Catherine the Great: the first woman to rule Russia

Was Russia's most renowned female ruler Catherine the Great – played by actress Helen Mirren in a new TV series – an astute military leader and spearhead of human rights? Or was she a "deceitful harlot" who only served the privileged? And the question everyone wants to know: did she murder her husband, Tsar Peter III?

Queen of hearts: When Catherine's husband Tsar Peter III alienated his people, they instead turned to his wife, and she was proclaimed the rightful ruler.

When Catherine Alekseyevna, empress consort of all the Russians, awoke on 28 June 1762, it was to startling news. She jumped out of bed, hastily got dressed, and rushed to the carriage that was waiting for her in the grounds of her palace, the Peterhof. Such was Catherine’s haste that morning that she didn’t have time to do her hair before jumping in her carriage. Instead, her expensive French hairdresser attended to it while she swept through the streets of Saint Petersburg.

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As the carriage picked up speed, Catherine can hardly have failed to notice that crowds were thronging the roadside to hail her progress. When she reached her destination, it soon became clear why. Her husband, Tsar Peter III of Russia, had been deposed in a coup, led away in tears to a very uncertain future – and Catherine was to replace him.

If Catherine had considered the magnitude of the task that confronted her that morning, she might have headed straight back to bed rather than boldly accept the army’s invitation to become their tsarina. Russia in the mid-18th century was a vast, unruly and, in many ways, backwards country, blighted by poverty and massive inequality. Thanks to her riotous love life, her passion for high art and her fabulously expensive tastes, Catherine would carve out a reputation as one of the most colourful rulers in European history, arguably becoming in the process the most powerful woman in history. But it was her achievement in turning Russia from basket case into a bona fide world superpower that earned her that most prized of epithets, ‘the Great’.

Enchantress of Russia

Catherine’s accomplishments are made all the more remarkable by the fact that she didn’t have a single drop of Russian blood in her body. She was born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg on 2 May 1729 in what was then the city of Stettin (now Szczecin in Poland) to Prussian aristocrats. Her mother, Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, was a very small fish in Europe’s royal pond but she did have limitless ambition for her daughter and, just as importantly, connections. And it was one of these connections that enabled her to wangle an invitation for the young Catherine to the court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia. Luckily for Johanna, Catherine was a gifted girl. She was pretty, intelligent and, above all, charming, and her magnetic personality had soon enchanted Elizabeth – so much so that the Russian empress engineered Catherine’s engagement to her nephew, Peter.

Catherine’s union with Russia’s heir apparent would catapult her onto the world stage. But as a relationship, it was a car crash. She was worldly and cultured, devouring books on politics and history, and later exchanging letters with the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Peter was self-absorbed and immature, “talking”, as Catherine wrote, “of nothing but soldiers and toys. I listened politely and often yawned but did not interrupt him.”

Their marriage got off to an awful start – on their wedding night Peter left his new wife in bed while he caroused downstairs with his friends – and, with Peter’s elevation to tsar on his aunt’s death in December 1761, things only got worse. Soon he was taking mistresses and openly talking of pushing Catherine aside to allow one of them to rule with him. Not even the birth of a son, Paul, could save the marriage – rumours abounded that Paul’s father was in fact Catherine’s lover, the handsome courtier Sergei Saltykov .

He may have been tsar, but Peter suffered one crucial disadvantage in his confrontation with his wife – he was reviled by swathes of the Russian army. So when Catherine engineered a coup against him – with the help of artillery officer Grigory Orlov – it quickly picked up a devastating momentum. Peter, it was said, “gave up the throne like a child being put to bed”. For the most part, Russia’s church, military and aristocracy welcomed their new female ruler. But the Empress had even bigger fish to fry. She wanted Europe’s superpowers – Britain and France – to accord her nation the respect that she believed it deserved, and that could only be achieved on the military stage.

The great debate: did Catherine the Great kill her husband?

