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Portrait of Catherine the Great
          The reign of Catherine the Great, Empress of all the Russias, is a remarkable story which proved to be of colossal and lasting significance for both European political affairs and Russian civilization. But, in order to understand how the young Prussian princess gained authority over the whole Empire and “set [the] pattern of Russia’s development in the nineteenth century” (Raeff, 321), one should recognize the series of events that formed Catherine. Historians such as Marc Raeff, the author of the book Catherine the Great, and Vincent Cronin and Henri Troyat, who captured Catherine’s biography in their works Catherine, Empress of All the Russias and Catherine la Grande, explicate Catherine’s persona in their historical studies and help us understand the development of Catherine’s character.
          Sophie Augusta Frederika, who later became Catherine II, Empress of all the Russias, was born on April 21, 1729,  into the family of Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst, “a person of no great importance, one of those obscure and impecunious princes of whom there was such a profusion in the fragmented Germany of the eighteenth century” (Troyat, 2). But, despite the fact that the family was not affluent, the parents knew how to maintain the essentials of rank. From her very first days, Sophie was surrounded with “tutors, dancing masters, music teachers, servants with ill-defined functions, ladies-in-waiting” (Troyat, 2) and initiated into the customs and traditions of the European courts. As was common among aristocratic children, Sophie’s relationship with her mother, Johanna, was not very affectionate. Joanna never considered her daughter smart or beautiful, so Sophie had come to think of herself as ugly. Catherine wrote later in her memoirs that: “I was merely tolerated, and often I was scolded with violence and anger I did not deserve.” However, she further remembered “my father, whom I saw less often, thought I was an angel” (Troyat, 3). But there was one common pleasure that united Sophie with her mother; they both liked travel, and Johanna, always eager to escape the monotonous and lifeless life of Stettin, seized any excuse to visit the many families connected to the Anhalt-Zerbsts and the Holstein-Gottorps. That was the way Sophie learned the genealogy of all the royal families of Europe: “She felt that she was entering a vast fraternity in which the ties of blood crossed national boundaries” (Troyat, 5). 
           In July of 1742, Frederick, King of Prussia, elevated Sophie’s father to the position of Field Marshall. Around this time Johanna entered into correspondence with the new Empress of Russia, Elizabeth, who before her rise to power had been engaged to Johanna’s brother, Karl August. This uncle of Catherine died of smallpox before the marriage. Knowing that Elizabeth had adopted her nephew Peter Ulrich, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, the heir to the throne of Sweden and the designated successor to the Russian throne, Johanna sent a portrait of Sophie to the Empress. Consequently, on the New Year’s Day of 1744, Johanna received a letter from Otto von Brümmer, Peter’s Swedish tutor, inviting her “with the Princess [Sophie] to come to [Russia] as soon as possible, and repair without loss of time to the place where our Imperial Court may then be found”(Cronin, 34). At the same time Otto von Brümmer made it clear that Johanna’s husband should “under no circumstances take part in the journey [and that] Her Majesty [had] very important reasons for wishing it so” (Cronin, 34). Christian August was not pleased with the invitation; he considered it too dangerous, given the style of government, Russia’s sinister history, and the method through which Elizabeth had come to power. 
          Russia in the eighteenth century encompassed a very complex mixture of peoples, languages and natural features that stretched at least five thousand five hundred miles from Poland in the west to the Pacific in the east (Cronin). The government was an autocracy, a political system governed by a single individual (www.hyperdictionary.com), in its most precise meaning. But the size and nature of the government were not the only aspects that distinguished Russia from the rest of Europe: “If the constituent elements of Europe are taken to be the Western Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church, the Renaissance and the Reformation, Russia lacked all four. Russia also lacked feudalism: there had never been a strong nobility to contest the Tsar’s claim to treat all Russia as his patrimony, and to rule it as an autocrat” (Cronin, 36). In 1682, young Peter I, also known as Peter the Great, succeeded the throne. He decided to break the pattern and bring Russia out of the past into the present. However, the Church discouraged any changes. Anything untraditional or new was forbidden, and “the more backward Russia became, the better pleased were the clergy” (Cronin, 36).   Seeing that the Church had too much power, he seized monastic estates, replaced the office of Patriarch with the Holy Synod, so ending the situation where the Patriarch’s word was equal to the Tsar’s. He also developed forests, mines and fur trades and imposed new taxes. 
          After the death of Peter and his wife, Catherine I, the throne passed to Peter II, and three years later to Anna Ivanova, the niece of Peter the Great, who entrusted the state affairs to her German lover, Ernest Biron. Biron was a brutal man who used his powers to enrich himself. Later Anna Ivanovna was succeeded by Anna Leopoldovna, half German and married to a German, Anton Ulrich of Brunswick. Thus, the opposition against “Germanization” was growing very rapidly: “Xenophobia spread and was made more virulent by the Church. In confessions priests told penitents that just as the people of God might not mix with the Moabites, so the people of Holy Russia must not mix with foreigners” (Cronin, 39). In view of these events, Sophie’s position was not the most advantageous one; she was a German princess and a Lutheran. 
          After forty days’ journey, Johanna and Sophie arrived in Moscow where they met with Peter III, Sophie’s cousin and future husband, whom she had not seen since they were children. They were also introduced to Empress Elizabeth for the first time. Sophie was stunned by both personages. Elizabeth “displayed a curious mixture of laziness and obstinacy, coquetry and cruelty, piety and licentiousness. Her amorous excesses, her taste for orgies and her mania for clothes did not stop her from fearing God and worshiping icons….Although she spoke French, Italian and German fluently, she had little education and questionable manners” (Toryat, 26). While welcomed by Peter and pleased by his liking of her, Sophie “found his conversation childish and his feelings dubious.” She was later to write in her memoirs: “I saw and understood that he cared but little for the nation over which he was destined to rule, that he clung to Lutheranism, that he had no affection for those about him, and that he was very much a child” (Troyat, 28). 
          But Sophie immediately realized that the Empress’s opinion of her would count for more than Peter’s, and the possible marriage would be influenced by political views as much as by personal fondness. So she originated a plan to please the Empress in any possible way. Sophie realized that “she must become as Russian as if she had been born on Russian soil…. She accelerated her study of the Russian language and Orthodox religion” (Troyat, 29). She also observed Elizabeth very closely and was amazed to see that “the Empress as a ruler felt no embarrassment on account on her womanhood. Lacking Aristotle and the Western Fathers, the Russians had no belief that woman is ‘inferior’ and that it is ‘unnatural’ for her to rule over men” (Cronin, 54). Sophie also noticed the precision with which Elizabeth followed religious observances and the way she wanted to stress her Russianness. This helped Sophie to explain some questions that had been tormenting her since she arrived in Russia: 
Why had Elizabeth been so insistent that [Sophie] give up Lutheranism? Because Lutheranism was the religion of Germans. Why had her father been asked not to come to Russia? Because he was a German prince, whose presence would emphasize [Sophie’s] German origins. Why indeed had Elizabeth chosen [Sophie] to marry Peter…? Because through her mother she belonged to the Holstein-Gottorp family, whom Peter the Great had cultivated because of their connections along the Baltic useful to Russia (Cronin, 54). 
All these observations only contributed to Sophie’s desire to succeed in the foreign country. She was willing to renounce her religion, learn the Russian language, and adapt the new culture. Sophie certainly understood that her father would be deeply grieved to find out about her decisions, but she also knew that her future depended on her ability to charm the Empress and the Russian people.
          So eager Sophie was to be “Russified” that she would get up at night and sit with her notebooks to memorize new words. She caught a cold, but her mother “ordered her to conceal her indisposition from the court” (Troyat, 30). A few days later Sophie was diagnosed with acute pneumonia. And while Johanna was criticizing her and complaining about  prescribed treatment, Empress Elizabeth was by Sophie’s side, pampering the poor child: “Even in her weakened condition [Sophie] realized how fortunate she was—suddenly she had a mother, and it was Elizabeth of Russia” (Troyat, 30). Elizabeth, indeed, had become a surrogate mother for Sophie, who, in turn, was very submissive and affectionate. 
          On June 28, less than five months after arriving in Russia, Sophie formally became a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Almost fluent in Russian, but with a slight German accent Sophie “read the long confession of faith unfalteringly, recited the Nicene Creed in its Orthodox form, declaring the Holy Spirit to proceed from the Father only, not, as in the Lutheran creed, from the Father and the Son” (Cronin, 53) and received a new name, which the Empress chose to be Catherine (Ekaterina). 
          While the young princess was gaining affection of those around her, her mother was arousing increasing hostility by one slip-up after another. Johanna’s selfishness nearly ruined Sophie’s chance to marry Peter III and become the Grand Duchess, and ultimately the Empress. “With her constant bustling about, intriguing and plotting”(Troyat, 31), Johanna had been conspiring “with the friends of France and Prussia to overthrow Vice-Chancellor Bestuzhev.” Without any regard for her daughter’s future, Johanna “criticized the Empress for her laziness, lax morals and passion for clothes… [and] presented [herself] as an agent in the service of King Frederick”(Troyat, 33) in her letters.  Fortunately, Elizabeth made a clear distinction between the guilty mother and the innocent daughter, which made Sophie to admire the Empress even more.  Moreover, after the betrothal, the little princess of Anhalt-Zerbst had become “Grand Duchess of Russia” and “Her Imperial Highness.” Johanna, however, was furious and “humiliated by this reversal of hierarchy”; when “the Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst wanted to see her daughter, she had to have herself announced” (Troyat, 38). Etiquette now required Johanna to show respect to her own daughter, whom not so long ago she would slap for misconduct. Johanna had never had strong emotional connections with her daughter, but since Elizabeth had taken charge of Sophie’s life, Sophie grew cold and aloof towards her mother. 
