10 Facts About Catherine the Great

Alice Roberts

4 mins

19 Nov 2019

Catherine the Great is famed for her long and prosperous reign over the Russian Empire. With impressive independence and unbending self-assertion, Catherine led Enlightenment thought, instructed military leaders and held the balance of power.

Here are 10 key facts about the 18th century’s most powerful woman.

1. Her real name was Sophie

The young child who would later become Catherine the Great was named Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, in Stettin, Prussia – now Szczecin, Poland.

Her father, Christian August, was a minor German prince and general in the Prussian army. Her mother, Princess Johanna Elisabeth, had distant links to the Russian royal family.

Catherine shortly after she had arrived in Russia.

2. Catherine was married to Peter III – who she detested

Catherine first met her husband-to-be when she was just 10 years old. From the moment they met, Catherine found his pale complexion detestable, and resented his unfettered indulgence in alcohol at such a young age.

Tsar Peter III reigned only six months, and he died on 17 July 1762.

Tsar Peter III reigned only six months, and he died on 17 July 1762.

Catherine would later reflect on this initial meeting, recording that she stayed at one end of the castle, and Peter at the other.

3. Catherine assumed power through a coup

When Empress Elizabeth died in 1761, Peter became Emperor Peter III, and Catherine his Empress Consort. The couple moved to the newly constructed Winter Palace in St Petersburg.

Peter was immediately unpopular. He pulled out of the Seven Years’ War and made big concessions, enraging Russian military leaders.

Catherine on the balcony of the Winter Palace on the day of the coup.

Catherine took the opportunity to seize power and usurp her husband, claiming the throne for her own. Although Catherine did not descend from the Romanov dynasty, her claim was strengthened because she descended from the Rurik dynasty, which preceded the Romanovs.

4. Catherine was an early endorser of inoculations

She led the way in embracing the latest medical practices. She was inoculated against smallpox by a British doctor, Thomas Dimsdale, which was controversial at the time.

She sought to popularise this treatment, explaining:

‘My objective was, through my example, to save from death the multitude of my subjects who, not knowing the value of this technique, and frightened of it, were left in danger.’

By 1800, approximately 2 million inoculations were carried out in the Russian Empire.

5. Voltaire was one of Catherine’s greatest friends

Catherine had a collection of 44,000 books. Early in her life, she began correspondence with the Enlightenment thinker, Voltaire, who was fascinated by Russia – Voltaire had written a biography of Peter the Great.

Voltaire in his youth.

Voltaire in his youth.

Although they never met in person, their letters reveal a close friendship, with discussions covering everything from disease prevention to English gardens.

6. Catherine was a key figure in the Russian Enlightenment

Catherine was a great patron of the arts. The Hermitage Museum, which now occupies the Winter Palace, was made up of Catherine’s personal art collection.

She helped to establish the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe.

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7. She had many lovers who were rewarded with generous gifts

Catherine is famous for taking many lovers, and spoiling them with high positions and large estates. Even when she lost interest, she pensioned them off with gifts of serfs.

Whilst the Russian state owned 2.8 m serfs, Catherine owned 500,000. On one day, on 18 August 1795, she gave away 100,000.

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8. Her reign was plagued by pretenders

During the 18th century, there were 44 pretenders in Russia, 26 of which were during Catherine’s reign. Evidence suggests this was a result of economic problems, and correlations have been drawn between threats of pretenders and the economic standing of serfs and peasants, and increases in taxation.

9. Crimea was annexed during Catherine’s reign

After the Russo-Turkish War (1768-1774), Catherine seized this area of land to improve Russian standing in the Black Sea. Over the course of her reign, 200,000 square miles of new territory was added to the Russian empire.

The Russian Empire in 1792.

The Russian Empire in 1792.

10. Britain sought Catherine’s help during the American Revolutionary wars

In 1775, Catherine was approached by the Earl of Dartmouth. He sought 20,000 Russian troops to help Britain quash the colonial rebellions in America.

Catherine flatly refused. In the interests of Russian shipping in the Atlantic however, she made some efforts to resolve the conflict in 1780.