CATHERINE II. (1729–1796), empress of Russia, was the daughter of Christian Augustus, prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, and his wife, Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. The exact date and place of her birth have been disputed, but there appears to be no reason to doubt that she was right in saying that she was born at Stettin on the 2nd of May 1729. Her father, who succeeded to the principality of Anhalt-Zerbst in 1746 and died in 1747, was a general in the Prussian service, and, at the time of her birth, was military commandant at Stettin. Her baptismal name was Sophia Augusta Frederica. In accordance with the custom then prevailing in German princely families, she was educated chiefly by French governesses and tutors. In 1744 she was taken to Russia, to be affianced to the grand-duke Peter, the nephew of the empress Elizabeth (q.v.), and her recognized heir. The princess of Anhalt-Zerbst was the daughter of Christian Albert, bishop of Lübeck, younger brother of Frederick IV., duke of Holstein-Gottorp, Peter’s paternal grandfather. The choice of her daughter as wife of the future tsar was the result of not a little diplomatic management in which Frederick the Great took an active part, the object being to strengthen the friendship between Prussia and Russia, to weaken the influence of Austria and to ruin the chancellor Bestuzhev, on whom Elizabeth relied, and who was a known partisan of the Austrian alliance. The diplomatic intrigue failed, largely through the flighty intervention of the princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, a clever but very injudicious woman. But Elizabeth took a strong liking to the daughter, and the marriage was finally decided on. The girl had spared no effort to ingratiate herself, not only with the empress, but with the grand-duke and the Russian people. She applied herself to learning the language with such zeal that she rose at night and walked about her bedroom barefoot repeating her lessons. The result was a severe attack of congestion of the lungs in March 1744. During the worst period of her illness she completed her conquest of the good-will of the Russians by declining the religious services of a Protestant pastor, and sending for Simon Todorskiy, the orthodox priest who had been appointed to instruct her in the Greek form of Christianity. When she wrote her memoirs she represented herself as having made up her mind when she came to Russia to do whatever had to be done, and to profess to believe whatever she was required to believe, in order to be qualified to wear the crown. The consistency of her character throughout life makes it highly probable that even at the age of fifteen she was mature enough to adopt this worldly-wise line of conduct. Her father, who was a convinced Lutheran, was strongly opposed to his daughter’s conversion, and supplied her with books of controversy to protect her Protestantism. She read them, and she listened to Todorskiy, and to other advisers who told her that the Russian crown was well worth a mass, or that the differences between the Greek and Lutheran churches were mere matters of form. On the 28th of June 1744 she was received into the Orthodox Church at Moscow, and was renamed Catherine Alexeyevna. On the following day she was formally betrothed, and was married to the archduke on the 21st of August 1745 at St Petersburg.
At that time Catherine was essentially what she was to remain till her death fifty-one years later. It was her boast that she was as “frank and original as any Englishman.” If she meant that she had a compact character, she was right. She had decided on her line in life and she followed it whole-heartedly. It was her determination to become a Russian in order that she might the better rule in Russia, and she succeeded. She acquired a full command of all the resources of the language, and a no less complete understanding of the nature of the Russian people. It is true that she remained quite impervious to religious influences. The circumstances of her conversion may have helped to render her indifferent to religion, but their influence need not be exaggerated. Her irreligion was shared by multitudes of contemporaries who had never been called upon to renounce one form of Christianity and profess belief in another in order to gain a crown. Her mere actions were, like those of other and humbler people, dictated by the conditions in which she lived. The first and the most important of them was beyond all question the misery of her married life. Her husband was a wretched creature. Nature had made him mean, the smallpox had made him hideous, and his degraded habits made him loathsome. And Peter had all the sentiments of the worst kind of small German prince of the time. He had the conviction that his princeship entitled him to disregard decency and the feelings of others. He planned brutal practical jokes, in which blows had always a share. His most manly taste did not rise above the kind of military interest which has been defined as “corporal’s mania,” the passion for uniforms, pipeclay, buttons, the “tricks of parade and the froth of discipline.” He detested the Russians, and surrounded himself with Holsteiners. For ten years the marriage was barren, and the only reason for supposing that the future tsar Paul (q.v.), who was born on the 2nd of October 1754, was the son of Peter, is the strong similarity of their characters. Living in the grossly animal court of the empress Elizabeth, bound to a husband whom she could not but despise and detest, surrounded by suitors, and entirely uninfluenced by religion, Catherine became and remained perfectly immoral in her sexual relations to men. The scandalous chronicle of her life was the commonplace of all Europe. Her male favourites were as openly paraded as the female favourites of King Louis XV. It may be said once and for all that her most trusted agents while she was still grand-duchess, and her chief ministers when she became empress, were also her lovers, and were known to be so.
