Was Catherine really Great? (Part One: 1729-1762)

Updated: Aug 7

-Part One features her birth in 1729 to when she became Empress in 1762-


Two hundred and sixty years ago (1762), Catherine the Great became Empress of Russia.

Catherine II of Russia in Front of Mirror by Vigilius Eriksen, c. 1763 (Source: Hermitage Museum)
Catherine II of Russia in Front of Mirror by Vigilius Eriksen, c. 1763 (Source: Hermitage Museum)

Over the years there has been A LOT written about Catherine; whether it was the continuation of popular myths or articles debunking those “facts” as rumour, she is one of the most famous women of history.


Despite being one of the most well-known women of history her story is often overshadowed by other female monarchs such as Queen Elizabeth I and Marie Antionette.


Why is this the case?


Is it because she came to power through insurrection and didn’t necessarily conform to the norms of the day OR is it because she was Queen of a place the western world doesn’t often explore?


In addition to these questions, we must also ask what it was that actually made her “great”?


It may seem odd to be writing a blog about a Russian Monarch given I spend so much time writing about the atrocities by Russia in Ukraine however I have always been fascinated by what Catherine was able to accomplish as a woman who was not a native Russian.


Having said that, this time when I sat down to write about her, I found myself looking at some of her actions in a different light, especially when it comes to her land expansion and suppression of ethnic groups.


Keep reading and decide for yourself, was she worthy of being remembered as “great”?


Fact One: Catherine was NOT Russian

Let’s take a step back and see how it was she came to power.


Born on the 2 May 1729 as Princess Sophie, into the Kingdom of Prussia (which at the time was under the rule of the Holy Roman Empire). She was of Germanic and Polish ancestry with her cousins in line for thrones across Europe.


Sophie lived a normal life until she became a political pawn in the rivalry between Prussia, Austria and Russia. Her marriage to Peter III of Russia (her second cousin) was orchestrated by the Prussian’s to strengthen ties with Russia, undermining the Russian relationship with Austria.

Grand Duke Peter and his wife Grand Duchess Catherine by George Grooth, c. 1745 (Source Odessa Art Museum)
Grand Duke Peter and his wife Grand Duchess Catherine by George Grooth, c. 1745 (Source Odessa Art Museum)

When she arrived in Russia, Catherine (as she would become known) was committed to her task. She set about learning the language and customs while also working hard to impress Empress Elizabeth (the ruling Russian Monarch) and the Russian people. She even converted to the Orthodox Church (this was when she changed her name) which deeply upset some of her family, especially her Father who was a devout Lutheran.

On 21 August 1745, now aged 16, she married the 17-year-old Peter who had become Duke of Holstein-Gottorp several years earlier.


Much has been written about how unsuccessful their marriage was and how immature Peter was. In fact, the marriage is said to not have been consummated for many years and it was only after pressure from Empress Elizabeth for an heir to secure the line of succession that the couple took steps to fulfil their “royal duty”. (Elizabeth had named Peter, her Nephew, as heir but the line needed to be solidified).


Fact Two: Catherine was NOT the first Empress of Russia, nor was she the first to come to power under difficult times.

Empress Elizabeth, whom Catherine had worked so hard to impress, was the reigning Monarch when Catherine came to Russia.


Elizabeth was the second daughter of Peter the Great and her path to the throne had not been straight forward. Upon the death of her Father, her Mother Catherine I (yes Catherine the Great is actually Catherine II but that is often overlooked), assumed the throne however after just two years in power she also died, having named Peter II (Grandson of Peter the Great, Elizabeth’s nephew by her half-brother) her heir.


Peter II ruled for just three years before he died childless, ending the male line of the Romanov dynasty (the Russian ruling family). This left five women a claim to the throne: two of Peter the Great’s daughters and three of his brother’s, Ivan’s daughters. [This is a whole other interesting topic that I’ll look to discuss in another blog].


It is a bit confusing what happened next but jumping forward, it was one of Ivan’s daughter’s that gained the throne, Anna.

Empress Elizabeth by Carle Vanloo, 1760
Empress Elizabeth by Carle Vanloo, 1760

Looking even further forward, this time a decade, and upon her death she named two-month-old Ivan VI Emperor. While Ivan was a direct descendant of Ivan and her nephew his rule was opposed by the descendants of Peter the Great.


This brought Elizabeth to the fore and in a military coup she seized the throne in late 1741, naming Peter III (her nephew) as her heir.


