A German princess, the daughter of Christian Augustus, prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, she emerged from the obscurity of her relatively modest background in 1744 when Czarina Elizabeth of Russia chose her as the wife of the future Czar Peter III. Accepting the Orthodox faith, she changed her original name, Sophie, to Catherine. Her successful effort to become completely Russian made her popular with important political elements who opposed her eccentric husband. Neglected by the czarevich, Catherine read widely, especially Voltaire and Montesquieu, and informed herself of Russian conditions. In Jan., 1762, Peter succeeded to the throne, but he immediately alienated powerful groups with his program and personality. In June, 1762, a group of conspirators headed by Grigori Orlov, Catherine's lover, proclaimed Catherine autocrat; shortly afterward Peter was murdered.
Catherine began her rule with great projects of reform. She drew up a document, based largely on the writings of Beccaria and Montesquieu, to serve as a guide for an enlightened code of laws. She summoned a legislative commission (with representatives of all classes except the serfs) to put this guide into law, but she disbanded the commission before it could complete the code. Some have questioned the sincerity of Catherine's "enlightened" outlook, and there is no doubt that she became more conservative as a result of the peasant rising (1773-74) under Pugachev.
The nobility's administrative power was strengthened when Catherine reorganized (1775) the provincial administration to increase the central government's control over rural areas. This reform established a system of provinces, subdivided into districts, that endured until 1917. In 1785, Catherine issued a charter that made the gentry of each district and province a legal body with the right to petition the throne, freed nobles from taxation and state service and made their status hereditary, and gave them absolute control over their lands and peasants. Another charter, issued to the towns, proved of little value to them. Catherine extended serfdom to parts of Ukraine and transferred large tracts of state land to favored nobles. The serfs' remaining rights were strictly curtailed. She also encouraged colonization of Alaska and of areas gained by conquest. She increased Russian control over the Baltic provinces and Ukraine.
Catherine attempted to increase Russia's power at the expense of its weaker neighbors, Poland and the Ottoman Empire. In 1764 she established a virtual protectorate over Poland by placing her former lover Stanislaus Poniatowski on the Polish throne as Stanislaus II. Catherine eventually secured the largest portion in successive partitions of Poland among Russia, Prussia, and Austria (see Poland, partitions of).
Catherine's first war with the Ottoman Empire (1768-74; see Russo-Turkish Wars) ended with the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji, which made Russia the dominant power in the Middle East. Catherine and her advisers, particularly Potemkin, developed a program known as the Greek Project, which aimed at a partition of the Ottoman Empire's European holdings among Russia, Austria, and other countries. However, her attempts to break up the Ottoman Empire met with limited success. In 1783 she annexed the Crimea, which had gained independence from the Ottoman Empire by the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji. Her triumphal tour of S Russia, accompanied by Potemkin, provoked the Ottomans to renew warfare (1787-92). The Treaty of Jassy (1792) confirmed the annexation of the Crimea and cemented Russia's hold on the northern coast of the Black Sea.
Catherine also extended Russian influence in European affairs. In 1778 she acted as mediator between Prussia and Austria in the War of the Bavarian Succession, and in 1780 she organized a league to defend neutral shipping from attacks by Great Britain, which was then engaged in the war of the American Revolution.
Catherine increased the power and prestige of Russia by skillful diplomacy and by extending Russia's western boundary into the heart of central Europe. An enthusiastic patron of literature, art, and education, Catherine wrote memoirs, comedies, and stories, and corresponded with the French Encyclopedists, including Voltaire, Diderot, and d'Alembert (who were largely responsible for her glorious contemporary reputation). She encouraged some criticism and discussion of social and political problems until the French Revolution made her an outspoken conservative and turned her against all who dared criticize her regime. Although she had many lovers, only Orlov, Potemkin, and P. L. Zubov (1767-1822) were influential in government affairs. She was succeeded by her son Paul I.
See biographies by H. Troyat (1984) and J. T. Alexander (1989); study by I. DeMadariaga (1982).