For some time after the marriage, the young couple were controlled by the empress Elizabeth, who appointed court officials to keep a watch on their conduct; but before long these custodians themselves had become the agents of Catherine’s pleasures and ambition. After the birth of Paul she began to take an active part in political intrigues. Her abilities forced even her husband to rely on her judgment. When in difficulty he ran to her and flattered her with the name of Madame La Ressource—Madame Quick Wit—which did not prevent him from insulting and even kicking her when the immediate need of her help was over. In 1758 he endeavoured to turn the empress Elizabeth against her, and for a time Catherine was in danger. She faced the peril boldly, and reconquered her influence over the sovereign, but from this time she must have realized that when the empress was dead she would have to defend herself against her husband. That Peter both hated and dreaded her was notorious. The empress Elizabeth died on the 5th of January 1762. The grand duke succeeded without opposition as Peter III. His behaviour to his wife continued to be brutal and menacing, and he went on as before offending the national sentiment of the Russian people. In July he committed the insane error of retiring with his Holsteiners to Oranienbaum, leaving his wife at St Petersburg. On the 13th and 14th of that month a “pronunciamiento” of the regiments of the guard removed him from the throne and made Catherine empress. The history of this revolt is still obscure. It has naturally been said that she organized the mutiny from the first, and some plausibility is conferred on this belief by the fact that the guards were manipulated by the four Orlov brothers. The eldest, Gregory, was her recognized chief lover, and he was associated with his brother Alexis in the office of favourite. On the other hand, there does not appear to have been any need for organization. The hatred felt for Peter III. was spontaneous, and Catherine had no need to do more than let it be known that she was prepared to profit by her husband’s downfall. Peter, who behaved with abject cowardice, was sent to a country house at Ropcha, where he died on the 15th or 18th of July of official “apoplexy.” The truth is not known, and Frederick the Great at least professed long afterwards to believe that Catherine had no immediate share in the murder. She had no need to speak. Common-sense must have shown the leaders of the revolt that they would never be safe while Peter lived, and they had insults to avenge.
The mere fact that Catherine II., a small German princess without hereditary claim to the throne, ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796 amid the loyalty of the great mass of the people, and the respect and admiration of her neighbours, is sufficient proof of the force of her character. Her title to be considered a great reforming ruler is by no means equally clear. Voltaire and the encyclopaedists with whom she corresponded, and on whom she conferred gifts and pensions, repaid her by the grossest flattery, while doing their best to profit by her generosity. They made her a reputation for “philosophy,” and showed the sincerity of their own love of freedom by finding excuses for the partition of Poland. There is a very great difference between Catherine II. as she appears in the panegyrics of the encyclopaedists and Catherine as she appears in her correspondence and in her acts. Her foreign admirers amused her, and were useful in spreading her reputation. The money they cost her was a small sum in comparison to the £12,000,000 she lavished on her long series of lovers, who began with Soltykov and Stanislaus Poniatowski (q.v.) before she came to the throne, and ended with the youthful Platon Zubov, who was tenant of the post at her death. She spent money freely on purchasing works of art and curios. Yet she confessed with her usual candour that she had no taste for painting, sculpture or music. Her supposed love of literature does not appear to have amounted to more than a lively curiosity, which could be satisfied by dipping into a great number of books. She had a passion for writing, and produced not only a mass of letters written in French, but pamphlets and plays, comic and serious, in French and Russian. One on the history of Oleg, the more or less legendary Varangian, who was guardian to the son of Rurik, was described by her as an “imitation of Shakespeare.” The scheme is not unlike that of a “chronicle play.” Her letters are full of vivacity, of colour, and at times of insight and wit, but she never learnt to write either French or German correctly. The letters to Voltaire attributed to her are not hers, and were probably composed for her by Andrei Shuvalov. The philosophers and encyclopaedists who, by the mouth of Diderot, complimented Catherine on being superior to such female affectations as modesty and chastity, flattered her to some extent even here. She enforced outward decency in her household, was herself temperate in eating and drinking, and was by no means tolerant of disorderly