What’s So Great About Catherine the Great? Life, Accomplishments and Death

Catherine the Great was a force of nature. Nowadays we know Russia as a superpower, but it was not always so. A century before Catherine’s rule, Russia was considered a backward country filled with barbarians. Catherine spent her three decades in power modernizing and strengthening her country. Her greatness resides in that she strove to make Russia great.

The empress had a hand in everything. She expanded Russia giving it a foothold in the Black Sea -a long time dream of her countrymen. She made her country richer, and through her building projects, more beautiful. The sovereign pioneered the foundation of public schools, orphanages, and hospitals. She was a patroness of the arts, enacted laws of religious tolerance, and proclaimed the equality of all people.

Yet this busy monarch was not all work and no play, her private life was interesting too: she was known for her (great?) spicy sex life.

Catherine the Great was grandiose in all she did and her reign is called Russia’s Golden Age. So who was this extraordinary ruler and what did she accomplish?

1. Was Catherine the Great German?

Yes, Catherine, the Empress of Russia, was a German princess. Both her parents were Germans.

Catherine’s father was the governor of Stettin, a Prussian (German) city, so that is where the future empress was born and raised. The family lived in a big, white castle in town. And, growing up, Catherine used to play with the local kids who allowed her to lead them in their games, partly out of deference for her rank, and partly because of her leadership skills.

When Catherine was a teenager, her father Prince Christian Augustus inherited the Principality of Anhalt-Zerbst, so the family now moved there, to a bigger castle that made Catherine’s mom, Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, happier.

Not the favorite child

Catherine’s birth name was Sophia Augusta Frederica, she changed it later on. She was born on 2 May, 1729. and according to her memoirs her childhood was unremarkable. Apart from her native German she learned to speak French flawlessly thanks to her French Governess Babette.

She was the eldest of five children. Her mother’s favorite child was her second-born, Wilhelm, and she payed little attention to Sophia, who was raised by her governess. It was only after Wilhelm died, when Sophia was 13, that the princess’ attention turned to her daughter, for now she wanted an advantageous marriage for her.

Sophia’s mother had a reputation for being dominating and not easy to deal with. But she was very well connected in Europe. She descended from Danish and Swedish kings. Later on Johanna’s brother would inherit the Swedish throne. And one of her connections would prove vital to Catherine’s life and her ascension to the Russian throne. Two males from Johanna’s family, a brother and her first cousin, had been engaged to the daughters of the Emperor of Russia. Johanna’s brother and his future bride Elizabeth had been in love and eager to marry, but he died shortly before the wedding. While Johanna’s cousin did marry Peter the Great’s daughter Anna Petrovna Romanov.

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2. Was Catherine the Great married?

Woman  in a sumptuous silver and golden dress. She wears a crown, earrings and a sash.
Empress Elizabeth of Russia (pictured) was looking for a wife for her nephew. She knew Catherine’s family and called her to court, where Catherine charmed everyone. Painting by Virgilius Eriksen, 1757. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

Yes, Catherine married Peter III of Russia, that is how she got her throne.

While Sophia/Catherine was growing uneventfully in Germany, Empress Elizabeth Romanov of Russia was looking for a wife for Peter, her nephew and heir.

Who was her husband Peter?

Elizabeth, the daughter of famous Russian emperor Peter the Great, had been engaged to a young German prince years back, they had been in love and eager to marry, but the groom had died shortly before the marriage. And Elizabeth never married after that -although some believe she secretly married a peasant some years afterwards. Either way, the empress of Russia did not have children, so she chose her nephew Charles Peter Ulrich of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp as her heir. He was the son of her beloved sister Anna. The boy had been raised in Prussia and had lost both of his parents by 11. Two years later Elizabeth took the throne of Russia, called him to her court, and named him her heir. Now the boy was 15 and she needed a suitable bride for him.

Choosing the bride

The empress felt close to Sophia-Catherine’s family since she had been betrothed to her uncle. So she called the girl to the Russian court to meet her. Fourteen-year-old Sophia arrived in 1744 with her mother Johanna. In her memoirs, Sophia wrote that she wanted the visit to be a success. She was determined to do whatever was required of her and pretend to believe whatever was expected from her in order to ingratiate herself with the empress, her future husband, and the Russian court.

Sophia adapts to her new life
Portrait of Peter and Catherine as teenagers. They are both standing, dressed elegantly, and wearing sashes. Their hair is powdered.
Catherine and Peter got married when she was 16 and he 17. They were cousins. The portrait was painted the year of their marriage, 1745, probably by GC Grooth. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

Sophia, keeping her word, adapted to her new life. She mastered the Russian language -although she would always speak it with a bit of an accent- and learned everything about Russian culture. In June 1744 she converted to the Russian Orthodox faith against the wishes of her Lutheran father. During the ceremony she took a new name: Ekaterina Alekseyevna (Catherine daughter of Alexei), for which she would be known the rest of her life. It was an homage to Elizabeth’s mother, Catherine I.

Have we met before?