Catherine II, called Catherine the Great (Екатерина II Великая, Yekaterina II Velikaya; 2 May, 1729 17 November, 1796) reigned as Empress of Russia for 34 years, from 9 July, 1762 until her death. Marrying into the Russian Imperial family, she came to power with the deposition of her husband Peter III and then presided over a significant period of growth in Russian influence and culture. She exemplified the enlightened despot of her era.
The reign of Catherine the Great saw the highpoint of the Russian nobility. Catherine had noble estates surveyed and gave the possessors title to their lands. As a result, the old service estates became private property, and the distinction between votchina and pomestie estates now completely disappeared in law as well as in practice. In 1785 Catherine conferred on the nobility the [Charter to the Nobility]. For the first time in Russian history a social group had legal rights instead of only duties. The Charter also gave corporate rights to the nobility in each district and province. Each group elected a Marshal of the Nobility who spoke on their behalf to the monarch on issues of concern to them.
Catherine aquired a reputation for her many lovers. Some popular opinion also held her responsible for the planned murder of her husband.
Catherine's father, Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, held the rank of a Prussian general in his capacity as Governor of the city of Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) in the name of the king of Prussia. Though born as Sophia Augusta Frederica (German: Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, nicknamed "Figchen"), a minor German princess in Stettin, Catherine did have some (very remote) Russian ancestry, and two of her first cousins became Kings of Sweden: Gustav III and Charles XIII. In accordance with the custom then prevailing amongst the German nobility, she received her education chiefly from a French governess and from tutors.
The choice of Sophia as wife of the prospective tsar — Peter of Holstein-Gottorp — resulted from some amount of diplomatic management in which Count Lestocq and Frederick II of Prussia took an active part. Lestocq and Frederick wanted to strengthen the friendship between Prussia and Russia in order to weaken the influence of Austria and to ruin the Russian chancellor Bestuzhev, on whom Tsarina Elizabeth relied, and who acted as a known partisan of Russo-Austrian co-operation.
The diplomatic intrigue failed, largely due to the intervention of Sophie's mother, Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, a clever and ambitious woman. Historical accounts portray Catherine's mother as emotionally cold and physically abusive, as well as a social climber who loved gossip and court intrigues. Johanna's hunger for fame centered on her daughter's prospects of becoming empress of Russia, but she infuriated Empress Elizabeth, who eventually banned her from the country for spying for King Frederick of Prussia (reigned 1740–1786). Nonetheless, Elizabeth took a strong liking to the daughter, and the marriage finally took place in 1745. The empress knew the family well because she had intended to marry Princess Johanna's brother Charles Augustus (Karl August von Holstein), who had died of smallpox in 1727 before the wedding could take place.
Princess Sophia spared no effort to ingratiate herself not only with the Empress Elizabeth, but with her husband and with the Russian people. She applied herself to learning the Russian language with such zeal that she rose at night and walked about her bedroom barefoot repeating her lessons (though she mastered the language, she retained an accent). This resulted in a severe attack of pneumonia in March 1744. When she wrote her memoirs she represented herself as having made up her mind when she came to Russia to do whatever seemed necessary, and to profess to believe whatever required of her, in order to become qualified to wear the crown. The consistency of her character throughout life makes it highly probable that even at the age of fifteen she possessed sufficient maturity to adopt this worldly-wise line of conduct.
Her father, a very devout Lutheran, strongly opposed his daughter's conversion. Despite his instructions, on June 28, 1744 the Russian Orthodox Church received her as a member with the name Catherine (Yekaterina or Ekaterina) and the (artificial) patronymic Алексеевна (Alekseyevna). On the following day the formal betrothal took place, and Catherine married the Grand Duke Peter on August 21, 1745 at Saint Petersburg. The newlyweds settled in the palace of Oranienbaum, which would remain the residence of the "young court" for 56 years.
The unlikely marriage proved unsuccessful — due to the Grand Duke Peter's impotence and immaturity: he may not have consummated it for 12 years. While Peter took a mistress (Elizabeth Vorontsova), Catherine carried on liaisons with Sergei Saltykov, Charles Hanbury Williams and Stanisław August Poniatowski. She became friends with Ekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova, the sister of her husband's mistress, who introduced her to several powerful political groups that opposed her husband. Catherine read widely and kept up-to-date on current events in Russia and in the rest of Europe. She corresponded with many of the prominent minds of her era, including Voltaire and Diderot.
