Catherine II, 1762-1796
A Capable Ruler
One of history's most capable monarchs, Catherine the Great of Russia was born Princess Sophie Frederika Augusta of Anhalt-Zerbst, a small German principality, now in Poland. Tsarina Elizabeth chose Sophie, a minor German princess, as the bride for her nephew, Peter III. Received into the Russian Orthodox Church under the name of Catherine Alekseyevna, the young princess diligently studied the language, religion, and customs of her new home, resolutely preparing herself for the Russian throne. She rose at six in the morning, a habit she retained throughout her life, to work on her grammar and speech. Her prince ignored her and the Empress distanced herself from the princess who took a long time to produce a male heir.
After the death of Elizabeth, Peter III became Tsar, but a mere six months after his accession to the throne, Catherine deposed her husband in a coup d’état supported by the Imperial Guards. Peter was sent to the Ropsha Palace near St. Petersburg, where he died within a week of “hemorrhoidal colic,” according to official reports. Catherine’s supporters were rewarded with lavish gifts and her favorite, Grigory Orlov, was granted a castle in Gatchina and a precious porcelain service bearing his monogram.
Catherine the Great's Three Desires
In a facetious epitaph to herself, Catherine wrote, “Here lies Catherine II, born in Stettin in 1729. She arrived in Russia in 1744 to marry Peter III. At fourteen, she had three desires – to be loved by her husband, Empress Elizabeth, and her people. She omitted nothing to achieve this.” The tenacious princess succeeded only in the last of her three intentions. During her reign, Catherine worked tirelessly, and with much success, to improve and reform her empire. She strengthened local governments, opened schools and hospitals in every Russian province, abolished judicial torture, and was the first person in the country to be inoculated for small pox. Catherine was an avid art collector and the founder of the Hermitage Museum.