Catherine the Great, also known as Catherine II is the longest-reigning female ruler in Russia's history (1762-1796). She came to power, by arranging a so-called "Coup d'état" which resulted in her husband, Peter III, getting overthrown.
Catherine the Great was born the Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst on May 2nd, 1729 with the name Sophia Augusta Frederica. Her birthplace is called Stettin, which was part of Prussia but now located in Northwestern Poland.
Peter III was born in Kiel, on February 21, 1728, in the duchy of Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany. His birth name was Karl Peter Ulrich. Peter was the only son of Anna Petrovna and Charles Frederick (Duke of Holstein-Gottorp), which made him the grandson of two emperors, Peter the Great of Russia and Charles XII of Sweden. His parents passed away when he was young, and thus he was handed to the Holstein court to groom him for the Swedish throne. Peter was often punished by his mentors, due to his lack of academic performance. His interests were arts and watching military parades, dreaming of becoming a military warrior one day. When he turned 14, his aunt, Empress of Russia brought him to Moscow, renamed him from Karl to Pyotr Fyodorovich, and proclaimed him the next heir to the throne. Peter, however, did not like living in Russia and often complained over the fact that the Russian people did not accept him.
Russia's Empress Elizabeth, in 1744, called upon Sophia who was only 14 years old to come to Moscow in order to marry Emperor Peter III. It was upon her arrival that the Russian Orthodox Church re-christened her Catherine. They married on August 21, 1745 (only 16 years old), but it was not a happy one and thus Catherine and Peter spent a lot of time separately. As soon as their firstborn, heir to the throne, Paul, I was born, he was taken away by Empress Elizabeth to be raised.
The married couple had a son, Paul I, and a daughter, Anna who died before she turned two years old. It has been alleged that Paul was not Peter's son and that they had never consummated during their marriage. Other rumors swarmed, such as Peter being infertile. Nevertheless, they were unhappy and thus had numerous lovers over the course of their 16 years together. Peter was often described as a child in a man's body, whilst Catherine was described as an intellectual as well as a strategic woman with enlightening ideas.
Catherine spent her lonesome times with books, became well-versed in French philosophy, learned Russian, and great in statecraft. Elizabeth died in 1762, leading to Peter III getting the throne. However, he was quite unpopular as a ruler and only served for six months before being overthrown on June 28, 1762. Catherine was behind the coup. But it was officially led by officer Grigory Orlov (Catherine's lover) considering she feared that her husband could otherwise divorce, imprison or execute her. It was Orlov with a group of Imperial guards that forced Peter III to sign an abdication and Catherine became the female leader of Russia. Shortly after, Peter was assassinated by Alexei Orlov, younger brother to Grigory Orlov. The cause of the death remains uncertain, but the autopsy indicated that he died of hemorrhoids and an apoplectic stroke.
Catherine the Great, oversaw the expansion of the Russian Empire, as well as conflicts that came with seizing new territories such as the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–1774. She also annexed Crimea and the status remains unchanged till today. The process of integrating Russia into the rest of the world and bring it up to enough power to compete with other great powers all began with Catherine the Great.
Catherine had multiple lovers over the course of her ruling and preferred open relationships. But it is believed that the love of her life was Grigory Potemkin who she met once her husband was overthrown back in 1762. They kept an open relationship and picked out lovers for one another when they were away from one another, as well as sent love letters to each other until Potemkin's death in 1791 when he reached the age of 52.
“This was unusual because she was the senior part of the partnership, but they basically ruled together, like co-tsars, and they ruled together with enormous success. For modern times, she represents a feminist ideal, an inspiring, sexually-liberated woman who took control of her destiny and overcame the cruelty of her unsatisfactory marriage.” - Montefiore
Over the course of the Empress ruling over Russia, many horrific rumors about Catherine were spread and experts believe that it all was caused by jealousy in order to damage the legacy of the powerful female ruler. It was for example believed by a few that Catherine had intercourse with a horse. It is believed that the twisted story came from Catherine's love for horses and many paintings of her horseback riding. Nonetheless, she continued improving Russia until she took her last breath. She died of a stroke on November 17, 1796, and thus her son, Paul, took over the thrown.
"For modern times, she represents a feminist ideal, an inspiring, sexually-liberated woman who took control of her destiny and overcame the cruelty of her unsatisfactory marriage.” - Montefiore
1. Image 1: Catherine the Great and her husband Peter III of Russia.
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Cover Image Credit: Catherine the Great around the time of her wedding.
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