Catherine and her future husband had actually met before in Germany. Orphaned Peter became a guard of his uncle, who was Johanna’s brother. Johanna had been parading her daughter Catherine through the European courts to find a match for her. Now the heir to the throne of Sweden was her brother’s ward. Johanna speedily took Catherine to meet the boy.

The cousins were almost the same age, she was 10, he 11, and they got along. Peter ended up renouncing the Swedish throne and becoming heir to the Russian one.

Four years later, when Catherine arrived in Russia, homesick Peter was ecstatic to have other Germans and family members near. And Catherine did everything possible to get Peter to like her.

The marriage

The cousins married on 21 August 1745 in Saint Petersburg when they were 16 and 17. But they were not in love and the marriage was never the happiest one. Although they did seem to have been friendly towards one another.

The Grand Duke and Grand Duchess, went to live to Oranienbaum, a palace near Saint Petersburg.

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3. What was Catherine like? Intellect, looks, and temperament

Catherine was bright and cultured, she loved to read. She was charming and had a merry disposition. As for her looks, they were never her strength.

Catherine’s intellect and correspondence with Voltaire

Catherine, bored in her new court in Oranienbaum, spent most of her time reading. During her first year the teenager read novels, then responsibility kicked in. She wanted to be qualified to wear the crown, so she switched to political and philosophical texts, especially from French authors. That is how she discovered the ideas of the Enlightenment that would profoundly shape her political thought. Catherine learned about history, politics, and diplomacy. As part of her preparation, she also paid attention to the workings of the Russian court. She said herself that ambition is what kept her going during those first years.

Eventually Catherine became known as a great intellectual of progressive ideas. After she became empress she corresponded with authors of the stature of Voltaire and Diderot.

She penned several works herself, including manuals on education, plays, dramatic writings, memoirs, 14 comedies, and even 9 operas.

Looks: Not the belle of the ball

Growing up Catherine’s mother repeatedly told her she was ugly, that she better develop her inner qualities. So Catherine payed little attention to her appearance during her childhood and teenage years and dressed soberly. She later said that she had seen a portrait painted of her when she was ten years old. And that if the portrait was a true likeness, then she really had been far from pretty.

Catherine had dark hair, either dark brown or black, milky white skin, big blue eyes, and a longish face. Possibly, her best asset were her big blue eyes. She moved with grace and dignity, something even her mother recognized. With age she became more confident in her appearance, wore beautiful gowns that made her look regal, and decorated her hair and dresses with diamonds, after the fashion of previous Russian empresses.

Temperament: one of her strengths
Woman ridding her horse side-saddle. She wears a dress, a coat, and a hat.
The future empress was charming and friendly, she loved to laugh, dance, and ride horses. She could also be serious if needed. Painting by GC Grooth, c. 1744. (Photo: Russian Museum/Public domain)

Catherine, always into self-improvement, followed her mother’s advice and focused on her inner qualities. She was known for her levelheadedness. She was pleasant and friendly, and did not like drama.

Catherine was charming., She loved to laugh, to be around witty people, to have fun or deep conversations. The Grand Duchess also loved to dance and ride horses. She was practical and incredibly generous. Growing up she did not have much money. But once she arrived in Russia she spent freely, mostly on gifts. The Duchess sent money back home for the education of her younger brother, and presented her courtly friends with gifts. She desperately wanted Russians to like and accept her, and soon discovered that gifts pleased everyone.

She also discovered early on, according to her memoirs, that people liked to talk more than to listen, and that they especially liked talking about themselves. So Catherine became a good listener. And she prided herself -already as an empress- that after talking with her for 15 minutes everyone felt at ease with her.

How she described herself

Catherine wrote her own epitaph, so we have a clear idea of how she saw herself: “(…) She arrived in Russia (…) at the age of 14, she had the triple intention of pleasing her husband, Elizabeth and the people. (…) During 18 years of tedium and solitude, she willy-nilly read many books. On coming to the throne of Russia, she desired good and strove to give her subjects happiness, freedom and property. She forgave easily and nurtured hatred towards no-one. Merciful, courteous, merry by nature, with a republican soul and a kind heart, she did have friends. Work came easily to her. She loved art and being among people.”

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4. How did Catherine the Great come to power? Did she kill her husband?

Catherine the Great gained her throne through a coup. Elizabeth, Empress of Russia, died in January 1762 and her nephew became Emperor Peter III. Now, Catherine and Peter were not getting along, and Peter was in love with his mistress Elisaveta. Catherine feared, or so she said, he would divorce her, or kill her, in order to marry Elisaveta. So she acted first.

Deposing an emperor

During the first six months of his reign Peter was far from idle, he issued new laws, stopped one war and began another. The problem was that he did not realize he needed support, and acted alone. By seizing the vast lands of the Orthodox Church, he alienated the Church. When he stopped a war Russia was winning against Prussia, he alienated the military; when he told his regiments he would punish them harshly, he alienated his guard; and by enforcing forward-thinking laws about the serfs (Russia’s slaves in all but name), he alienated the serf-owning nobility. All in six months.

