Catherine II of Russia makes a grand entrance before her courtiers in a colorful lithograph by Alexandre Nikolayevich Benois from 1909.

How Catherine really became 'The Great'

Once the upstart foreigner stole Russia’s throne, there was no stopping her enlightened reforms, her empire's expansion, and her pursuit of love and legacy.

Holding court

Catherine II of Russia makes a grand entrance before her courtiers in a colorful lithograph by Alexandre Nikolayevich Benois from 1909.
Album/Fine Art Images

In 1729 a baby girl was born to fading Prussian nobility in the bleak garrison town of Stettin, Germany (Szczecin, Poland, today). Her childhood was lacking in parental love but rich in education–and social striving. At 14, she was summoned to Russia to change her name, religion, and language to marry a future tsar. In the end, however, it was Russia that would be transformed by her.

(What’s so great about Frederick? The warrior king of Prussia.)

Sophie Friederike Auguste was raised on the fringes of power in the Prussian empire. Her mother, Johanna, was a master at exploiting social and family connections, while her father, Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst, had a name more impressive than his quiet frugal self. Their mismatched marriage was an unhappy one, and a daughter was unlikely to raise the family fortunes. Years later, in what would become some 700 pages of lively, frank, and self-justifying memoirs and letters, the Russian empress would write of her entry into the world: “I was not very joyfully welcomed.”

Her excellent education had one purpose: to marry well. It included lessons in everything from proper curtsying to philosophy and French, the lingua franca of Europe’s elite. She challenged her teachers, especially on matters of faith over logic. When her Lutheran tutor threatened the cane, it taught her only that brains were more persuasive than brawn. “I am convinced in my inmost soul that Herr Wagner was a blockhead,” she wrote. “All my life I have had this inclination to yield only to gentleness and reason—and to resist all pressure.”

Although anxious over this “devil of pride” in her daughter, Johanna nonetheless brought Sophie on her travels to northern German courts. It was part of an early campaign to arrange a marriage for the girl, who, while plain in appearance, had an abundance of charm. On one court visit in 1739, at age 10, Sophie met her recently orphaned second cousin, Karl Peter Ulrich—the only surviving grandson of Tsar Peter I, better known as Peter the Great.

Attuned to the whisperings of court gossip, Sophie overheard that the child duke was hotheaded and, though just 11, “inclined to drink.” Young Peter was physically abused by his primary tutor and often left hungry as punishment. He found solace in toy soldiers and playing the violin, poorly. No one seemed to take his education seriously. His “most conscientious teacher,” she would poignantly recall of her future husband’s troubled early life, “was the ballet master Landé, who taught him to dance.”

A few years later, it would be this ill-prepared and abused boy whom the childless Russian empress Elizabeth, searching for a legitimate Romanov heir, would pluck away from Prussia. Thanks to family ties with Johanna, Empress Elizabeth would next turn her matchmaking eyes to his former court playmate, the socially astute and well-educated Sophie. Perhaps it seemed a good match.

The pairing was doomed.

Building a family

Summoned to Russia, the 14-year-old bride-to-be treated the young duke as her “master” and worked to please the empress. Sophie took the Russian name Catherine (Ekaterina), converted from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy, and spent long nights pacing barefoot on cold floors memorizing Russian words. Her efforts resulted not only in pneumonia but also in a glowing reputation as a devotee of her new homeland. Her image was further boosted when, gravely ill, she waved off a Lutheran priest in favor of an Orthodox one.

Her relationship with the childlike Peter evolved, but it was mostly for the worse. Of their unromantic wedding night in 1745, she wrote: “... he went to sleep and this went on for nine years.” To pass the time, she played blind man’s buff, whist, and faro with her ladies-in-waiting. She became an accomplished equestrian, using her long skirts to disguise when she was not riding sidesaddle. Peter played with his toy soldiers or would “scrape” on his violin, which, she wrote, “tortured my eardrums from morning to night.” The unhappy couple did everything but secure the Romanov lineage with an heir.

(Idealistic and tough, Catherine the Great sought to modernize Russia.)

Empress Elizabeth was getting frustrated. Soon enough, Catherine was advised by her chief lady-in-waiting that in times of “major consequence” there were exceptions to the rules of fidelity, and she could “choose between S.S. and L.N.” without intervention. Both were gentlemen-in-waiting to Peter; Lev Naryshkin was passed over for Sergei Saltykov, a rakish 26-year-old, and in 1754 a son was finally produced. Who—exactly—his father was remains a question. The empress named the baby Paul and immediately separated him from Catherine, as she did a daughter born three years later. Both were unlikely progeny of Peter, who, according to Catherine, once said aloud, “God knows where my wife gets her pregnancies.”