After the death of the Empress Elizabeth on , Peter succeeded to the throne as Peter III of Russia and moved into the new Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg; Catherine thus became Empress Consort of Russia. However, the new tsar's eccentricities and policies, including a great admiration for the Prussian king, Frederick II, alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated. Compounding matters, Peter intervened in a dispute between Holstein and Denmark over the province of Schleswig (see Count Johann Hartwig Ernst von Bernstorff). Peter's insistence on supporting his native Holstein in an unpopular war eroded much of his support among the nobility.
In July 1762, Peter committed the political error of retiring with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives to Oranienbaum, leaving his wife in Saint Petersburg. On July 13 and July 14 the Leib Guard revolted, deposed Peter, and proclaimed Catherine the ruler of Russia. The bloodless coup succeeded; Ekaterina Dashkova, a confidante of Catherine, remarked that Peter seemed rather glad to have rid himself of the throne, and requested only a quiet estate and his mistress. Six months after his accession to the throne and three days after his deposition, on July 17, 1762, Peter III died at Ropsha at the hands of Alexei Orlov (younger brother to Gregory Orlov, then a court favorite and a participant in the coup). Soviet-era historians assumed that Catherine had ordered the murder, as she also disposed of other potential claimants to the throne (Ivan VI and Princess Tarakanova) at about the same time, but many modern historians believe that she had no part in it.
Catherine, although not descended from any previous Russian emperor, succeeded her husband, following the precedent established when Catherine I succeeded Peter I in 1725. Her accession-manifesto justified her succession by citing the "unanimous election" of the nation. However a great part of nobility regarded her reign as a usurpation, tolerable only during the minority of her son, Grand Duke Paul. In the 1770s a group of nobles connected with Paul (Nikita Panin and others) contemplated the possibility of a new coup to depose Catherine and transfer the crown to Paul, whose power they envisaged restricting in a kind of constitutional monarchy. However, nothing came of this, and Catherine reigned until her death.
During her reign Catherine extended the borders of the Russian Empire southward and westward to absorb New Russia, Crimea, Right-Bank Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Courland at the expense of two powers the Ottoman Empire and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. All told, she added some 200,000 miles² (518,000 km²) to Russian territory.
Catherine's foreign minister, Nikita Panin, exercised considerable influence from the beginning of her reign. Though a shrewd statesman, Panin dedicated much effort and millions of rubles to setting up a "Northern Accord" between Russia, Prussia, Poland, and Sweden, to counter the power of the Bourbon–Habsburg League. When it became apparent that his plan could not succeed, Panin fell out of favor and, in 1781, Catherine had him replaced with a Ukrainian-born councillor, Alexander Bezborodko.
While Peter the Great had succeeded only in gaining a toehold in the south on the edge of the Black Sea, Catherine was able to complete the conquest of the south that Peter had begun (see Azov campaigns). Catherine made Russia the dominant power in south-eastern Europe after her first Russo-Turkish War against the Ottoman Empire (1768–1774), which saw some of the greatest defeats in Turkish history, including the Battle of Chesma (5 July – 7 July 1770) and the Battle of Kagul (21 July 1770). The Russian victories allowed Catherine's government to obtain access to the Black Sea and to incorporate the vast steppes of present-day southern Ukraine, where the Russians founded the new cities of Odessa, Nikolayev, Yekaterinoslav (literally: "the Glory of Catherine"; the future Dnepropetrovsk), and Kherson.
Catherine annexed the Crimea in 1783, a mere nine years after the Crimean Khanate had gained independence from the Ottoman Empire as a result of her first war against the Turks. Catherine and her advisers had no intention of honouring the Crimea's independence once it lacked the Sultan as its protector.The palace of the Crimean khans passed into the hands of the Russians. The Ottomans started a second Russo-Turkish War (1787–1792) during Catherine's reign. This war proved catastrophic for the Ottomans and ended with the Treaty of Jassy (1792), which legitimized the Russian claim to Crimea.
