Was Catherine the Great a despot or a philosopher? A thoughtful queen fueled by concern for her people or a ruthless tyrant fueled by sex and power? Those questions have raged since the Russian Empress’s 18th-century reign. Here’s what to know about the formidable female monarch:
Born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst in 1729, she was the daughter of an impoverished Prussian prince. Though her family lacked money of its own, they were tied to two of the most influential families in Germany—the Anhalts and the Holsteins. Young Sophie was educated at home by tutors and recalled her strict childhood as uninteresting.
Compared to the rest of her life, it was. When she was ten years old, the