Catherine the Great: Hypocrite, reactionary, usurper, sex maniac?

Catherine the Great’s reputation has come under sustained attack over the past two centuries. But do the charges against her stand up to scrutiny? Historian Janet Hartley has her doubts

A portrait of Russian empress Catherine the Great

“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 – as a new Sky Atlantic drama about the empress, due to air later this year, will lay bare. 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.

Want to read more?

Become a BBC History Magazine subscriber today to unlock all premium articles in The Library

Unlock now