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“I blush for mankind.” That was Nikolay Karamzin’s withering verdict on the reign of Catherine the Great. Karamzin – who, in the early 19th century, penned a wide­ranging history of Russia – wasn’t the only historian to disapprove of the empress’s behaviour. In fact, ever since Catherine died in 1796, it seems that critics have been lining up to attack her reputation.

So how did Catherine make Karamzin blush? Of all the many criticisms levelled against her, four stand out: that she usurped the Russian throne from her husband; that she was irredeemably promiscuous, preying on a succession of ever younger men; that she masqueraded as an enlightened monarch while doing little to ameliorate the suffering of the poor; and that she pursued a rapacious foreign policy.

It’s a damaging charge­list indeed. But does it stand up to scrutiny? I believe not. Catherine undoubtedly had her flaws. But examine Catherine’s record within the context of her time and, I would argue, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that she deserves to be judged more sympathetically.

Take the first of her major ‘crimes’: her seizure of power. It’s true that Catherine had no claim to the Russian throne – she was the product of a German princely family that had fallen on hard times. It’s also true that her rise – from anonymous aristocrat to empress of Russia by the age of 33 – was utterly remarkable. Yet her elevation was as much the product of her mother’s opportunism, the diplomatic intrigues of the royal court, and her ability to impress the Russian ruler, Empress Elizabeth, as her own naked ambition.

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The key to Catherine’s rise was her betrothal to Empress Elizabeth’s heir, Peter, the Duke of Holstein­Gottorp. They married in 1745 and Peter became tsar in 1761. The couple’s marriage was tempestuous and, just over six months after Peter had become tsar (as Peter III), he was overthrown by Catherine with the support of army officers from the elite guards’ regiments, including Catherine’s own lover, Grigory Orlov. A few days after the coup, Peter was killed by Orlov’s brother, supposedly in a drunken brawl.

Catherine wasn’t the only member of Russia’s elite to benefit from her husband’s downfall

Catherine certainly benefited from her husband’s downfall, but she was far from the only one. A common saying about Russian tsardom is that it was “autocracy tempered by assassination”; that is, the ruler had almost unlimited powers but was always vulnerable to being dethroned if he or she alienated the elites. Peter III had done just that, and in particular had offended the patriotic feelings of the army officer corps by switching sides in the Seven Years’ War, signing a peace deal with Frederick the Great of Prussia, and abandoning Russian conquests in East Prussia. The emperor appeared capricious and unstable, which led to plots against him by top officials. Catherine herself was at risk, as her husband threatened to divorce her, marry his mistress and disinherit her son.

It is impossible to know how Peter’s reign would have evolved but those officers and officials who engineered the coup could, in later years, look back at Catherine’s record and believe, with some justification, that they had acted in the country’s best interests as well as their own.

Catherine and her "immature and boorish" husband, the future Emperor Peter III, in a portrait from 1740–45. (Image by Bridgeman)

Catherine the Great's husband and lovers

Catherine once wrote: “Had it been my fate to have a husband whom I could love, I would never have changed towards him.” She had little in common with the boorish and immature emperor, who soon made it clear that he was indifferent to her and repeatedly humiliated her in public. And so Catherine looked elsewhere, which brings us to the second of the four main charges laid against her: her promiscuity.

Catherine probably had 12 lovers in her lifetime, including several before she came to the throne. But it was her affair with the handsome Sergey Saltykov, while she was married to Peter, that arguably had the greatest ramifications. Many historians believe that Saltykov was the father of Catherine’s son and the future emperor, Paul I (Peter failed to produce any children with his many mistresses, and so may well have been infertile). Paul was born in 1754, while Empress Elizabeth was still on the throne. Whatever the father’s identity, it was in Elizabeth’s interests as much as Catherine’s to proclaim Paul the legitimate son of the heir to the throne – in fact, Elizabeth had probably connived in Catherine’s affair with Saltykov in the first place.

