What's So "Great" About Catherine II?

Updated August 10, 2021 | Paul Kersey

Who Was Catherine the Great?

Catherine II of Russia is one of history's most famous figures. More than that, she has had an incredible celebrity following since her lifetime. She was the subject of constant media coverage and gossip. She's been featured in many films, books, and television programs. But this begs the question, "why?"


Catherine II was Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796.  She is often called "Catherine the Great" because of her long reign and numerous successes as a ruler.  She was also famous for her turbulent personal life.  After marrying into the Russian royal family, her relationship with her husband, Tsar Peter III, ended badly.  She supplanted him as ruler after a coup and then took on numerous lovers during her 34-year reign.

Catherine the Great admired the European enlightenment, and kept up a steady correspondence with many of the leading intellectuals of the time.  She was determined to turn Russia into a modern European state but had limited success.  Much of the Russian population lived as serfs, bound to the land and practically the property of feudal lords.  Catherine tried but failed to improve their legal position.

Empress Catherine II had more success in the military realm.  During Catherine's reign Russia expanded considerably, especially in modern-day Ukraine and Belarus.

Catherine II is a fascinating historical figure in Russian history because of the many ways that her personal life and her politics intersected.  She rewarded her lovers with political influence, and stayed loyal to them politically even after her affection for them had cooled.  Those same men often proved to be very able military leaders and administrators, which proved to be critical to her successes.

Origins of Catherine the Great

The woman who would become Catherine, Empress of Russia, was born Sophie Frederika Auguste, the daughter of Prince Christian August, ruler of the minor German statelet of Anhalt-Zerbst.  As a girl she was presented to the court of the Romanov family, rulers of Russia.

Sophie embraced Russia enthusiastically, learning Russian, converting from her family's Lutheranism into Russian Orthodoxy, and changing her name to Ekaterina -- the Russian equivalent of Catherine.  She made a strong impression on the Romanovs, especially Empress Elizabeth, and was chosen to be the bride of crown prince Peter, next-in-line to the Russian throne.

Her marriage to Peter was troubled from the start.  He was rumored to be sexually impotent, and was clearly unready for the responsibilities of rulership.  Peter was a failure as a monarch.

The situation reached a head just six months into Emperor Peter III's reign when Peter's policy of appeasing Prussia -- a longtime Russian rival -- created a backlash in the Russian army.  Catherine signaled that she took the military's side in the controversy, and Army officers staged a coup, removing Emperor Peter III and placing Catherine on the throne.  Peter was assassinated shortly after that.  Catherine's role in her husband's death remains murky.  Catherine never engaged in hostilities with the Prussian state, but her willingness to challenge her husband shows her cunning and her desire for power.

Did Catherine the Great Have Children?

Catherine likely had had four children, but it isn't clear if any of them were fathered by her husband, Peter.

After her first two pregnancies ended in miscarriages, she gave birth to a son, Paul.  There is some dispute over Paul's parentage.  Paul did bear some resemblance to Tsar Peter, but Catherine would hint that the father was Sergei Saltykov, a Russian count.

Paul would be alienated from Catherine but was crowned Emperor of Russia.  Paul was murdered after ruling five years, and the crown passed to her Grandson, Alexander, who Catherine favored.

A daughter, Anna, would pass away after fifteen months.

During Peter's brief reign Catherine gave birth to a second son, Alexei, who would be made a count.

Elizabeth Temkina was brought up by Grigory Potemkin, one of Catherine's lovers.  Catherine never acknowledged her as one of her children.

Catherine's Attempts to Reform Russian Society

The European enlightenment had a great deal of influence over Catherine.  She corresponded regularly with French philosopher Voltaire.  Much like Peter the Great, Catherine wanted Russia to be a modern, western nation with close ties to Europe.  Catherine supported artists and assembled an extensive art collection.  She attempted to spread education, especially for young women.

She attempted to liberalize Russian society, with limited results.  In 1766 she called an assembly of leaders to draw up a new legal code for her empire.  In her instructions to the assembly, known as The Nakaz, she called for a set of statutes that established equality before the law, consistent legal procedures, and proportionate punishments, albeit while retaining Russia's absolute monarchy.  However, the effort stalled as the assembly held over 200 sessions but failed to draft a new law code.

Catherine did manage to reorganize Russia's internal administration, creating a regular system of provinces and districts.  She also issued charters defining the rights of nobility and allowing for the independent government of towns and cities.  But the state of serfdom was mostly unchanged.  Serfs remained bound to the land and under the tight control of local nobles.


Frustration with their lot led many serfs to support a rebellion led by Yemelyan Pugachev.  Pugachev claimed that he was Peter III, the rightful Emperor.  His rebellion lasted nearly a year and a half, starting in late 1773 and lasting through 1774.

Catherine initially considered the rebellion a minor annoyance, but made a serious commitment to putting Pugachev down when he gained control of a substantial territory along the Volga River, including the cities of Kazan and Samara.  A more substantial military force was organized, and they defeated Pugachev's forces in 1774.  Pugachev himself was captured and brought to Moscow, where he was executed.

Pugachev's initial successes, and his ability to raise a force that numbered 25,000 men, show that support for Catherine among the Russian people was far from total.

Catherine the Great's Lovers and Lieutenants

Catherine the Great had more success in foreign affairs.  It is here that her many romantic interests had their greatest influence.  Catherine gained notoriety for her many lovers, but she was shrewd in how she chose her men and how she treated them after the affair ended.  Her lovers tended to be capable soldiers, administrators, or diplomats.  And she was generous with them even after her desire for them had cooled.

Historians estimate she had at least a dozen lovers before and during her reign as Empress.  Three of the most influential were Grigory Orlov, Stanislaw Poniatowski, and Grigory Potemkin.


Grigory Orlov was one of Catherine's first lovers.  Orlov came from a powerful Russian family; his father was a provincial governor.  Orlov himself was an officer in the Russian army.  Their relationship began while Peter was the crown prince and Orlov was serving in an artillery unit near Moscow.  He was the likely father of Catherine's second son Alexei.  Orlov was the chief architect of the plot that brought down Peter III and put Catherine on the throne.  Catherine would reward Orlov by naming him and his son as Counts, but over time others, especially Potemkin, would take his place as Catherine's main paramour and confident.


She placed one of her paramours, Stanislaw Poniatowski, on the throne of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1764, strengthening Russia's influence there.  She would eventually see the downfall of the Commonwealth, as Russia, Prussia, and Austria divided Poland and Lithuania among themselves.


Of all the men in her life, Grigory Potemkin was probably Catherine's single favorite.  Potemkin played a key role in the coup that put her in power, and he was a capable leader as well.  The two became familiar shortly after Catherine's coronation, and their relationship waxed and waned over more than 20 years.

Potemkin won acclaim as a cavalry officer during the First Russo-Turkish War from 1768-1774.  Russia's victory resulted in the gain of Ottoman-held land near the Black Sea in southern Ukraine and Crimea.

Potemkin supervised both ground and naval forces during a second war with the Ottoman Empire, in which the Russians repulsed Turkish attacks and solidified their gains.  Potemkin was awarded the title of Hetman and governed the newly won territories, establishing several cities.

Catherine the Great's Legacy

In November 1796, after 34 years in power, Catherine the Great passed away after suffering a stroke in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

Catherine II was one of the most fascinating characters in the history of 18th Century Russia and Europe, and her story retains an appeal to this day.  In 2019 she was the subject of a popular television miniseries starring Helen Mirren.

Historians are more ambivalent about her qualities as a political leader.  Her attempt to remake Russia's education system suffered from a lack of resources.  Her attempts at political reform were well-intended and thoughtfully designed, but never took root.  To be fair, Catherine was not the only Russian ruler to attempt liberal reforms and be disappointed by the result.  This inability to reform was a factor that led to the rise of a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship in the 20th century.

The chief accomplishments of her reign were military and diplomatic.  During her time in power, the Russian Empire gained around 200,000 square miles of territory.  For this, if nothing else, Catherine is considered a hero by Russian nationalists.  

Russia's success in its wars with Turkey and its smart diplomacy in Poland and Lithuania form the basis for its influence over the modern-day nations of Ukraine and Belarus.  In this sense, Catherine the Great's reign has repercussions that last to our modern day.

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