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Catherine the Great: Empress of Russia
Sophia Auguste Frederike was born on April 21, 1729 in Stettin, Pomerania, Prussia. Her father, Christian August Prinz, was the prince of the German state, Anhalt-Zerbst, and a general in the Prussian military. Her mother, Johanna Elisabeth Prinzessin von Holstein-Gottorp, was the daughter of the Bishop of Lübeck.
Her parents had been expecting a boy, and did not particularly show affection towards Sophia. This resulted in a cherished relationship with her governess, Babette. Like others of the time, the royal daughter was educated by French governesses and tutors. She studied French, German, history, geography, music, and religion.
In 1744, at the age of fifteen, the Russian Empress, Elizabeth, invited Sophia to meet her nephew and heir, the Grand Duke Peter. Although a year older than she, Sophia considered him immature and stubborn. Despite her dislike of the Duke, the Empress, Elizabeth, was quite fond of Sophia, and therefore arranged a marriage. On June 29, 1745, she married Peter and became the Grand Duchess of Russia. With this title came many changes. She first changed her name to Ekaterina Alekseyevna, commonly known as Catherine. She also had to move from her familiar Germany to the Oranienbaum Palace in Russia. Finally, against the will of her father, she converted from Lutheranism to the Russian Orthodox faith.
With the death of Elizabeth on January 5, 1762, Peter became Tsar Peter III of Russia, and Catherine became Empress Consort of Russia. The mutual detestation of the couple only increased throughout Peter's reign. In July of 1762, barely 6 months after his coronation, Peter III was assassinated. Some historians believe that Catherine took part in the plot to kill her husband due to her involvement with several political groups against Peter. However, others argue that she was in no way involved. Catherine became Catherine II, the Empress Regnant, or sole monarch, despite the fact that she had no Russian ancestry. Some saw her only as a regent, ruling only until her son, Paul, was of age. This thought caused many plots to get rid of Catherine and put Paul on the throne. However, none were successful.
Catherine's rule was much different from that of her husband's. While Peter's rule was unproductive and antagonistic, hers was poised and diligent. During her reign, Catherine -- an enlightened ruler, promoted Westernization in Russia. She also expanded its borders by taking the Turkish Crimea, part of Poland, and extending Russia's borders from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea; almost 200,000 miles total.
Her economic reforms were very prominent. To improve farming methods, she sent experts out to study the soil. She looked to England for better farming methods and offered grants to Russian farmers who would adopt them. Catherine realized the value of silk worms and honey bees and had them cultivated. She compiled a detailed catalogue of Russia's plants and encouraged the introduction of new cattle-breeding methods.
Catherine also encouraged the immigration of Russia's under-populated areas by putting advertisements in foreign newspapers. The immigrants were offered free lodging, seed, livestock, and plows for six months. This, in turn, increased the crop yield, helping feed the country's large population.
The Empress was especially intrigued by the earth and the wealth it offered. By sending geologists to remote, uninhabited parts of Russia, she discovered a bounty of valuable minerals. To better educate the merchants who owned and worked in these mines, Catherine founded Russia's first School of Mines.
Catherine issued a decree stating that, except for in Moscow and St. Petersburg, anyone could open a manufacturing business and anyone could weave for private profit. This decree increased the wealth of peasants who now owned private textile businesses. So called "cottage industries" became endowed with their linen, pottery, and leather products. During her reign, Catherine increased the number of manufactories from 984 to 3161.
Catherine's work to improve government and trade was especially notable. In order to improve trade, she signed various treaties with Spain, Denmark, Portugal, France, and Sicily. Catherine's success with trade, in turn, increased Russia's trade revenue from 13.8 million rubles to 43.2 million rubles in a little over thirty years. Her government improvements began in April 1764, and included rationalizing Russia's provincial systems of government by instructing their governor generals. Each was to rule in an enlightened manner just as Catherine did. Their duties included taking an accurate census, mapping their provinces, repairing roads and bridges, fighting fires, and ensuring the quality running of prisons and orphanages.
To improve health care, Catherine built multiple hospitals. Many of these hospitals specialized in caring for patients with a disease close to Russia's heart: smallpox. She also built Russia's first College of Medicine with the hope of granting more sufficient training to physicians, surgeons, and pharmacists throughout Russia. In 1775, Catherine decreed that each province's capital was to have a hospital. With each hospital there was to be a doctor, surgeon, assistant surgeon, and student doctor.
Because of Catherine's attention to social issues, she was especially caring towards orphans and unwanted infants. She had her architects build the Foundling Home, a five-story building in Moscow. It contained a hospital, church, dairy farm, and was superior to any other like it in Europe at the time. Annually, the Home took in over 2000 infants and inspired other homes like it throughout Russia and Europe.
Catherine is also credited with being a promoter of art and education. Her increase in the number of schools, teachers, and universities led to her founding the Smolny Institute. This accredited school would educate the promising daughters of merchants and the nobility. Catherine's love of art and literature resulted in a massive increase in the Imperial Art Collection and Library. She also befriended many artists, writers, and musicians, becoming their patron. In fact, Catherine's love of art was so immense that some say her collection was even greater than she was.
Empress Catherine would reign until she was sixty-seven years old. Though rumors may claim otherwise, Catherine died of a stroke in St. Petersburg, Russia. She is buried at Petropavlovskaya Krepost in St. Petersburg. Her son, Paul, would take the thrown as Tsar Paul I. However, his reign would in no way compare to that of his mother's.
Despite Catherine's lack of Russian ancestry, she loved her people. She did her best to increase the living standards of nobles and peasants alike. She was an activist for children and minorities, and encouraged racial equality throughout her reign. Catherine's confidence and reliability throughout her reign made her an ideal monarch. Her philanthropic actions resulted in the gratitude of the lower classes and raised awareness among the upper classes. For these reasons, the Russian people willingly accepted and admired Catherine.
Today, we remember Catherine II as a highly commemorated monarch. We credit her with Westernizing Russia and bringing attention to those often forgotten. People around the world continue to follow her actions because of the amazingly positive impact they had on Russia's society. She is the epitome of a philanthropist who devoted her life to improving the lives of her people. She remains a model, not only for Russia's government officials, but for international ones as well. For these reasons, Catherine the Great will forever remain one of Europe's most influential monarchs.