There was also a tragic element to Catherine’s personal life. She seemed unable to sustain her relationships

The Saltykov affair may have produced an heir but it doesn’t number among the two great relationships of Catherine’s life. The first of these was with Grigory Orlov, lasting 12 years; the second was a passionate affair with the statesman and general Grigory Potemkin. Letters from Catherine to Potemkin testify to the depth of her love for him: “My dearest friend, I LOVE YOU SO MUCH, you are so handsome, clever, jovial and funny; when I am with you I attach no importance to the world. I have never been so happy.” The two were probably married secretly in a religious ceremony.

But there was also a tragic element to Catherine’s personal life. She seemed unable to sustain her relationships – and many of her lovers were unfaithful to her, including Orlov. Potemkin, too, fell out of favour with the empress at court after a couple of years, although their deep affection for each other remained. His final letter, penned on the day he died, was to “my little mother, most gracious sovereign lady”. Catherine was devastated by Potemkin’s death. Yet perhaps the manner in which she had assumed the throne had made her wary of any man who might wish to exercise power through her.

Whether Catherine was promiscuous is a matter of personal judgment. Towards the end of her reign there was certainly a procession of young, often shallow, but always handsome lovers. There can be little doubt that the ageing empress’s proclivity for these men wrought considerable damage to her reputation, and that of the Russian court.

Was Catherine the Great a good ruler?

Catherine’s colourful love life was manna from heaven for Europe’s sketch writers and cartoonists. But the third main criticism levelled against her – that she was a hypocrite – is surely every bit as destructive to her legacy. Such allegations centre on Catherine’s claims to be an enlightened monarch, one who, so the criticism goes, failed to practise what she preached.

At the beginning of her reign, Catherine summoned an assembly, called the Legislative Commission, which comprised almost 600 elected representatives from many of the social groups that made up Russia’s population. There were no serf representatives, but members included state peasants (peasants on non-noble land), townspeople, non-Russians – and, of course, nobles.

Catherine presented the assembly with the so-called Instruction, which famously recommended liberal, humanitarian political theories. She used the most modern writings on politics and law from French and Italian thinkers of the time to provoke debate.

In an autocracy such as Russia, these were radical proposals indeed. But, to a large extent, proposals are all they remained. The Instruction had little impact on the ground in Russia – it triggered no emancipation of the nation’s serfs. What’s more, Catherine plagiarised much of the Instruction from other texts, including The Spirit of the Laws by the French philosopher Montesquieu, and deliberately distorted his analysis so that she could describe Russia as an “absolute monarchy” rather than as a “despotism”. In short, so the criticism goes, while ostensibly portraying herself as a modern Enlightenment ruler, she was nothing of the sort.

Catherine couldn’t abolish serfdom without the nobles’ support, and that support wasn’t forthcoming

But is this accusation fair? There was certainly a large gap between Catherine’s aspirations in her Instruction and her achievements. This can primarily be explained, however, not by her hypocrisy but by the realities of her power base and the nature of the Russian state. The Legislative Commission exposed that there was little appetite to engage with the ideas in the Instruction, or to modernise Russia. The nobles made it clear that their main desire was to keep their exclusive right to own serfs – and, without their support, it was impossible for Catherine to modify, let alone abolish, serfdom.

Where Catherine could implement reforms, she did. She was an important patron of the arts; she encouraged translations of foreign books; she established the first national system of education in Russia based on the best models of the time; she abolished torture (at least in principle); and improved judicial procedures and local administration. She promulgated two important charters in 1785 for towns and nobles: the former attempted to enhance the status of towns and townspeople, by establishing new organs of self-government and modern craft guilds; the latter clarified and confirmed the rights and privileges of the nobility in an attempt to bring their status in line with that of their central and western European counterparts.

“Russia is a European state,” were Catherine’s opening words in the first chapter of her Instruction. This was a cultural, not a geographical statement, and one Catherine genuinely believed. Within the confines in which she had to operate, she tried to bring Russian culture and the Russian social elites into an ‘enlightened’ European framework.

