Lots of prominent men in history excelled enough in their accomplishments that posterity has acknowledged them as “Great.” This obviously includes rulers such as Alexander the Great, Peter the Great, or lesser-known kings like Alfred and Darius. But even in modern times, non-royals who have risen to prominence in their fields have been known as Great Ones — just ask hockey legend Wayne Gretzky or classic TV funnyman Jackie Gleason.
Meanwhile, it seems a shame that almost no famous or powerful women have earned such an appellation throughout history. But Russia’s Catherine the Great sure did.
Although her name and legacy have been somewhat tarnished by salacious and slanderous rumors, and further clouded by popular comedic shows such as The Great, history rightly remembers this extraordinary empress as a largely enlightened ruler for the time. And although she had her faults, she also was a supporter and ally of the most advanced science of her age. Here’s what we know about Catherine the Great.
Monument to Catherine II (Catherine the Great) in Pushkin (Tsarskoye Selo), Russia (Credit: Pavel Sapozhnikov/Shutterstock)
Popular histories often like to point out that, despite being empress of Russia, Catherine the Great was not actually Russian or even named Catherine to begin with, as if this was some special irony. In fact, history is full of sovereigns, especially among the crowned heads of Europe, who adopted names different from their birth names and were imported from noble or royal families outside the borders of the country they came to rule.
In Catherine’s case, when she was born in 1729, she was named Sophie Friederike Auguste, daughter of a noble German family, although one that was fairly minor and obscure. Nevertheless, Sophie caught the attention of Russia’s then-empress, Elizabeth, who was looking to arrange a marriage for her nephew and heir, Peter. The young couple were wed in 1745. At that time, Sophie converted from the Lutheran faith to Russian Orthodox Christianity, formally adopting the new name Yekaterina, which we know in English as Catherine.
Odessa, Ukraine – September 5, 2021: Monument to Empress Catherine II (Credit: Roman.Stasiuk/Shutterstock)
When Elizabeth died in 1762, Peter became Peter III, emperor of Russia, with Catherine as empress consort. Catherine’s marriage to Peter was not a happy one, alas, and her esteem for her husband wasn’t particularly high. She considered Peter emotionally immature and her intellectual inferior. Also, while Catherine did have three children, she later claimed that she and Peter never consummated their marriage.
Instead, she cultivated the affections — and the allegiance — of other powerful and ambitious men who were all too willing to ally themselves with Catherine and help her seize power from her own husband in a military coup that also occurred in 1762, mere months after Peter III came to power. Although Catherine had no real claim to the throne, she nevertheless had the backing of Russian troops and arrested Peter, forcing him to abdicate his rule to her. Her official regnal name was Catherine II, but it was clear by then that she was second to none — including her husband.
Funeral procession for Peter III, who died mysteriously not long after his abdication to Catherine the Great. (Credit: Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)
Speaking of the deposed emperor, Peter died about a week after his abdication, under circumstances that are still mysterious. One story holds that he was killed in a drunken brawl with one of his guards. Another states that he died from complications of a stroke and hemorrhoids, of all things. But it was widely believed then — and accepted by many historians now — that Catherine likely orchestrated her husband’s assassination.
While Peter’s mysterious death cast something of a cloud over his wife’s audacious coup, the German princess with no legitimate right to the Russian throne was nevertheless embraced by many of her subjects.
Portrait of Catherine the Great by J.B.Lampi (1780s, Kunsthistorisches Museum) (Credit: Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)
She would go on to lead the nation for an impressive 34 years, becoming the longest-reigning female ruler in Russia’s history. It helped that Catherine differed from her husband (who was also German) in that she actually made an effort to learn and speak the Russian language, and to understand the customs and culture of her adopted country. Catherine also seemed genuinely to want to raise the stature of Russia both as a place of learning and a global power that could compete with any other nation on the world stage.
Like everyone else, she was far from perfect. As a ruler, she wasn’t particularly supportive of serfs, the lowest class in her society, although she claimed to detest how they were treated.
Serfs in Russia were considered little better than slaves, and while Catherine did institute some rules that prevented the aristocracy from harming or killing serfs with impunity, she nevertheless allowed the practice of serfdom to continue in Russia and in territories that the empire annexed during her rule.
Early etching depicting smallpox Inoculation. (Credit: Wellcome Images/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)
On the other hand, she embraced many principles of the Age of Enlightenment, corresponding with some leading minds of the age, such as the great Voltaire. She also supported early efforts to provide quality education for women in the empire. And she deserves everlasting credit for making major changes to health and medical policies in Russia.
One of her most important and influential contributions in this arena was to allow herself and the heir to the throne, her son Paul, to be inoculated against smallpox in 1768. This was no minor or private feat. At the time, smallpox was an absolute scourge, and early inoculation efforts against the disease were dangerous to undergo — recipients were at high risk to get very sick or even die from the treatment, compared to today’s safer vaccinations.
So, for a head of state to willingly submit herself and her heir to the treatment regimen was an act of unprecedented heroism, and made a significant statement to anti-vaxxers of the era. That Catherine and Paul underwent the process and survived was a national sensation, and did much to encourage smallpox inoculation efforts among her people. Before the 18th century was over, more than 2 million subjects throughout the Russian empire would be similarly protected against smallpox thanks to Catherine the Great’s example.
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Catherine the Great loved horses. But not THAT way. (Credit: Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)
Sadly, by the time Catherine died in 1796, plenty of people in both the Russian court and Europe at large were happy to spread gossip and rumors designed to undermine her accomplishments in the meanest and most sexist ways. Then as now, male-dominated leadership was threatened by the ambition and efforts of a powerful and competent woman, and Catherine was not spared from their bitterness. It didn’t help that some of the rumors about Catherine the Great were true.
Trapped in an unsatisfying marriage with Peter III, Catherine definitely engaged in a series of affairs with numerous men, not just the ones who helped her secure the Russian throne. By her own admission, all three of her children were likely bastards, the issue of her many dalliances with several lovers. But she was hardly unique in this regard. Most powerful men of the time — including her husband — kept mistresses, had illegitimate children, or indulged in libertine behavior on a scale that would make Catherine seem almost chaste. Why should it be acceptable for them but not for the Russian empress?
As time wore on, the royal rumor mill only seemed to concentrate on the most awful kinds of salacious stories about Catherine, especially when it came to her death. Unfortunately, if modern audiences claim to know anything about Catherine the Great, they tend to focus on two egregious rumors. The first is that she died on the toilet, much like Elvis Presley would decades later. The second legend — the worst yet most enduring — is that she was crushed to death while performing an act of bestiality with a horse.
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Russian Empire banknote 100 rubles fragment. Version of 1910 year. Front with portrait of Catherine the Great. Allegorical man with sword. (Credit: Prachaya Roekdeethaweesab/Shutterstock)
In fact, neither event actually happened. Catherine succumbed to a stroke and died in her bed at the age of 67. Although she was an accomplished rider and loved horses, that affection was purely platonic, and for anyone to suggest otherwise perhaps shows just how threatened the patriarchy of the time was by a kick-ass empress. Especially one who triumphed over an inferior husband and raised the stature and dominance of her adopted nation in a manner that few male rulers, then or since, could ever hope to accomplish.
It’s true that the empress had her flaws, and may well have engaged in the kind of royal and political skullduggery that would make Game of Thrones look like a kid’s show. But she did so in the service of the land and people she ruled. That if nothing else, rightfully earned her the name Catherine the Great.