Isolated from her children, constantly warned of her financial “debts” to the empress, and appearing to lose her position in court, Catherine filled her days—then years—with reading. Philosophers such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Tacitus, she wrote, “produced a revolution in my thinking.” She asked to leave Russia, a request the empress rejected. So she stayed, determined to “hold her head high,” and from then on let others, when in her presence, guess “on which foot to dance.”

In 1762 the empress died of a stroke, and Peter gained the throne. His true loyalty to Prussia became painfully clear, from reversing Russia’s hard-won military gains against the Prussian empire to forcing Russian officers into ill-fitting Prussian blue uniforms. The new tsar began to talk of marrying another woman, questioned Paul’s lineage, and publicly rebuked Catherine, calling her dura, or fool, at a state banquet before briefly, drunkenly ordering her arrest.

Catherine had to think, and fast: It was “a question of perishing with him, or by him, or else of saving myself, my children, and perhaps the state from the disaster” that was Peter III. “The last choice seemed to me the surest.” That choice, removing him from power, was one that already had growing support.

At 5 a.m. on June 28 the tsarina was rushed with the aid of a few dozen officers and supporters to St. Petersburg’s Assumption Cathedral and declared Empress Catherine II. Crowds surged. More military gathered, offering her parts of their uniforms—proud Russian green, not Peter’s Prussian blue—to wear on horseback at the head of what became a force of 14,000 marching toward the estate where Peter III was relaxing. He gave up without a fight. Eight days later, imprisoned on an estate, Ropsha, outside St.Petersburg, he was dead.

Strangled and possibly poisoned (some accounts say those who kissed him in his open casket left with swollen lips from a lingering toxin), the official cause of Peter III’s death was ignominious: “a severe attack of hemorrhoidal colic.” His murder would never be directly linked to Catherine, but his diagnosis became a snide euphemism for assassination.

Enlightened despot

Neither Romanov nor Russian, Catherine suddenly had supreme power over 20 million people. Her 34-year reign, the longest of any female leader of Russia, would be guided by her desire to finish what Peter the Great had started: modernization, Westernization, and expansion into the largest empire on Earth.

Little was overlooked on Catherine’s imperial to-do list. Waking as early as five each morning, she moved quickly to appease Russia’s nobility and reassure Europe with messages of peace and tolerance. Guided by Enlightenment principles, she wanted to be a despot, but a benevolent one, enlightened by reason over dogma, tyranny, or revenge. Those who helped her seize power were lavishly rewarded, former opponents pardoned. “You only did your duty,” she assured one who had urged Peter III to rise against her.

She asked for open dialogue. “I am very fond of the truth,” she wrote to one official. “Argue with me without any danger if it leads to good results in affairs.” When she found members of her own Senate uneducated about their vast nation, she furnished them with an atlas. Her social, health, and educational reforms included the creation of the country’s first orphanage. 

She argued for the scientific but terrifying advancement of inoculation and become one of the first in Russia to be immunized against smallpox. Catherine expanded schools across the empire and set up Russia’s first public educational institution for women, the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, fully aware that it was on the nobility that her fragile hold on power depended.

She became a self-admitted “glutton” for art, collecting across Europe. To house it all, she chose a wing off the Winter Palace that would grow into the world’s largest museum, after the Louvre. Visitors would be met by a plaque detailing humorous rules of etiquette. “All ranks shall be left outside the doors, similarly hats, and particularly swords.” And: “Speak with moderation and not too loudly, so that others present have not an earache or headache.” It was a haven for the intellectual informality she loved, and she named it her Hermitage.

In 1763, her second year on the throne, she began what would become a lifelong correspondence with the French satirist Voltaire and other Enlightenment philosophers. When the penniless Denis Diderot put his library up for sale, she bought it—but ordered that it stay with him. Letters of ideas and mutual flattery that flowed between her and Europe’s most progressive thinkers were shared far and wide, advancing her publicity campaign at home and abroad. “Would one ever have suspected 50 years ago that one day the Scythians [Russians] would so nobly recompense in Paris the virtue, science, and philosophy that are treated so shamefully among us?” Voltaire’s question must have pleased her.

Reforms in Russia

In 1765 Catherine embarked on her most ambitious project yet, one that would take her up to three hours each day and two years to write. Her Nakaz, or Instruction, was designed to be a guidebook for the reorganization of Russia’s entire legal and administrative system, based heavily on the French philosopher Montesquieu’s 1748 Spirit of the Laws. It supported humanitarian ideas of a free citizenry beholden to a clear set of laws, and it disavowed capital punishment and torture. It also attempted to raise the ever troubling question of serfdom in Russia. Serfs, who were bonded to the land and treated as possessions to be bought and sold, made up half the empire’s population.

Serfdom was an institution Catherine considered “intolerable,” though she herself awarded serfs to her supporters. It was a system so entrenched that a noble’s wealth was measured in the number of “souls” owned, not in land. In exchange for serfs, nobles had to serve the state, typically through military service.

