Originally a minor German princess destined to be only an consort of a Russian Emperor, no one knew Catherine would become Russia’s ruler in her own right. The period of Catherine the Great’s rule, the Catherinian Era, is often considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire and the Russian nobility.
Catherine was born as Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg on 2 May 1729. As Catherine grew up, her mother eventually came to see her daughter as a means to move up the social ladder and improve her own situation. Her mother had relatives in other royal courts in the region, and brought Catherine with her on visits to seek out possible suitors. Catherine saw marriage as a way to escape from her controlling mother.
Educated by tutors, Catherine had religious studies with a military chaplain, but she questioned much of what he taught her. She also learned three languages: German, French and Russian. The Russian came in handy when Catherine’s mother wrangled an invitation to Saint Petersburg from the Empress Elizabeth. She wanted to see if Catherine would be suitable for her heir, Grand Duke Peter (later Peter III).
On August 21, 1745, Catherine II married into the Russian imperial family, becoming a Grand Duchess. She and Peter proved to be anything but a happy couple, however. Peter was immature and juvenile, preferring to play with toys and mistresses than to be with his wife. Catherine II developed her own pastimes, which included reading extensively.
After several miscarriages, Catherine II finally produced a heir. Her son, Paul, was born on September 20, 1754. The paternity of the child has been a subject of great debate with many scholars, who believe that Paul’s father was actually Sergei Saltykov, a Russian noble and member of the court. Others have claimed that Paul looked a lot like Peter, leading them to believe that he was actually Paul’s father.
After succeeding the throne, Peter was openly cruel to his wife, and often discussed pushing her aside to allow his mistress to rule with him. He soon alienated other nobles, officials and the military with his staunch support for Prussia. He also angered the Orthodox Church by taking away their lands. After six months, Peter was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by Catherine.
At the time of Catherine’s accession, Russia was viewed as backward and provincial by many in Europe. She sought to change this negative opinion through expanding educational opportunities and the arts. She also became a prominent art collector, and many of these were displayed in the Hermitage in a royal residence in Saint Petersburg.
Catherine had enjoyed several decades as Russia’s absolute ruler. She had a strained relationship with her son and heir, Paul, over her tight grip on power, but she enjoyed her grandchildren, especially the oldest one: Alexander who later became Emperor Alexander I. In her later years, Catherine continued to possess an active mind and a strong spirit. On November 17, 1796, however, she was found unconscious on the floor of her bathroom. It was thought at the time that she suffered a stroke. She was buried along with other Romanovs at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul.