Ancient history

Catherine II the Great

Catherine II, born Sophie Frédérique Augusta d'Anhalt-Zerbst (May 2, 1729 in Stettin in Pomerania and died November 17, 1796 in Saint Petersburg, nicknamed "Figchen", then the "Great Catherine", is empress and autocrat of all the Russias from June 28, 1762 to his death.

Childhood and education

The future Catherine II, born Sophie Frédérique Augusta d'Anhalt-Zerbst on 2 May (21 April) 1729, was the eldest child of Christian-Auguste d'Anhalt-Zerbst and his wife Jeanne de Holstein-Gottorp. . When she was born, her parents deplored the fact that she was not a boy and this may have been the source of her desire to prove that she was worth as much as a man, in this era which considered that sex determined value.

From her Protestant, austere, rigid education, surrounded by little affection, a woman remains in the person of a French Huguenot, Babette Cardel, who directs her education and teaches her with the French language, manners and graces of the society whose she came out. At the same time, it gives him a taste for the French literature of his time. Very quickly, the princess turns to spiritual activities, as well as to reading and studying.

Introduced by her mother to the highest courts in Germany, she stood out for her charisma. Sophie's mother, following Russian affairs, sees the future Peter III well disposed to succeed her aunt Elisabeth Petrovna, and allows a union with Sophie. Taking care to send portraits of her daughter to the court, her maneuvers bore fruit and, in January 1744, she and her daughter were invited to Russia. The Empress's intentions are clear, Sophie will be Pierre's future wife, yet her prestige is low, and it is neither gold nor a powerful alliance that drives Sophie's choice. But after the succession difficulties created by claims to the throne from various parties, Elizabeth is determined not to have diplomatic complications or extravagant claims. Moreover, Sophie is young and inexperienced in politics:she apparently poses no danger to the Russian throne.

For her part, Sophie, who was then 14, understood what was at stake. Far from being ignorant of the prestige and power that would attach to her future status, she sweeps away her mother's budding hesitations vis-à-vis this union. Upon their arrival in Russia, Sophie and her mother are welcomed by a large procession to Moscow. They then meet the Empress and her nephew Pierre. In her Memoirs, Catherine speaks of the greatness of Elizabeth, but says nothing about the impression left on her by her future husband.

The rise to the status of Grand Duchess was almost smooth (except for an illness which brought her closer to Elisabeth) when she converted with great pomp to the Orthodox religion on June 28, 1744. She spoke Russian clearly in front of a people who soon adopt it. On this date, she officially took the name of Catherine Alexeïvna.

She became engaged to Pierre the next day, becoming "Grand Duchess and Imperial Highness". Advised in her readings by various passing intellectuals, she asked for the catalog of the Academy of Sciences where she commissioned Plutarch, Montesquieu and other authors.

The wedding

Catherine was then 15 years old. Her fiancé, long away from her by pleurisy, returns emaciated and with an appearance that frightens the young Catherine but that does not shake her will to marry him. The marriage of the two teenagers takes place in Saint-Petersburg on August 21, 1745; it is celebrated during a sumptuous ceremony, followed by ten days of celebration. Asked the next day about her wedding night, Catherine finds nothing to say. Various hypotheses present Peter III as sexually immature, innocent, or even impotent due to phimosis, unlike Catherine around whom rumors float about her precocious sexuality