Catherine is portrayed as the goddess Minerva atop a triumphal chariot in this allegory of her victory over the Turks and Tatars in 1772. (Image Public Domain)
Catherine is portrayed as the goddess Minerva atop a triumphal chariot in this allegory of her victory over the Turks and Tatars in 1772. (Image Public Domain)

Cynical diplomacy

Where Catherine was arguably less enlightened was in the arena of foreign relations. There is no doubt that her Russia was an aggressive nation: she fought wars against the Ottoman empire, Sweden and Poland-Lithuania, and her victories led to the acquisition of swathes of territory to the south and west.

It might, perhaps, be seen as a weak defence of Catherine to say that other rulers of the time were just as rapacious as her. But that was the case. Frederick the Great of Prussia and Maria Theresa of Austria were every bit as ruthless as Catherine in sacrificing entire nations on the altar of their ambitions.

The main casualty of this cynical brand of diplomacy was Poland-Lithuania, which was partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria no fewer than three times in the late 18th century. Frederick and Maria Theresa initiated the first partition in 1772 in order to ‘balance’ what they feared would be an inevitable Russian expansion into that territory. Catherine approved the second partition, in 1793, in order to head off an apparent threat to the political and social order influenced by French revolutionary ideals. She regarded the subsequent revolt, which led to a final partition in 1795, as a dangerous insurgency that had to be crushed.

None of this was of any consolation to the Poles and Lithuanians who found their country divided and dismembered. Nor can there be any excuse for the Russian army’s slaughter of 20,000 civilians in Warsaw in 1794 during the suppression of the revolt.

Poland’s disappearance from the map was a source of potential instability throughout the 19th century. But the result was that Russia had a presence in the heart of Europe.

Catherine also kept her nerve in a series of often difficult negotiations with the Ottoman empire, ensuring that Russia acquired important territory on the north coast of the Black Sea. In 1783, when the empress declared the annexation of the Crimea, the Ottomans had no choice but to acquiesce.

Russia now dominated the Black Sea, and it looked as if Catherine was setting her sights on reclaiming Constantinople for Orthodox Christianity. The empress had acquired more territory in Europe than any Russian ruler since Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. She had made Russia a ‘great power’ – one that other nations ignored at their peril.

Judged for her sex

There are many reasons why historians have been unduly harsh on Catherine the Great over the past 200 years – a failure to appreciate the constraints in which she had to operate being just one. But I believe there is another factor in play here, and that’s her sex. Had Catherine been a man, she would surely have been judged more favourably.

Male rulers frequently had mistresses. Catherine’s husband, Peter III, was no exception; nor was her grandson Alexander I, who voiced his disapproval of her conduct. Would an emperor have been regarded as rapacious in extending Russia’s borders so extensively in the same way as an empress? Peter I and Alexander I also threatened the balance of power but their actions were not described in the same disparaging tones.

There are many reasons why historians have been unduly harsh on Catherine the Great over the past 200 years

These double standards are expressed most poignantly in the British cartoon An Imperial Stride!. In it, Catherine is straddling Europe with rulers looking up her skirts and making lewd comments: “What! What! What! What a prodigious expansion!” comments George III. “Never saw anything like it!” declares Louis XVI. “The whole Turkish army wouldn’t satisfy her,” exclaims the Turkish sultan. The cartoon dates from 1791, at the peak of Russian power: Catherine has one foot in Russia while, in recognition of her victories over the Ottoman empire, her toe touches a crescent in Constantinople.

Her fellow rulers might have mocked Catherine. But, as the cartoon acknowledges, the threat that her resurgent nation posed to Europe’s traditional superpowers gave them good reason to fear her too.

Janet Hartley is professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her books include Russia 1762–1825: Military Power, the State and the People (Praeger, 2008)


This article was first published in the October 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine