Catherine the Great is remembered as one of Russia’s best rulers. Even in communist times, when monarchy was a huge no-no, Catherine was revered by the Russians. So what did she do to deserve all the praise?
Catherine liked being an empress, liked working, and was set on modernizing Russia and making her country great. By the end of her 34-year reign she had transformed every area of the nation.
The tsarina restructured the administration, gave quite a boost to the educational and health systems, supported the arts, promoted Russian culture, increased Russia’s territory, and turned her country into a major power player in the European scene.
Her reign is known as Russia’s Golden Age.
Here are the accomplishments that gained Catherine the appellative ‘great’:
Cities: create, expand, and beautify
When Peter the Great came into power in Russia, his European neighbours considered Russia a backward country. But Peter had great plans, so he began to modernize his country and turned it into an empire.
Among his favorite projects was the creation of new cities. He founded St. Petersburg in 1703, on the banks of the Neva river, and made it his capital.
At the time, a European observer said, unkindly, that the new ‘city’ was a hamlet worthy of the West Indies (the Americas). That even wolves ran through its streets at night. Yet a few years later the same observer visited again during Peter’s reign and was now amazed at the beauty of the burgeoning city with its Western-style stone buildings.
Catherine, who married Peter’s grandson and took the Russian throne from her husband, followed in Peter I’s footsteps in many ways, including the love for architecture and grandiosity.
Pretty and clean cities
Catherine embarked on an extensive building program. She enthusiastically commissioned hundreds of new public buildings. The empress built orphanages, schools, hospitals, banks, theaters, libraries, universities, and any other type of building you can imagine. She also gave new, bigger, and prettier buildings to existing institutions.
Saint Petersburg, the Romanov’s new capital, was the city more thoroughly transformed during her reign. Among her many new buildings were the Academy of Sciences, the Stock Exchange, the Imperial Academy of the Arts, several universities, a big orphanage, which had its own theater; a public library; a private theater; and palaces.
Since the capital is a watery city (it has 93 rivers and canals), she also commissioned engineering works. She dug new canals, reinforced the banks of the existing canals with stone, deepened rivers’ beds, built embankments, erected stone bridges to replace wooden ones…
Moscow, the capital of the former dynasty, also received plenty of buildings like the University of Moscow, the Senate, a huge orphanage, a state bank, and a massive shopping mall.
Her buildings had a practical purpose, but also served to beautify cities and towns.
The empress enhanced the existing settlements, while founding more than 100 new towns and cities.
For health issues, she also banned cemeteries, slaughterhouses, polluting factories, and animal markets from the cities. She established places for trash disposal and declared it illegal to pollute the waterways.
Her Russia looked completely different than the Russia of a century before.
The empress wanted her cities to be great European centers. And she got her way with Saint Petersburg, which became one of Europe’s great capitals.
St. Petersburg still dazzles tourists today.
Laws: new laws for all
Catherine was a voracious reader. When she arrived in Russia as a teenager, she felt lonely, so she read.
At first, the German princess read novels, but then responsibility kicked in -she was going to marry the heir to the Russian throne and become a queen, after all-, so she began reading more politically-minded works.
She discovered the Enlightenment authors and fell in love with their new ideas: reason, progress, equality, religious tolerance, separation of state and church, freedom and knowledge for all, happiness as an aim in life, the ability of each person to improve its lot.
So years later, when she became the ruler of Russia, the young monarch set out to establish laws that would reflect those concepts.
Russia was an autocracy where the monarch had all the power. Surprisingly, the nobility had relatively few rights, they depended on the ruler for everything and had to ask for her permission for many things. The other social classes were certainly not fairing much better, and millions of Russians were serfs -that is, peasants that were pretty much enslaved.
The Legislative Commission and the famous Instruction
They were from all social classes -including the peasants but leaving out the serfs-, for Catherine wanted Russians from all backgrounds to have their say in the new laws.
Since the tsarina was hoping for change, she wrote an Instruction which she sent to the Commission. In it, she outlined the principles that the new laws should uphold.
Her instruction declared the equality of all men (Russia was a deeply hierarchical society), the suppression of the death penalty and torture -widely used by her predecessors-, and the abolition of serfdom. She also stated that the government’s function was to protect the masses, instead of oppressing them.
The progressive ideas of her majesty scandalized not only high-placed Russians, but other European courts as well. Her booklet was banned in France.