Catherine, converted to Orthodoxy, did not have a happy marriage, especially since she took the side of the opposition and read Machiavelli, Tacitus, Voltaire and Montesquieu, so much so that she was under house arrest at the palace of Peterhof and that her husband was threatening to lock her up and put his mistress on the throne at his side. Empress Elizabeth I's niece, who absolutely wanted an heir, suggested that she take Prince Lev Alexandrovitch Naryshkin or Count Sergei Saltykov as a lover because Catherine still had no children after eight years of marriage. She finally chose Saltykov and then played on the ambiguity that the progenitor of her son Paul I could be her husband as well as her lover. Very attentive to the events taking place in her new country, Catherine, who had the affection of the Russian people, succeeded in having her husband dethroned in 1762 with the complicity of her lover Grigori Orlov and four officers of the Imperial Guard. , brothers of Orlov. During the coup of June 28, 1762, the Emperor was thrown into prison (probably to be exiled later) and assassinated, probably strangled by Alexeï Orlov, "which made Germaine de Staël say that the Russia was a despotism tempered by strangulation”. Premeditated assassination or not, Catherine published in the chancelleries of foreign countries that the emperor had succumbed to hemorrhoidal colic. His wife reigned then under the name of Catherine II in an exclusive way.

External Affairs

Foreign Minister Nikita Panin wielded considerable influence. He spent large sums to create the northern agreement between Russia, Prussia, Poland, Sweden and possibly the United Kingdom to counter the Bourbon-Habsburg league. When it appeared that this plan could not succeed, Panin was sacked in 1781. In 1764, Catherine placed Stanislas Auguste Poniatowski, who was her lover, on the Polish throne. Then, Russia annexed large parts of Poland in the partitions of 1772, 1793 and 1795. In 1772, it concluded a treaty with Prussia and Austria which dismembered Poland and gave Russia the governments of Polotsket, Mogilev, and the Treaty of Kutchuk-Kaïnardji, concluded in 1774 with the Ottoman Empire, assured him several southern provinces and opened the Black Sea to him.

Catherine made Russia a dominant power in the Middle East after the first war against the Ottoman Empire. She tried to subject the latter to the same fate as Poland, but with less success:her project ultimately aimed to re-establish a Greek kingdom with Constantinople as its capital. She took the Crimea and the fortresses of Azov, Taganrog, Kinburn and Izmail from the Turks. It annexed Crimea in 1783, nine years after it had obtained its independence. The Ottoman Empire started a second war in 1787 which ended in 1792 with the Treaty of Iassy.

She acted as mediator during the War of Bavarian Succession of 1778-79 between Prussia and Austria. In 1780, she organized a party to defend Britain's independent ships during the American Revolutionary War.

Between 1788 and 1790, Russia was involved in the war against Sweden whose cousin of Catherine, Gustav III, tried to take back the territories lost in 1720. After the battle of Svensksund (today Ruotsinsalmi in Finland) of 9 and 10 July 1790, a peace treaty was signed.

It had added 518,000 km2 to the territory of Russia.

Domestic politics

At the same time as she thus extended the limits of her empire, Catherine imparted a new activity to agriculture and industry, based on the thought of the Enlightenment. Catherine had a framework drawn up to reform the laws. A legislative commission representing all classes, except the serfs, was instituted but dissolved before being effective, doubtless slowed down by the Pugachev uprising in 1773 - 1774. Of this commission, only a few traces remain. However, Catherine had written a work entitled "Instructions addressed by Her Majesty the Empress of all the established Russias to work for the execution of a project of a new code of laws", better known under the name of "Nakaz". , in which the codification guidelines are gathered.

Catherine reorganized the provincial administration, giving the government more control over rural areas because of peasant revolts. In 1785 she enacted a Charter of Nobility, which allowed nobles to petition the monarch, which exempted them from military service and which gave them far greater powers and rights. The same year, it published a Charter of the cities which recognized a certain local autonomy to them. She encouraged the colonization of Alaska, the Volga Germans and conquered territories.

Russia had become the world's leading producer of iron, cast iron and copper. It had more than 200 factories, workshops and factories. Industrial production had doubled, the value of internal and external trade tripled. Western states were now forced to welcome Russia into the “European concert”.

However, Catherine II's desire for modernization came up against a situation of economic, political and cultural underdevelopment in Imperial Russia. At a time when England was going through its industrial revolution and inventing capitalism and when the United States was ushering in the era of democracy and individual freedoms, Russia was stuck in a feudal system, based on land rent and a veritable peasant slavery particularly unproductive and an authoritarian political power regulated by assassinations.