Catherine, on the other hand, could be a great diplomat. The 33-year-old had been careful to become friends with all the factions of the Russian court since her arrival in Russia. And now she ensured the support of the discontent bands, including the Senate and the Church. With the help of her lover, Grigory Orlov, who controlled several military units, she marched from Saint Petersburg against Peter who was vacationing in Oranienbaum. In her way Catherine stopped at the Semenovsky Barracks were the priests blessed her as the sole empress of Russia: Catherine II. Then she surrounded Peter who surrendered and was forced to abdicate. Eight days later, on July 17, he was dead.

Killing an emperor

How exactly did Peter III die is a bit of a mystery. Alexei Orlov, the brother of Catherine’s lover, was in charge of the prisoner. Some believe Alexei strangled him. Others think Peter was tortured and died from the wounds. The official report, after an autopsy, said he had died of a stroke. But if it was foul play -like it probably was- it is not likely that the official report would state it. Catherine washed her hands claiming she did not order the murder.

It is possible that her lover Grigory Orlov acted on his own. But Catherine was not naive, and having the true heir to the throne around was not going to be safe for her reign, so it is also possible that she gave the order to kill her husband.

The cluod of his murder did hang over her reign.

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5. Was Peter III really a bad ruler?

Peter, in military uniform, looks calmly at the painter
Peter lasted six months on the throne. The German-born tsar alienated his subjects with his pro-Prussia stance and his lack of love for Russia. Coronation painting by Lucas Pfandzelt, January 1762. (Photo: Hermitage Museum/Public domain)

He was not a wise ruler. Winners write history. In this case Catherine wrote it. And she was not going to sing the praises of the man she had dethroned. She portrayed him as an angry alcoholic who was disliked and feared by his court. Maybe it is true. But when it comes to the actions he took as tsar, there are many good ones. Although his timing might have been off to enact them. Perhaps the best way to think about Peter is that he may have had good intentions, but he was not a great politician and lacked diplomatic skills. For example, he had not grasped the importance of endearing himself to the Russians.

A Russian tsar with a German heart

One of the greatest mistakes German-born Peter made was being to pro-Prussia, while showing little love for Russia. He spoke French fluidly, but could hardly speak Russian. He was an admirer of Prussian Emperor Frederick II. His aunt Elizabeth had started the Seven Years’ War against Prussia and the Russians were winning. They had invaded Frederick’s homeland and his correspondence shows he knew he was lost. But when Elizabeth died, Peter saved Frederick, made a treaty, and even sent 12,000 Russian troops to aid him against his other enemies. That did not sit well with the Russians.

Then Peter began a war against Denmark over his private lands in Germany. So he spent Russian money and sent Russian soldiers to a war that was not for Russia’s benefit but for Germany’s. That did not sit well with the Russians either.

And, in his court, Peter surrounded himself with German friends.

German Catherine was wiser. She thoroughly Russianized herself. She learnt the language, the culture, made Russian friends, and devoted herself to making Russia great. Later on she went to war against her cousin, the king of Sweden, because it was in Russia’s interest to do so.

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6. And was Catherine the Great a good leader?

Arguably, yes, Catherine was a good leader. She was a strong ruler who was respected and obeyed. She did not rule by fear, like some of her predecessors. The empress could be tough, but preferred mercy when possible. And the tsarina surrounded herself with capable -or brilliant- advisers and ministers.

Catherine was intelligent, wise, and (self) educated. She did not act rashly. She pondered her decisions until she was certain of the course of action to follow, and listened to advise. The empress was an autocrat who held absolute power, yet she did not like to abuse her power. And she was able to delegate authority, like she did with her adviser and right-hand Grigory Potemkin. Also, when confronted with issues like educational reform or the creation of a new code of law, she commissioned a group of great minds to come up with solutions.

When Catherine came to power, all Europe thought she would be deposed soon. Her predecessor lasted six months in the throne. Her successor, five years. They were both murdered. Yet, she managed to stay 34 years in the throne until her natural death.

Her objectives

The empress had two overarching objectives from the beginning. One was, following the principles of her beloved Enlightenment, to better the life of her subjects. The other was the grandeur of Russia.

And Russians love her. Even during the communist monarchy-hating times, she was a national symbol to be proud of.

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7. What is Catherine the Great known for? Her accomplishments

Catherine stabilized, strengthened, and modernized Russia. During her 34 year old reign she transformed the country, from its administration, territorial extent and military organization, to its educational and health systems. Her reign is known as Russia’s Golden Age.

Domestic Reforms

Cities: multiply and beautify

When St. Petersburg, the new capital, was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, a European observer said it was a hamlet worthy of the West Indies (the Americas). Even wolves ran through the capital’s streets at night. A few years later the same observer visited again and was amazed at the beauty of the burgeoning city with its Western-style stone buildings.

Catherine kept adding to the magnificence of Saint Petersburg. Plus she expanded and renovated other towns and cities, and founded more than 100 new ones.

