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Idealistic and tough, Catherine the Great sought to modernize Russia

The German-born empress was an astute politician who expanded Russia’s borders while trying to restructure the government and aid serfs.

Photograph by Leemage, Corbis/Getty
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A portrait of Catherine the Great in her coronation robe after wresting the throne from her husband, Peter III, in 1762.

Photograph by Leemage, Corbis/Getty
HistoryExplainer

Idealistic and tough, Catherine the Great sought to modernize Russia

The German-born empress was an astute politician who expanded Russia’s borders while trying to restructure the government and aid serfs.

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.

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Catherine the Great poses with her husband Peter III, and son Paul I, who would later rule Russia from 1796 to 1801.

Compared to the rest of her life, it was. When she was ten years old, the future empress was introduced to the husband chosen for her by her family, her second cousin Charles Peter Ulrich of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp. Later known as Peter III, he had been designated the future tsar of Russia by his aunt Elizabeth, the Empress of Russia. Elizabeth was unmarried, had no children, and needed an heir, so she selected Peter for the throne, and Sophie as his wife. The presumptive Russian tsar’s marriage to the Prussian princess was intended to strengthen the Russian monarchy’s friendship with Prussia and quash Austrian influence over the Russian crown.

Sophie disliked her future husband, but knew what was expected of her. She worked to endear herself to the Russian empress Elizabeth and studied hard for her future role, learning the language, converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, and changing her name to Ykaterina, or Catherine, when she was betrothed. In 1745, when she was 16, she married. Seventeen years later, Peter III finally became tsar of Russia.

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Horseback riding was one of Catherine the Great's favorite pastimes.

But Peter had few Russian allies—and his wife was not among them. Just six months after taking power, he went on a trip to Germany. Catherine took advantage of his absence to declare herself sole ruler of Russia in 1762. Peter died soon afterward; historians still debate whether that was his wife’s doing or the work of his many political enemies. (This "pretender princess" tried to steal Catherine the Great's throne.")

The new empress set to work consolidating her rule and her legacy. She expanded Russia’s borders considerably during her reign, annexing Crimea, Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, and other territory; Russia’s population nearly doubled during her rule. She also attempted to modernize Russian government and laws, but her Enlightenment-influenced ideals were not shared by the Russian nobility, which objected to the proposed laws’ relative lenience toward serfs. The laws never went into effect, and under her reign, the nobility increased its power over their indentured servants. She died in 1796 after 34 years of rule. (Here's how the Romanovs met their end.)

Catherine’s long reign and her astute use of political power earned her the title “the Great,” and she was known for her support of the arts and culture.

The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg was founded by Catherine the Great and would play a major role in Russia's relationship to art—and the world.

She also conducted extramarital affairs and elevated some of her lovers in her cabinet. Though this was not unusual within the nobility of her day and she was expected not to remarry, her affairs were used by her enemies to brand her as a depraved nymphomaniac. More likely, they feared her political power. “[She] seems to combine every kind of ambition in her person,” wrote Baron de Breteuil, one of her political enemies. In fact, Catherine was an astute politician who, though personally fueled by Enlightenment-era ideals, acted within a world of traditional authority. Fueled by misogyny, rumors of her sexual deviance and outsized ambitions persist to this day.