Catherine the Great was one of the most influential leaders of the Russian Empire. She became one of the greatest political leaders of Russia with her ability to remember specific details and ideas. During the18th century, she continued her husband Peter the Great’s dream, which was to westernize Russia. Catherine played a key role in improving the lives of Russian serfs, improved education, and strengthened the Russian government. Catherine the Great was essential to Russia as she westernized it and encouraged modernization of agriculture and industry.
Her birth name was Sophie Frederick Augusta. She was born in Prussia, which is now Poland, and she was the daughter of the German prince of Anhalt-Zerbst (Raeff 1). Empress Elizabeth invited Sophie to visit St. Petersburg, Russia (Kuhlman 2). Elizabeth knew that Sophia was unmarried, and Elizabeth wanted a member of her family to remain ruler of Russia. Sophie was related to Prussian King Fredrick the Great (Kuhlman 1). Catherine got married at age fifteen to Peter, the nephew and heir of Empress Elizabeth.
Peter and Catherine’s marriage did not last long because after some time Catherine became unfaithful to her husband. Her marriage was not one of love, and it did not affect her political and intellectual interests (Tyle 1). After Elizabeth died, Peter hatched a plan to get rid of his so-called wife (Kuhlman 1). They both found lovers outside the marriage. Catherine and her lover Orlov hatched a plan to remove Peter from the throne (Kuhlman 2). Catherine knew that Peter would make a lousy king. Catherine declared that Peter III had “intended to destroy us completely and deprive us of life” (Murphy 1). On July 9th, Catherine rounded up 40,000 troops who were loyal to her. She made them march to St. Petersburg, the capital, and pronounced herself Empress (Brown 1). Forcing Peter to release all his power to her, Catherine was crowned Empress on September 22, 1762 (Murphy 1). As Catherine was becoming empress, she wanted to show her dedication to Russia and the Russian Orthodox. Showing her loyalty would earn her a place on the throne and would win over the Russian people (Tyle 2). Changing her name from Prussian to Russian was the first step in showing her loyalty to Russia. Her name was Sophia, but she decided to use the name she was christened with in the Russian Church. That name was Catherine (Andrews 102).
When Catherine came into power, she wanted to westernize Russia, but she did not want to do it like her husband wanted it to be done. Catherine the Great encouraged individual initiative in pursuit of self-interest (Raeff 1). Catherine wanted to improve Russia’s reputation. She encouraged trade with other nations. Also, she tried to increase trade in parts of Russia (Kuhlman 2). During her reign, Catherine was a strong believer in absolute rule as a political necessity. In Russia even called absolute rule of a monarchy the greatest theoretician and practician of law-based monarchy (Lentin 5). Russia needed a transformation from Peter to Catherine and from a weak country to a powerful nation and become a player in European politics (Murphy 2). However, Catherine understood that Russia needed a peace period in order for her to concentrate on homeland affairs. The peace period could only be gained through cautious foreign policy. Catherine put Count Nikita Panin in charge of this policy (de Madariaga 3).
Catherine was dedicated to westernizing Russia. In her first years ruling members of the court, courtiers tried to block her attempt to make a new constitution (Kuhlman 1). She had to change the minds of the sophisticated members of Russian society. She used her wit and “iron will” to show what the population of Russia was made of and what she could do to fix it (Andrews 27). While reading in her free time, she would often read the works of Voltaire and Montesquieu, teaching herself Russian conditions (Felder 3). Catherine loved books very much that she became a bookworm, a bibliophile, and a writer. She believed a printed book carried power. She wanted book production and translation of foreign works into Russian to educate the minds of her people and spread Enlightenment (Lentin 3). She established the Free Economic policy to encourage modernization. The goal was to promote trade and develop less known regions by inviting foreign settlers. She created new towns (Raeff 1).
