Catherine II, the Great

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Catherine II, the Great (1729-96): Empress of Russia

Catherine II ruled Russia from 1762-96, during a period of unprecedented growth of empire. Astute and autocratic, she expanded Russian dominions, overhauled administrative structures, and vigorously pursued Westernization policies. To foster economic development, she encouraged trade by ending various restrictions on commerce, and promoted the settlement of underpopulated areas by attracting both Russians and foreigners to them.

Born in the German city of Stettin, Catherine was sent to Russia at age 15 and betrothed to the heir to the throne, the Grand Duke Peter. She converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity, and was wed in 1745. When Empress Elizabeth died in 1761, Peter was proclaimed Emperor Peter III, and Catherine became empress. Within months of his ascent to the throne, Peter had so estranged military, government and ecclesiastical officials that a group plotted a coup to remove him. Catherine exploited the situation for her own purposes, rallying the St. Petersburg garrisons to her support in June 1762, then declaring herself sovereign ruler of Russia. She had Peter arrested, and forced him to abdicate the throne. He died shortly thereafter in prison.

With ambitious plans for domestic reform, Catherine realized Russia needed prolonged peace and stability, if proper change were to be effected. As an "enlightened despot," motivated by the ideas of the Enlightenment, Catherine came to believe that a wise and benevolent ruler, acting according to the dictates of reason, could ensure the well-being of her subjects. In this spirit, Catherine undertook the first major reform, that of Russia's legal system, which was based on the inequitable, archaic and inefficient Code of Laws, dating back centuries. Inspired largely by the writings of the French philosopher Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de, she oversaw the formulation of the "Instruction," a document to guide those entrusted with sweeping legal reform, and delineating her notion of the ideal government for Russia. Calling for a progressive legal system, the "Instruction" received wide acclaim throughout Europe. Among its features, it proposed a system granting equal protection under law to all persons, and emphasized prevention of criminal acts rather than the imposition of harsh punishment. Sections of the "Instruction" even reflected Smith, Adam's views on taxes and trade. The celebrated tract was as much a product of the Enlightenment as the founding documents of the United States.

One clause of the "Instruction" specified that land is best cultivated by free people owning the land. Many interpreted this declaration as an indication of Catherine's intention to abolish serfdom, something abhorrent to the provincial gentry. Dependent upon the latter for political support, Catherine backed off. She would, in time, turn the clock back, strengthening serfdom, bestowing tens of thousands of "souls" upon minor noblemen, and introducing serfdom in the Ukraine.

In 1767, she established the Legislative Commission to revise the antiquated legal code in accordance with the "Instruction," and to apprise her of the country's political and social needs generally. In the context of the time, the Commission was a distinguished and liberal organization, consisting of delegates from all levels of society with the exception of the serfs. Reft by internal strife, the Legislative Commission made little progress, though, and its proceedings were overshadowed by impending war with Turkey and growing troubles in Poland. Sheer frustration and heightened anxiety about Russia's security prompted Catherine to suspend the meetings. She never would reconvene the body, evidence, some critical observers say, of her preoccupation with a reputation for enlightened government, rather than its realization.

In 1868, war broke out in Poland when Polish nobles rebelled against the central authority, and formed the anti-Russian Confederation of the Bar. The conflict rapidly spilled over into Turkey, which declared war on Russia in the hopes of increasing its influence in Poland and Eastern Europe. With Turkish defeat, Russia gained permanent access to the Black Sea in the 1774 Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji. Alarmed by expanding Russian power in Eastern Europe and determined to bolster their respective strategic positions, Austria and Prussia carried through the First Partition of Poland, with the subsequent Polish loss of one-third of its territory and one-half its inhabitants.

Even prior to the conclusion of peace with the Turks, Catherine faced an internal challenge to her rule in the form of a revolt led by Yemelyan Pugachev. The uprising began in the south, spread up the Volga, and at one point threatened Moscow. Several large-scale military expeditions finally crushed the rebellion, and Catherine became more attentive than ever to security issues.

Following the Pugachev uprising, Catherine directed her attention once more to domestic matters. For security reasons, she reorganized provincial administration to favor the nobility. She endeavored to expand the country's educational facilities, and proceeded to increase the number of elementary and secondary schools. The arts and sciences received much attention, and St. Petersburg became one of Europe's major cultural centers during her reign. Support for music, theater and painting increased, and The Academy of Sciences became a world-class institution of scholarship.

Further Reading:

John T. Alexander, Catherine the Great, Life and Legend, 1989.

Isabel De Madariaga, Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great, 1981.

Marc Raeff, ed., Catherine the Great: A Profile, 1972.

David M. Keithly

American Military University