She embarked on an extensive building program. For example, she commissioned new buildings for the University of Moscow, the Academy of Sciences, the Stock Exchange, and the Imperial Academy of the Arts; built the State Bank, orphanages, schools, hospitals, theaters, a public library, bridges; dug new channels in the watery city of Saint Petersburg; renovated covered shopping malls… And her new buildings, aside from their practical purpose, were designed to beautify towns and cities.

Catherine, unlike her predecessors, favored the Neoclassical style in architecture and mostly hired Italian architects for her projects. The Russia of Catherine’s times looked completely different than the Russia of a century before.

For health issues, she also banned cemeteries, slaughterhouses, factories, and animal markets from the cities; established places for trash disposal; and declared it illegal to pollute the waterways.

The empress wanted her cities to be great European centers. And Saint Petersburg was already known as one of Europe’s great capitals during her reign.

Laws: New laws for all
Painting of a room full of men. Three sit around a table and address the rest of the men that sit down in front of them.
The Legislative Commission. Catherine instructed the commission that new laws should reflect the equality of all men and abolish serfdom. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

In her first years on the throne she set to establish new laws. The tsarina convoked erudites from all over Russia and from all the social classes (except the serfs) to form a Legislative Commission. She wanted all classes to have their say in Russia’s laws. She wrote an Instruction outlining the principles that the new laws should uphold, and she handed it to the commission. Her instruction declared the equality of all men, the suppression of the death penalty and torture, the abolition of serfdom (slavery); and that the government’s function was to protect the masses and not oppress them. The progressive ideas of her majesty scandalized plenty of high placed Russians and the European courts. Her booklet was banned in France.

The commission spent months and months arguing and finally the code of law came to nothing. But Catherine’s Instruction is still regarded as ahead of its time. The U.S. and Polish constitutions borrowed some of its ideas later on.

Administration: Creating new provinces

She realized that her country was too big to be administered efficiently by the federal government, so she divided it into 50 semi-autonomous provinces and 500 districts. She doubled the number of bureaucrats per province and dedicated 12% of the government’s budget to administration.

Health: Imported doctors, public hospitals, and inoculations
Black and white engraving of a man wearing a long white wig and a suit.
Catherine asked Dr. Thomas Dimsdale (pictured) to inoculate her against smallpox to set an example. Following her, 2 million Russians inoculated themselves against the deathly disease. Engraving by William Ridley, 1802. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

Empress Elizabeth had established the first College of Medicine in Russia. And until it produced enough doctors, Catherine lured Western physicians with the promise of high salaries. She decreed that every county should have a physician, a surgeon with assistants, and a pharmacist. And that there should be a hospital in every province.

And since venereal diseases were a problem, she established a hospital to treat them in 1783.

When the Bubonic plague struck in 1770 killing tens of thousands of Muscovites, Catherine sent doctors, medicines, food, clothes, and money to Moscow; created orphanages and shelters; and promised to free the serfs who volunteered in the hospitals.

Then there was the smallpox, the fearsome disease that wiped out entire populations. The Enlightened sovereign, who liked to keep informed about the newest ideas, heard about the inoculation against smallpox (inoculation was a technique that predated the invention of the vaccines).

Catherine called a Scottish doctor to court to inoculate her. She said: “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.”

An epidemic of smallpox had killed 20,000 Russians in Siberia in 1767. The next year, on 12 October 1768, Catherine got inoculated. By 1800, two million Russians had followed the Empress’ example and 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, she reasoned, enough people learned progressive ideas, they would prosper and make the country prosperous.

Before her there were only private schools and a state-funded military school for the sons of the nobility. Catherine expanded the latter’s curriculum to include science and other subjects. And she decreed the creation of public schools throughout Russia. These new primary and secondary schools, for boys and girls, accepted children of all social classes (except serfs) and were free to attend.

The empress ordered each province to build its schools. Since she needed capable teachers for her new schools, she founded the Teacher’s Seminary of Saint Petersburg to train them.

Personally, she established the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, also in Saint Petersburg. This boarding school for noble girls was not only to shape their thought but also to prepare them for university. It was the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe.

Then she founded a similar school, the Novodevichii Institute, for the daughters of commoners.

By the end of her reign there were 549 state schools. A small number for Russia’s population, but the road had been paved. She wrote to Voltaire that the country was improving “little by little.” The following emperors carried out her vision and built many more schools.

Catherine also created two orphanages, one in Moscow and another in St. Petersburg. They received abandoned children and educated them. Aside from the normal schooling, the children learned a professional craft according to their abilities or, if they so chose, were prepared for university.

As for the state universities, Catherine expanded them for she wanted Russia to have more scientists.

Orphanages and Charities: lending a hand

Since the government could not take care of all the poor, in 1775 Catherine allowed private individuals to establish charities. The nobility founded private orphanages, almshouses, asylums for people with mental disorders, and other institutions.

Culture & arts: Let’s polish
A large building pictured at night
Catherine founded and built the first public library in Russia: The Imperial Public Library (pictured). (Photo: Mockingbird/CCBYSA3.0)

Education and the arts are two of the things Catherine is most commonly associated with. Not only did she promote Russian culture, but was also a patroness of European imports like theater and opera. The empress wanted her court -and all of Russia, really- to be polished.

She sent local composers like Bortniansky to train in Europe. She backed the first ever public concert in Russia in 1764, two years after her ascension to the throne. And 20 years later she decreed the construction of the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater for opera and ballet performances.

This patroness also founded the Imperial Theatrical School that trained actors and directors, and the Imperial Russian Academy, to study Russian literature and language. She expanded the Imperial Academy of the Arts that trained architects, sculptors, and painters. On top of that, the book-loving empress established the first public library in Russia, the Imperial Public Library, that is nowadays the tenth largest in the world.

Now all of that was for the people, for herself, Catherine amassed a fantastic collection of 4,000 paintings from the greatest European masters, from Rembrandt to Raphael. She also bought 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals, and 10,000 engraved gems. And 38,000 books because when she arrived in Russia she was appalled to find out that the palaces’ libraries were almost empty. All her collectibles are now exhibited in the Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg.

Read also: This is the price of the 6 most expensive paintings in the world. You’ll never guess it

Religion: tolerance is key

During Catherine’s reign there was religious tolerance and no persecutions. The majority of Russians were of the Orthodox faith, and there were Muslim and Jewish minorities.

Catherine was not religious herself and did not treat any of the churches extraordinarily well. The national Orthodox Church suffered quite heavily under her, actually, for she expropriated their lands and made them dependent on the government.

The sovereign was pragmatic, she did not want any church to create problems for her by having too much autonomy, or interfering with government or education. But she respected their existence.

When the empress convoked the Legislative Commission that was to write the new laws, she invited Muslim erudites to participate. And even built towns and mosques for the Russian Muslims.

She also received the Jesuits -a Catholic order- when they were prosecuted in other European countries.

People of all faiths were safe in Catherine’s Russia.

But she taxed people of other faiths much more than she did the Orthodox Russians.

Foreign relations

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 -which she did-, and to the west, occupying lands in Eastern and even Central Europe (Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Caucasus, Belarus, Courland, Crimea).

Army and navy: finally the Black Sea Fleet

The Ottoman Empire had a reputation for invincibility. Yet, Catherine’s army defeated them more than once. Her army was one of the strongest and largest of Europe. And now that she had access to the Black Sea, she built herself a fleet, which was a nice addition to her existing Baltic and Caspian fleets.

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. She observed her treaties with them so Russia would be perceived like less of a threat and they would not join forces against her. And she acted as an international mediator of disputes.

Commerce: Diversify

Catherine wanted Russia to become an economic powerhouse, so she lifted trading restrictions and encouraged commerce. For example, she signed a trading treaty with Great Britain in 1766. And she even sent a diplomatic mission to Japan to trade with them, but they turned her down.

Since in her vast territory many lands were unoccupied, she built towns and invited both Russians and foreigners to settle there to make the previously deserted areas prosperous.

Image: Improving Russia’s image in the West

The image of Russia greatly improved in Europe. In a few decades it changed from a backward unruly country to a European power player in its way to modernization; a nation which had arts and education in the forefront, had a powerful army -perhaps the most powerful of Europe-, beautiful cities, a cultured dazzling court, and was under strong leadership.

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8. Where did Catherine live? Her palaces

Catherine loved architecture, especially the Neoclassical style. She and her predecessors like Peter the Great and Elizabeth wanted to make Russian cities splendid. And one way was through architecture, both private and public. Peter the Great, for example, ordered his nobility to build stone palaces in his new capital, Saint Petersburg.

These are some of Catherine’s humble abodes:

Winter palace in Saint Petersburg. This large palace on the bank of the Neva River was the the official imperial residence. Peter the Great built it and Elizabeth expanded it. The Palace has 1,500 rooms and a floor space of 60,000 m² (646,000 ft²). Catherine built four smaller palaces next to it and connected them all. The complex is now a museum known as the Hermitage.

Catherine palace in Tsarkoe Selo, near St. Petersburg. Built by Catherine I as her summer residence. Her daughter, Empress Elizabeth, expanded it. Its front is 325 m long, and to gild it, 100 kg of gold were used. When Catherine the Great became empress she stopped the expansion of the palace projected by Elizabeth because it was too expensive, and instead refurnished the interiors to something more to her liking.

Peterhof Palace in Saint Petersburg. Peter the Great built this residence and his daughter Elizabeth added to it. Catherine inherited it.

Catherine Palace, Moscow. It was Empress Anna’s favorite palace, but it burned down in 1746. Catherine demolished the rests and hired Italian architects to build her a new Neoclassical home.

Oranienbaum, Saint Petersburg. Empress Elizabeth gave this palace to Catherine and her husband Peter to be their residence. Later on, Catherine built a smaller palace in the grounds: the Chinese Palace.