behaviour on the part of the ladies of her court. They flattered her much more when they dwelt on her philanthropy and her large share of the enlightenment of the age. She was kind to her servants, and was very fond of young children. She was rarely angry with people who merely contradicted her or failed to perform their service in her household. But she could order the use of the knout and of mutilation as freely as the most barbarous of her predecessors when she thought the authority of the state was at stake, and she did employ them readily to suppress all opinions of a heterodox kind, whether in matters of religion or of politics, after the beginning of the French Revolution. Her renowned toleration stopped short of allowing the dissenters to build chapels, and her passion for legislative reform grew cold when she found that she must begin by the emancipation of the serfs. There were exceptions even to her personal kindness to those about her. She dropped her German relations. She kept a son born to her shortly before the palace revolution of 1762, whose paternity could not be attributed to Peter, at a distance, though she provided for him. He was brought up in a private station under the name of Bobrinski. She was a harsh mother to her son Paul. It seems highly probable that she intended to exclude him from the succession, and to leave the crown to her eldest grandson Alexander, afterwards the emperor Alexander I. Her harshness to Paul was probably as much due to political distrust as to what she saw of his character. Whatever else Catherine may have been she was emphatically a sovereign and a politician who was in the last resort guided by the reason of state. She was resolved not to allow her authority to be disputed by her son, or shared by him.
As a ruler, Catherine professed a great contempt for system, which she said she had been taught to despise by her master Voltaire. She declared that in politics a capable ruler must be guided by “circumstances, conjectures and conjunctions.” Her conduct was on the surface very unstable. In a moment of candour she confessed that she was a great commenceuse—that she had a mania for beginning innumerable enterprises which she never pursued. This, however, is chiefly true of her internal administration, and even there it should be qualified. Many of her beginnings were carried on by others and were not barren. Her foreign policy was as consistent as it could be considering the forces she had to contend against. It was steadily aimed to secure the greatness and the safety of Russia. There can be no question, that she loved her adopted country sincerely, and had an affection for her people, and an opinion of their great qualities which she did not hesitate to express in hyperbolical terms. Her zeal for the reputation of the Russians was almost comically shown by the immense trouble she took to compile an answer to the Voyage en Sibêrie of the French astronomer Chappe d’Auteroche. The book is in three big quartos, and Catherine’s answer—which was never finished—is still larger. Chappe d’Auteroche had discovered that Siberia was not a paradise, and had observed that the Russians were dirty in their habits, and that masters whipped their servants, male and female. Her patriotism was less innocently shown by her conquests. Yet it may be doubted whether any capable ruler of Russia could have abstained from aggressions at the expense of the rights of the Saxon family in Courland, of Poland, and of Turkey (see Russia: History). It does seem now to be clearly proved that the partition of Poland was not suggested by her, as has been frequently asserted. Catherine would have preferred to control the country through a vassal sovereign of the type of Stanislaus Poniatowski, the old lover whose election she secured in 1763. Poland was incapable of maintaining its independence at the time of the first partition (1772), and the division of the unhappy country was forced on by Austria and Prussia. In the case of the second partition in 1793, she did show herself to be very unscrupulous. Her opposition to the reform of the Polish government was plainly due to a wish to preserve an excuse for further spoliation, but her conduct was less cruel and base than that of Prussia.
Catherine had adhered to her husband’s policy of a Prussian alliance. While Frederick the Great lived she was impressed by his ability. But the Prussian alliance became hateful to her, and her later correspondence with Grimm overflows with contempt of his successor Frederick William II., who is always spoken of by her as “Brother Gu.” Her exasperation with the affectations of the Prussian king was unquestionably increased by her discovery that he would not be induced to apply himself to a crusade against the French Revolution, which by employing all his forces would have left Russia free to annex the whole of what remained of Poland. But at least she did not enter into a solemn engagement to defend the Poles who were engaged in reforming their constitution, and then throw them over in order to share in the plunder of their country.