If the Russia of Catherine II was the golden age of the nobility, never in the history of Russia did the serfs find themselves in greater misery. Anxious to make serfdom more flexible, she renounced it in the face of opposition from the nobility and even extended it to the Ukraine.

Catherine didn't seem to want to admit the real situation of her empire. Thus, it is said (wrongly, it seems, although Madame Vigée-Lebrun talks about it [ref. necessary]) that during her travels, the governors had fake model villages built along the roads populated by fake peasants where she was going, in order to prove to her that Russia was modern. These villages were given the name of Potemkin villages, after the great Russian strategist, lover of the Empress.

At the end of her life Catherine could have the satisfaction of having sown the seeds of education on her empire. With the help of a commission, she had established hospitals for foundlings in which they were educated according to a program established by the Empress. The Corps of Cadets, military elite, was reformed to include an intellectual education which formed Russian politicians for a long time. In 1775, the first school for noble girls appeared, the Smolnyi Institute, inspired by that of Madame de Maintenon. It set up a network of public primary and secondary schools in the majority of large cities in Russia. They revived the construction of private schools adding to the education system. Conscious of not being able to raise all the children of Russia, she concentrated on the noble and commoner families (excluding the countryside and the serfs). The creation of social assistance offices was the instrument for the creation of schools and the care of children. Many secondary schools were opened in the capital and in Moscow. The number of students, teachers and schools had almost doubled from the beginning to the end of his reign, rising from 165 to 302 schools; from 394 to 718 professors; from 10,230 to 18,128 boys; from 858 to 1178 girls.

Arts and culture


Catherine is first of all a lover of books. She had a perfect knowledge of the French language learned from her governess. Child neglected by her parents, she lived a solitary childhood that made her immerse herself in books. Upon her arrival in Russia, still neglected by Pierre, then almost quarantined by Elisabeth I, she immersed herself in all the French novels that came to hand. One day she read a History of Germany written in French. She realized that this kind of work pleased her more than romantic literature. After the passage of certain intellectuals in Russia who advised her, she immersed herself in the works of Plutarch and Tacitus. Then came the historical and critical dictionary of Pierre Bayle, a transition between history and philosophy. Her path leads her to read Montesquieu's De l'esprit des lois, where he deals with the separation of the three powers and a liberal aristocratic system. These conceptions, Catherine will reshape them in her government, not being able to apply them as such to the Russia of the time.

She posed as the true founder of the Academy of the Three Noble Arts, granting it privileges and regulations in November 1764.

Through her large table service orders, she promotes the development of the Imperial Porcelain Factory.

With the aim of developing culture in her nation, she constantly invited French philosophers to the Court. But the reputation of the country frightens and the refusals are linked.

She presented herself as a patron of the arts, literature and education based on the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d'Alembert. She succeeded in convincing the mathematician Leonhard Euler to return from Berlin. Voltaire, who maintained an epistolary relationship with the Empress, was a fervent defender of her in France. Because of her interest in the reflections of philosophers, he sees in her an enlightened and open-minded monarch as that of France should be. But realistically he never came to Russia. The other correspondents of the Empress are Grimm and Diderot. Melchior Grimm, Catherine II's correspondent with more than 430 letters, was both a philosophical correspondent and a great confidant for her. In France, it serves as an intermediary in his purchases of works of art, books, but also as a means of propaganda in France. He was a fervent defender of Russia in France and was maintained by Catherine.

As for Diderot, she bought his library from him in 1765, leaving it at his disposal for life, and paid him a substantial pension as librarian. He traveled with Catherine II for 5 months in 1773. He came every 3 days to talk with her for long hours. Although his ideas were not applicable in Russia, she questioned him at length about his ideas. He will write for her, texts where he answers the questions of the Empress. At the end of his life, after criticizing Russia, his relations were less warm but nevertheless continued at his court. She also bought Voltaire's library in 1778.