That was VERY abridged version of the story and a side-track from the main point of this blog BUT the reason I digress is to point out that Catherine was not the first Empresses of Russia. In fact, she was one of a great chain of female Russian rulers. She also followed one very popular female leader, Elizabeth.


Empress Elizabeth (who deserves a whole other blog herself) was very popular with the people which is why it was important for Catherine to secure her favour and do as she suggested by producing an heir. Elizabeth understood the importance of this as she herself did not have a direct heir, Peter being her nephew after all. To ensure stability Peter needed a male heir to continue the line.


Fact Three: Catherine had many lovers (that depends on what you consider to be “many”).

By comparison to other world monarchs, it is not a fair statement that she had many lovers. Many male rulers of history had far more lovers than Catherine, who had 12 over her lifetime, however as she is a woman, history presents her sexual life in a very different light.


With the pressure of Elizabeth behind them the young couple needed to produce an heir. Thus, in 1752, seven years after they were married, Catherine found herself pregnant. Unfortunately, this pregnancy ended in a miscarriage as did a subsequent pregnancy the next year.

Catherine is coronated by Aleksey Antropov, c. 1770 (Source Art Gallery Tver)
Catherine is coronated by Aleksey Antropov, c. 1770 (Source Art Gallery Tver)

Neither of these pregnancies were attributed to Catherine’s husband though. Both were thought to be the result of Catherine’s affair with a Russian Officer.


Owing to her unhappy marriage and failure to consummate her marriage with her husband for so many years Catherine looked elsewhere. Empress Elizabeth didn’t have any concern over Catherine’s affairs as long as a healthy male heir was produced first. Thus, Catherine continued to try for a child and she gave birth to the heir of the Russian throne, Paul I, on 1 October 1754.


Even today there are suggestions that Paul was not Peter’s son, rather being another pregnancy attributed to that Russian officer. Despite this Empress Elizabeth embraced Paul and removed him from his parents to raise him herself – intending to make him her direct heir.


Fact Four: Empress Elizabeth took Catherine’s children from her

It must be noted that in the last few years of Elizabeth’s reign she caused great upset to Catherine, especially when it came to her children. As noted above Elizabeth took on the role of surrogate mother to Paul and when Catherine gave birth to a second child in 1757, a little girl, Elizabeth once again stepped in.


The little girl was named Anna, after Elizabeth’s sister, a decision not supported by Catherine but what was she to do as after all her future as Empress rested on keeping good relations with Elizabeth. Catherine was also kept away from the little girl, including attending her baptism. Sadly, Anna died aged just 15 months with Catherine having barely known her.


The impact that this must have had on Catherine cannot be understated, even though she does not mention it in her memoirs.


Coronation Portrait of Catherine II by Stefano Torelli (Source: Hermitage Museum), 1763-1766
Coronation Portrait of Catherine II by Stefano Torelli (Source: Hermitage Museum), 1763-1766

Elizabeth likely maintained a close eye on Catherine’s son Paul as Elizabeth intended him to be the next Monarch. Despite her plans though, this didn’t happen and when Elizabeth died on 5 January 1762, Peter III became Emperor.


Just six months later Catherine was involved in the plot that overthrew him, ascending to the Russian throne on 17 July 1762, following the precedent set by Elizabeth’s own mother when Peter the Great died many years earlier.


Unlike when Elizabeth’s mother came to power though, Catherine’s reign would be long and relatively stable.


Catherine was crowned as sole monarch on 22 September 1762.


History talks of how she rose up over her husband but often fails to mention that he had a plan to remove her, so she acted swiftly by moving first. Indeed, he who hesitates loses.


Next Time:

This deep dive has grown beyond what I initially thought so I've split the blog into two parts. Next time I'll pick up the story from her coronation and delve into what it is that makes her "great" and question if she really deserves the "great" title.


Part Two: HER REIGN (CLICK HERE)


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Further Reading:

  • Robert K. Massie, “Catherine the Great: Portrait of A Woman”, (New York: Random House, 2012) - I highly recommend this book!

  • Polina Yermakova and Nina Zhutovsky (publishers), Paul Williams (English Translation), “The Hermitage in 1 Hour: Staterooms and Masterpieces”, (St. Petersburg: ARCA Publishers, 2013)

  • Meilan Solly, “The Story of Catherine the Great”, Smithsonian Magazine (15 May 2020), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-catherine-great-180974863/

  • “Catherine the Great: Empress of Russia”, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Catherine-the-Great

  • Mary Mason, "The Treasures of Catherine the Great from the State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg", Antiques and Collecting Magazine, Issue 106, no. 3.


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