The Life and Legacy of Catherine the Great


By Corey Lichtman

Catherine the Great: Imperial Expansion


by Joanna Lozinska



The Life and Legacy of
 Catherine the Great

By Corey Lichtman



Even though Russian Empress Catherine the Great was a German native and ascended to the throne via a coup d'état (her husband was the heir to the throne), she was a fairly successful ruler who deeply influenced Russian culture and society.

She was born into the family of Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst on April 26, 1796 in Stettin (now part of Poland) and christened Sophia Augusta Frederica (Levykin). Although little is known about her childhood, for she later wrote several different versions of her youth, her governess noticed her independent young mind, her aspiration to be the center of attention, her ability to hide feelings, and her desire to inspire others (Alexander 21).


Princess Sophia married Grand Duke Peter on August 21, 1745. She was chosen to be his wife by his aunt, Empress Elizabeth I of Russia. Princess Sophia arrive in Russia with her mother on February 9, 1744 to meet her fure husband and family. At this point, Princess Sophia started an intensive education of Russian and Orthodoxy. She repudiated the Lutheranism for Russian Orthodoxy and was re-christened Yekaterina Catherine (Atchison). She also studied philosophy and history; one of Catherine's main influences was Voltaire (Levykin).


Catherine and Peter had an unhappy 17-year marriage. She endured threats of divorce and public humiliation (Czap 17). Peter was "sickly, mean-spirited, and ill-equipped mentally or physically to rule a vast empire like Russia" (Atchison). They had one son, Paul, but it is now argued that his biological father was not Peter, but an officer, Serge Saltykov (Atchison).


When Empress Elizabeth died on December 25, 1761, Grand Duke Peter inherited the throne as Peter III. A despised ruler, he showed contempt for all things Russian and a love for all things Prussian. He tried to use the Prussian army as a model for the Russian army, which he sent fight Denmark as a favor for the duchy of Holstein. Meanwhile, Catherine showed sympathy for the Russian subjects. Perhaps it was because of Catherine's sympathy and Peter's evil that caused the Imperial Guard to help her overthrow him on June 28, 1762. She formally took the throne on September 22, 1762 (Czap 17, Atchison).


Catherine the Great's reign was a blend of increasing autocratic political reform, ambitious foreign policy manoeuvres, and an enriching cultivation of the arts. Although she did not use violence to strengthen her power over the Russian empire, she chose a more a "patient path" (Atchison). For instance, she weakened the influence of the Church by seizing its wealth and turning its clergy into state employees (Atchison). Also, she did not carry out her claim as a ruler influenced by the French philosophers of the Enlightenment and the Roman thinkers of the ancient times. According to the Encyclopedia Americana, her enlightenment philosophies were "little more than rhetorical flourishes when the time came to implement progressive programs or abolish the worst social abuses in the realm" (Czap 17). Moreover, reforms were introduced in 1775 and in 1785 to accelerate the move to self-government for the urbanites, but in reality, they did not raise government standards. Finally, a Charter of the Nobility of April 1785 was created, which gave noblemen more power over serfs (Czap 18).


Another aspect of Catherine the Great's reign was an ambitious foreign policy. During her rule, there were two wars against Turkey, which ended with the annexation of Crimea, parts of Caucasus, and territories between the Dniester and Bug rivers (Czap 18). Also. the empire was extended to the Black Sea (Levykin).


Finally, part of Catherine the Great's reign included a cultivation of the arts. She built monuments all over the empire, patronized music, education , and the arts, and spent millions of rubles on the Hermitage art collection (Atchison). Indeed, Catherine, herself, corresponded with leading philosophers and politicians and wrote plays, fables, satires, and a a memoir (Czap 17-18).


Catherine the Great died on November 6, 1796. She lead a full life, as exemplified above. It is interesting to note, after examining her life, that early childhood qualities emerged when she ruled Russia. Even though her policies and actions are seen as a mix of giving and selfishness, she was able to successfully influence and shape Russia, especially through culture and territorial expansion.



  • Alexander, John T. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

  • Atchison, Bob. "Catehrine the Great." Web page:, 1997.

  • Czap Jr., Peter. "Catherine II." Encyclopedia Americana. Danbury: Grolier Inc., 1991, p. 17-18.

  • Levykin, Alexei K. "Catherine the Great, 1729-1796; Empress of All Russia, 1762-1796." Web page:, 1995.




   Catherine the Great:
 Imperial Expansion

     by Joanna Lozinska


Catherine II’s reign was notable not only for her domestic reforms, pertaining to class structure and education, but mainly imperial expansion and internal consolidation.  The Russian Empire which she ruled from 1762 until her death in 1796 acquired vast territories in the south and west of  the main Russian state.  Because of her strong interest in the foreign policy, Catherine took an active role in shaping Russian diplomacy.  “I want to do the governing myself, and let Europe know this!”, she proclaimed once[1].  Indeed, from the very early age Catherine had been involved in major politics through court intrigue, and she had a good deal of experience in diplomatic affairs.  Subsequently, she developed her considerable diplomatic capabilities to perfection. 