Through the intermediary of the French ambassador, the Comte de Ségur, she brought from Paris many theater and opera companies, including that of Floridor, which she had performed in particular in her Hermitage theatre.

When Alexander Radishchev published his Journey from Saint Petersburg to Moscow in 1790, presenting the deplorable living conditions of the serfs, it was she who discovered its “revolutionary” character, denounced and prosecuted its author. Radishchev was sentenced to death, then, once his sentence was commuted, exiled to Siberia. In the meantime, the French Revolution had broken out and there was no longer any question for the Empress of letting pernicious French ideas invade Russia. All Russian emperors will now face this dilemma:to open Russia to the West without losing "Russianness" and to introduce subversive ideas that would threaten Russian autocracy.

Catherine was also a writer. She first composed the Nakaz or Great Instruction, which presents her views on Russian politics, then the Antidote, a work in which she responds, in a way, to the Voyage to Siberia, a virulent criticism of Russia written in 1768 by Father Chappe d'Auteroche. Then came her Memoirs, a series of notes and justifications on her politics and her life in general, one of the main sources of Catherine's knowledge. Catherine II was therefore the archetype of the enlightened despot. She was a woman of letters, passionate about history and philosophy. The subject she touched on the most, during her long interviews with French philosophers, was that of education, a major problem in Russia, the cause of its initial non-integration into Europe. It was therefore driven by the ideas of the Enlightenment that she reformed education.


To introduce variolation, she set an example by being the first to be inoculated.

She had a son, Paul, whom she loved little, preferring her grandsons to him. He succeeded him under the name of Paul I of Russia. Catherine's relationship with her son was always cold and full of mistrust. Not having raised him, she has little affection for this child who claims to be Pierre III. First of all, Paul considers his mother to be largely responsible for the death of his father Pierre, to whom he devotes a real cult. Then there is the issue of succession. Catherine knows that her son could be used against her in order to overthrow her. Finally, he takes a dim view of his mother's attitude towards his favorites and the largesse granted to them. Catherine, after having married her son in 1776 to a young princess of Württemberg, took away their children, like Elizabeth, from them. This caused a deep enmity between the couple and Catherine.

Catherine was known for her sexual appetite and her many lovers; Gabriel-François Doyen, who pleased his son, was given two kingdoms and granted a coat of arms, "azure to the chief charged with two pales", to which Louis XV authorized the addition of a fleur-de-lys. The first lover of her reign was Grigori Orlov, this relationship lasted ten years (1762-1772). The latter always played a sentimental and political role. It was he who, during the great plague epidemic in Moscow in 1771, calmed the population and fought against the spread of the epidemic, assisted by a doctor. From Grigori Orlov, Catherine II had two natural children born in secret:a daughter Nathalie, born in 1758, adopted by the Alexeev family and who married Field Marshal of Buxhoeveden, and a son, Alexeï Grigorievitch Bobrinski (1762-1816). Paul feared that one of them would become an obstacle to his succession to his mother. But, the latter, still refusing to marry, she did not question the succession of her legitimate son. This relationship, although long, ended in 1772 when Catherine was told of all the infidelities of her favourite. In a period of transition, she had a lover, Vassiltchikov, a young nobleman whose only attraction was his beauty. The Empress soon grew tired of it. The relationship that followed was that with Grigory Potemkin, an officer of the Guard. An exuberant man who loved the pleasures of the table as much as those of the flesh, he was nonetheless a great intellectual who knew how to please Catherine with his follies, his conversation, his humor and his determination. This favorite is surely the one who received the most from Catherine. She covered him with honours, medals, awards, lands, riches and powers. But Catherine never had to regret it:a fervent servant of Russia, he was a leading adviser and politician.

It was Potemkin himself who moved away from Catherine's bed. But he always remained present in the heart of the Empress as a friend and in her policy as an adviser. It was he who in future took care of providing lovers for the Empress. The only known secret marriage of Catherine II is that with Grigory Potemkin. Potemkin established rules to become the new favorite of the empress:a doctor checked the good health of the suitor, a relative of Caherine examined his culture and validated his sexual performance, such as the countess Praskovya Bruce (in) then Anna Protassova who acted of "tester" or "tester".

