Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Catherine the Great

by | March 21, 2012 | 17 comments

Good fortune is not as blind as it is generally thought to be. It is often nothing more than the result of sound, consistent actions that go unnoticed by the crowd, but which nevertheless make a particular event possible. Still more often it is the result of an individual’s characteristics, nature, and behavior.

~These are the words with which Catherine II began her memoirs.

During the eighteenth century, women throughout the world worked to increase their rights. One of the most notable was Catherine II, or Catherine the Great of Russia. As the daughter of a minor German prince, she had to learn to prove her worth at an early age. She was given a formal education only after demonstrating to her father her ability to learn and retain concepts and ideas. At the age of fifteen she was married to Grand Duke Peter of Holstein, the heir to the Russian throne. In preparation for her wedding, she did everything she could to assimilate into the Russian culture, including learning to speak fluent Russian, converting to the Russian Orthodox Church, and taking the name Catherine.

In 1762 she devised a coup d’etat to take the throne from her incompetent husband with the support of his own palace guards. During her reign, she continued the policies and reforms of Peter the Great to Westernize Russia, further increasing central control over the provinces and reforming the administration of the ever-increasing Russian Empire. Following two successful wars against the Ottoman Empire, Russia annexed Crimea, which gave it access to the Black Sea. In addition, Russia’s control over Poland and Luxembourg resulted in the expansion of the borders of Russia.

Catherine promoted private patronage of the arts as a state policy and in 1764 she purchased a collection of 225 paintings by Western European masters which were originally amassed by Johann Gotzkowski for King Frederick II of Prussia. These masterpieces became the first collection of the Hermitage Museum, and Catherine continued to make additional acquisitions throughout her reign. She also purchased Diderot’s library and founded the Smolny Institute, the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe. She corresponded with many well-known members of the European Enlightenment, including Voltaire, Diderot, and d’Alembert. Though her critics are quick to point to her treatment of the serfs as both a failure of her reign and her conversion to enlightened thinking, she was shrewd enough to know her power depended upon the support of Russia’s nobility. Much like America’s Founding Fathers, she resigned herself to the contradiction between the ownership of slaves and her enlightened views.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about Catherine was her personal life. Historically, she has been much maligned for her personal relationships. Assuming that this view of Catherine is correct, she would have been acting in a manner consistent with her male counterparts, though their behavior was deemed permissible while hers was not, simply because she was a woman. Catherine is known to have had relationships with twelve different men during her reign, many of which were lengthy, faithful alliances. She placed many of her former intimates in important positions in her government. Catherine’s own writings provide much insight into her character. In a letter to Stanislaus Poniatowski (who with her aid became king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), she wrote, “The men who surround me are devoid of education, but I am indebted to them for the situation I now hold. They are courageous and honest and I know they will never betray me.” In “A Sincere Confession,” a private account of her life written for Potemkin, she said, “The trouble is that my heart is loath to be without love for even a single hour…If you want to keep me forever, then show as much friendship as love, and more than anything else, love me and tell me the truth.”

Catherine the Great not only pushed Russia into the modern era, but she also made it a dominant force in the world, ensuring her rightful place in history as one of the women who paved the way for future advances in women’s rights.

Booth-Clibborn, Edward. The Hermitage: Selected Treasures from a Great Museum. Leningrad: The State Hermitage Museum, 1990.
Coughlan, Robert. Elizabeth and Catherine: Empresses of All the Russias. New York: Putnam, 1974.
Massie, Robert K. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. New York: Random House, 2011.
Troyat, Henri. Catherine the Great. New York: Plume, 1994.


  1. ChristineWarner

    Very interesting post! A woman definitely ahead of her time.

    • Ally Broadfield

      I think you’re right, Christine. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Callie Hutton

    “Great” article Ally. I didn’t know all that much about Catherine. This was an interesting and informative read.

    • Ally Broadfield

      She was a fasinating person. Thanks for coming by to get an introduction to her.

  3. Calisa Rhose

    Very interesting. I never read about Catherine before.

    • Ally Broadfield

      Glad you had a chance to stop by an learn a bit about her. This is just the tip of the iceberg!

  4. Angelyn

    This post is a great overview of a huge subject. I heard Angela Merkel has the Empress’ portrait in her office.

    Thanks, Ally!

    • Ally Broadfield

      Thanks, Angelyn. I guess that’s not surprising since she was German (as were all of the subsequent Romanovs-unless Saltuikov really was Paul’s father). I’ve heard great things about “The Winter Palace,” a new historcial fiction book about Catherine, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

  5. Ella Quinn

    She was such an interesting woman. Thank you so much for the post.

  6. Ceri Hebert

    Fascinating, Ally! Thank you for sharing info on such an amazing woman!

    • Ally Broadfield

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Ceri. Thanks for coming by!

  7. Ally Broadfield

    You’re welcome, Marion. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Emma

    An absolutely amazing woman and I think you really captured that here.

    • Ally Broadfield

      Thanks, Emma. It’s always difficult to decide what to include and what to leave out. I could have written volumes on her.

  9. Naomi Baltuck

    I am so glad to have discovered your column. I am quite a History Geek, and there is no era that does not intrigue me. Just for fun, I hope you have seen or can find the movie, “THe Great Catherine,” starring Peter O’Toole, Zero Mostel, and I have forgotten the name of the actress that played Catherine. Great post!

  10. Ally Broadfield

    Hi Naomi. I’m so glad you found us. This is a great place to read about history. Thanks for the movie suggestion. I’ll definitely try to track it down.

  11. Brinda

    I’m not a history buff, so this was certainly a mini-lesson and delivered much better than from my former history teachers! Twelve men at one time? She was a player. 🙂



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