Catherine the Great is one of the all-time success stories of history. Born in Prussia (now present-day Poland), Catherine was married to Karl Ulrich, the Grand Duke Peter. Peter was the putative heir to the Russian imperial throne. Catherine was humiliated and sidelined in her husband’s court, but thanks to her ambition and intelligence she eventually seized the throne from him in 1762. During her thirty-year reign she led Russia to a position of prominence within Europe and introduced the Enlightenment to her adopted homeland. The prototypical Enlightened Despot, Catherine the Great helped finish the work Peter the Great started.
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Catherine the Great’s husband, Peter III, was a weak man far outmatched by his spouse. Even while Peter was alive Catherine had other lovers. One of these lovers was Grigory Orlov, a count who led the coup that overthrew Peter III. A later, more famous lover was Grigory Potemkin. Potemkin’s many achievements that made him a worthy partner for Catherine include helping her annex Crimea as well as founding the Black Sea Fleet. Potemkin apocryphally created elaborate, fake villages in an attempt to make Crimea seem more prosperous to Catherine than it actually was. Although the story isn’t entirely true, the name Potemkin Villages has stuck to this day.
PARTITIONS OF POLAND
Pity the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania! During Catherine’s reign the commonwealth was partitioned three times between Austria, Prussia, and Russia. The first partition in 1772 occurred in part due to Catherine placing her former lover, Stanislaw Poniatowski, on the Polish throne. Further partitions occurred in 1792 and 1795, with the great powers of Austria, Russia, and Prussia crushing the final Polish resistance of 1794’s Kosciusko Uprising.
Catherine’s Enlightenment values and military successes didn’t win over all of her subjects. In fact, from 1773 to 1775 Catherine faced a significant threat to the legitimacy of her reign from Pugachev’s Rebellion. Emilian Pugachev was a Cossack soldier who claimed to be the deposed Tsar Peter III. He gathered a sympathetic army of serfs, Cossacks, and members of Russia’s ethnic minorities chafing under Catherine’s heavy hand. Despite initial success at Orenburg, Pugachev’s army was eventually dispersed and defeated at Kazan.
TREATIES OF NOTE
Catherine’s military achievements led to various treaties that brought great benefit to Russia. One of these notable treaties, Kuchuk-Kainarji, was signed in 1774 and ended Ottoman dominance over the Black Sea. Russia continued to chip away at Ottoman power in the region, and in 1792 they cemented their control over the region following the Treaty of Jassy.
Catherine the Great is often referred to as an “Enlightened Despot.” Despite Catherine’s violent military actions she corresponded with the French philosopher Voltaire, and met in person with the French philosopher Denis Diderot. Russia’s Hermitage Museum was established in St. Petersburg during Catherine’s reign as well.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
Although a bit of a longer read, this essay on the relationship between Diderot and Catherine the Great is worth the time.
The Potemkin Village may have got its name in Russia, but it has become a global phenomenon.
One of Catherine’s enduring accomplishments is the erection of the Heritage Museum in St. Petersburg.
Pugachev was just one in a series of troublesome Cossacks:
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