Catherine The Great
Throughout history, Russia has been viewed as a regressive cluster of barely
civilized people on the verge of barbarism. In the eighteenth century, ideas of
science and secularism grasped hold of Europe, and Russian Czars, realizing how
behind Muscovite culture was, sought out this knowledge, attempting to imbed it
into Russian society. Catherine II was one of these Czars. She listened to both
the ideas of the philosophers and the problems of her people and strove to
enlighten Russia by codifying the laws, establishing an elected government,
funding hospitals, and forming a functioning school board. Her attempts,
however, were met with only partial success. Her reforms received much
criticism, especially from the serfs, and Catherine was forced to realize,
through the Pugachev Rebellion in 1773, that enlightening all of Russia was an
impossibility. Catherine II’s greatest glory was seen in her foreign policies,
as she solved two fundamental problems for Russia by winning victories over

Turkey and Poland. As well, she established a League of Armed Neutrality and
spoke out against the French Revolution. Catherine’s reign created both
prosperity and poverty for Russia. In order to decide whether she was truly
great, one must evaluate her accomplishments upon the foundation of Russian
ideals. At the end of the seventeenth century, Russia was a country in
transition. The death of Czar Alexis in 1676 marked a change in Russian society,
a movement from traditional Muscovite culture toward new, educated concepts.

Reforms in the 1650s divided and weakened the Russian Orthodox Church, and a few
bold individuals began to adopt a semi-westernized lifestyle. By western
standards, however, Russia still seem backward, and at best, "a fringe nation
of Europe...without benefit of middle class, universities, academies, or secular
culture" (Oblensky and Stone 144). The rebellion of the musketeers, or
streltsy, in 1682 exposed a web of destructive feuds, religious superstition and
xenophobia within Russia. Peter I took the throne in 1682 and reigned until

1725, with themes of war, love of foreigners, and love of the sea marking his
rule. He and his army defeated Sweden at Poltava in 1709, he founded a navy at

St. Petersburg, and he expanded the policy of hiring foreigners. Peter wrought
numerous changes, attempting to impose order on the Russian society, but, along
with these reforms, he forged a gap between the upper Russian classes and the
peasant population. After his death, Russia was turned over to several meager

Czars: Peter’s wife, Catherine I, a self-indulged illiterate, from 1725-27;

Peter, his 12 year old grandson, from 1727-30; his niece Anna, a woman with no
political interests from 1730-40; and Ivan VI, an infant from, 1740-41 (Oblensky
and Stone 145). In 1741, Peter’s daughter, Elizabeth was raised to the throne,
overthrowing Ivan VI. Lavish baroque palaces, an increase in western culture,
and the taking of Berlin from Prussia in the Seven Years War characterized her
reign. Again, Russia seemed to be establishing itself as a powerful society.

However, Elizabeth’s successor, Peter III, undid much of what she had
accomplished, as he returned Russia’s gains from the Seven Years War to his
hero Frederick the Great (Oblensky and Stone 145). Within six months of his
succession, Peter was overthrown by a Guards’ coup in favour of his German
wife, Catherine II. Catherine was thirty-three years old when she ascended the

Russian throne. She had survived a loveless marriage, in which "ambition alone
sustained her" (Gooch 6). Ignored by her husband, Peter III, she dedicated her
time to learning the Russian language, studying the writings of the philosophes,
and adapting cleverly to her new environment—skills which constitute important
aspects of her reign. Schooled by these teachings, she favoured religious
tolerance, justice tempered with mercy (Gooch 91), education for women, civil
rights determined within the bounds of class and estate, and the classical style
in art and architecture. A women quite out of the ordinary, Catherine possessed"high intelligence, a natural ability to administer and govern, a remarkable
practical sense, energy to spare, and an iron will" (Riasanovsky 256). Along
with her determination went courage and optimism, self-control, skill in
discussion and propaganda, and a clever handling of men and circumstances to
best serve her ends. Yet, together with her virtues, Catherine had certain
weaknesses: her determination easily became ruthlessness, just as her ambition
became vanity (Gooch 96). "Even Catherine II’s admirers sometimes noticed
that she lacked something, call it charity, mercy, or human sympathy" (Riasanovsky

256). Indisputably, however, for the first time since Peter the Great, Russia
had acquired a sovereign who worked day and night, paying personal attention to
all kinds of matters, great and small. Catherine began her reign with numerous
enlightened, ambitious