Catherine the Great

One of the most powerful and the longest-ruling female monarchs of Russia elevated the country into one of European great powers. During her reign that lasted from 1762 to 1796, the Russian borders extended to incorporate the Crimean Khanate in the south and eastern Poland in the west, while the Empress also encouraged the Russian colonisation of Alaska. Shortly after her accession to the throne, Catherine also issued a decree establishing the Smolny Institute that became the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe.

Early Life

Catherine was born as Sophia Augusta Fredericka in 1729 in Stettin (today’s Szczecin, Poland) to Christian Augustus, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst and his wife Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Zerbst. The princess’ family, however, wasn’t wealthy. She caught the attention of the Russian Empress Elizabeth who played an important role in the selection of her future husband thanks to her mother’s relations with members of the royal family. Although Catherine’s mother didn’t impress the Russian Empress, young Catherine left a strong impression of the Empress as well as the Russian people. In 1744, she converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and received the name Catherine. One year later, she married the Empress’ nephew Peter, the Grand Duke of Holstein-Gottorp.

Rise to Power

In 1762, Catherine’s husband succeeded the Russian throne as Peter III but his pro-Prussian politics soon made him very unpopular among the Russian nobles. Only six months after his accession to the throne, dissatisfied nobles took advantage of his absence, proclaimed him deposed and his wife Catherine as the Empress of Russia. Formally, she succeeded her husband as Empress Regnant but she de facto ruled Russia as an Empress. Peter III was assassinated eight days after the coup but there is no evidence for Catherine being involved in the assassination.

Reign

Catherine went into history as one of the most successful and capable rulers of Russia. Besides expanding the Russian territory, she also modernised the country on the Western European model, reformed administration and founded many new cities and towns. Catherine established herself as one of foremost European enlightened rulers although the Russian economy depended heavily on serfs. She had introduce some changes in favour of serfs but she had to deal with several rebellions, most notably the Pugachev’s Rebellion that was put down only after two years.

Catherine held power strongly in her hands until her death and even left precise instructions in regard to her burial and mourning. She died of stroke in 1796 and was buried at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg that is the final resting place to most Russian monarchs including Peter the Great and the last Russian Tzar Nicholas II.