Once completed, her Nakaz was bogged down by her own bureaucracy and heavily edited by her counselors. Only a fraction of her original work was published—gone were sections allowing serfs to buy their freedom and limiting their servitude to six years. What was released was nonetheless progressive enough that it was translated across Europe—and banned in France.

Her effort also resulted in the first ever meeting of a representative national assembly from all parts of her empire. The delegates were to freely discuss their region’s needs, but they also chose to debate a proper title for Catherine in gratitude for gathering them. According to historian Robert Massie, the most popular titles were “the Great” and “All-Wise Mother of the Fatherland.” Catherine refused them all. But “the Great” did receive the most votes.

(This 'pretender princess' tried to steal Catherine the Great's throne.)

The debate also helped legitimize her rule, which had already seen threats. In 1764 disgruntled military officers tried to free a remaining Romanov with a claim to the throne—24-year-old Ivan VI, imprisoned since birth by Empress Elizabeth. He was preemptively killed by his guards. Claiming to be the tsar Peter III himself and somehow still alive, a Cossack named Yemelyan Pugachev led a massive peasant uprising against Catherine that lasted two years. It was finally crushed in 1775.

Although she started her reign sending couriers to Europe with messages of peace, Catherine increasingly responded with force when she saw either a threat or an opportunity in the shifting geopolitical alliances around her. She would go on to annex Crimea from the Ottomans, partition Poland with the Prussians, and expand her empire by 200,000 square miles. She also knew when to avoid conflict, declining a formal request from King George III to send 20,000 Russian troops and 1,000 Cossack cavalry soldiers to quell a revolutionary war that appeared to be breaking out in Britain’s American colonies.

Her military campaigns were often spear-headed by a “favorite”—the official designation of the men who would be her lovers, collaborators, and intellectual confidants. One, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, had made it possible for her to seize the throne; another she would later appoint as the conveniently pliable king of Poland. The most powerful of all, and possibly married to her in secret, was Grigory Potemkin. He would reshape her empire’s southern reaches and buildup a Black Sea naval fleet—helping her fulfill yet another goal of Peter the Great’s.

Epitaph for an empress

In 1789, after Catherine had been on the throne nearly 30 years, the violence of the French Revolution marked a drastic turning point in her love affair with the Enlightenment. Fearing revolution herself, she began to censor liberal writings, including a study on the suffering of the serfs—and even the works of her longtime friend Voltaire.

Catherine had already learned that some of her ideals were easier to imagine than to execute. She explained as much to the philosopher Diderot, who visited her in Russia in 1773. “In your plans for reform, you are forgetting the difference between our two positions: you work only on paper which accepts anything, is smooth and flexible and offers no obstacles either to your imagination or your pen, while I, poor empress, work on human skin, which is far more sensitive and touchy.”

(How the Red Terror set a macabre course for the Soviet Union.)

In her final years, as she ruled her empire, she found comfort playing on the floor with her grandchildren—mothering them in ways she was not allowed with her own children—and taking walks with her greyhounds. On November 5, 1796, according to the historian Massie, “she rose at six, drank black coffee, and sat down to write.” A few hours later she was found unconscious, most likely having suffered a stroke. On November 6 it was announced that the empress was dead, and His Majesty Paul would take the throne.

It was only after her death that she would be called “the Great.” In her lifetime she had always opposed it, as she explained in a 1788 letter to the German-born diplomat Baron von Grimm. “I beg you to no longer call me, nor to any longer give me the sobriquet of Catherine the Great, because primo, I do not like any sobriquet, secondo, my name is Catherine II, and tertio, I do not want anyone to say of me as of Louis XV, that one finds him badly named.” Fond of listing items in threes, she nonetheless added a fourth and final point for laughs: “My height is neither great nor small.”

Her memoirs—which revealed the inner workings of court, Peter III’s failures, and the possibility that Paul was illegitimate and perhaps not a Romanov—immediately became a state secret, suppressed for a century then buried again after 1917, when the Bolsheviks set up their headquarters in her Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens and later killed the last of the tsars.

(Death of a dynasty: How the Romanovs met their end.)

But in life, ever in control of her empire and her pen and partly in jest, she even wrote her own epitaph: “Here lies Catherine II, born in Stettin in 1729. She arrived in Russia in 1744 to marry Peter III. At 14, she had three desires—to be loved by her husband, Empress Elizabeth, and her people. She omitted nothing to achieve this.”

She achieved so much more. In her style, one might argue: Primo, she was a woman ahead of her time, so she shaped her era to accommodate herself. Secondo, she chose her battles wisely. Tertio, her lasting reforms, in the end, may have been her greatest coup of all.

Read This Next

While Napoleon conquered nations, his sister conquered hearts
The strange saga of Hvaldimir the ‘Russian spy whale’
Meet 5 of the fiercest queens from medieval times

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet