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Catherine the great: how a girl from a small German town became one of Russia's mightiest Czars.

What qualities make a great ruler? For the woman who would become Catherine the Great of Russia, it was a combination of ambition, intelligence, a strong will--and luck that seemed too good to be true.


In 1729, the future Empress was born Sophie Friederike Auguste, the daughter of a minor Prince in Prussia (today part of Germany). When Sophie was 14, her parents arranged for her to be married to her cousin Peter. Born in Prussia, Peter was also the nephew of Elizabeth, the childless Empress of Russia, who made him her heir in 1742.

It was a miserable marriage, lasting 18 years. The dim-witted, nasty-tempered Peter despised Russia. Sophie, by then renamed Catherine, was smart, curious, and well-liked in society. She also grew to love her adopted land.

Catherine saw that Peter would make a weak Emperor. Shortly after Elizabeth died in January 1762 and her husband was crowned Peter III, she made her move. On July 9, Catherine gathered some 40,000 troops loyal to her in what was then the capital, St. Petersburg, and had herself proclaimed Empress.

It was a master stroke. "What did I tell you?" Peter reportedly said to a companion. "That woman is capable of anything."

Peter was soon arrested, and then killed by his wife's allies. Little Sophie had become Catherine II, ruler of the Russian Empire.

Helping "the People"

Catherine had grand plans to bring prosperity, order, and justice to her vast empire. She encouraged education and sought to develop a national culture in Russia to rival those of the great capitals of Europe.

The new Empress also wanted to free Russia's millions of serfs, who were virtual slaves on the estates of Russia's noblemen.

The first years of Catherine's reign were true to her ambitions. She built schools and hospitals and reformed the governments of Russia's many provinces. But members of the nobility blocked her attempt to adopt a new, liberal constitution. They also were not about to get rid of their serfs, who farmed the land and were the backbone of Russian agriculture. Catherine saw that she would face a revolt among the nobility if she tried to change this.


Still, she could not prevent a revolt that sprang up in 1773 among Russia's Cossacks (an elite calvary corps). Its leader claimed to be the dead Peter III come to reclaim the throne. Thousands of serfs joined the rebel army's march on Moscow.

Catherine's soldiers crushed the rebellion. But the experience shook her. From then on, she gave "the people" what she thought they needed: a ruler of iron will who knew what was best for Russia.

Like many rulers of her day, Catherine sought to expand the borders of her empire through wars. Over the course of her nearly 35-year reign, Catherine added some 200,000 square miles of territory--about the size of Texas--to Russia, winning the Crimean Peninsula from the Ottoman Empire (centered in present-day Turkey) and seizing much of Poland.

Catherine was a ruler of great contradictions. On one hand, she was extremely cultivated. In St. Petersburg she founded the Hermitage, still one of the world's finest art museums. The Empress also carried on long correspondences with the great minds of her time, including Voltaire, a famous French writer.

"Benevolent Despot"

On the other hand, Catherine could be a tyrant--once sentencing a writer to death when he called for the serfs to be freed, which she herself had once done. Often generous to defeated enemies, she treated her son and heir, Paul, coldly, making him bitterly resentful.

The Empress lived through the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789--and considered them both to be threats to people of her position.

"I am an aristocrat," she said. "It is my profession."

Voltaire summed up the contradictions in his friend when he called her a "benevolent despot." Whatever Russians thought about this larger-than-life woman, her legend only grew at her death in 1796--and she became known to history as Catherine the Great.

Star Czars

Russia's most famous--and infamous--Emperors

Ivan the Terrible (1547-1584):

The first to be called Czar (supreme ruler), Ivan waged a campaign of terror against Russia's nobility.


Peter the Great (1682-1725):

Preferring the Western title of Emperor, Peter modernized Russia and opened it up to Europe.


Alexander II (1855-1881):

The great-grandson of Catherine the Great, Alexander freed the serfs and sold Alaska to the U.S.


Nicholas II (1894-1917):

The last Czar, Nicholas was deposed in the 1917 revolution, then murdered along with his family.


* Words to Know

* despot [n]: a ruler claiming absolute authority

* serf [n]: a peasant laborer legally bound to the family of the estate on which he or she worked
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Title Annotation:WORLD HISTORY
Author:Brown, Bryan
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Mar 14, 2011
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