Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, ruled as empress of Russia from 1762 until her death in 1796. Born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, she was the daughter of a German prince living in Prussia. She changed her name when she converted to Orthodox Christianity and married the heir to the Russian throne. She became empress when her husband was overthrown. Her 34-year reign was marked by industrialization and militant Russian expansion.
Defeat of the Ottoman Empire
Upset in part by Catherine's meddling in the affairs of Poland, the Ottoman sultan declared war on Russia in 1768. Catherine dispensed the Russian army to meet the Ottoman Turks on land, while Russian war ships sailed into the Mediterranean. Through 1774, the Russians battled the Ottoman Empire, landing decisive victories in 1769 and 1770. Having conquered the Ottoman land forces and annihilated their war fleet, the sultan signed a peace treaty with Catherine in 1774, handing significant territory over to Russia. A second war with the Ottoman empire lasted from 1787 to 1792, where Catherine triumphed and expanded the country to what she considered its natural borders -- the edge of the Black Sea.
Partition of Poland
Russia, Prussia and Austria saw Poland as a problem. Sandwiched between the three powers, the country's insistence on independence became a thorn of contention. In 1763, Catherine assisted Stanislaw Poniatowski, a former lover, in becoming king of Poland. She thought the grateful king would reward her by becoming a puppet to Russian interests. Instead, Poniatowski introduced reforms designed to make Poland more independent from its neighbors. In 1772, the frustrated Catherine, together with Prussia and Austria, seized substantial portions of Polish territory. The three states made agreements in 1772, 1793 and 1795 to divide Poland between them, resulting in the elimination of Poland as an independent nation. It would be 1918 before Poland would regain its sovereignty.
Suppression of the Pugachev Rebellion
During her reign, Catherine faced more than a dozen peasant uprisings, but none so bloody as the 1774 revolt instigated by Emelyan Pugachev. Pugachev, a former army officer, convinced large numbers of Cossacks and peasants in the western territories that he was Peter III, the deposed czar who was murdered in 1762. As part of his claim to be the true czar of Russia, Pugachev set up a court and issued decrees ending taxation and compulsory military service. Initially, Catherine ignored the rebellion. However, his followers soon instigated what became the largest peasant revolt in European history, assassinating an estimated 3,000 government officials and 2,500 Russian noblemen as well as laying waste to around 400 estates. Catherine dispensed the Russian army to bring the rebellion to a quick end, and Pugachev was captured and executed in 1775.
Annexation of the Crimean Peninsula
Catherine's 1774 peace treaty with the Ottomans stipulated that the Crimea was to be independent from Ottoman rule. In fact, Russia had many troops strategically stationed along the peninsula. Catherine installed Gregory Potemkin, one of the heroes of the war, to rule the newly acquired Russian territories near the Black Sea in her name. Potemkin advised Catherine to take over the Crimean Peninsula in full, strengthening Russia's position in the region. Ten years after the peace treaty was signed, Catherine abolished the khanate ruling the independent Crimea and made the peninsula a province of Russia. When Catherine planned a cruise down the Dniepr River to evaluate her new territory, Potemkin allegedly constructed elaborate fake towns to impress the empress with his success in populating the peninsula.
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- BBC History: Catherine the Great
- History.com: Eight Things You Didn't Know About Catherine the Great
- Biography.com: Catherine II
- New York Public Library Online Exhibition Archive: Russia Engages the World -- Catherine's Foreign Policy
- New York Public Library Online Exhibition Archive: Russia Engages the World -- Eurasia
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images