Catherine the Great

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Portrait by Alexei Antropov, ca. 1773.

Catherine the Great (Russian: Екатерина II Великая) (1729-1796) was the powerful empress of Russia (1762-1796) who ruled as an Enlightened Despot. She is remembered for leading her country into full participation in the political and cultural life of Europe, and for advancing the Partitions of Poland.


Catherine was a princess of the petty German principality Anhalt-Zerbst. She was well educated and, like many other nobles of Europe in the 18th century, heavily influenced by French culture. In 1744, when she was fifteen, she left for Russia to marry Peter of Holstien-Gottorp. She converted to Orthodox Christianity and learned Russian and Russian culture upon her arrival in the country. Peter was both a miserable husband and leader. In 1762, she led a successful coup, which killed her husband and made her Empress Catherine II.


Catherine reigned from 1762 to 1796. She was initially looked at with suspicion, seeing as she had no title to the crown, and she was brought to power due to a palace revolution. She gradually gained her popularity, especially among Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau.

Catherine's despotic rule and personal morality suffered from similar moral failures as a great many men in power. On the other hand, she did attempt to open up governance, suggesting that her instinct was toward egalitarianism. Yet she also reinforced feudalism by tightening the tie between serfs and their overlords.

See also

Further reading

  • Alexander, John T. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend (1989), the standard biography