherine the Great (Russian: Екатерина II Великая) (1729-1796) was the powerful empress of Russia (1762-1796) who ruled as an enlightened despot. After the French Revolution, she rejected the Enlightenment. She is remembered for leading her country into full participation in the political and cultural life of Europe, and for advancing the Partitions of Poland.


Catherine was a princess of the petty German principality Anhalt-Zerbst. She was well educated and, like many other European nobles in the 18th century, heavily influenced by French culture. Aged fifteen, she left for Russia to marry Peter of Holstein-Gottorp in 1744. Converting to Orthodox Christianity, she learned Russian upon her arrival in the country. Peter was both a miserable husband and leader. She led a successful coup against him in 1762, resulting in his death and her coronation as Empress Catherine II.


Catherine reigned from 1762 to 1796. She was initially looked at with suspicion, as she had no title to the crown, and had ascended to power due to a palace revolution. She gradually gained in popularity, especially among Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau.

Catherine's despotic rule and personal morality suffered from similar moral failures as a great many men in power. She did, however, attempt to open up governance, suggesting that her instinct was toward egalitarianism. Yet she also reinforced feudalism by tightening the tie between serfs and their overlords.

See also

Further reading

  • Alexander, John T. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend (1989), the standard biography