The commission spent months arguing, and finally the code of law came to nothing. By then Catherine had been faced with more of the complexities of being a ruler, had started to realize that some of the ideas might be incompatible with an absolute monarchy as hers, and was in the middle of a war with the Ottoman Empire. So when the Commission showed up empty handed, she did not press on.
Yet Catherine’s Instruction is still regarded as ahead of its time. Later on, the brand new U.S. and Poland borrowed some of its ideas for their own constitutions.
Administration: creating new provinces
The empress, who was a good administrator, realized that her country was too big to be managed efficiently. So she divided it in more provinces.
Catherine created 50 semi-autonomous provinces with 500 districts. And she doubled the number of bureaucrats assigned to each province.
Health: imported doctors, public hospitals, and inoculations
Catherine’s predecessor, Empress Elizabeth (the daughter of Peter the Great) had established the first College of Medicine in Russia.
But during Catherine’s reign it still did not produce enough doctors for such a big country, so Catherine lured Western physicians to Russia with the promise of high salaries. To some she even gave houses.
Up until then Russia had very few hospitals, and most were for military personnel, like the now-called Hospital no. 40 and the Kurakin Almshouse. The almshouse had been founded by the aristocratic Kurakin family and attended veterans free of charge in St. Petersburg.
So as part of her health reforms, Catherine decreed that there should be a public hospital in every province; and that every county should have at least one physician, one surgeon with assistants, and a pharmacist. That way every Russian would have access to health services.
How to face plagues
When the Bubonic plague struck in 1770 killing tens of thousands of Muscovites, Catherine reacted immediately. She sent doctors, medicines, food, clothes, and money to Moscow.
Furthermore, she created shelters and orphanages to take care of the kids who had just lost their parents to the disease. And since there were not enough nurses to take care for the sick, she promised to free the serfs who volunteered at the hospitals.
She also lowered the taxes of the territories that had been struck by the plague.
Venereal diseases were also a problem in her country, so in 1783 Catherine established a hospital to treat them. She knew many would not seek treatment out of fear/shame of being discovered, therefore the tsarina made sure that privacy was respected. The hospital was not to register the real name of its patients.
Then there was the smallpox situation. Smallpox was the fearsome disease that wiped out entire populations. In 1767 it had killed 20,000 people in the north of the country, in Siberia.
Catherine liked to keep informed about the newest ideas, so she heard about the inoculation against smallpox.
The technique was rather new and many were afraid of it. Yet progressive Catherine called to court a Scottish doctor who was experimenting with the procedure. And she got inoculated in 1768.
In case things went wrong and her subjects blamed the doctor, she prepared a runaway vehicle for him to flee to safety.
But the experiment had a happy ending. And Catherine, who was known for her generosity, gave the doctor many gifts and made him a baron.
As to why she opted to be a guinea pig for the inoculations, she explained: “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, two million Russians had followed the Empress’ example and had inoculated themselves against the mortal disease.
Education: a public school system
Catherine firmly believed in education, and she thought that through it, she could modernize Russia.
If enough people learned enlightened-progressive ideas, she reasoned, they would make the country prosperous by prospering themselves.
She favored boarding schools believing a new kind of human could be educated there, far from the influence of parents and society.
Before the tsarina, there were only private schools, and a few schools run by priests or by generous donors.
The single state-funded school in existence was the Cadet Corps, a military institution which prepared noble boys to become officers.
Catherine reformed it all. She called pedagogues from Russia and abroad and created a commission in charge of education.
She added to the curriculum of the Cadet Corps. Aside from the military subjects, the boys were now also to learn sciences, philosophy, history, law, and ethics.
And she established a second boarding school in St. Petersburg. This one, the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, was to educate noble girls in a broad range of subjects -including chemistry, physics, French, and history-, and to prepare them for university.
Smolny was the first state-funded institute of higher education for girls in Europe.
Free education for all
Catherine wanted her ‘new kind of human’ everywhere in Russia, so she decreed the creation of public schools.
There would be primary and secondary schools for boys and girls. And what was more extraordinary, these free schools would accept children of all social classes -except, once more, the unfortunate serfs (almost enslaved peasants).
The empress ordered each province to build schools, and the aristocracy helped with the costs.
Since she needed capable teachers for her many new schools, she founded an institute in St. Petersburg to train them: the Teacher’s Seminary.
She also founded a third boarding school, the Novodevichii Institute. It was a twin of the Smolny, but while the Smonly was only for noble girls, this one accepted the daughters of commoners. And it too prepared them for university.