Gifts and palatial inns

Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, near St. Petersburg. Catherine started it from scratch and gave it to her favorite grandson, the future Tsar Alexander, as a wedding present. Again it is a Neoclassical building designed by Catherine’s favorite architect, Giacomo Quarenghi.

The Marble Palace, St. Petersburg. Another gift. She commissioned it for long-time lover Grigory Orlov. The gorgeous Neoclassical palace rises on the banks of the Neva River and was designed by Italian architects. After Grigory’s death, Catherine bought it from his heirs.

Tver Palace. The tsars constantly traveled between Moscow and Saint Petersburg, which are 635 km (395 mi) apart. So Catherine built 11 travel lodges for the imperial caravan to rest. One of them was Tver Palace. Petroff Palace was another.

Now read: Living like a king: take a look at the 5 largest palaces in the world

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9. What about the serfs during Catherine’s reign?

Can we abolish it?
Painting. From the porch of a house a man reads a document. Many men stand in front of the house, in the snow, listening to him.
Many Russian emperors tried to abolish serfdom. Alexander II finally succeeded in 1861, setting free 23 million people. Liberation of the serfs by Boris Kustodiev, 1907. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

Serfdom is the blemish in the resume of this extraordinary ruler. Many Russian emperors before and after Catherine tried to abolish it, unsuccessfully. It was only in 1861 that Emperor Alexander II was able to eradicate this form of slavery. He freed Russia’s 23 million privately-owned serfs (37% of the population). And five years later he freed the state’s serfs, another 23 million.

Catherine herself had called this institution inhumane. In 1767 she recommended her Legislative Commission to abolish it, writing in her Instruction that serfs were “just as good as we are.”

Who were the serfs?

Serfs were Russia’s lower social class. They had almost no rights. They belonged to the land they were born in and worked for the owner of the land. Serfs could not own property. If they displeased their lord, he could simply kill them.

Russia’s economy, based on agriculture, depended on serf-labor.

Catherine grants them a few rights

Catherine did outlaw the murder of serfs. And they did have the right to appeal to the empress if one of their few rights had been trampled on. Catherine ordered the courts across the country to hear the claims of the serfs. Thanks to that, instead of having to travel all the way to her court, which was impossible for most, they could go to their closest court of law. Some of them even won their case and gained their freedom.

But overall Catherine failed both the serfs and her own high ideals. Once more, pragmatism ruled.

The setback: Pugachev’s rebellion
Painting. A chaotic scene of war inside a city. A man orders his soldiers to kill another man that tries to retreat. In the background a priest fends off the invaders with a cross and a women is kidnapped.
A Cossack named Pugachev wanted to dethrone Catherine. He amassed one million followers among peasants, serfs, and Cossacks. They sacked towns and killed thousands of people. Assault of Kazan by Pugachev by Otto von Moller, 1847. (Photo: Russian Museum/Public domain)

In 1773 -eleven years into Catherine’s reign- there was a rebellion led by a man called Pugachev who roused the always-ready-to-rouse Cossacks (an ethnic group) and the peasants. He proclaimed, among other things, the end of serfdom and that he would give serfs lands… after he deposed the empress. At first nobody in the high spheres took the rebellion very seriously. There were plenty of peasant rebellions all the time. But this revolt kept gaining momentum and different ethnic groups joined in.

They destroyed and sacked cities. Pugachev told his followers to kill the noblemen. They did. They killed thousands. After the rebels captured the fortress of Tatishchevskaya, they skinned the commander, raped his daughter, and murdered his wife.

It turned into the largest peasant revolt in Russia’s history.

When the insurgents were on their way to Moscow, the Russian army, which was engaged in a war against the Ottoman Empire, had to hastily wrap up things there and march towards Pugachev and his one million armed rebels. The army crushed the insurgents before they arrived in Moscow.

The aftermath of the rebellion
Painting. Scene outdoors. A man sits under the porch of a house, like in a throne. In front of him captive women and men kneel in despair while a standing man is brought to him to be judged.
But the rebellion backfired. Catherine, previously sympathetic to their cause, now saw the serfs as a threat to the stability of the country. Pugachev Administering Justice to the Population by Vasily Perov, 1875 (Photo: The Russian Museum/Public domain)

The revolt showed Catherine many weak points in the administration of her territory. But most importantly, it completely changed her view of the peasants and serfs. Until then she had seen them as harmless victims. Now she saw them as a threat to the stability of the empire.

Before, she had been open to affront the serf-owning nobility a little bit in order to ease the serfs lives. But after the rebellion she realized she needed the nobility at her side, and she needed them at full strength. So she tightened the bonds of the serfs to their lords.

The rebellion utterly backfired, sending enlightened Catherine into a 180 degree spin regarding her serfdom views. Which were further confirmed by the French Revolution of 1789 which declared that monarchs were not divine and proceeded to kill their mortal monarchs. She was now seeing the danger of her too liberal French ideas.

At the end of Catherine’s reign the serfs were worse off than when she ascended to the throne. And many peasants were in a poorer situation too.

