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Catherine the Great, Empress and Sole Autocrat, Mother Tsarina of all the Russias

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty on Friday, 10 August 2012

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This edited article about Catherine the Great originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 761 published on 14th August 1975.

Catherine the Great, picture, image, illustration

Catherine takes her husband, Tsar Peter III, prisoner in a brilliant coup d’etat, by C L Doughty

The sky was a luminous silver on that magical June ‘white night’. Flat, smooth and motionless, the sea was silent and as pale as milk.

Inside her summer house, with its narrow terrace overlooking that sea, a woman tossed fitfully in her sleep, knowing as she did that her destiny was, at that very moment, being forged.

As dawn broke she was wakened by a visitor and helped into a waiting carriage. The woman, dressed only in a simple black gown and nightcap, rode through the silent early morning roads, making her way to her secret rendezvous.

Presently, the coach came to a halt and the woman stepped out, pale, small and fragile, her black dress covered in yellow dust, her brilliant blue eyes shining with anticipation. Before her stood a regiment of soldiers unable to contain their joy. As soon as they caught sight of the woman, they rushed to kiss her hands, her feet, the hem of her dress.

Just three hours after she had been wakened from her restless sleep, the woman mounted the steps of the Kazan Cathedral, walked down its imposing aisle, and stood before the altar to be proclaimed ruler of her country. The bishop held a gold crown above her head, blessed her, and waited while she took the sacred oath.

The cathedral bells rang out, and soon all the bells of the city filled the air to proclaim the news.

Tsar Peter The Third had been deposed and replaced by a new ruler – his wife.

Catherine, Empress and Sole Autocrat, Mother Tsarina of all the Russias, was about to begin her remarkable reign as the woman who was to devote her life to the greater glory of Russia and who would become almost a legend in her own lifetime.

Her contemporaries called her ‘The Star Of The North’, Minerva, admirable conqueror, peacemaker, legislator. To history she will always be Catherine the Great. For ‘great’ she certainly was. More than simply a great ruler, more than just a remarkable woman, Catherine continued and, in some cases, surpassed the work of Peter the Great as a mighty builder of a great nation.

When the girl who was to become Empress Catherine II came to Russia to marry the heir to the throne, it was already a powerful nation, but it was in a state of chaos, lacked a coherent form and was still suffering badly from the aftermath of a mighty political and moral upheaval such as few countries have ever known in the course of their history. And yet, half a century later, when Catherine died, the country had expanded its frontiers and had developed and blossomed so much that it stood as a rival to the great powers of Europe.

And it is all a little surprising when one considers that her name was not Catherine and she was not Russian. Born on May 2nd, 1729, the daughter of a petty princeling from one of the poorest and most obscure of all the many German princely families, Sophia Augusta Frederika of Anhalt-Zerbst, was to become the richest and most powerful woman in the world.

As a child she had been chosen to become the wife of the heir to the Russian throne by the Empress Elizabeth, and when she first visited the land that was to become her home, Sophia felt like a Cinderella at Court, dazzled by its grandeur and embarrassed by so much extravagance.

But once she had been accepted into the Orthodox Church, taken the name of Catherine and become betrothed to the Grand Duke Peter, she soon became used to the ways of her adopted country.

Her marriage to Grand Duke Peter, which took place in August of 1744, proved to be a desperately unhappy one.

When the Empress Elizabeth died and Peter ascended the throne, it did not take Catherine long to realise what she must do in order to achieve her ambition.

On the night of June 9th in 1762, Peter publicly insulted his wife at a banquet held to celebrate the peace treaty he had signed with Prussia. Less than three weeks later, he found himself the victim of a coup d’etat instigated by Catherine and her accomplices. The day after she had been proclaimed Empress inside the Kazan Cathedral, Peter the Third abdicated and was imprisoned at the Ropsha prison. Less than a week after that, the ex-emperor was murdered. Catherine had given no orders and no-one knows exactly how the murder took place.

But one thing was certain. With Peter’s death, Catherine’s position as ruler of Russia was now secure.

But her reign did not begin without problems. Disaffection and unrest were spreading across the countryside where the Russian peasants were becoming more and more dissatisfied with their way of life. The Cossacks of the lower Don River decided to rebel against what they considered her tyranny, and she found herself faced with a pretender to the throne. As leader of the rebellion, Emelyan Pugachev managed to persuade thousands of his followers that he was Peter the Third. Catherine sent an army against him but, though the rebels were beaten into retreat, Pugachev escaped. It was not long before he was betrayed by his own men. After his capture, Catherine decided to humiliate him by having him carried in an iron cage to Moscow. In every town and village he passed through, the people were made to turn out and jeer. The man who had dared to accuse Catherine of tyranny was found guilty of treason and publicly beheaded.

And yet, throughout her life, Catherine claimed to be ‘an enlightened despot’, a ruler who believed in freedom for her people and whose intellectual hero was the famous French philosopher and champion of the oppressed and poor, Voltaire. Yet by spreading serfdom to win the allegiance of the nobility she reduced the liberty she so passionately proclaimed was her aim.

Despite all this, she was Catherine ‘The Great’, and within the framework of Russia’s political, economic and cultural interests there can be no doubt that ‘great’ she was.

One historian has called her ‘the only woman ruler who has surpassed Queen Elizabeth I in ability and equalled her in the enduring significance of her work.’

Under her guidance, a golden age of art flourished in Russia. Her greatest interests, literature and the theatre, reached new heights under her reign. She was a prolific writer and, if she had never been empress, would almost certainly have occupied a distinguished place in French literary history, French being the language in which she nearly always wrote her works.

Catherine never remarried, though she had many admirers, the most famous of whom was Gregory Potemkin, a strong-willed, restless and brave soldier.

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