In the European political theater, Catherine remained ever conscious of her legacy and longed for recognition as an enlightened sovereign. She pioneered for Russia the role that Britain would later play throughout most of the nineteenth and early twentieth century that of international mediator in disputes that could, or did, lead to war. Accordingly, she acted as mediator in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–1779) between Prussia and Austria. In 1780 she set up a League of Armed Neutrality designed to defend neutral shipping from the British Royal Navy during the American Revolution, and she refused to intervene in that revolution on the side of the British when asked.
From 1788 to 1790, Russia fought the Russo-Swedish War against Sweden, instigated by Catherine's cousin, the King Gustav III of Sweden. Expecting to simply overtake the Russian armies still engaged in war against the Ottoman Turks and hoping to strike Saint Petersburg directly, the Swedes ultimately faced mounting human and territorial losses when opposed by Russia's Baltic Fleet. After Denmark declared war on Sweden in 1788, things looked bleak for the Swedes. After the Battle of Svensksund in 1790, the parties signed the Treaty of Värälä (August 14, 1790) returning all conquered territories to their respective owners, and peace ensued for 20 years.
In 1764 Catherine placed Stanisław Poniatowski, her former lover, on the Polish throne. Although the idea of partitioning Poland came from the Prussian king Frederick the Great, Catherine took a leading role in carrying this out in the 1790s. In 1768 she became formally protectress of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, which provoked an anti-Russian uprising in Poland (see Bar Confederation). After smashing the uprising she established in the Rzeczpospolita a system of government fully controlled by the Russian Empire through a Permanent Council under the supervision of her ambassadors and envoys.
After the French Revolution of 1789, Catherine rejected many of the principles of the Enlightenment which she once viewed favorably. Afraid that the May Constitution of Poland (1791) might lead to a resurgence in the power of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and that the growing democratic movements inside the Commonwealth might become a threat to the European monarchies, Catherine decided to intervene in Poland. She provided support to a Polish anti-reform group known as the Targowica Confederation. After defeating Polish loyalist forces in the Polish War in Defense of the Constitution (1792) and in the Kościuszko Uprising (1794), Russia completed the partitioning of Poland, dividing all of the Commonwealth territory with Prussia and Austria (1795).
In the Far East, Russians became active in fur-trapping in Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands. However, Russian settlements suffered from lack of supplies and constrained by the need to import goods over long distances across Siberia from Europe. This spurred interest in opening trade with Japan to the south for supplies and food. In 1783 storms drove a Japanese sea-captain, Daikokuya Kōdayū, ashore in the Aleutian Islands, at that time Russian territory. Russian local authorities helped his party, and the Russian government decided to use him as a trade envoy. On June 28, 1791, Catherine granted Kōdayū an audience at Tsarskoye Selo. Subsequently, in 1792, the Russian government dispatched a trade-mission led by Adam Laxman to Japan. The Tokugawa government received the mission, but negotiations failed. Formal trade relations between the two countries did not come about until 1908.
Catherine's patronage furthered the evolution of the arts in Russia more than that of any Russian sovereign before or after her. She subscribed to the ideals of the Enlightenment and considered herself a "philosopher on the throne". She showed great awareness of her image abroad, and ever desired that Europe should perceive her as a civilized and enlightened monarch, despite the fact that in Russia she often played the part of the tyrant. Even as she proclaimed her love for the ideals of liberty and freedom, she did more to tie the Russian serf to his land and to his lord than any sovereign since Boris Godunov (reigned 1598–1605).
Catherine had a reputation as a patron of the arts, literature and education. The Hermitage Museum, which now occupies the whole of the Winter Palace, began as Catherine's personal collection. At the instigation of her factotum, Ivan Betskoi, she wrote a manual for the education of young children, drawing from the ideas of John Locke, and founded the famous Smolny Institute for noble young ladies. This school would become one of the best of its kind in Europe, and even went so far as to admit young girls born to wealthy merchants alongside the daughters of the nobility. She wrote comedies, fiction and memoirs, while cultivating Voltaire, Diderot and d'Alembert all French encyclopedists who later cemented her reputation in their writings. The leading economists of her day, such as Arthur Young and Jacques Necker, became foreign members of the Free Economic Society, established on her suggestion in Saint Petersburg. She lured the scientists Leonhard Euler and Peter Simon Pallas from Berlin to the Russian capital.