Don’t miss: These 7 unlucky aristocrats ended up as white slaves in Africa, Asia, and North America

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10. Catherine the Great and the horse: How did she really die?

There were no horses involved in Catherine the Great’s death.

Painting of Catherine in her sixties. She is outdoors walking a small dog. She wears a blue coat and a hat.
Catherine II during a walk in the Tsarskosyelsky Park by Vladimir Borovikovsky, 1794. (Photo: Tretyakov Gallery/Public domain)

After she died her enemies, or perhaps popular malice, circulated the story that she had died while trying to have sex with a horse. Supposedly the horse was brought to her chambers and was suspended over her bed thanks to a mechanical device. She would have been under the horse. But the mechanical device broke, the horse fell on her, she was crushed under its weight and died. The malevolent legend said. But there is not even one bit of truth in that story.

Catherine’s death is well documented, and she died of natural causes, of a stroke, when she was 67 years old.

On 16 November 1796 Catherine woke up and followed her usual routine. Her coffee was brought in, she drank it and sat down to write. Usually, then, she would summon her chamberlain. But this morning she did not, for three hours. The chamberlain thought it very strange and went in to check on her. He found her laying unconscious on the floor. He called the doctor, but Catherine remained unconscious. The next day, at 9:45 pm, she died. According to her autopsy she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.

After her death her body, with her face uncovered, was on display for six weeks. It had not been crushed.

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11. Where is she buried?

Catherine the Great is buried at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, where almost all of Russia’s Emperors are interred.

The interior of a lavishly decorated church. There are two marble tombs with big golden crosses on the lids.
Catherine’s tomb is on the left, her husband Peter’s, on the right. Peter and Paul Cathedral, St. Petersburg. (Photo: El Pantera/CCBYSA1.0)

After Catherine died her secretary discovered her will which stated: “Lay out my corpse dressed in white, with a golden crown on my head (…).” Her instructions were followed, they did place the golden crown on her head but she wore a beautiful silver brocade dress instead of the white she asked for.

Her son laid her body on a ceremonial bed inside the Grand Gallery’s chamber of mourning, a richly decorated room in the palace. Surrounding her were the coats of arms of all the towns of Russia. Her body was on display in that room for six weeks, and then she was buried at Peter and Paul’s Cathedral, next to her husband Peter III.

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12. Who succeeded Catherine the Great?

Painted portrait, full figure. A man in military uniform stands. He wears a blue sash and hold a sword in his hand.
Catherine was succeeded by her son Paul, although she left the throne to her grandson who she thought more capable. Paul I by Stepan Shchukin, 1797. (Photo: Tretyakov Gallery/Public domain)

Catherine the Great was succeeded by her son Paul, who became Emperor Paul I of Russia, although that had not been her plan. The tsars could choose their heir, and Catherine had picked her favorite grandson Alexander, Paul’s son.

Catherine never had a close relationship with her son, since as soon as he was born he was taken away from her to be raised by Empress Elizabeth. Catherine seldom saw him. Then she killed his father and took Paul’s throne. So the relationship did not become warmer. Catherine knew her son had a stronger claim to the throne that she did -perhaps that is why she wrote in her memoirs that he was illegitimate-, and she kept him away from government even as an adult.

Catherine, either out of jealousy or truly, did not think Paul was fit to govern, so she named Alexander as her heir. But when Catherine died, Paul seized the throne. A bad move, as it turned out, because he was killed five years later.

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13. Which Royal Families descend from Catherine the Great?

The Royal Families of England, Spain, The Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden descend from Catherine.

England: Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip, descends from her. Therefore, so do Prince Charles and his sons William and Harry.

Spain: King Felipe IV descends from Catherine not once, but thrice through his mother, Queen Sofia.

The Netherlands: King Willem-Alexander descends, through his mother Queen Beatrix, from two granddaughters of Catherine the Great: from Anna Pavlovna, Queen Consort of the Netherlands, and from her sister the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna.

Denmark: Queen Margrethe II is almost the winner, descending from Catherine four times, twice though her mother Ingrid of Sweden and twice through her father Frederick of Denmark.

Sweden. King Carl Gustaf is a first cousin of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, so he too descends twice from Catherine.

The Royal Family of Greece, which no longer rules in Greece, descends from Catherine… seven times.

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14. Where Catherine’s children illegitimate?

A tough question to answer with absolute certainty. Catherine had three recognized children. One of them was certainly born out of wedlock, the other two were officially Peter’s, but no one is certain if they were biologically his.

Peter recognized the first two children

Catherine had 3 lovers while she was married to Peter. Many people believe her first child and heir, Paul Petrovich Romanov, born in 1754, was actually the son of Sergei Saltykov. The royal marriage had been childless for 8 years, and only after Catherine began her affair with Sergei she became pregnant with Paul.

Her second daughter, Anna, who died in infancy, was born in 1757 and her father may have been the Polish prince Stanislaw Poniatowski. Peter recognized both children.