Coups were hardly rare in early-modern Europe, but what makes Tsar Peter III’s downfall in the summer of 1762 so intriguing is the identity of those who masterminded it. That Catherine was complicit in the deposition of her husband is almost beyond doubt – the couple’s relationship had long turned toxic, she had everything to gain from his removal (the Russian throne), and her lover, Grigory Orlov, was the public face of the revolt. But what is less certain is Catherine’s role in what happened next.

The coup caught Peter completely on the hop. After formally abdicating, he was. arrested, taken to the village of Ropsha, and placed in the custody of Alexei Grigoryevich Orlov, Grigory’s brother. A few days later he was dead.

The official explanation was that he had fallen victim to ‘haemorrhoidal colic’. But few doubted that he had been murdered. The big question is, did Catherine order the killing?

The fact is, we just don’t know. Most historians agree that she could, if she’d wished, acted to save Peter – by, for example, allowing him a passage into exile – and that she had lots to gain by ridding herself of him for good. But proving that the new empress had her husband’s blood on her hands has so far proved utterly elusive.

Clash of empires

Over the next three decades, Catherine’s armies embarked on a series of military endeavours that would establish Russia as an imperial heavyweight. In the east she partitioned Poland and swallowed up swathes of Lithuania and Belarus. In the south, she took the fight to the Ottoman Empire, with spectacular results.

In their confrontations with the Turks, the Russians were greatly hampered by the lack of a naval presence on the Mediterranean. To overcome this Achilles’ heel, Russia’s generals came up with an audacious plan – to sail a fleet over 4,000 miles from its home port in the Baltic around the west of France and Spain, and up the Mediterranean to take the Turks by surprise. Catherine signed off on the plan, and the payback was game-changing – a famous victory at the battle of Chesma in July 1770 (in which Russia lost at most 600 dead to the Turks’ 9,000″ and a foothold in the Mediterranean. She would later annex the Crimea.

More military victories followed – many of them masterminded by the dashing head of Catherine’s armies, Grigory Potemkin. By the mid-1770s, however, Potemkin was a lot more than just the empress’s chief military adviser – he was her lover. Catherine was smitten, calling him “My colossus… my tiger”, and writing: “Me loves General a lot.” If anyone can be called the love of Catherine’s life, it was he.

But he was far from the last. After her affair with Potemkin fizzled out, Catherine took on a string of new lovers – many of them, curiously, recommended by Potemkin himself. And as the Tsarina grew more elderly, so her new beaus appeared to grow younger – the last, Prince Platon Zubov, was 38 years her junior. Sharing a bed with someone old enough to be your grandmother may not have been to everyone’s taste, but it certainly had its compensations. Catherine routinely bestowed her paramours with titles, land and palaces – and, in one case, more than a thousand serfs.

Eligible young army officers weren’t alone in falling for Catherine’s charms. As her global reputation grew, more and more members of Europe’s intelligentsia developed a fascination with her, some travelling east to report back on the enigmatic woman behind Russia’s renaissance.

“The double doors opened and the Empress appeared,” wrote the French portrait artist Madame Vigée Le Brun after observing Catherine at a gala. “I have said that she was quite small, and yet on the days when she made her public appearances, with her head held high, her eagle-like stare and a countenance accustomed to command, all this gave her such an air of majesty that to me she might have been Queen of the World.”

If Catherine the Great had one overarching goal as empress, it was, in her words, to “drag Russia out of its medieval stupor and into the modern world”. In her eyes, that meant introducing Enlightenment values to the darkest recesses of Russian life, and investing vast sums of energy into promoting the arts. At the latter of these two ambitions, Catherine has few equals. She presided over a golden age of Russian culture, buying the art collection of Britain’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole, snapping up cultural treasures from France and, above all, creating one of the world’s great art collections, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. This was no ordinary museum but a shrine to the Enlightenment, and in its galleries Catherine placed 38,000 books, 10,000 drawings and countless engraved gems.