Catherine enlisted Voltaire to her cause, and corresponded with him for 15 years, from her accession to his death in 1778. He lauded her with epithets, calling her "The Star of the North" and the "Semiramis of Russia" (in reference to the legendary Queen of Babylon). Though she never met him face-to-face, she mourned him bitterly when he died, acquired his collection of books from his heirs, and placed them in the Imperial Public Library.
Within a few months of her accession, having heard that the French government threatened to stop the publication of the famous French Encyclopédie on account of its irreligious spirit, she proposed to Diderot that he should complete his great work in Russia under her protection. Four years later she endeavoured to embody in a legislative form the principles of Enlightenment which she had imbibed from the study of the French philosophers. She called together at Moscow a Grand Commission almost a consultative parliament composed of 652 members of all classes (officials, nobles, burghers and peasants) and of various nationalities. The Commission had to consider the needs of the Russian Empire and the means of satisfying them. The Empress herself prepared the "Instructions for the Guidance of the Assembly", pillaging (as she frankly admitted) the philosophers of Western Europe, especially Montesquieu and Cesare Beccaria. As many of the democratic principles frightened her more moderate and experienced advisers, she refrained from immediately putting them into execution. After holding more than 200 sittings the so-called Commission dissolved without getting beyond the realm of theory.
During Catherine's reign, Russians imported and studied the classical and European influences which inspired the Russian Enlightenement. Gavrila Derzhavin, Denis Fonvizin and Ippolit Bogdanovich laid the groundwork for the great writers of the nineteenth century, especially for Aleksandr Pushkin. Catherine became a great patron of Russian opera (see Catherine II and opera for details). However, her reign also featured omnipresent censorship and state control of publications. When Alexander Radishchev published his Journey from Saint Petersburg to Moscow in 1790, warning of uprisings because of the deplorable social conditions of the peasants held as serfs, Catherine exiled him to Siberia.
Catherine, throughout her long reign, took many lovers, often elevating them to high positions for as long as they held her interest, and then pensioning them off with large estates and gifts of serfs. After her affair with Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin, he would select a candidate-lover for her who had both the physical beauty as well as the mental faculties to hold Catherine's interest (such as Alexander Dmitriev-Mamonov). Some of these men loved her in return, and she always showed generosity towards her lovers, even after the end of an affair. The last of her lovers, Prince Zubov, 40 years her junior, proved the most capricious and extravagant of them all.
Catherine behaved harshly to her son Paul. In her memoirs, Catherine indicated that her first lover, Sergei Saltykov, had fathered Paul, but Paul physically resembled her husband, Peter. She sequestered from the court her illegitimate son by Grigori Orlov, Alexis Bobrinskoy (later created Count Bobrinskoy by Paul). It seems highly probable that she intended to exclude Paul from the succession, and to leave the crown to her eldest grandson Alexander (whom she greatly favored), afterwards the emperor Alexander I. Her harshness to Paul stemmed probably as much from political distrust as from what she saw of his character. Whatever Catherine's other activities, she emphatically functioned as a sovereign and as a politician, guided in the last resort by interests of state. Keeping Paul in a state of semi-captivity in Gatchina and Pavlovsk, she resolved not to allow her son to dispute or to share in her authority.
One source once quoted Catherine the Great as saying, "Assuredly men of worth are never lacking, for it is affairs which make men and men which make affairs; I have never tried to look for them, and I have always found close at hand the men who have served me, and I have for the most part been well served."