Those undeniable diplomatic skills secured Russia’s position in late eighteenth century.  The Empire had a greater control of its southern border by the acquisition of the northern shore of the Black Sea and by eliminating the troublesome neighbors in the southwest and west.  For instance, a war that broke out with the Ottoman Empire in 1768 was settled by the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji in 1774.  Because of Catherine’s persuasive tactics, the Empire gained an outlet to the Black Sea, and the Crimean Tatars, longtime enemies of the Russian Empire, were made independent of the Ottomans, which weakened their military position.  In 1783, Catherine annexed Crimea, helping to spark another war with the Ottoman Empire in 1787.  By the Treaty of Jassey in 1792, Russia acquired territory south of the Dnestr River[2].  Although the terms of the treaty fell short of the goals of Catherine’s project to expel the Ottomans from Europe, her desire to significantly reduce the Ottoman Empire came true.  In addition to decreasing the size of the Turkish Empire, the Turks were forced to tolerate an increasing Russian influence in the Balkans. 


Undoubtedly, Catherine seized many opportunities throughout her reign to expand the Empire.  She found another one to expand to the west, which became possible as a result of partitioning of Poland.  As Poland became increasingly weak in the eighteenth century, each of its neighbors, Austria, Prussia, and Russia, tried to place its own candidate on the Polish throne.  In 1772, the three agreed to the first partition, by which Catherine was now ruling over some parts of Belorussia and Livonia.  In 1793, Russia participated in the second partition of Poland, gaining most of Belorussia and Ukraine west of the Dnepr River.  Two years later, the third partition advanced Russia the rest of Belorussia.  Strategically, Polish territories were vital to Russia.  It commanded the flat, open approaches from the west, across which European powers over the centuries repeatedly invaded Russia.  Applying the logic of power diplomacy, Catherine managed to put Poland under its thumb, something that had to be done in order to prevent further enemy attacks[3]. 


Although the partitioning of Poland and other conquests greatly added to Russia’s territory and prestige, it also created new internal difficulties.  Russia, having lost Poland as a buffer, had to share borders with both Prussia and Austria.  In addition, the Empire became more ethnically heterogeneous as it absorbed large numbers of Poles (26%), Ukrainians and  Belorussians (40%), Lithuanians (20%), and the Jews (10%).  Among them 38% were Catholics, 40% Uniate, 10% of the Jewish faith and 6.5% Orthodox[4].  More fateful was the fact that the Poles and the Jews, she had taken in, would be a source of bitterness and conflict for the Russian rule.  She could not, at first, satisfy the Ukrainians and the Belorussians who grew more frustrated with her lack of policy to improve their status as serfs.   Catherine persuaded laws and decrees that would develop the economic resources and potential of the Empire, helping to bring into play all the economically creative forces of the population.  However, she believed that this had to be done without touching at the foundation of Russian society.   In fact, Catherine’s goal was to give full security to the private property of nobility, including the right to exploit at will whatever was to be found on their estates, which meant more labor for the serfs[5].


In many respects, Catherine brought the policies of her predecessor, Peter the Great, to fruition and set the foundation for the nineteenth century Empire.  Russia became a power capable of competing with its European neighbors on military, political, and diplomatic grounds.  The organization of society and the government system, however, remained basically unchanged until almost the end of Catherine’s rule.



                                                                                                                                      Despite such accomplishments, I think that the Empire built by Catherine II, and Peter the Great before her, was beset with some fundamental problems, which set the stage for future nationalities problem, and ultimately caused the complete division of the Russian Empire into many republics in the twentieth century.  It appears that Catherine tried to create a supra-national elite with a strongly military ethos to integrate and rule the various subordinate peoples.  At some point, a small Europeanized elite, alienated from the mass of ordinary Russians who were mostly serfs, raised questions about the very essence of Russia’s history, culture, and identity.  Because the survival of the Empire and the maintenance of its territorial integrity were the paramount priorities of Catherine’s, she neglected to foresee increasing religious and national conflicts[6].  Although in retrospect, during Catherine’s reign, Russian became one of the most powerful Empires of the eighteenth century, it is also evident that Russian national identity tented to be subsumed in that of the Empire, whose values were in principle multi-national.  That seemed to work well enough until the other great powers of that time, Russia’s bitter rivals, started to become nation-states.




1.  Hasking, Geoffrey, “Russia: People and Empire 1552-1917”.

(Harvard Univeristy Press: Cambridge, 1997)


2.  Raeff, Marc, “Catherine the Great: A Profile”.

(Hill & Wang: New York, 1972)


3.  Wandycz, Piotr S.  “The Price of Freedom: A History of East Central Europe From the Middle Ages to the Present”. 

(Routledge: London, 1992)


4.  Web page:


[1]Raeff, Marc.  Catherine the Great: A Profile.

(New York: Hill and Wang, 1972) p. 182.


[3]Wandycz, Piort S.  The Price of Freedom:

A History of East Central Europe From the Middle Ages to the Present.

(Routledge: London, 1992) pp. 78-81


[4]Raeff, 181-182


[5]Hasking, Geoffrey, Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917.

 (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1997) pp. 315-317


[6]Raeff, 197-198







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