Empress Catherine II of Russia (1729-86), commonly known as Catherine the Great, was one of Russia's greatest and most energetic rulers. Following in the footsteps of her predecessor Peter I (Peter the Great), she pursued the Westernization and territorial expansion of Russia.
Born into a German royal family, she married the heir to the Russian throne, the future Peter III. As an intelligent and energetic woman, she wanted to be accepted into her adopted land of Russia and so learned its history and language.
After Peter III became an unpopular ruler, was forced to abdicate and a few days later was murdered, Catherine became the ruler (Empress) of Russia.
In 1767 Catherine issued a famous edict known as the "Instruction" in which she advocated social and economic reforms. However, she also insisted in it that Russia's vast territory needed a strong central government and that she as Empress should, therefore, have absolute power.
As she stated in the "Instruction": "The sovereign is absolute; for, in a state whose expanse is so vast, there can be no other appropriate authority except that which is concentrated in him."
She further stated in the "Instruction" that "the landlords' serfs and peasants … owe their landlords proper submission and absolute obedience in all matters, according to the laws that have been enacted from time immemorial by the autocratic forefathers of Her Imperial Majesty … and which provide that all persons who dare to incite serfs and peasants to disobey their landlords shall be arrested and … punished forthwith as disturbers of the public tranquility, according to the laws and without leniency. " ( A Source Book for Russian History, G. Vernadsky, trans. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972).
In her court at St. Andrew Petersburg, she promoted the culture and ideas of Western European countries, such as France, England and Italy. She patronized Italian opera and fine arts, French literature, philosophy and etiquette, and English ideas.
She built sumptuous palaces and other buildings in her capital, St Petersburg, mostly designed by foreign architects that she admired. One of these buildings, the Hermitage, was built to house her collection of magnificent European art treasures and it survives to this day as one of the world's greatest art museums.
She corresponded with French writers and Enlightenment philosophers ( philosophes ), such as Voltaire. She attempted to be, like Frederick the Great of Prussia, an "enlightened despot", and to bring in social reforms inspired by Locke, Montesquieu and Beccaria. She drew up of a new legal code, built schools (though these were to be mostly for the children of the aristocracy), constructed hospitals, promoted women's education, and introduced smallpox vaccination.
She encouraged Russian trade, industry and the exploitation of the country's natural resources in order to increase the country's wealth.
At the same time, in 1774-75 she faced and suppressed a popular rebellion led by the Cossack Pugachov. She decided that she needed the support of the nobility in order to control the country. To this end she gave up any Enlightenment ideas of abolishing serfdom in Russia and, instead, signed a Charter to the Nobility actually allowing the nobles to increase the number of serfs that they could own, and giving the nobles a number of further generous privileges to win their support.
Catherine tried her utmost to win glory and power for Russia. Under Catherine's leadership, Russia's armed forces seized Byelorussia (modern-day Belarus) from Poland (in and after 1772), the Crimea and other parts of Turkey (1774; 1792), and the Baltic territory of Courland from Sweden (1790).
In the latter part of her reign, Catherine, like many other sovereigns of Europe, became frightened by the excesses of the French Revolution, such as its execution of King Louis XVI of France, and she turned her back on many of the Enlightenment ideas that she had formerly wished to espouse. She became more conservative, ceased trying to be an "enlightened despot" and instead she became a pragmatic autocrat.
On her death bed, Catherine the Great is reported to have said: "I shall be an autocrat: that's my trade. And the good Lord will forgive me: that's His."
When Catherine died, Russia's territories had greatly expanded, having acquired the Crimea and the northern shore of the Black Sea, as well as land that is in today's Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and Lithuania.
Some social reforms had, it is true, occurred; but the life, rights and status of the serfs – the great majority of Russia's population – had greatly worsened. Her policy of imitating the culture of Western Europe led to even further widening of the gap between the privileged ruling classes and the millions of down-trodden peasants.