The arts and sciences got Catherine’s attention (Kuhlman 3). In the time of the Enlightenment, learning became a big part of European civilization. Now that Russia had theatre, arts, and music, she strived for more visitors and foreigners to visit one of the most dazzling cities in Europe, St. Petersburg (Kuhlman 3). Catherine cared deeply about the educational system. She strived to make it better, and she added more elementary and secondary schools in Russia to give kids every opportunity to learn (Tyle 3). She believed that women could help get her out of the Middle Ages and help bring other big and powerful stages of developed European cultures (Felder 161). While founding new towns, a university and an academy were under her leadership namely the University of Moscow and the Academy of Sciences. The University and the Academy became one of the most important cultural centers in Europe. They became internationally renowned institutions attracting foreign settlers (Raeff 1). Her love for literature and the arts encouraged her to promote Russia’s social and political issues. She then became a passionate advocate that helped make Russia stronger (Murphy 3).
Secondly, Catherine wanted to improve Russia’s legal system. Her ideas were inspired from the Enlightenment period. She changed the legal system to “The Instruction.” (The new legal system that Catherine created to replace the old one.) Russia’s legal system was based on an old inefficient code of laws (Tyle 2). In June of 1767, the Legislative Commission was created to review and update Russia’s old laws. Catherine had great hopes that this would work. Sadly, the Legislative Commission made little progress, and because of the Commission’s failure, Catherine was banned from meetings in 1768 (Tyle 2). The Imperial Guards supported Catherine, but behind her back, they thought a Roman dynasty should rule Russia instead of a German princess (Murphy 1).
Thirdly, Catherine embarked on westernizing Russia, modernizing their ideas and tradition, to expand the Russian empire. Like other rulers, Catherine fought to expand the borders of the empire through her 35-year-reign. Catherine added 200,000 square miles to Russia (Brown 1). The Russian Empire expanded during the two successful wars against Turkey (the Russo-Turkish Wars of 1768-1774 and 1787-1792). For helping Ukraine fight the war, as a reward Russia got the north part of the Black Sea. After Ukraine opened it up for settlement, some became part of Europe (Raeff 1). When the Western Border was secured, Catherine’s attention shifted to Russia’s enemies to the South and to the East, the Ottoman Empire and its vassals, the Khans of the Crimea, and the Ghei dynasty (Murphy 2). While Catherine was expanding Russia, Russia grew to the size of Texas. Catherine won the Crimean Peninsula from the Ottoman Empire, present day Turkey, and acquired a vast amount of Poland (Brown 2). Catherine exclaimed, “Russia is a European power” (Lentin 2). Under Catherine’s rule, Russia grew stronger and became a great power of Europe (Tyle 1). Catherine’s success granted her popularity in Russia. With her political and military power, bone-crushing military factions made her known for ruling Russia (Andrews 161).
Catherine created “The Proposal” to improve social conditions. The proposal provided equal protection for all people and prevention of criminal acts instead of brutal punishment (Tyle 2). Catherine lived through the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 and she saw both of these wars as threats to her country and her position (Brown 3). Catherine wanted to free the serfs from their masters, but after the uprising in 1773-1774, she strengthened the administrative powers and increased the central government’s control to ensure nothing like that happened again and that no one would threaten her throne (Felder 161). After this she tightened her control of the guards and the rest of the society. She also established the secret police and a secret branch. She got the idea from Peter. The secret police would serve the czar until the very end of their life, and the secret branch would become a model of Okhrana (Brown 5).
So indeed, Catherine came into power with energy and ideas for remaking Russia (Andrews 103). She ruled Russia for 34 years advancing education, westernizing Russia, developing the arts into a famous cultural center, and making Russia a bigger threat to the other European countries. Catherine had big plans to bring order, justice, and power to Russia (Brown 1). Her reign would leave a lasting influence of World Power. Russia will never be the same again after the reign of Empress Catherine the Great. Catherine is remembered by her famous quotes and once such includes “Power without nations confidence is nothing” (Andrews 108).
On November 6th Russia fell into mourning when the news broke that Catherine had suffered a massive stroke and was pronounced dead. Catherine had made many revolutionary changes to Russia making it a stronger nation. She was able to set the foundation of Westernizing and making Russia’s creative industries and agriculture stronger.