Early Years and Rise to Power
The Empress was born in the city of Stettin, in Prussia, on April 21, 1729. Her parents were Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst and Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp.
Even though they belonged to the German royalty, they had little money and an advantageous marriage was the best way to advance their interests. In this sense, Catherine was groomed to become the wife of some powerful monarch. When she was fifteen, she met Grand Duke Peter, the heir to the Russian throne, whom she married in 1745. The marriage was an unhappy one and there was no sign of love or affection between the couple.
When Empress Elizabeth of Russia died in 1761, Peter was proclaimed Emperor and Catherine became empress. Peter soon gained many enemies within the government, who plotted to overthrow him and place his seven-year-old son Paul on the throne. However, Catherine refused to become a figure in the background. During all that time, she had dedicated herself to Russia and the Russian Orthodox faith to gain the loyalty of the people and earn her a place on the throne. Finally, on July 9, 1762, she and her lover Gregory Orlov marched with several regiments to St. Petersburg. There, she declared herself Empress Catherine II and forced her husband to abdicate. Shortly after this, he was killed by his captors.
During her first years of reign, the Empress sought to secure her position by gaining favour from the nobility and the military. Once this was achieved, she started to work on reform under the influence of the spirit of the Enlightenment. One of her most important reforms was the introduction of “The Instruction”, an advanced legal system that provided equality under the law for all citizens.
However, Catherine soon turned her attention to foreign affairs. In 1768, she aided her former lover Polish king Stanislaw to suppress a revolt. The rebels protested against Russian influence in Poland and were supported by Turkey and Austria. Two years later, Catherine concluded peace talks with Turkey and gained a foothold on the Black Sea coast, a key waterway in Europe.
In the meanwhile, another revolt was taking place in Russia. The leader of the rebels, Cossack Yemelyan Pugachev, claimed that he was Peter III and attempted to overthrow Catherine. However, he was captured in 1774 after several major military campaigns.
Once the revolt was suppressed, the Empress concerned herself with domestic affairs. In 1786, she adopted a plan to create a large-scale educational system. Even though the plan was not carried out in its entirety, she was still able to build many schools across the country. She also placed enormous importance on the arts and science, as she believed they could earn Russia the reputation as the centre of civilization. In this sense, she transformed St. Petersburg into one of the most splendid capitals. In 1794, she inaugurated the Hermitage Museum in the city.
Catherine’s last years of life were marked by the distress caused by her heir, Paul. She doubted that he was fit to rule and considered electing Paul’s son, Alexander, as her successor. Before she was able to make any decision, she died of a stroke on November 6, 1796, and her son was crowned Paul I.
Nowadays, Catherine the Great is considered to be one of the key figures in Russian history and a source of national pride. Moreover, she is one of the few women, such as Elizabeth I of England and Queen Victoria, who have given their name to a decisive time in the development of her country. During the Catherinian Era, Russia experienced a renaissance of culture and sciences and became one of the greatest powers in Europe. Catherine’s living descendants can be traced to the Dutch, Danish, Spanish and British royal families, among others.
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