By the end of Catherine’s reign there were 549 state schools. It is a small number for Russia’s population, but before her there were none.
The empress recognized that the reforms took time to implement. She wrote to Voltaire, the famous writer of the Enlightenment with whom she corresponded, that the country was improving “little by little.”
And Catherine’s successors followed her example and kept building schools.
Catherine took care of the orphans too. She built state-funded orphanages in the two largest cities: Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Both institutions raised and thoroughly educated the children, at the same level that the other schools. Plus, the pupils learned a professional craft according to their abilities, such as accountancy or metallurgy. And if they were inclined to keep studying, they were prepared for university.
And talking about state universities, there were already a few that had been created by the Romanovs, first by Peter the Great, then by his daughter Empress Elizabeth.
Catherine the Great expanded the existing universities and created several more, especially technical ones, as she wanted Russia to have more scientists.
The tsarina founded the State University of Land Management, based in Moscow and dedicated to training highly qualified personnel for agriculture (Russia’s economy depended on agriculture); Saint-Petersburg Mining University, to produce engineers specialized in the mining and metals industries (an area she wanted to develop); and Moscow State University of Geodesy and Cartography, which trained students in the Earth Sciences. All of those universities still exist.
And for each institution the empress, of course, commissioned new beautiful neoclassical buildings.
More charities: allowing others to lend a hand
The government could not take care of all of Russia’s poor, so in 1775 Catherine allowed private individuals to establish charities.
The nobility stepped up and founded orphanages, almshouses, asylums for people with mental disorders, and other institutions.
Culture & arts: let’s polish
Catherine was especially fond of education and the arts.
When she arrived in Russia, she was surprised to find out that elite Russians did not have pride in their own culture. So she began to promote it, supporting Russian writers, composers, and the like.
The empress founded the Imperial Russian Academy, which was to study Russian language and literature.
She also sent local composers like Dmitry Bortniansky to train in Europe. And she backed the first ever public concert in Russia in 1764, two years after her ascension to the throne.
Twelve years later she allowed a prince to build the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater for opera and ballet performances. That was the first permanent theater open to the public.
The empress was a great fan of the dramatic arts too. She wrote some plays herself -as well as the first children’s book published in Russia- and had a private theater built next to her palace in St. Petersburg. The tsarina and her friends loved gathering there to watch plays.
To train actors and directors she founded the Russian State Institute of Performing Arts.
Not one to leave out other beloved arts, the patroness expanded the Imperial Academy of the Arts, which trained architects, sculptors, and painters.
Her own collections
Now almost all of that was for the people. For herself, Catherine amassed a fantastic art collection which included 4,000 paintings from the greatest European masters, from Raphael to Rembrandt. She also bought 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals, and 10,000 engraved gems.
And 38,000 books because when the book-loving girl arrived in Russia she had been appalled to find out that the palaces’ libraries were almost empty.
Many of those books -including the private libraries of her friends Voltaire and Diderot, which she had bought from their heirs- she shipped to her recently founded public library afterwards.
Her other collectibles are exhibited at the Hermitage Museum, her former residence in Saint Petersburg. The Hermitage is the larget museum in the world and has one of the best collections of Western Art, mainly thanks to Catherine.
Religion: tolerance is key
Catherine promoted religious tolerance, and during her reign no one was persecuted for their faith. Which was quite unusual for any 18th century country.
The majority of her subjects were part of the Russian Orthodox Church (a branch of Christianity), but there were also Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic minorities in her empire.
Catherine had converted to the Orthodox faith, yet she was not really religious and did not treat any of the churches extraordinarily well. Actually, the mainstream Orthodox Church suffered quite heavily under her, for she expropriated their lands and made them dependent on the government.
This was because the sovereign was pragmatic. She did not want any church to create problems for her by having too much power. She did not want them interfering with education -which she made secular- or government. But she did respect their existence.
A proof of her open-mindedness is that when the empress convoked the Legislative Commission -the one that was to write the new laws for the country-, she invited Muslim scholars to participate.
She even built towns and mosques for the Muslims. Again, it was a pragmatic decision. She had taken lands from the Ottoman Empire and now had Muslim subjects who were nomadic. She wanted them to settle down and become more economically productive.
But she did struggle a bit after conquering Poland, which flooded her with millions of Catholics and Jews.