But all this cost money. Eye watering sums of money. Catherine was an inveterate spendthrift, and while she frittered 12 per cent of Russia’s national budget on her court alone, millions of serfs continued to live in grinding poverty.

Broken promises

When Catherine assumed the throne, it appeared that she would make some serious strides towards dismantling a system that, for centuries, had condemned Russia’s serfs to work as virtual slaves for their masters. She sponsored the ‘Nakaz’ (or ‘Instruction’), a draft law code heavily influenced by the principles of the French Enlightenment, which proclaimed the equality of all men before the law and disapproved of the death penalty and torture.

But draft stage is as far as the plans got. Catherine never followed through on the Nakaz, and a few years later, thousands of serfs were rising in revolt. They were led by a Cossack called Yemelyan Pugachev, who not only promised their freedom but declared that he was Catherine’s deposed husband, returning to reclaim his throne. This may sound faintly ridiculous, but for Catherine it was deadly serious and, as the rebels hunted down and butchered 1,500 nobles, she struggled to come up with a response to the insurrection.

When she eventually did, she was utterly ruthless. The revolt was crushed, Pugachev was captured, and he was forced to endure a thoroughly unenlightened death – first he was hanged and then his limbs were chopped off. Before long, Catherine enacted a series of laws that greatly increased the nobility’s privileges. For the vast majority of Russians, freedom would have to wait.

By now, Catherine was an old woman increasingly forced to consider what would happen to her adopted nation after her death. She had a frosty relationship with her son Paul, and made it abundantly clear that she’d far prefer her grandson Alexander to succeed her to the throne. It was a battle she would lose – in the short term at least. On 16 November 1796, Catherine had a stroke while on the toilet (not while performing a bizarre sexual act, as a stubborn but completely fabricated rumour has it) and died the following day. Paul was crowned tsar and, in a remarkable show of spite towards his mother, immediately passed a law banning a woman from ever again taking the throne. But his triumph was to be short-lived. Like his father, he was deposed and assassinated in a coup – to be replaced by Catherine’s favourite, Alexander. Most things that Catherine the Great had willed during her extraordinary life came to pass, and it seems that they continued to do so even beyond the grave.


Battle of the thrones: who was the greatest of the greats? 

1

Peter the Great, 1672–1725

That Catherine invested so much energy in presenting herself as the new Peter the Great is testament to her predecessor’s considerable achievements as Russian tsar. In many ways, Peter’s reign presaged her own – he expanded Russia’s empire, spearheaded a cultural revolution and turned his ailing nation into a true world power. Unlike Catherine, he also happened to be a sadistic killer.

2

Cnut the Great, c995–1035

Cnut’s historical reputation has been trashed by that apocryphal tale of his deluded attempts to turn back the waves. In reality, he was an accomplished monarch, uniting the kingdoms of England, Denmark and Norway into a formidable North Sea empire.

3

Alfred the Great, 849–99

In the 870s, the English were a benighted, divided people, terrorised by marauding= Viking armies. But then King Alfred of Wessex turned things around, putting the Vikings to flight, transforming his realm’s justice system and styling himself as King of all Anglo-Saxons. England would never be the same again.

4

Alexander the Great, 356–323 BC

Alexander has for centuries been held up as a paragon of military brilliance. This king of the ancient Greek realm of Macedon conquered vast swathes of Asia and east Africa, all by his early 30s. He was instrumental in the rise of Greek as the west’s dominant culture, and is often ranked as one of the most influential figures in world history.

5

Cyrus the Great, c590 or 580–529 BC

At one point, Cyrus presided over an empire that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Indus river in the east. It was the largest empire that the world had yet seen, and if that doesn’t qualify him as a ‘great’, the fact that he was, by ancient standards, tolerant of foreign cultures, probably does.

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This article was taken from the October 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine