When Czarina Elizabeth died in December 1761, her nephew Peter ascended the throne. He had already alienated his wife, Catherine (Sophia Augusta, the princess of Anhalt-Zerbst in the Holy Roman Empire), by his evident lack of affection for her. Some historians believe that their son Paul was actually fathered by her lover Sergei Saltykov, a rumor believed at the time by Czarina Elizabeth prior to her death. Catherine lived in fear that without the czarina’s protection, Peter might do away with her. He already had had at least one mistress, Elizabeth Vorontzov. Catherine decided to strike first, for she knew that if Peter killed her, he might have Paul killed too.
Besides his wife, Peter III had also alienated the most important political force in the capital of St. Petersburg, the regiments of the Russian Imperial Guard. Although Catherine was German by birth, she had successfully won over the Guards during the years since her first appearance at court.
To them, she was a Russian czarina, and Peter III a German usurper. Assured of the Guards’ support by her current lover, Gregori Orlov, himself an officer in the Ismailovski Regiment, his brother Alexei Orlov, and other officers, Catherine seized power from Peter III in a coup on June 28, 1762.
In her manifesto Catherine declared that Peter III had intended to “destroy us completely and to deprive us of life.” Peter was forced to abdicate and on July 6 was killed, apparently in a quarrel with one of those guarding him. Whether Catherine was a party to his death, historians will never really know. But with Peter removed from the scene, she most likely slept more soundly than she had in years. On September 22, 1762, Catherine was crowned empress and autocrat of all the Russias.
Although the Imperial Guards regiments had supported her, some of them still felt a sovereign from the Romanov dynasty should rule them, not a Germanborn princess. To tighten her control of the Guards, and the rest of society, Catherine reinstituted the secret police that Peter had abolished in one of his enlightened reforms. Catherine’s secret branch became the model for the Okhrana, the special police who would serve the czars until the very end.
Foreign affairs first claimed her attention as Russia struggled with the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War. In 1763 Augustus III of Poland died, and the Poles began the process of electing a new king in their Sejm, or parliament. As the elector of Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire, Augustus’s son Frederick Christian automatically became the elector, but there was dissension over who would succeed him as king of Poland. Catherine favored Stanislas Poniatowski to succeed Augustus as king, partly became Stanislas had once been her lover, and she wanted a friendly Poland. With the weight of the huge Russian army tilting the scales now in his favor, Stanislas was duly elected the next king by the Polish Sejm as Stanislas II Augustus in 1764.
Ironically, Poland would become the means of finally making peace among the belligerent nations of the Seven Years’ War. Prussia, supported by England, had fought against the Austrian Empire, France, and Russia during the conflict. In an attempt to make peace among them, the three eastern powers, Prussia, Austria, and Russia, decided to partition Poland. The first partition took place in 1772, to be followed by subsequent partitions in 1793 and 1795. By the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, Poland no longer existed as a state, and Stanislas II, without a kingdom to rule, abdicated his no-longer-existing throne. It would not be until the aftermath of World War I that Poland would rise again as an independent nation.
With Russia’s western front secured, Catherine now moved against Russia’s traditional enemies to the south and east, the Ottoman Empire and its vassals, the khans of the Crimea, the Gerei dynasty. In 1768 Catherine began war against the Ottoman Empire, now in its decline under the sultan Mustafa III. On July 10, 1774, the Russians under Field Marshal Peter Rumiantsev and the Turks signed a peace at the village of Kuchuk-Kainardji in the Balkans. Russia gained full access to the Sea of Azov and the Caspian Sea and the independence of the Crimean khanate from Ottoman rule. In return, Russia returned much of the lands in the Balkans and along the Danube that it had conquered from the Turks. But it was evident that the Russians reserved the right to intervene at any time in the region.
This became the bedrock of the Pan-Slav movement of the 19th century, when the Russians felt themselves to be the particular protectors of the Slavs who still lived under Turkish rule in the Balkans. In 1778 the Turks launched a fleet on the Black Sea to send an expeditionary force to help the foundering Crimean khanate, but the Turkish fleet sailed aimlessly in the Black Sea until foul weather forced it to seek refuge at the Ottoman naval base at Sinope. In 1783 Catherine II’s new favorite, Prince Grigori Potemkin, threatened the khanate with a Russian invasion. Bahadur II Gerei, the last of his dynasty, abdicated to be pensioned off by Catherine II, now becoming known as Catherine the Great.