Catherine restricted the mobility of her Jewish subjects, which were to remain in the recently conquered territories. Yet, that was not so odd for Russians, for they had never been free to move from one place to another anyways. And it served an economic purpose: Catherine wanted those territories to remain settled.
Nevertheless, people of all faiths were at least safe in Catherine’s Russia.
Economy: paper money and businesses
Catherine tried to strengthen Russia’s economy. She founded the Assignation Bank which accepted deposits and, for the first time, issued paper money in Russia. It had branches throughout Russia.
She also gave the nobility more rights and education, and therefore, more independence. She allowed and encouraged them to take on economic activities so they would not depend on government positions.
And since many lands in her vast territory were unoccupied, she built towns and invited both Russians and foreigners to settle there to make those areas prosperous.
The tsarina especially invited Germans because they had developed new farming techniques -from production and milling to sheep raising and even manufacturing. Russia depended heavily on agriculture, so she hoped the Germans would bring their more efficient techniques and that the locals would copy them. To entice them, she offered them lands and many benefits. It worked. Thousands of Germans arrived and settled along the Volga river and boosted agriculture.
But Catherine did not want Russia to depend solely on agriculture, so she started to exploit other resources. The empress promoted mining and factories, and created the already mentioned technical universities to form students in those fields.
Territories: more is better
Catherine added 518,000 km2/200,000 mi2 (that is about the size of modern France or the state of Texas) to her already huge country.
She mostly expanded towards the south, to gain access to the Black Sea; and to the west, occupying lands in Eastern and even Central Europe (Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Caucasus, Belarus, Courland, Crimea).
Originally Russia and Poland got along, but then the Poles -governed by one of Catherine’s ex-lovers- became stronger. Too strong for the comfort of its neighbors. So Russia, Prussia, and Austria partitioned Poland among them, taking all its lands. Poland ceased to exist in 1795. And Catherine gained her western territories.
Her new southern territories she wrestled from the Ottoman Empire.
Navy: finally the Black Sea Fleet
Having access to the Black Sea had long been a dream of the Russians. They had access to the Pacific Ocean on the east and to the northern seas, but those are difficult to navigate because of the ice.
The Black Sea would open up the routes to the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and to the Atlantic. This meant more trade with all the wealthy Mediterranean countries, and even better, a military presence in those regions.
Catherine was the ruler who made the dream come true by taking lands from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans had a reputation for invincibility. But Catherine’s army was one of the strongest and largest in Europe.
Now that she had ports in the Black Sea, she built herself a fleet. The famous Black Sea Fleet went on to win many battles for the Russians. It still exists and is quite iconic and revered.
Diplomacy: always the diplomat
Even when other European countries were afraid of Catherine’s expansionism, she kept strong diplomatic ties with them. Well, with the ones she did not plan on invading. Her main allies were Austria (Holy Roman Empire), France, Denmark-Norway, and for a while Russia’s former enemy, Prussia.
She observed her treaties with the European powers so Russia would be perceived like less of a threat, and they would not join forces against her.
And Catherine, ever more present in the European scene, acted as a mediator of international disputes. For example, when Prussia and Austria were at war over the Bavarian Succession (1778-1779), Catherine helped mediate the conflict between them.
Trade: yes, please
Catherine wanted Russia to become an economic powerhouse, so she lifted trading restrictions and encouraged commerce.
She signed a trading treaty with her nemesis Great Britain in 1766. And since most of Russia’s territory is in Asia, the empress was keen on establishing trading relations with India; she also sent a diplomatic mission to neighboring Japan to trade with them, but the Japanese turned her down.
In an interesting and precedent-setting move, the empress established the League of Armed Neutrality. The league allowed neutral countries to trade with nations which were at war. Before the league, the warring countries would keep neutral nations from trading with their enemies -usually by sinking their commercial ships.
Russia becomes a power player in the West
The image of Russia greatly improved in Europe. In a few decades it changed from being seen as a far away and backward country to being considered a European power player.
During Catherine’s reign it was also seen as a nation which had arts and education in the forefront, a powerful army -perhaps the most powerful in Europe-, beautiful cities, a cultured dazzling court which attracted the great minds of Europe, and that was under strong leadership.
And those were Catherine the Great’s accomplishments.
What makes Catherine extraordinary is her vision for her country, how focused she was on her job, and how capable she was at it.
The empress believed that “the end of monarchy is the glory of the citizens, of the state, and of the sovereign,” so she worked tirelessly reforming everything, from education to administration, in order to achieve that glory for all three.