Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great deposed her husband and made herself empress of Russia in his place. She reigned for more than 30 years and worked hard to turn Russia into a powerful modern country.
RISE TO POWER
Catherine was born in 1729 into a German noble family. When she was 16 she married the heir to the throne of Russia. At the beginning of 1762 her husband became Tsar Peter III, but he was totally unfit to rule. Within a few months Catherine had organized a plot to overthrow him. With the support of the palace guard, Catherine was declared Empress Catherine II of Russia in July 1762.
Catherine was a well-educated woman and she believed it was her mission to spread European art, culture and ideas throughout Russia, and to continue the modernizing work of Peter the Great. She founded several schools, hospitals and a medical college; and encouraged writers and the growth of newspapers. In 1767, Catherine also attempted to introduce political ideas from the European Enlightenment movement. She called together an assembly of representatives from all parts of Russia. The assembly was not a success and the representatives argued among themselves. Catherine quickly lost interest.
One of Catherine’s first actions in international politics was in 1764 when Russian troops helped put her lover on the throne of Poland as King Stanislas II. In 1768, Catherine attacked Russia’s long-standing enemy—the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The Ottoman fleet was defeated at a sea battle in 1770 at Chesme in the Mediterranean Sea, and Russia won access to the Black Sea. She later took over the Crimean Peninsula and made it a part of Russia. Key to her success was the command of Grigory Potemkin, who briefly became her lover and was the most powerful man in Russia until his death in 1791. In the west, Catherine was able to expand Russia’s borders without warfare. By agreement with Austria and Prussia, she gradually took over bits of Poland until the country had disappeared completely by 1795.
In 1773 a serious rebellion broke out in Russia. Yemelyan Pugachev, a Cossack from south-eastern Russia, led the rebels and proclaimed himself tsar. Soldiers loyal to Catherine defeated the rebels in 1774, and Pugachev was executed in the following year. After the rebellion, Catherine became less interested in spreading European enlightened ideas, and she worked hard to strengthen Russia by improving the position of the nobles in Russian society. She divided the country into provinces and appointed local governors who were given considerable powers. Catherine was disturbed when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, and by the time of her death in 1796 she was preparing to send Russian troops to fight against the revolutionaries in France.