Several commentators have criticized Catherine's tactics in handling men and power. According to Brenda Meehan-Waters, "The Empress thinks it a sufficient happiness to be permitted to serve her... and when she has made what use she wanted of anyone or of which she thought him capable, she does with him as we do with an orange, after sucking out the juice we throw the peel out of a window." Others, however, portray Catherine as a good ruler who successfully kept her private life separate from her political activity. Chamberlain says, "Catherine, among female rulers, seems to have broken all records in the number of her lovers. But she attended to affairs of state diligently, unlike her pleasure-loving predecessor Elizabeth, and took pride in her interest in legislation and in her role as a colonizer and founder of cities."
Catherine and Peter III did not get along; she called him childish, without judgment, and "not enamoured of the nation over which he was destined to reign." He had a "belief in all things German" and he especially favored Prussia. Peter spent much of his time, before and during their marriage, playing with toy soldiers and military dolls. By the mid 1750s they had failed to consummate their marriage. Given the requirement to have a indisputable heir to the throne, the Empress Elizabeth expected that the couple would produce children and that Catherine would remain faithful to her husband. But the pair found themselves in an unhappy marriage, and Catherine found herself tempted by the good-looking men at court. Catherine, despite her unhappiness, tried to have some sort of relationship with her husband. She wrote in her memoirs, "I resolved to show great consideration for the Grand Duke's confidence so that he would at least view me as someone he could trust, to whom he could say everything without any consequences. I succeeded in this for a long time."
Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, the English ambassador to Russia, offered Stanislaus Poniatowski a place in the embassy in return for gaining Catherine as an ally. She needed money and a new lover, and he sent Poniatowski of the Czartoryski family, the pro-Russian faction in Poland. Catherine received the story that Poniatowski's family had sent him to Russia to learn of its greatness. The Czartoryski faction really hoped that one day he could rule Russia. Catherine met him in 1755, and they began a love affair. A twenty-two-year-old virgin, though he claimed he loved Catherine, he had to be persuaded to sleep with her. They initiated a romantic relationship, but two years later in 1757 when Poniatowski had to serve in the English forces during the Seven Years’ War, he had to leave Catherine. She bore his child, Anna Petrovna, born in December 1757.
Catherine, in considering Russia's expansion, made a plan for Poland. She believed "Poland was destined" to join Russia. She planned to make use of Poland's relative weakness to annex part of the country. She knew she could gain enough influence if she had a candidate for election to the Polish throne when the very ill Augustus III of Poland died. Poniatowski, previously exiled from St. Petersburg, knew nothing of this plan Catherine knew he would want to return to her. Augustus III died in 1763, and Poland lacked a ruler. Catherine supported Poniatowski as a candidate to become the next king. Poniatowski suspected, and perhaps not incorrectly, that she would never marry him if he had no power, because that put her at the risk of losing hers. She wanted to rule more than she wanted marriage, and knew that Poniatowski would prove a weak ruler. Rumors spread that Catherine's support formed part of a plan to unite Poland and Russia. Catherine told her ambassador to Poland, Count Kayserling, that she wanted Poniatowski to rule, but she would settle for Adam Czartoryski, his uncle. She sent the Russian army into Poland right away, but she hoped to avoid fighting. On August 26, 1764 Russia invaded Poland, threatening to fight and forcing Poniatowski to become king. Poniatowski accepted the throne, and thereby put himself under Catherine's control. News of Catherine's plan spread and Frederick II warned her that if she tried to conquer Poland by marrying Poniatowski, all of Europe would oppose her strongly. She had no intention of marrying him, and she ordered Poniatowski to marry someone else, in order to remove all suspicion. Poniatowski refused: he never married.
Catherine quickly lost interest in Poland after the crowning of her candidate as king. Poniatowski did not enjoy his position, and Poland remained in chaos throughout his rule.
Prussia through the agency of Prince Henry, Russia under Catherine, and Austria under Maria Theresa began preparing the ground for the Partitions of Poland. In the first partition the three powers split between them. In the second, Russia received the most land. After this, uprisings in Poland led to the third partition, not leaving much of the country, and forcing Poniatowski out of power.