The great campaigns, however, had thrust an intolerable burden onto the peasants, the vast majority of the Russian population. The policy of serfdom, reducing peasants to virtual slaves on the great landownings of the nobility, had by now reached most of Russia. The need for weapons for the wars had put inhuman demands on the workers in the Ural mines, and often soldiers had to be sent in to quell labor disputes.
In 1773 a Yaik Cossack by the name of Emilian Pugachev proclaimed that he was Peter III, who had come back to save the Russians from the tyranny of “the German woman.” With her forces largely committed to the war with the Turks, Catherine’s military resources were limited. Pugachev seized the great city of Kazan, and Nizhni-Novgorod, the third city of her empire, was destroyed when the serfs there rose in support of Czar Peter. When she saw that Pugachev might reach Moscow, and perhaps St. Petersburg, Catherine brought her troops home. With the return of thousands of her veteran troops, the tide turned rapidly against Pugachev. On January 10, 1775, he was beheaded in Moscow.
The experience with the Pugachev rebellion did not deter Catherine from her desire to modernize Russia. A self-educated woman, she corresponded regularly with the leaders of the Enlightenment, like Voltaire and Denis Diderot in France. Among Catherine’s initiatives to modernize Russia were the abolition of torture (even with Pugachev) and the encouragement of industrial and agricultural growth. She also extended equal rights to the empire’s Muslim population, which had grown greatly with the annexation of the Crimea after 1783. They were given the right to build mosques, although, as with all religions, Islam was kept under scrutiny by the state, and the Russian Orthodox Church remained paramount in the empire.
By the late 1770s Catherine had become to see herself as a peacemaker in Europe. On December 30, 1777, Maximilian Joseph, the elector of Bavaria, died. Frederick II of Prussia was pitted against the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, who ruled jointly with her son, Emperor Joseph ii. Although Frederick began the War of the Bavarian Succession in April 1778, neither side was anxious for another bloody war like the Seven Years’ War of 1756 to 1763. Although Catherine favored Frederick, both sides accepted her mediation, and the war came to an end at the Peace of Teschen in April 1779. Both Austria and Prussia received Bavarian territory in compensation, but the new elector ruled a free Bavaria as Charles Theodore.
By this time, Catherine had to face a threat from an unexpected quarter. For nearly 60 years, the thoughts of the French Enlightenment, enlivened by her friends Voltaire and Diderot, had undermined popular support for the Bourbon dynasty in France. In July 1789 revolution broke out in France, sending shock waves throughout the monarchies of Europe. Even worse was to come when, during the Turkish War, King Louis XVI of France was beheaded in Paris in January 1793 by the revolutionary Committee of Public Safety. The shock to Catherine was severe—the ideas of the very men she had supported and felt were her allies had led to the death of a king. In 1793, with the countries that had invaded France thrown back, the armies of revolutionary France began to spread the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity throughout Europe against the forces of the First Coaliton, of which Russia was a member. Nobody will ever be fully able to gauge the result of the revolutionary upheaval upon Catherine the Great, but her beliefs in progress and enlightened rule were totally shaken by the upheavals upsetting the Old Order in Europe.
On November 6, 1796, following a massive stroke, Catherine died, having ruled Russia for 34 years. Whatever the results of the French Revolution, neither Europe nor Russia would ever be the same again after the reign of Czarina Ekaterina, Empress Catherine the Great.
- Bartlett, Roger. A History of Russia. New York: Palgrave, 2005;
- Bosworth, Clifford Edmund. The New Islamic Dynasties. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996;
- Erickson, Carolly. Great Catherine: The Life of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994;
- Hingley, Ronald. Russia: A Concise History. London: Thames and Hudson, 2003;
- Troyat, Henri. Catherine the Great. Pinkham, Joan, trans. New York: Meridian, 1994.
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