The third child was a secret

Her third child, though, Catherine did not even try to pass as Peter’s. She directly sent him to be raised elsewhere, as aristocratic women did with unwanted children. Alexei Grigorievich Bobrinksy was born in April 1762, during the months Peter was the emperor. And his father was Grigory Orlov, no other than the man that months later helped Catherine depose Peter.

Almost 20 years later, when Catherine was the empress, she sent a letter to Alexei telling him she was his mother. And more than a decade later, when Catherine’s son, Paul, ascended to the throne, he called his half-brother to court and made him a count. By then Alexei was already rich since his father, Orlov, had left him all his fortune in his will.

There are rumors that Catherine had a fourth child with the love of her life, Grigory Potemkin in 1775, when she was a widow. The girl’s name is Elizabeth Grigoryevna Temkina, but Catherine never recognized her, and scholars now believe she was not their daughter.

Catherine hinted they were all illegitimate

Catherine herself, in her memoirs, heavily hints that none of her children were Peter’s. And that when Peter found out about her pregnancy with Anne he commented in front of others that he did not know where his wife got these pregnancies from.

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15. Did Catherine really have 12 lovers?

Portrait of a man in military uniform. He wear several decorations on his chest and a blue sash.
The empress had 12 lovers. Grigory Potemkin (pictured) was the love of her life. They were together for 17 years until his death. some believe they were secretly married. Painting by  JB von Lampi the Elder. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

Yes, according to scholars Catherine the Great had at least 12 lovers. But she may have had up to 22. Among the 12 well-known ones only one was older than she. They all had a military background and usually came from the minor nobility.

The empress was always in a relationship. She said in a letter that the trouble was that her heart could not spend one hour without love.

Three lovers during her marriage

Her first lover was Count Sergei Saltykov. Catherine was 23-years-old and had been married for 8 years when Sergei started pursuing her. They began an extra-marital relationship but once he conquered the Grand Duchess, Sergei lost interest.

Her second lover was Stanislaw Poniatowski, a nobleman from Poland who fell madly in love with Catherine. Their affair lasted 4 years.

Then came Grigory Orlov who helped her depose her husband. Catherine was in love and they were together for 12 years, until she found out about his infidelities.

The Empress’ favorites

After her husband’s death she had 9 more lovers: Alexander Vasilchikov, Pyotr Zavadovsky, Semyon Zorich, Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov, Aleander Lanskoi, Alexander Yermolov, Alexander Mamonov, and Platon Zubov. Some she loved, others she was in lust with.

The great love of her life was Prince Grigory Potemkin with whom she had a relationship of 17 years. Some believe they were secretly married and had an open relationship. Potemkin co-ruled with Catherine.

Read more: Catherine the Great’s lovers: these are the 12 men she loved

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16. Did Catherine the Great cross-dress?

Painting. Outdoors scene. Empress Catherine is dressed like a general and is on horseback. She is surrounded by men in similar outfit riding their horses.
Catherine in male military uniform. She rode astride like a man (to Empress Elizabeth’s horror). Painting by L. Pasternak, 20th century. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

Usually, no, Catherine the Great did not cross-dress. But there were three specific situations in which she did. One was when she was married and was carrying on her affairs. In an attempt to not be recognized, sometimes she left her palace dressed as a man. The second situation were military or hunting events in which she used male uniform.

Then there were the balls. Empress Elizabeth, the aunt of Catherine’s husband, was a lively woman that liked to dance. So she gave a ball every Tuesday for her friends that somehow became a cross-dressing ball where men were to attend dressed as women, and women dressed as men. Supposedly it had to do with Elizabeth’s vanity. The empress had always been the most beautiful woman of the court and, therefore, had developed a vain side. She liked how her legs looked in tight male pants. So for Tuesday balls everyone, including Catherine, showed up in the opposite sex’s clothes. When Catherine became empress, she kept throwing the balls out of tradition.

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17. Was Catherine a nymphomaniac and did she collect erotic furniture?

No on the nymphomaniac charge. Catherine was a person with a strong sexual appetite, but she did not have an addiction. Like it happens to politicians and anyone that is in the public eye, there were rumors and exaggerations about her life. Since she was known to take younger lovers, both her enemies and the people spun tales about her libido. They joked she was insatiable, that she laid with barn animals, and so one and so forth.

Furniture with erotic decorations

As to the erotic furniture, there were rumors that the Empress had furniture that was decorated with erotic motives such as naked entwined lovers. Supposedly, two German soldiers that busted into the palace during World War II found the furniture and took pictures of it. But there are a lot of discrepancies in their story. And since the furniture has not made it to our days -and the few pictures that have are of dubious origin-, let’s file this one under “maybe.”

Sex toys

Catherine was also supposed to have dildos. None were found after her death, but the people close to her could have vanished them after she died.

Now, in her memoirs Catherine does say she pleasured herself. When she was about 13 or 14, and still lived in Germany, at night she would place a thick pillow between her legs and “ride it” until she was exhausted. So that she would have had dildos is not a far-fetched idea.

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