This is Part 7 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!
It should be mentioned that Catherine, up to this point in the series, had not yet earned her title of “the Great”.
In the beginning, she had been young Sophie from the German house of Holstein-Gottorp. Once accepted into Russian Orthodoxy, she took on Empress Elizabeth’s mother’s name. But a leader does not simply become “the Great” through taking the throne.
Upon taking the throne, she became Catherine II. She followed numerical order of her Orthodoxy namesake, with Elizabeth’s mother Catherine I being the second wife to Peter the Great (yet another great historical example of Greatness prior to Catherine II’s regime) and ruling Russia from 1725 until her death two years later.
Look at “the Greats” of the past, for example. Alexander of Macedonia receives it for never losing a battle and being able to create the foundation for what it means to have an “empire”. Frederick of Prussia receives it for being able to withstand pressures from all angles within the Seven Years’ War and bringing Prussia into the limelight. What was Catherine to do?
So, what made Catherine II so Great? Why, in history, do we recall the Russian empress as “Catherine the Great”? Well, in short, she was a brilliant political success story. More than just a personal success story, mind you. Catherine’s success went further than personal ambitions and benefits. Catherine became the Great for the era she bestowed upon her people.
That’s right. We’re nearing the end of this biography. Today we talk about Catherine the Great’s reign — what she did during her time in power, and what the history books will record of her until the end of time.
It’s also important to realize that Catherine’s extent of influence did not end at policies. Catherine thoroughly hindered the balance of European powers through warfare. The Ottoman Empire was crippled by Catherine’s expansion through the Russo-Turkish Wars.
Her reign can be described as an expansion of Russian influence. As discussed prior, Catherine’s pseudo-progressive policies heavily influenced the European powers. During her time in power, the Russian Empire extended southward to absorb Crimea, the Northern Caucasus, Belarus, Lithuania, parts of the Ukraine, and Courland. It’s astonishing to look at the growth Russia had during this new golden age!
Many of the so-called “second world” countries that would later split from the USSR in the late 20th century came under Russian rule under Catherine the Great.
To put it in statistical numbers for those who aren’t too good with geographical locations, Catherine’s Russia Empire added around 200,000 square miles to its initial jurisdiction.
Catherine, through both reform and warfare, brought Russia out of the olden days of tradition and isolation into a brand new golden age of expansion and wealth.
Catherine made a new relationship between the Russian Empire and Great Britain in 1766 by agreeing to a commercial treaty. She kept her militia autonomy, however, by refusing a full military alliance between the two powers. This new alliance shook many central powers who feared both empires and were forced to live in between their capitals.
However, Catherine wasn’t personally thrilled with it herself. She knew the benefits of the friendship benefited her country above and beyond what any other alliance possibly could. The British Empire was large, wealthy, and had proven military worth. Catherine remained wary of Britain throughout the alliance, however, especially since they had been declared a victor in the Seven Years War.
The French Revolution left a terrible taste in Catherine’s mouth. She had preached principles of Enlightenment for most of her adult life, taking refuge in philosophy and improving her own intellectuality through the works of Voltaire. The reforms that she brought to Russian legislation had encouraged enlightened ideals to create this golden age in Russia. In fact, if you recall, her manifestos were banned in France for being “too radical”. But, after the French Revolution of 1789, Catherine rejected many of the principles that she had encouraged.
As you may recall, the Empress had placed Stanisław Poniatowski, a former lover of hers, on the Polish throne. Although Frederick of Prussia had been the one to come up with the idea of partitioning Poland, it was Catherine who took on the leading role to become the official protector of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which provoked an anti-Russian uprising in Poland. Eventually, Catherine was forced to establish the Rzeczpospolita – a system of government through a Permanent Council in the area.
On a personal note, this is where some of my personal heritage comes from. From records that I’ve gone through, parts of my family – named Kaminsky – moved from Russian lands to Poland-Lithuania during this period of time. When the anti-Russian uprisings became relevant, and families of Russian descent began being discriminated by locals, my family changed their name to Kaminski – the Polish equivalent.
Perhaps she saw the dangers of revolution, and decided against bringing one to her own borders. Catherine felt threatened by the ideals she implemented through the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and figured that these successful horror stories from France might have brought forth resurgence for power in the area. Catherine intervened immediately, siding with established European monarchies over revolutionizing radicals.
She supported Polish antireform. This is a major switch for Catherine’s political persona. From preaching radicalism through her memoirs and manifestos to supporting groups against reform, the European powers paid close attention to the woman in charge of Russia. Catherine supported the Targowica Confederation, and helped defeat Polish “loyalists” during the Polish-Russian War of 1792. Russia succeeded, partitioning Poland to divde the territory between Prussia and Austria in 1795. Thus, the radicalism she now feared was out of her hands – protecting Russia from the possible revolution.
Her foreign policies turned to the north after her initial expansion conquests to the south and center. From 1788 to 1790, Russia fought a war against Sweden. Catherine’s cousin, Swedish King Gustav III, initiated the conflict after he attempted to take over Russian infantries while the majority of the Russian military was distracted by the Russo-Turkish Wars against the Ottoman Empire.
Gustav was wrong, and Russia managed to send a Baltic Fleet to battle it out against the Swedish Royal Navy within nearly tied Battle of Hogland. The Treaty of Värälä was signed on August 14th, 1790. Within the treaty, Catherine demanded that all land between Sweden and Russia return to their proper owners. The war truly showcased a weakened Swedish front, with Gustav being assassinated in 1792. Peace between the two countries remained for two decades afterwards.
We’ve been very Euro-centric in this series, despite Russia holding onto all of Northern Asia. The Russian Empress did not ignore Asia, though she did prefer dealing with European powers – where her family still remained. In the far, far east, Russia started active fur businesses throughout Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands. Thus, Catherine found herself interested in trading with Japan for supplies.
At home, she developed education facilities for women. She restructured the ruble system in order to keep the economy afloat while sending the military to war. She attempted to ban the idealism of serfdom, but fell short due to the sheer amount of nobility that owned (and did not want to give up) serfs.
All in all, an entire subsection of this series could be dedicated to the reign of Catherine the Great. However, we’ve touched on the most important parts of it all. It is easy to say that Catherine deserved this title of “Great” through the sheer amount of influence that she held within not only her home country, but the nations of Europe and Asia as well.
She truly ended the olden days of Russia, bringing her nation straight into a Golden Age that would last decades.
That concludes part seven 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 (and final) post is published.