Potemkin was succeeded by many young and handsome lovers:Pierre Zavadoski, twenty years his junior, the officer Simon Zoritch dismissed by Zimsky Kosakov, aged twenty and endowed with the body of Adonis, then Lanskoï who died four years later. the beginning of their relationship, (of an aphrodisiac abuse?). The last of this long list was Platon Zubov who will be at his side at his death. Catherine's attitude towards her lovers was always the same:each man received during and after his "services" honours, properties, thousands of serfs, gifts... Her scandalous attitude earned her a reputation as a debauchee (historians are divided on the existence of the Chamber of Pleasures, a secret erotic cabinet that the Empress is said to have had fitted out in her palace in Tsarskoye Selo, made up of several erotic rooms and objects:paintings, furniture, chandeliers, etc.). Added to this was her son's exasperation (even jealousy) at his mother's generosity for her favorites, compared to the scant affection and mediocre gifts he received. In this tumultuous life, she nevertheless knew how to distinguish between men and power. She never granted them a grain of power that could diminish her own. A great intellectual, she had a well-defined idea of ​​her power.

Since Catherine II admitted Buddhism among the state religions, Russian heads of state (with the exception of the Soviet period) are considered by the country's Buddhists to be the reincarnations of the goddess Tara.


On the morning of November 17, 1796, Catherine II collapsed in her wardrobe. She is laid on a mattress where she agonizes for hours, on the floor. She died at the age of 67, after having reigned over Russia for more than thirty years.

The Tsarina had planned to disinherit her son in favor of her grandson Alexander, but Paul searches his mother's office, gets his hands on his will and burns it. Having become Tsar, he decided to open the tomb of his father Peter III, crown his skeleton and bury his parents side by side in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.

The great Catherine thus rests with this husband whom she has always hated.


We have a few writings by her, comedies, a drama by Oleg.
Correspondence with Voltaire, Grimm, Oimin, etc.
Memoirs, 1859.
The Nakaz, Russian Code, or Instructions Addressed by Her Majesty the Empress of All the Russias to the Commission Established to Work for the Execution of a Draft of a New Code of Laws, 3rd Edition , Amsterdam 1775.
Antidote, or Examination of the superbly printed Bad Book entitled:Voyage en Sibérie, made by order of the King in 1761…. In Amsterdam at Marc-Michel Rey 1771-1772. The original edition was published in two volumes printed in St. Petersburg in 1770-1771. A few pages unfavorable to Russia by Jean Chappe in his Voyage en Sibérie attracted strong criticism in the form of a work written and published anonymously by Catherine II of Russia and Count Ivan Chouvalov, the young empress responding to what She considered it an attack on her country by taking up the Abbot's book chapter by chapter to refute it. This attribution was opposed by Anguis who “gives the sculptor Falconet as collaborator to the Countess Daschkof. »


Arts and Letters

A monumental statue was dedicated to him in 1873 in Saint Petersburg.
She appears in Byron's Don Juan, in which Don Juan takes part in the siege of Izmail.
She is an important character in Katherine Neville's novel, The Eight.
Subject of Andrei Makine's novel, A Beloved Woman (Prix Casanova 2013).

Cinema and television

Played by Suzanne Bianchetti in the 1927 film Casanova directed by Alexandre Volkoff.
Central character in Josef von Sternberg's film (1934), taking liberties with historical truth:The Red Empress with Marlene Dietrich in the title role.
Central character in Klaus König's film (1982) The Naked Tsarina (Katharina, die nackte Zarin) with Sandra Nova in the title role, erotic film with no historical pretensions.
Portrayed by Julia Ormond in the television series Imperial Intrigues (Young Catherine) (1991).
Portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones in the film La Grande Catherine made in 1996 by Marvin J. Chomsky and John Goldsmith.

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