Catherine the Great



Throughout history, Russia has been viewed as a regressive cluster of barely civilized people on the verge of barbarism. In the eighteenth century, ideas of science and secularism grasped hold of Europe, and Russian Czars, realizing how behind Muscovite culture was, sought out this knowledge, attempting to imbed it into Russian society. Catherine II was one of these Czars. She listened to both the ideas of the philosophes and the problems of her people and strove to enlighten Russia by codifying the laws, establishing an elected government, funding hospitals, and forming a functioning school board. Her attempts, however, were met with only partial success. Her reforms received much criticism, especially from the serfs, and Catherine was forced to realize, through the Pugachev Rebellion in 1773, that enlightening all of Russia was an impossibility. Catherine II’s greatest glory was seen in her foreign policies, as she solved two fundamental problems for Russia by winning victories over Turkey and Poland. As well, she established a League of Armed Neutrality and spoke out against the French Revolution. Catherine’s reign created both prosperity and poverty for Russia. In order to decide whether she was truly great, one must evaluate her accomplishments upon the foundation of Russian ideals.
At the end of the seventeenth century, Russia was a country in transition. The death of Czar Alexis in 1676 marked a change in Russian society, a movement from traditional Muscovite culture toward new, educated concepts. Reforms in the 1650s divided and weakened the Russian Orthodox Church, and a few bold individuals began to adopt a semi-westernized lifestyle. By western standards, however, Russia still seem backward, and at best, “a fringe nation of Europe…without benefit of middle class, universities, academies, or secular culture” (Oblensky and Stone 144). The rebellion of the musketeers, or streltsy, in 1682 exposed a web of destructive feuds, religious superstition and xenophobia within Russia. Peter I took the throne in 1682 and reigned until 1725, with themes of war, love of foreigners, and love of the sea marking his rule. He and his army defeated Sweden at Poltava in 1709, he founded a navy at St. Petersburg, and he expanded the policy of hiring foreigners. Peter wrought numerous changes, attempting to impose order on the Russian society, but, along with these reforms, he forged a gap between the upper Russian classes and the peasant population. After his death, Russia was turned over to several meager Czars: Peter’s wife, Catherine I, a self-indulged illiterate, from 1725-27; Peter, his 12 year old grandson, from 1727-30; his niece Anna, a woman with no political interests from 1730-40; and Ivan VI, an infant from, 1740-41 (Oblensky and Stone 145). In 1741, Peter’s daughter, Elizabeth was raised to the throne, overthrowing Ivan VI. Lavish baroque palaces, an increase in western culture, and the taking of Berlin from Prussia in the Seven Years War characterized her reign. Again, Russia seemed to be establishing itself as a powerful society. However, Elizabeth’s successor, Peter III, undid much of what she had accomplished, as he returned Russia’s gains from the Seven Years War to his hero Frederick the Great (Oblensky and Stone 145). Within six months of his succession, Peter was overthrown by a Guards’ coup in favour of his German wife, Catherine II.
Catherine was thirty-three years old when she ascended the Russian throne. She had survived a loveless marriage, in which “ambition alone sustained her” (Gooch 6). Ignored by her husband, Peter III, she dedicated her time to learning the Russian language, studying the writings of the philosophes, and adapting cleverly to her new environment—skills which constitute important aspects of her reign. Schooled by these teachings, she favoured religious tolerance, justice tempered with mercy (Gooch 91), education for women, civil rights determined within the bounds of class and estate, and the classical style in art and architecture. A women quite out of the ordinary, Catherine possessed “high intelligence, a natural ability to administer and govern, a remarkable practical sense, energy to spare, and an iron will” (Riasanovsky 256). Along with her determination went courage and optimism, self-control, skill in discussion and propaganda, and a clever handling of men and circumstances to best serve her ends. Yet, together with her virtues, Catherine had certain weaknesses: her determination easily became ruthlessness, just as her