Grigory Orlov, the grandson of a rebel in the Streltsy Uprising (1698) against Peter the Great, distinguished himself in the Battle of Zorndorf (25 August 1758), receiving three wounds. He represented an opposite to Peter's pro-Prussian sentiment, with which Catherine disagreed. By 1759, he and Catherine had become secret lovers. Many guardsmen knew of their relationship, but nobody told Catherine's husband, the Grand Duke Peter. Catherine saw Orlov as very useful, and he became instrumental in the coup d’état against her husband.
Grigory Orlov and his brothers remained disappointed with their rewards for helping Catherine obtain the throne. Grigory expected to marry Catherine, but she named all the brothers counts, and they received money, swords, and other gifts. Orlov, though inept at politics and useless when asked for advice, received a palace in St. Petersburg when Catherine became Empress. She consulted him on affairs, but he mainly functioned as her servant. Some believe Catherine only kept Orlov to prevent Potemkin from gaining any power.
Grigory Potemkin had had involvement in Catherine's coup d'état. In 1772, Catherine's close friends informed her of Orlov's affairs with other women, and she dismissed him, leaving herself in a vulnerable position. By the winter of 1773 the Pugachev revolt had started to grow threatening. Catherine's son Paul had also started gaining support; both of these trends threatened her power. She called Potemkin for help mostly military and he became devoted to her. (Orlov died in 1783.)
In 1772, Catherine wrote to Potemkin. Days earlier, she had found out about an uprising in the Volga region. She appointed General Aleksandr Bibikov to put down the uprising, but she needed Potemkin's advice on military strategy. Their affair began in 1773 and ended in 1776, but he remained at the court even when Catherine met other men. He helped her command the armies, and he had advantages also. He could ask the Treasury for help, private and public, and he could sway Catherine's decisions because she loved him. "Potemkin was wildly promiscuous; Catherine ... was a serial monogamist who was usually in love with her favourite of the moment."
Potemkin quickly gained positions and awards. Russian poets wrote about his virtues, the court praised him, foreign ambassadors fought for his favor, and his family moved into the palace. He later became governor of New Russia. The court paid his expenses, and he had servants and carriages always available to him. Some historians suspect that Catherine and Potemkin secretly married: there existed supposedly two copies, both destroyed, of a marriage license, and letters sent between Potemkin and Catherine use terms like "my dearest husband", "my tender spouse", "your devoted wife". They both became involved in affairs with others, so this would be unusual if they weren’t married. She suspected that Potemkin felt jealous of her power. He teased her often; he avoided contact with her when she expected him, and locked his doors when he knew she would come for him. He displayed jealousy of other men at the court. She complained to him about this, but she still gave him gifts. Sir James Harris of the British embassy said, "There is now no hope of her being reclaimed ... Prince Potemkin rules her with an absolute sway; thoroughly acquainted with her weaknesses, her desires, and her passions, he operates on them and makes them operate as he pleases." One source quotes Potemkin on the subject of his influence over Catherine: "Flatter her...and you will get everything you want". Contemporary literature also portrayed Catherine and the man with whom she fell in love. The 1794 German novel Pansalvin depicted Catherine as "Miranda" (in Latin: "she who must be admired"), and Potemkin as the Prince of Darkness. "Miranda was a praiseworthy princess and in her land there was perhaps only one major weakness that the Prince of Darkness was allowed to have too much power... This flaw in Miranda was viewed as a traditional, feminine weakness the natural submission of a woman to her lover."
When their sexual relationship began to wane, Potemkin decided that he would choose the next man for Catherine. This way, he remained in control and they still maintained other aspects of their relationship. He chose Peter Alexeyevich Zavadovsky, whom he paid for his time with Catherine during his own absence; she could not choose men on her own. Potemkin told Zavadovsky, "You must agree, my friend, that it's not a bad line of work to be in here." Potemkin had previously had suspicions of Zavadovsky in the court. His good looks and his relation with Catherine helped promote him to major general in a month. She called him "little Petussia", and he moved into the Winter Palace. He felt jealous of Potemkin's relationship with Catherine. When Potemkin returned in 1777 he had Zavadovsky removed from the palace. Catherine tried to contact him soon after he left.