           Catherine’s relationship with Elizabeth, in contrast, was more open. However, while Elizabeth freely expressed her fondness of Catherine, she also displayed her displeasure whenever she disapproved of Catherine’s actions. She disciplined Catherine for her mistakes as parents discipline their children. For instance, when Catherine had run up too many debts, Elizabeth was infuriated with her and reminded Catherine that when she had been “only a Princess, she made it a point to be economical ‘because she knew that no one would pay her debts for her’” (Troyat, 41). 
          The wedding was set for August 21 of 1745, but the closer the wedding came, the more Catherine realized that it was going to be disastrous. Peter grew very cold and careless towards her: “Peter was waiting for her to align with him against the Empress. He had hung on to a Lutheran prayer book and sometimes read it; he wanted her to do the same. He liked talking German, and though it was forbidden by the Empress he wanted Catherine to speak German too….He wanted her in short to hate, as he hated, the Empress and Russia” (Cronin, 73). 
          Nonetheless, Catherine committed herself to Peter for life and as she had expected her married life turned into agony. Peter never showed any interest in her as a woman, while the Empress expected her to get pregnant right away (www.members.tripod.com). And just as little by little her marriage was becoming unbearable, “so day by day she was discovering the true Russia—barbarous, cruel, and wretched behind an appearance of civilization” (Troyat, 63). Catherine and Peter became “married prisoners”: “The Empress decided that the best means of getting [them] to consummate their marriage was to prevent either of them having special friends, male or female, and to place an exemplary married couple in charge of their household” (Cronin, 66). Catherine was afraid to be openly nice to anybody, for her acquaintances tended to disappear without any notice. Moreover, Johanna was to leave Russia right after the wedding, and Catherine then missed the woman whom she so often criticized: “Despite all her faults, she had been [Catherine’s] best friend” (Troyat, 55).
          For almost ten years Catherine remained childless and very much disappointed the Empress (www.members.tripod.com). Elizabeth realized her nephew’s incapacity as a husband but was afraid of twelve-year-old Tsar Ivan VI, who was the rightful occupant of the throne. The young Tsar was locked up with his parents in Schlüsselburg Prison after the Revolution in December 1741 when Elizabeth came to power. So Elizabeth, desperately in need of an heir, decided to secure her succession by any means possible, even if it might take another man to be the father of Catherine’s baby. On September 20, 1754, Catherine gave birth to Tsarevich Paul Petrovich: “As soon as the infant had been washed, wrapped in swaddling clothes and sprinkled with holy water by a priest, [Elizabeth] had the midwife bear him off to her own apartments ….In bringing her child into the world, Catherine had lost all rights over him. She was only a womb emptied of its contents. She was no longer of interest to anyone” (Troyat, 88). Peter’s reaction to the birth of the crown price was somewhat predictable; he chose to accept Paul as his son, avoiding public exposure of his prolonged incapacity as a husband. Moreover, by acknowledging Paul as his son, Peter had spared Elizabeth from further worries about her succession, and, thus, raised himself in the eyes of the Empress. 
          No longer of interest to anyone, Catherine found herself on her own. And as many times in her life she turned to books for contemplation. However, this time Catherine found herself interested in Russian history and its problems: “She looked forward to the day when she would be helping Peter to rule Russia….the old dream of a crown simply for the sake of a crown was replaced by a more mature and much more positive ambition: to bring the fruits of her reading…to benefit Russia and Russian people” (Cronin, 98). But the important changes in Catherine’s life coincided with those in the life of the Empress. Ivan Shuvalov, the cousin of Peter and Alexander Shuvalov, who helped Elizabeth to the throne, had become a new favorite of the Empress. Peter and Alexander, both ambitious men, used Ivan’s new position to gain more political power. They wished to conclude the Russo-French alliance, and Catherine was an obstacle of great significance for them since her father had fought France. Above all, it was her own “observation of France’s declining power and of the feebleness of Louis XV’s diplomats that convinced Catherine that the alliance with France would be the worst possible thing for Russia” (Cronin, 99).  Catherine found support in Grand Chancellor Bestuzhev, who was beginning to feel threatened by the young Shuvalovs, as well as in the British Ambassador Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams. But with the Shuvalovs getting stronger and the Empress’s health declining gradually, Catherine’s worry about the succession grew into alarm. Since a law of Peter the Great decreed that the ruler alone could choose his successor, who need not necessarily be the nearest family member, and since Elizabeth had declared Peter an heir to the throne almost fifteen years ago and had done nothing to confirm the original declaration, Catherine feared that the Shuvalovs might influence the Empress to bring Tsar Ivan back, or worse, appoint little Paul as the successor with them as regents. So, Catherine, encouraged by her supporters, plotted a conspiracy to take over the Empire after the death of Elizabeth. However, some of the minutiae of the plan had become known to the Empress, and Catherine, disgraced and embarrassed, only pleaded to let her leave the country. Nonetheless, the Empress chose to overlook Catherine’s political meddling, just as mothers forgive their children for misbehavior. Moreover, she gave instructions to treat Catherine with the respect appropriate to her rank. 