Catherine’s Turkish policy was at first marked by a certain grandiosity. When the Turks declared war in 1768 in order to support Poland, which they looked upon as a necessary buffer state, she retaliated by the great Greek scheme. For a time it was a pet idea with her to revive the Greek empire, and to plant the cross, with the double-headed Russian eagle, at Constantinople. She formed a corps of Greek cadets, caused her younger grandson to be christened Constantine, and began the policy of presenting Russia to the Christian subjects of the Porte as their deliverer. In pursuit of this heroic enterprise, which excited the loud admiration of Voltaire, she sent a fleet under Alexis Orlov into the Mediterranean in 1770. Orlov tempted the Greeks of the Morea to take up arms, and then left them in the lurch. When Catherine found herself opposed by the policy of France and England, and threatened by the jealousy of Prussia and Austria, she dropped the Greek design, observing to Voltaire that the descendants of the Spartans were much degenerated. The introduction into the treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji of 1774 of a clause by which the Porte guaranteed the rights of its Christian subjects, and of another-giving Russia the right to interfere on behalf of a new Russian church in Constantinople, advertised the claim of the tsars to be the natural protectors of the Orthodox in the Ottoman dominions; but when she took up arms again in 1788 in alliance with Joseph II. (q.v.), it was to make a mere war of conquest and partition. The Turkish wars show the weak side of Catherine as a ruler. Though she had mounted the throne by a military revolt and entered on great schemes of conquest, she never took an intelligent interest in her army. She neglected it in peace, allowed it to be shamefully administered in war, and could never be made to understand that it was not in her power to improvise generals out of her favourites. It is to her credit that she saw the capacity of Suvarov, yet she never had as much confidence in him as she had in Potemkin, who may have been a man of genius, but was certainly no general. She took care never to have to deal with a disciplined opponent, except the Swedes, who beat her, but who were very few.
It was the misfortune of Catherine that she lived too long. She disgraced herself by living with her last lover, Zubov, when she was a woman of sixty-seven, trusting him with power and lavishing public money on him. The outbreak of the French Revolution stripped off the varnish of philosophy and philanthropy which she had assumed in earlier years. She had always entertained a quiet contempt for the French writers whom she flattered and pensioned, and who served her as an advertising agency in the west. When the result of their teaching was seen in Paris, good-natured contempt was turned to hatred. She then became a persecutor in her own dominions of the very ideas she had encouraged in former years. She scolded and preached a crusade, without, however, departing from the steady pursuit of her own interests in Poland, while endeavouring with transparent cunning to push Austria and Prussia into an invasion of France with all their forces. Her health began to break down, and it appears to be nearly certain that towards the end she suffered from hysteria of a shameful kind. It is plain that her intellect had begun to fail just before her death, for she allowed the reigning favourite, Platon Zubov, to persuade her to despatch his brother Valerian, with the rank of field marshal and an army of 20,000 men, on a crack-brained scheme to invade India by way of Persia and Tibet. The refusal of the king of Sweden to marry into her family unless the bride would become a Lutheran is said to have thrown her into a convulsion of rage which hastened her death. On the 9th of November 1796, she was seized by a fit of apoplexy, and died on the evening of the 10th.
All other accounts of Catherine II. have been superseded by Waliszewski’s two volumes, Le Roman d’une impératrice (Paris, 1893) and Autour d’un Trône: Catherine II., ses collaborateurs, ses amis, ses favoris (Paris, 1894). The original sources for the history of her policy and her character are to be found in the publications of the Imperial Russian Historical Society, vols. i.-cix. (St Petersburg), begun in 1867; her private and official correspondence will be found in vols. i., ii., iv., v., vi., vii., viii., ix., x., xiii., xiv., xv., xvii., xx., xxiii., xxxii., xxxiii., xxxvi., xlii., xliii., xlvii., xlviii., li., lvii., lxvii., lxviii., lxxxvii., xcvii., xcviii., cvii., cxv., cxviii.