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Was Catherine really Great? (Part Two: 1762 - 1796)

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

-Part Two: The Reign of Catherine II-

Two hundred and sixty years ago (1762), Catherine "the Great" became Empress of Russia, the second Catherine to reign over Russia (thought she was the first didn't you? See part one for who actually came first)!

Part one of this series (told through 4 facts) ended with the death of her husband and Catherine being named sole ruler of Russia. This is where part two picks up the story or her reign and I ask "was she really great"?

Let's begin with Fact Five!

Fact Five: Catherine’s illegitimate child started a Nobel Russian line that still continues today.

Count Alexi Bobrinsky by Carl Ludwig Christinek, 1770

Catherine’s third was born a few months after Elizabeth’s death and, though he was born at the Winter Palace, he did not grow up in the royal family.

This child, named Alexi, was the result of Catherine’s affair with Grigory Orlov, a Russian Nobel and one of the main orchestrators of Catherine’s rise to power.

Despite the subsequent fall of her husband and her rise to power, Alexi was an illegitimate child and so was raised in a village at Bobriki.

Catherine did not deny that she was his mother and when her son Paul came to the throne, he made his half-brother the first Count of Bobrinsky. This royal line continues to have descendants today.

Fact Six: Catherine can give Queen Victoria a run for her money as the “Grandmother of Europe”.

Queen Victoria of England is remembered as the “Grandmother of Europe” with most of Europe’s royal families descending from her. Catherine has a similar, although less remembered, history.

Catherine’s descendants include the British royal family (Prince Philip was a direct descendent of her thus the current British royals continue that line), the current Danish and Spanish royal families as well as countless extinct monarchies.

To be fair, due to all of the inbreeding in the royal families almost all historic monarchs are in a similar boat where their heirs continue the dynasties today.

My tourist photo outside the Hermitage, 2014 (keep reading for why this photo is here)

Fact Seven: During her Reign Catherine Acquired 38,000 books!

Considered a great Enlightened leader, Catherine interacted with the leaders of this era all across Europe and engaged in the creation of a well-established culture of education in Russia.

She moulded a court that rivalled the highly acclaimed French Court at Versailles and much of what occurred during her reign would help establish the Russian identity.

Though enlightened herself, she acknowledged that Russia was a few steps behind, so her reform was slow in nature.

She had intended to emancipate the Serfs (the lowest Russian class basically impoverished servants to the land) however given the economic troubles faced by her reign and the fact that she needed the support of the landed gentry to maintain her rule she stopped short of this act. In fact, and this is where the story changes, she imposed serfdom on the Ukrainians who until this point had been free. She would also go on to annex most of Ukraine to Russia (sound familiar)?

She was “Great” in what she accomplished but it was on the back of the increasingly difficult plight of the serfs.

Fact Eight: Catherine Established the Hermitage Museum Collection

One of Catherine’s "great" contributions to the world of culture was in the establishment of the Hermitage.

During her reign as Empresses, she became a great collector of art from many of the renowned artists across Europe such as Rembrandt and Raphael.

Catherine II as Minerva by Stefano Torelli, 1770 (Source: Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia)

She had a special wing added to the Winter Palace to store and exhibit her growing collection. This wing became the origins of the Hermitage and the building erected is what today is called the “small hermitage”.

During her reign Catherine acquired over 4,000 artworks, a collection that rivalled many of the great European ones and contributed to the growing position of Russia on the world cultural stage. Despite this, the Hermitage would remain a private collection, not accessible by the public until 1852.

Catherine is said to have taken a shine to the Roman deity Minerva, the Goddess of wisdom but also one associated with military power. It was in Minerva that Catherine saw herself and across the cultural sphere she was associated and depicted alongside Minerva.

Fact Nine: Catherine is known by the adjective “Great”

True, but what made her great?

Catherine led a very successful reign of Russian advancement and expansion. It is thanks to her that Crimea and much of Poland entered Russian hands, in fact she installed one of her lovers and thus devout supporters as the King of Poland (a region that had struggled to exist as an independent entity, thus leading to great instability as various powers vied for it, now it was a kingdom of its own – under Russian influence of course).

This would eventually be overturned though when the Polish began to raise their voices, Catherine acted swiftly to wipe it once again off the map and divide the territory between Russia, Prussia and Austria.

(Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Under her reign, and that of her husband it must be said, the allegiance of Russia in the Seven Years War (a rather confusing conflict that saw most nations of Europe battling for supremacy) was changed from the side of Austria to that of Prussia. This change didn’t last long though and the next year Catherine completely withdrew Russia from the war.

It is Catherine we have to thank for laying the groundwork for much of today’s conflict in Ukraine. Under her rule Russia expanded their territory into modern day Ukraine, including Crimea in 1783 (to read more about Crimea you can check out my blog

The Ukrainian port city of Odessa was established by Catherine and remained an important sea port from which the grain trade progressed.

Alongside her advancements of Russia though many ethnic minorities suffered greatly. I recently wrote a blog about one of the most decimated during this era, the Circassian's. To read about their plight Click Here.

In Conclusion...

Catherine II during a walk in the Tsarskosyelsky Park by Vladimir Borovikovsky, 1794 (Source: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia)

One of Russia’s greatest historical figures is in fact not Russian but across Russia this is not emphasised and she is considered one of their greatest rulers. She ruled as a strong female until her death aged 67, in November 1796.

It is easy to be caught up in the hype of “Catherine the Great” but as we weigh up what greatness cost to those not just in Russia but also those in surrounding territories we need to ask, was she really great?

Under her rule Russian influence grew across Europe and Russia began to be regarded as a player at the table by the other great nations of the continent. Russian land was also expanded significantly which is one of the main reasons she is regarded as such a great hero of Russia, but does that mean she should be universally known as “great”?

That is a question I’ll leave you to ponder.


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),

  • “Catherine the Great: Empress of Russia”, Encyclopedia Britannica,

  • 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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