Sophie, a teenage princess of the principality of Anhalt-Zerbst, destined to marry a minor nobleman within the confines of a Prussian city, ended up buried under the landslides of history. From it had emerged Catherine II, the Empress of Russia. Being fourteen years old, Sophie had agreed to marry the heir to the Russian throne, Peter Ulrich, and 19 years later, she finally achieved power of her own. But often keeping on top, is far more troublesome than reaching the top itself…

Painting of a young Catherine dressing ayellow dress and a red band
Princess or Grand Duchess in 1745, a year after arriving at the Russian court. Portrait by Georg Christoph Grooth and exposed today in the Hermitage Museum. Source
Read the first part of Catherine the Great’s history here

#1 Catherine, patron of the arts

Amongst the first decisions of Catherine as Empress, apart from rewarding her buddies, who staged the coup against the Prussian-fan Peter III, was the acquisition of artistic paintings. One or two paintings, and maybe new curtains, can make any ugly house a little bit more bearable, isn’t it? In fact, the modern Hermitage museum, located in the former Winter Palace, in St Petersburg, started as the personal collection of Catherine, who set her mind on attracting to Russia, architects, painters, poets, writers, philosophers and thinkers alike.

Today the Hermitage is the largest collector of paintings in the world. All thanks to Catherine. Picture by Pedro Szekely. Source

And Catherine wasn’t only concerned about improving the average Russian artistic tastes, she also worried about their health. Particularly irksome was smallpox, deadly alike to the poor peasant or the rich Duke. Neither Catherine nor Paul, had passed smallpox, and as a mother, she fretted about him. She had herself inoculated against it, then Paul, and by the turn of the century, over 2 million of Russians had been inoculated too.  

#2 Catherine the Great to Peter the Great

Catherine had seized power in a coup. Technically she was a usurper. And what better method to make the rabble forget about it, than building a huge statue of their greatest Tsar? In 1766, Catherine commissioned a statue of Peter the Great to Étienne Maurice Falconet. The statue, known today as the ‘Bronze Horseman’ was unveiled in St Petersburg, in 1782, sitting on top of the ‘Thunder Storm’, the largest stone ever moved by humans.

In Latin: Peter the First, Catherine the Second. 1782. Author: Lev Panov. Source

A 19th century legend says that as long as the statue stands in St Petersburg, the city won’t fall to the enemy. During the 900 days siege of Leningrad (1941-1944), the statue remained unscratched, despite heavy Nazi artillery and bombings. And the city resisted.

#3 Sampling the Polish cake

In 1763, King Augustus of Poland died. The Sjem (Polish Parliament) gathered to choose a new monarch. A task a tad stressful with a Russian army camped near Warsaw and ready to use ‘Russian diplomacy’, had Catherine’s choice for the throne, her former lover Stanislaw Poniatowski, failed to be elected by the Polish parliament, the Sejm.

Counting too, with the support of Catherine’s new ally, Frederik the Great of Prussia, Poniatowski was crowned king. A puppet king, with a parliament full of nobles who rejected and feared any change towards a centralised and hereditary monarchy. A very enticing job prospect.

Stanislaw Poniatowski (1732-1798). Last King of Poland. Painting by Marcello Bacciarelli. Source

You probably wonder, how crazy was the night, when the Poles had the fantastic idea to invite Russian troops to supervise the Sejm. The root of all the Sejm troubles was the infamous Liberum Veto (Latin for ‘free veto’). A malefic burden that transformed the parliament into a useless chamber of Kurwa (fuck in Polish) and fighting.

Liberum Veto meant any member of the Sejm could nullify legislation being passed by the chamber, by yelling “I stop the activity!” All voting therefore, had to be unanimous. The Russian and Prussia sharks wasted no time on smelling blood in the muddy waters of Polish democracy, bribing members of the Sejm, to block any attempt to pass legislation against Russian or Prussian interests.

#4 The conquests of Catherine the Great

Catherine pressed Poniatowski in urging the Sejm to acknowledge political rights for the Orthodox minorities living within the Polish Commonwealth, but the Sjem, formed by Catholics, refused. Nothing piss off a woman more, in this case the most powerful woman of Europe, that a blunt rejection. Especially after she spent a fortune in bribes to prop Poniatowski to the throne. Luckily the Russian Army kept hanging around Warsaw to force the Sejm to see their democratic ‘mistake’ in refusing Catherine’s wishes…

Poland’s only ally, the Ottoman Empire, who was suspicious of Russia’s interests on Moldavia and Wallachia (Ottoman-ruled Orthodox provinces) declared war on Russia, in 1768. Hostilities lasted until 1774, and the whole business was a whooping success for Catherine. Russia gained nominal lordship over the Crimean Khanate, and access to the Black Sea. Peter the Great’s long dream had been achieved. 

A second war against the Turks (1787-1792), led by the brilliant general Russian Suvorov, saw the conquests of Russia expanded in the Black Sea, and Crimea formally annexed.

Catherine created the Governorate of Novorossiya (New Russia) in 1764, as a border against the Ottoman Empire. Novorossiya swelled thanks with coastal territories snatched from them. Author: Dim Grits. Source

But Catherine hadn’t forget about the Poles-fighting-Poles Sjem.

The Polish Commonwealth was formed by subjects of many different faiths, and as such it developed a custom to quarrel with all their neighbours. Via Meme. Source

In 1772, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Maria Theresa of Austria, and Catherine, agreed to a partition of Polish territories. Poland saw, its once largest country in Europe, stripped of one third of its inhabitants.