          On December 25, 1761, Empress Elizabeth died after a long illness. Peter III assumed the leadership: “He made no secret of his hatred for the deceased and the sacrilegious joy he felt at being rid of her supervision” (Troyat, 132). Catherine, in contrast, was heartbroken. Not only had she lost her protector and, despite prior conflicts, her friend, but she was also concerned for her own public image: “The crowds that filed by to do homage to the dead Empress…also saw the living Empress, grief-stricken, without crown, without jewels, amid the tapers and icons” (Troyat, 132). Catherine’s religious showiness on this occasion made her an authentic Russian in the eyes of the public. 
          On the night following his succession, Peter “sent couriers to all units of the army with the order to cease hostilities. The troops conducting joint operations with the Austrians were to leave them immediately; those who were occupying Eastern Prussia, Pomerania, and Brandenburg were evacuate those territories; the city of Kolberg, which had just been taken, was to be returned….The King of Prussia, who already thought himself lost, was exultant” (Troyat, 133). The Russians were outraged not only because their Tsar was acting like a fool, but also because he openly identified himself with Prussians. Catherine tried to influence her husband to govern well but everything was in vain; moreover, she couldn’t act aggressively since she was five months pregnant with  the child of Gregory Orlov (her lover). But Peter did not stop there. He announced that he would postpone his coronation indefinitely, thus offending the very influential Church. He summoned two of his cousins from Holstein and appointed them to his War  Cabinet, meaning that the two foreigners would sit in Russia’s  top military committee. Indeed, Peter’s political position aroused deep resentment among the Russians who saw Catherine as the “savior of the nation.”
          On June 28, 1762, Catherine, with the support of the guards, overthrew her husband and declared herself the Empress and Autocrat of all the Russias (www.members.tripod.com). From the very beginning, Catherine personally took an important and very active part in shaping both foreign policies and domestic regulations. At the time of the formation of Catherine’s new government, the international situation was catastrophic:
In the North was Sweden, whose strength and prestige were declining precisely because Charles XII had attempted to penetrate into the interior Russia….In the South were the Turks and their tributary, the Crimean Tartars, now a mere fragment of their former glory….Then there was Poland, which was in a state of complete collapse…unable under its constitution to take any action on a nationwide scale and therefore doomed to become the easy prey for her neighbors….Beyond Poland was another country, which also seem to be in a state of hopeless collapse at the time—Germany. Since the Thirty Years’ War the Holy Roman Empire had existed only in name (Raeff, 182). 
          Catherine placed Nikita Panin, the most skilled, intelligent and diligent man at her court, in charge of the Department of Foreign Affairs. In her diplomatic acts Catherine never separated herself from Russia, for she understood that respect for the country she ruled was the source for her own respect. During her reign Catherine consolidated Peter the Great’s achievements in the Baltic region. The territories inhabited by Byelorussians and Ukrainians were reunited with Russia, and “Russia’s increased international prestige in the eighteenth century was also evident in the gradual recognition of the imperial title her rulers had taken (by the German Empire in 1744, by France in 1762, and by Poland in 1764)” (Raeff, 191). Moreover, while the countries of Western Europe were being destroyed by internal conflicts, Russia, young, integrated, harmonized and growing, succeeded in attaining a superior position among other European powers. 
           In addition, Catherine, inspired by the pedagogical ideas of the Enlightenment, decided to radically change the very mission of public education: “The school up to then had only taught; the new school had to nurture” (Raeff, 93). She was also consumed with the idea of the “new race of men” or the recreation of mankind through child-rearing: “The child rearing was to be conducted in a closed school—such was the necessary condition for the creation of the new race. The children had to be isolated from all the influences of surrounding society and given over wholly into the hands of the pedagogues” (Raeff, 95). Following the Prussian example, compulsory literacy instruction was introduced for all male children. To combat severe epidemics of smallpox, Catherine introduced vaccination into Russia and founded Russia’s first College of Medicine as well as an Academy of Sciences.
          These and many other reforms introduced by Catherine during her reign brought Russia from the past into the future. A strong and determined ruler, she served her country and her people generously and altruistically. Although bright and zealous from childhood, her character had changed dramatically during her life in Russia. Catherine found a mother she never really had, who not only loved and respected Catherine, but also disciplined and instructed her. 
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