Empress of all Russia 1762-1796
Her father was an German military princeling named Christian August, and her mother was Princess Joanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp.
She originally came to Russia at the invitation of Empress Elizaveta (Elizabeth) to become the wife of the heir to the throne, Peter Feodorovich. She was christened into the Orthodox church as Kkaterina Alexeevna, or Catherine. Peter was not the son of Elizabeth he was her nephew. He was the son of Elizabeth's late sister Anne.
Peter hated everything Russian. And since he was going to be the future Czar of Russia this was not a good thing. Elizabeth decided that the only solution to this problem was marriage. After careful consideration she chose Sophia.
Sophia and her mother came to Russia in 1744. Sophia was 14. Sophia quickly realized that to be popular in Russia she would need to learn the Russian language. She worked very hard to achieve mastery of the language. So hard, in fact, that she would stay up late studying. She would sit up in her nightgown reading and she caught a cold that developed into pneumonia. While she was sick Empress Elizabeth got rid of all the doctors (because she thought they were incompetent)and nursed Sophia back to health herself. Sophia became formally engaged to Peter in June. In 1745 Peter suddenly caught the smallpox. Elizabeth set out to take care of him. She stayed with him until he was well. When Peter finally got better he was seriously pockmarked. And when Catherine saw him, she was horrified. Later that year when Catherine was just sixteen years old she and Peter were married. Her wedding dress was magnificent. It had a tiny 18 inch waist, a wide hoop skirt and an immense silver lace cloak covered with jewels.
Their marriage was obviously an unhappy one because on June 28, 1762, with the support of the Imperial Guard, she overthrew her husband Peter III. Before the coup support for Catherine was widespread, and Peter had been suspicious. Early on the morning of June 28, Catherine left her estate at Peterhof, outside of St. Petersburg, and departed for the city. Everything had been prepared in advance, and when she arrived she was greeted with cheers by both the troops of her factional supporters and the populace. By the next morning, Peter was confronted with a fait accompli--and a prepared declaration of his abdication. After his abdication, he was imprisoned in Ropshinskii Castle, where on July 7, 1762, he was murdered by her lover Orlov. Catherine solidified her position by awarding her supporters with high government positions and grants of land, money and serfs.
She was crowned Empress of All Russia on September 22, 1762, in the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin. Her rule was one of the best in all Russian History. She also gave birth to a son, his name was Paul.
Catherine spent about three billion dollars upon her innumerable lovers. A lot of money went into art. But by 1789, the sixty year old Catherine "was very fat (and toothless)" But one of the artists who painted her portrait described her as follows:
|"She still had a handsome face. She was described as one having genius stamped upon her brow. On days when she appeared in state, everything about her - the head held high, the eagle eyes, the assured bearing that comes with the habit of command - was so majestic that she seemed to rule the world."|
Catherine was a great admirer of Peter the Great. Peter the Great had sent out a several mapping expeditions. It was the job of these mapping expeditions to chart all of the Russian Empire. Among the many territories they charted was Russian America, or Alaska. Catherine felt it would be wise to finish the work of exploration that he had started. She also wanted the rich furs that were available in Alaska to trade with the Chinese.
One of her most important achievements was to found the first Russian school for girls. She also founded a medical college to provide health care for her subjects. She wanted to gain as much control over her empire as she could. Catherine sent Gregorii Shelikhov to Alaska to control the fur trade. His company, the Shelikhov Trading company and its successor, the Russian-American Company controlled the fur industry. Catherine supposedly believed in free trade. When she gave the exclusive trading rights of all of the North Pacific trade to Shelikhov this reputation was severely dented. Catherine denied awarding such privileges to anyone.
Catherine died from a heart attack on November 6, 1796 in St. Petersburg, and was buried in the Cathedral of the St. Peter and St. Paul Fortress. When Catherine the Great died she was succeeded by her son Paul I. Catherine never really liked Paul, and her son didn't really like her either. Paul's reign lasted only five years and was a complete disaster. The best thing he did was build the remarkable and tragic Engineer's Castle in St. Petersburg. Paul was succeeded by his son Alexander I, who is remembered mostly for having been the ruler of Russia during Napoleon Bonaparte's Russian Campaign.
Catherine's achievements were many. She left Russia much stronger, more prosperous and beautiful than she had found it. That she failed in much she had set out to do had less to do with her and more to do with human nature. Catherine was unable to transform Russia through her will alone. Since she was unwilling to use terror or force to transform society, she chose a more patient path, hoping to gradually raise the level of culture by legislation, education, and example. She single-handedly grafted onto Russian rootstock the bud-wood of western culture, which was taken and remolded two generations later into something marvelous. Her contributions to Alaska's History were great as well. She laid the foundation for the Russians to come over and settle in Alaska, adding to our rich history.
© Copyright 1997 Elizabeth Beckett and Sarah Teel
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