#5 Catherine and Potemkin

While Catherine’s troops conquered new territories, Catherine herself conquered new lovers. Once Grigory Orlov was caught cheating, Potemkin, a young officer in the army caught Catherine’s eye. In 1774, knowing of Catherine’s hesitancy, Potemkin feinted entering into a monastery. He went as far as growing a beard and observing monastic rules. That drove Catherine crazy, and summoned him to court.

Prince Grigory Potemkin, with his medals and numerous condecorations, looking confident
Grigory Potemkin. 1739-1791. Source

Potemkin, like previous lovers, moved to apartments adjacent to the Empress’ chambers. But there was something ‘more’ with the extremely jealous Potemkin, who flared up when he saw Catherine being friendly to other men, especially to Orlov. In her private letters, Catherine usually called him ‘dear husband’, leading some to suspect that indeed she had married him in secret.  

Potemkin’s jealousy was only surpassed by his craving of power, and was bestowed title after title, becoming de facto the most powerful man in Russia, only second to Catherine. Despite their romantic relationship ending in 1776, when Catherine got a new favourite (perks of being the Empress), both kept very affectionate and close for the rest of their lives.

#6 The Empress right hand

Potemkin was made administrator to Novorossiya, and began colonising and founding cities there. Kherson, Nikolayev, Sevastopol, and Yekaterinoslav (modern day Dnipro) were his homage to Catherine. He also began to plan the foundation of Odesa, when malaria struck him to death, in 1791.

Before his death, he served as commander-in-chief of the Russian Imperial Army, during the second Russo-Turkish War. He flawlessly teamed up with the brilliant General Suvorov, who enjoyed flattering Catherine by throwing at her feet, and touching the floor with his forehead. Often getting reprimanded by Catherine for doing so. Potemkin wasn’t only exceptionally good at manhandling the Empress, but manhandling the Empire too.

Alexander Suvorov (1729-1800). One of the most brilliant generals of Russian history. Painting by Charles de Steuben. Source

#7 The dark side of Catherine

When the French Revolution broke, it wasn’t only a threat to the absolutist’s monarchs in Europe, to the power Catherine had taken so much effort to consolidate. It was also a reminder of her youth failures. To Catherine in particular, for the young empress who had exchanged letters with Voltaire, who paraphrased Montesquieu in her Nakaz. For the protector of the Serfs.

On 21st January 1792, Louis XVI of France’s head fell into the basket of the guillotine. The first of many thousands the French Revolution would collect. But that day there was another head alongside Louise’s. The head of Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst. The teenager that had moved to Russia, and later ascended the throne with the honest intention of making amends to the Russian people was no more.

An ageing Catherine. Painting by Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder. 1780’s. Source

Catherine II of Russia, had replaced her. At the head of the biggest absolutist state in Europe, and with the threat of the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802), spreading the Revolutionary ideas across Europe, Catherine became a fierce opponent to enlightened ideas. She ordered to register all books deemed opposite to religion and decency, even confiscating the books of her late friend Voltaire. And in 1795, a former system of censorship was established in Russia.

#8 So, we meet again, Poland…

Additional severe consequences that the French Revolution had in Catherine, were her decisions for further partitions of the Polish Commonwealth. In 1793, and 1795, Russia, Prussia and Austria ripped Poland to slices, like a pizza, under the argument that the French Jacobin terror spread into the ranks of the Sejm, and threatened the stability of its neighbours. Catherine the dreamer, who once aspired to abolish serfdom, didn’t flinch or hesitate when she sentenced a kingdom and nation, to death. Poland would not see his own nation restored until the end of the First World War, in 1918.

The three Polish partitions. In pink and purple tonalities, the territories annexed by Russia. Author: Halibutt. Source

#9 Catherine the Great’s accomplishments

Among the eighteen rulers that the House of the Romanov (ruling dynasty of Imperial Russia) produced from 1613 till 1917, and the 21 monarchs of the Rurik Dynasty (879 1612), only Peter I and Catherine II were granted the nickname ‘the Great’.

The Rurik dynasty, or Rurikids, were said to descend from Rurik, a Viking regarded as the forefather of the Russian and Ukrainian nations

Peter gave Russia western technology, a modern army and a navy that defeated the best army of Europe during his lifetime. Catherine boosted Peter’s legacy, by conquering the territories Peter always dreamt about, ripping to pieces Russia’s traditional nightmares, the Turks and the Poles. And she left to her grandson, the future Alexander I, a country strong enough to withstand and repel Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion in 1812.

Alexander in black military uniform
Alexander I (1777-1825). Nicknamed ‘The blessed’ for his instrumental role in defeating Napoleon. Painting by George Dawe. Source

#10 The death of Catherine the Great

On the 5th of November 1796, Catherine suffered a stroke and collapsed. She never regained consciousness again, and died on the evening of 6th November, surrounded by her son Paul, her daughter-in-law Maria Feodorovna, and her beloved grandsons, Alexander and Konstantin. Paul, now Paul I, embittered against his mother for their estrangement, and her incapability to trust him, changed the succession law so no women would ever again hold the reins of the nation.

Catherine dressed casually in a blue coat and walks her dog in the gardens
One of the last paintings taken to Catherine. Painting by Vladimir Borovikovsky, 1794. Source

Catherine the Great was the last woman to rule Russia. But her presence remains as alive as it was during her days, during the Catherinian Era, the Golden Age of the Russian Empire.

If you want to learn more in detail about the inspiring story of Catherine the Great, check this free preview of Robert K. Massie. Thanks for reading and don’t forget to subscribe for more!