After the death of Lanskoy, another lover chosen by Potemkin, came Ermolov. Ermolov learned from Potemkin's enemies that the Prince of Taurida (Potemkin) had started taking funds from those set aside for colonizing White Russia. Potemkin told her that he had borrowed the money and would return it when he sold an estate. Ermolov also brought Catherine a letter from the former Khan of Crimea. It claimed that Potemkin had diverted payments of his pension. Catherine warned Potemkin that his power might end, but this did not concern him. He said, "I am not to be overthrown by a mere boy. Besides, who would dare try?" Apparently, Potemkin planned to decide when he would lose his power. "Potemkin was forever threatening resignation – Catherine must have been used to it." Soon Potemkin expressed his jealousy because he knew Ermolov had passed information to Catherine about him; and Catherine dismissed Ermolov. Potemkin's enemies tried unsuccessfully to find Catherine another lover to make her lose interest. Vassilchikov became another lover. "Vassilchikov was a disappointing companion for Catherine, who found him corrosively dull... ‘his caresses only made me cry,’ she told Potemkin afterwards."
In 1780 Joseph II of Austria, determining whether or not to enter an alliance with Russia, asked to meet Catherine. He and his family wanted to ensure that Catherine could abandon all the Prussian ways adopted in Russia. She assured him they had. Catherine led him through the country as he inspected everything. "Russia had few of the flea-bitten taverns the Emperor expected, so Potemkin dressed up manor houses to look like inns." In preparing for the trip, Potemkin had gone to great lengths. He rapidly changed the land that had only recently become part of Russia. New villages, farms, and landscapes already existed; and people had already started to migrate and live there. He planted forests, and built towns with manufacturers, theaters, and cathedrals.
Laveaux, a secret agent of Louis XV to the court of St. Petersburg, believed that Potemkin truly held the reins of power, and that he tricked Catherine and others into believing that she really made the decisions. He said that Potemkin convinced Catherine that all of her old lovers kept contact with her in order to steal her power. "He never fell from power; he was treated like a member of the imperial family and had absolute access to the Treasury as well as the ability to make independent decisions."
Potemkin, a Russian, did not object to the independence of Poland as Catherine did. He would not have agreed with the partitioning of Poland, and he wanted to become king. "As for Catherine, she was subjugated by her companion. She consulted him on all important political decisions and sometimes bowed to his opinions." Potemkin convinced Catherine of the need to gain the Crimea, otherwise a perpetual obstacle. In November 1783 he told her that Russia needed the Crimea. "Believe me, that doing this will win you immortal glory greater than any other Russian Sovereign ever... Russia needs paradise." Mere weeks later, she sent him secret permission to take the actions necessary to obtain the Crimea. Catherine had arranged for a pro-Russian, Khan Shagin Girey, to come to power in the Crimea (1777). Potemkin negotiated with him and he agreed to cede the Crimea to Russia. Only months after negotiations began, Russia controlled the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.
Potemkin also convinced Catherine to expand the universities in Russia to increase the number of successful scientists.
Potemkin fell very ill in August 1783. Catherine worried that he would not finish his work developing the south as he had planned. "Know that I am committed to you for a century." At this point she gave him 100,000 rubles to fund his palace on the Tauric peninsula.
"Potemkin was not, as Orlov had been, a respected but subordinate companion, reduced to carrying out the orders of his imperial mistress. In a very short time he became the real master of Russia. Catherine decided nothing without him, bowed to his opinion and let him act for her." Potemkin died at the age of fifty-two in 1791. The devastated Catherine said, "Now I have no one left on whom I can rely." One source quotes her: "Prince Potemkin has played me a cruel turn by dying! It is me on whom all the burden now falls."
After Potemkin died, Catherine continued to have affairs, but with far younger, far less useful and far less important men. "With the exception of Potemkin... Catherine did not treat any man as a world's wonder, an all-important being with whom she could forget herself." Catherine the Great used her relationships with men for her benefit and the benefit of her country. Some critics condemn Catherine for this, while others praise her methods. However, her private and public lives clearly intertwined.
Pre-eminent figures in Catherinian Russia include: