This is Part 5 of Catherine the Great. Catherine II, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the most known and the longest-ruling female leader of Russia. You can click here for the archives of this miniseries. I hope you enjoy!
With Peter III dead, Catherine was able to take control of Russia quickly. As stated in Part 4 of this biography, she was crowned on June 28th, 1762. But, not all was golden for the new Queen of Russia. She, like her husband before her, had inherited Elizabeth’s rather depressing economy. Pundits originally gave Catherine less than a year, claiming she wouldn’t be able to keep the masses happy long enough to reverse anything of importance. Many even thought a rebellion would immediately occur!
But that was prior to her rather enforced security team was stationed around the capital. With forty thousand soldiers patrolling the streets, any rebellion that could have been thought of was immediately shuffled beneath the carpets – for now.
Catherine promised to bring “glory” back to Russia by breaking off the alliances with Prussia that Peter III had implemented. She immediately sent her manifesto to all four corners of the empire, sending instructions to committees and decreeing all sorts of promises to encourage initial support.
She knew where her husband had messed up: he isolated the royal support of both the church and the military. Catherine promised to return the Russian Orthodox Church to its former supreme power, sending Lutheran clerics home and reclaiming land that Peter had taken away from churches across the Eurasian front. She promised to bring Russian troops home, ordering them to take off Prussian drab required by Peter III in favor of traditional Russian uniforms.
She followed up this mending between established politics and institutional powers by turning to the average citizen. While Peter III had banned the killing of servants and serfs, it was Catherine who ended the construct of “fearful rule”. She banned slavery entirely, using the philosophy books that had kept her so much comfort to insight social change across the country.
She, as we discussed previously, enjoyed reading at least one pamphlet-esque read by Voltaire. To quote the French philosopher, “it is dangerous to be right in matters where established men are wrong.” This really fits Catherine’s ambitions well, as she waited until taking power to declare progressive changes that no tsar had thought of previously.
But, Catherine can be quoted as saying that “humans are selfish and greedy by nature, and society has to be the structure to keep us from devolving.” This mindset is what the new Tsarina or Empress of Russia brought to the table. An established woman turned established ruler, her mentality set up social changes to prevent her country from facing a perilous de-evolution.
Unfortunately, Catherine did bring back some terrible traditions. While her husband had destroyed the secret police, Catherine reluctantly brought it back in fear of being usurped herself. To integrate the great Russian Empire into a more “modern” and European-ish was astounding to the people who had lived their entire lives in a rather unintegrated world.
The French ambassador wrote back that Catherine, at first glance, feared to take full control of the power that she had seized. “She’s 33,” he had claimed, “and her good looks are already fading.” It is important to realize that rulers always seem to age…quicker than what you’d expect. Take a look at United States Presidents, for example. The stress of being a powerful representative seems to take big hits on appearances.
Catherine grabbed hundreds of people from all layers of society to form a new structure for her society, though. She proclaimed that it was time for Russia to become a “true, European” country in favor of set laws and rules that could be deemed as fair and humane for society itself.
Such ideas – considered radical at the time – like “innocent until proven guilty” and “putting differences aside for the sake of common good” became new staples of Russian doctrine. These words would be translated and sent all across the European powers. Her now rival Frederick the Great of Prussia read these words with caution, possibly smiling and laughing as he stated that “Catherine of Russia is worthy of great admiration!”.
But…not all countries of Europe were as excited about Russia’s reform. Catherine’s manifesto was actually banned in France for being so “radical”. Of course, we know from history what will happen in France within the next couple of decades. Maybe if the manifesto was actually listened to in France, the Reign of Terror and French Revolution might have been avoided.
If you recall from Part 3 of this biography, Catherine fell in love with a secretary by the name of Stanisław August Poniatowski. As stated previously, Poniatowski left Russia to go on to “bigger and greater things”. Those things included becoming the King of Poland.
Only a year in her journey as autocrat of Russia, Catherine heard stories of Poniatowski in Poland. Upon the death of Poland’s King Augustus III in late 1763, the idea of electing a new king became prominent in European politics. Catherine threw her support behind her former lover, spending over 2,500,000 rubles to support his election. Because of the massive support, Poniatowski was elected King of Poland with 5,584 votes.
Let’s talk about someone else, since we’re talking about some smaller roles in this biography. You might remember Ivan – the poor infant who was overthrown and imprisoned by Empress Elizabeth. We haven’t really talked much about him, but many uprising groups still held Ivan as the true heir to the throne; he had been taken unfairly out of power and wrongfully imprisoned by the favorite daughter of one of Russia’s greatest rulers!
Well, it’s time we talk a bit about him. Ivan VI Antonovich of Russia was only two months old when he was proclaimed Emperor in 1740. Just a year later, he was overthrown by his distant cousin, Elizabeth, who forced him and his parents to spend the rest of their lives in prison. He stayed there for his entire life, throughout the reigns of Elizabeth, Peter III, and now Catherine.
Elizabeth had given very specific orders: if any usurpers show up looking for Ivan, kill Ivan before he can be taken. That was the deal. Kill Ivan so there would be no usurping, and then turn attention to the usurper in question who planned on using the dethroned child. In Peter III’s rather short reign, he continued those orders.
Now it’s Catherine’s turn to continue these orders, twenty years after his imprisonment began. Catherine’s orders were to take care of “the nameless one”, stating that if there was any attempt to release him from his lifelong Hell, the immediate order was to kill Ivan. Under absolutely no circumstances was Ivan to ever be alive outside his jail.
An officer with limited credentials, Vasily Mirovich, formed a plan to free Ivan in order to proclaim him as the “rightful Emperor.” On July 5th, 1764, Mirovich took over a portion of the garrison and arrested the commandant, a man by the name of Berednikov. He demanded the immediate release of Ivan IV.
Ivan was immediately killed by his guards, and Mirovich was arrested promptly afterwards. He, along with his supporters, were swiftly executed.
Ivan’s death was a bit of a double-edged sword for Catherine. On one hand, his death secured her official position on the throne. On the other hand, some rumors began working out of her favor. With Peter III and Ivan VI dying within a short span of two years, it almost appeared as if Catherine had killed two legitimate emperors.
So, it’s very obvious that Catherine’s involvement in Europe was becoming more present to the powers at hand. Her manifesto preached enlightenment, being “too radical” for France. Her new social reforms desired to change Russia into a stable and fully-involved European nation. And now? She’s dumped two and a half million into the democratic elections of Poland.
It’s kind of shocking, if you think about it. The reign of Catherine has just begun, and it’s already shaping up to be a rather influential, European one.
That concludes part five of this special little miniseries about Catherine the Great. You can click here for the archives of this miniseries, which will be updated when the next post is published.