7 Reasons Catherine the Great Was So Great

Catherine the Great
A portrait of Catherine the Great by Fedor Rokotov, 1763. Born in 1729, and known as Catherine the Great because she served as Russia's longest-reigning female ruler, she was empress from 1762 until her death in 1796. Wikimedia Commons

If persistent tabloid covers and made-for-television miniseries have taught us anything, it's that us commoners simply love a royal scandal. So it's no surprise then that a legendary monarch like Catherine the Great, the longest reigning female leader of Russia, has in many cases been reduced to tales of sordid affairs and unsavory sexual trysts. But those well versed in Russian history will tell you that Catherine, who ruled from 1762 to 1796, was so much more than the gossip and intrigue that surrounded her during her reign and has shrouded her since her death. Here are seven facts you need to know about the controversial, charismatic and game-changing Catherine the Great.


1. She Wasn't Born as a Catherine or as a Russian

Born in 1729 in Prussia (modern day Poland) as Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst, the woman who would later be known as Catherine the Great was the oldest daughter of a German prince named Christian August von Anhalt-Zerbst. Thanks to her mother's prestigious lineage (which was distantly connected to Empress Elizabeth of Russia), Sophie pretty much had her pick of the litter in terms of marital prospects. At the age of 14, she was paired up with her second cousin, Elizabeth's son, Peter III. The grandson of Peter the Great, Peter III was heir to the Russian throne. In 1744, Catherine relocated to Russia and took on the title Grand Duchess Ekaterina (Catherine) Alekseevna, and a year later, she and Peter were married. But the union wasn't quite a storybook romance. We'll get to that in a bit.


2. Her Progressive Legacy Gets Lost Among Lurid Tales

"More attention should be paid to Catherine II as legislatrix, someone with a very strong work ethic who issued numerous laws to restructure the state (to achieve administrative uniformity across a vast empire), society (by more clearly delineating different societal categories), and the very configuration of Russian towns (she had blueprints made for uniform buildings in town centers)," Victoria Frede, associate professor in the department of history at UC Berkeley, says via email. "It is well known that she aggressively expanded the size of the Russian empire (including Crimea), though few appreciate that she was more successful in increasing the empire's size than Peter the Great. We may disapprove, and her legacy was mixed, especially because of the deepening of social inequality (the oppression of serfs) in her reign. She was a hard-nosed ruler, but that is why she made such a big imprint on the country."


3. Her Reign Was the "Golden Age of the Russian Empire"

Catherine called herself a "glutton for art" and she was obsessed with European paintings and European-inspired architecture. In fact, St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum, which now occupies the whole Winter Palace, started out as Catherine's personal collection. She is considered the monarch responsible for changing the face of Russia through the construction of classical mansions, her endorsement of Enlightenment ideals, and the establishment of the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe, among other achievements.

The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, has around 3 million objects in its collections, including an extensive collection of paintings. The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings along Palace Embankment, including the Winter Palace, shown here, a former residence of Russian emperors.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

"She was a true 'intellectual on the throne' who was very much involved in Russia's cultural life (and among other things, brought Russia much more into European consciousness)," Marcus C. Levitt, professor emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Southern California, says via email. "Hers was a 'golden age' of Russian culture. She both laid the basis for a public sphere in Russia and in reacting against the French Revolution at the end of her reign, also laid the basis for later attempts to shut down the public sphere. Hers was arguably the longest and most successful reign in Russian history."


4. Her Love Life Was Complicated To Say the Least

It's no secret Catherine and Peter had a troubled marriage from the start. The fact that she didn't produce an heir after eight years of marriage led many to believe Peter either was unable to consummate the marriage or was infertile. Regardless of the reason, both Catherine and Peter engaged in extramarital affairs, and by 1752, she was regularly hooking up with Sergei Saltykov, a Russian military officer who many people believe is the actual father of Catherine's first child, Paul, who was born in 1754. Catherine didn't do much to deny these rumors — she even said Empress Elizabeth permitted the affair. Historians can't be sure who the baby daddy really was, but most agree that Peter didn't father a single one of Catherine's three additional children. She had a daughter with Stanislaus Poniatowski, who she later helped to become king of Poland, and in the ultimate crushing blow to their marriage, Catherine overthrew Peter in a coup d'état in July 1762, garnering her the title of Empress of Russia. She never married again, but she did build a reputation for taking lovers and then promoting them to key government positions.

"She was a serial monogamist who constantly desired the physical and spiritual closeness of a lover; furthermore, she exploited her lovers' abilities for the good of the country," says Levitt. "There's a lot more I could say here; the later tradition often saw her as a consummate hypocrite, but this I think takes things out of historical context. I believe that her heart was in the right place, but that she understood the nature and limitations of political power in Russia."


5. Politically and Socially, She Was Both Liberal and Conservative

While Catherine had a major hand in modernizing Russia in the image of Western Europe, she didn't do much to change the system of serfdom. In the 18th century, Russian serfs weren't bound to land, but to their owners, and while they weren't exactly slaves, the system of forced labor is, through a modern lens, a clearly problematic and punishing practice. Catherine made some moves to change this system, signing legislation to prohibit the practice, and even penning a 1775 manifesto that prohibited former serfs who had been freed from becoming serfs again. But on the other hand, Catherine also limited the freedoms of many peasants and gave away many state-owned peasants to become private serfs. Between 1773 and 1775, rebellion leader Yemelyan Pugachev rallied peasants and Cossacks and promised the serfs land of their own and freedom from their lords in what was known as Pugachev's Rebellion. By late 1774, somewhere between 9,000 to 10,000 rebels were dead, and by September of that year, the rebellion was finished.


6. That Story About Her Cause of Death? Totally False

Perhaps one of the most notorious rumors to follow Catherine have been the ones regarding her cause of death. Let's put this story to rest: Catherine did not die while having sex with a horse. And yes, that's an age-old theory that's an unflattering piece of gossip that's trailed her since her death on Nov. 17, 1796. Apparently, according to History.com, "the use of horse-riding as a sexual metaphor had a long history in libelous attacks on courtly women. Horse-riding was integrally linked with notions of nobility, and this story was also a perfect subversion of Catherine's noted equestrian skills." In reality, Catherine died of a stroke at the age of 67.


7. Her Reputation May Be On the Mend

"I think one could say as a general matter that Catherine's image has greatly improved over the past hundred years or so," Alexander M. Martin, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, says via email. "In Russia before the 1917 revolution, she mostly had a dubious reputation: politically, as someone who talked a lot about 'enlightened' values but refused to free the serfs; and personally, as a woman who was immoral because of her succession of lovers. There has been a lot of scholarship about her since the mid-20th century, and mostly, it has tended to rehabilitate her. While clearly she did nothing to help the serfs, we have gained a greater appreciation of her efforts to modernize Russia in other ways; and our own changing attitudes about gender and sexuality have led us to stop seeing her private life as scandalous the way earlier generations did."