Our woman hero of May is Catherine the Great! She was Empress of Russia from 1762 until 1796, the country’s longest-ruling female leader. She came to power following a coup d’état which she organized—resulting in her husband, Peter III, being overthrown. Under her reign, Russia was revitalized; it grew larger and stronger and was recognized as one of the great powers of Europe. That said, however, she was a usurper of the Russian throne because her son, Paul I, should have naturally been the Tsar following Peter III’s death.
Catherine was born as Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst on 2 May 1729, in Stettin, Pomerania, Kingdom of Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland). She was later chosen as a wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, resulted from some amount of diplomatic management in which Count Lestocq, Peter’s aunt (and ruling Russian Empress) Elizabeth and Frederick II of Prussia took part. Lestocq and Frederick wanted to strengthen the friendship between Prussia and Russia to weaken Austria’s influence. Catherine first met Peter III at the age of 10, but found Peter detestable upon meeting him.
Catherine married Peter on 21 August 1745 after she turned 16. There were many rumors regarding the monarch’s intimate affairs. Some of these rumors included that Peter took a mistress (Elizabeth Vorontsova), while Catherine carried on liaisons with Sergei Saltykov, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov (1734–1783), Alexander Vasilchikov, Grigory Potemkin, Stanisław August Poniatowski, and others. She became friends with Princess Ekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova, the sister of her husband’s mistress, who introduced her to several powerful political groups that opposed her husband. Peter III’s temperament became quite unbearable for those who resided in the palace.
After the death of the Empress Elizabeth on 5 January 1762, Peter succeeded to the throne as Emperor Peter III, and Catherine became empress consort. The tsar’s eccentricities and policies, including a great admiration for the Prussian king, Frederick II, alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated. In July 1762, barely six months after becoming emperor, Peter took a holiday with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives to Oranienbaum, leaving his wife in Saint Petersburg. On the night of 8 July Catherine the Great was given the news that one of her co-conspirators had been arrested by her estranged husband, and that all they had been planning must take place at once.
The next day, she had her husband arrested, and forced him to sign a document of abdication, leaving no one to dispute her accession to the throne. On 17 July 1762—eight days after the coup and just six months after his accession to the throne—Peter III died at Ropsha, at the hands of Alexei Orlov. Historians find no evidence for Catherine’s complicity in the supposed assassination.
Catherine reformed the administration of Russian guberniyas, and many new cities and towns were founded on her orders. An admirer of Peter the Great, Catherine continued to modernize Russia along Western European lines. However, military conscription and the economy continued to depend on serfdom, and the increasing demands of the state and private landowners led to increased levels of reliance on serfs. This was one of the chief reasons behind several rebellions, including the large-scale Pugachev’s Rebellion of cossacks and peasants.
The period of Catherine the Great’s rule, the Catherinian Era, is considered the Golden Age of Russia.The Manifesto on Freedom of the Nobility, issued during the short reign of Peter III and confirmed by Catherine, freed Russian nobles from compulsory military or state service. Construction of many mansions of the nobility, in the classical style endorsed by the Empress, changed the face of the country. She enthusiastically supported the ideals of the Enlightenment and is often regarded as an enlightened despot. As a patron of the arts she presided over the age of the Russian Enlightenment, a period when the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe, was established.
Catherine the Great inspires us that we should not be afraid to do something right, even though others oppose us. Catherine decided to have herself inoculated against smallpox by a Scottish doctor, Thomas Dimsdale. While this was considered a controversial method at the time, she succeeded. Catherine then sought to have inoculations throughout her empire stating: “My objective was, through my example, to save from death the multitude of my subjects who, not knowing the value of this technique, and frightened of it, were left in danger.” By 1800, approximately 2 million inoculations were administered in the Russian Empire.
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