Catherine the Great–individual empress, mother of the Russian Renaissance, and the longest-ruling female monarch of Russia. From 1762 until her death in 1796, she changed both Russian and world history. Her impact has been revived with the new show Ekaterina, but not even the historical show can capture every fascinating element of her life.
Along with her role as empress, Catherine II influenced vaccines, erotic furniture, and equality in the jury. If you want to find out how then browse through these enlightening facts about Russia’s greatest Czarina.
Did you know that Catherine wasn’t Russian?
Her Name Wasn’t Catherine, And She Wasn’t Even Russian
Russia’s longest-ruling female monarch was actually the daughter of a Prussian prince. She was born as Sophie Augusta Frederica in 1729. Despite not being Russian, her mother’s noble bloodline made her a well-sought marital choice. This ultimately helped her ascend to the throne.
When she was 15, Czarina Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, invited her to the palace. Sophie made an immediate impact on Elizabeth. After converting to Orthodox Christianity, Sophie married the future Peter III a year after they met. She then donned the new name Ekaterina, or Catherine.
All Of Her Children May Have Been Illegitimate
Catherine’s marriage to Peter had a rocky start. They would go eight years without a child. Historians believe that Peter was either infertile or unable to consummate. Either way, both partners had several affairs. Historians believe that Peter did not father three (maybe all four) of her children.
The general public did know about the couple’s affairs. In 1754, a rumor spread that Catherine’s first son, Paul, actually came from the Russian military officer Sergei Saltykov. Some historians argue that Paul’s father was indeed Peter, but there’s little doubt that the following three children had different fathers.
According to one account, Peter III came back from the dead…
She Employed Full-Time Foot Ticklers
Beyond her many love affairs, Catherine the Great installed erotic furniture and employees in her palace. She even employed full-time foot ticklers, an aristocratic tradition among Russian royalty. The foot ticklers would handle their master’s feet while singing sexual ballads.
During World War II, German soldiers raided Catherine’s former palace to discover an erotic boudoir full of furniture. They photographed it, and although most have been lost during the war, the surviving pictures are historians’ only evidence of this sexually-charged furniture.
She Vaccinated Russia
In 1762, Catherine secretly invited physician Thomas Dimsdale to her court. He inoculated her, her eldest son Paul, and 140 members of her court against smallpox. She kept horses ready in case the injection went wrong, and the physician had to flee Catherine’s angry court. The vaccination succeeded, and all parties recovered.
Catherine rewarded Dimsdale with a Barony and £10,000 and a £500 annual pension. When Dimsdale returned to Russia next, he vaccinated over 20,000 Russians.
Catherine Had Many Lovers, And Rewarded All Of Them
Catherine the Great became infamous for her sexual promiscuity. Some sources claim that she had 12 male lovers throughout her life, but other accounts list 22 lovers. One of her favorite lovers, head of the Russian forces Grigory Potemkin, selected younger lovers for her.
Becoming Catherine’s lover resulted in numerous rewards for these young men. One lover, Pyotr Zavadovsky, received 50,000 rubles and 4,000 indentured servants after their affair ended in 1777.
Catherine Claimed The Throne Bloodlessly
After Czarina Elizabeth died in 1762, Peter claimed the throne as Peter III, with Catherine as his consort. He immediately ended Russia’s war with Prussia, an unpopular ruling among the military class. When Peter III employed reforms that helped the poor as opposed to the lower nobility, unhappy factions approached Catherine. A coup slowly developed.
Only six months after beginning his reign, Peter III abdicated after Catherine gathered Russia’s strongest military regiment to arrest him. Catherine became the nation’s sole ruler without bloodshed. Peter III was killed soon-after, although it’s unknown if Catherine planned this attack.
Did Peter III Actually Die?
Around 1773, former army officer Emelyan Pugachev claimed that he was Peter III who had never died. Pugachev directed a rebellion to combat the harsh conditions placed on Russia’s indentured servants, the serfs. He garnered thousands of supporters and captured a large portion of Russia’s terrain.
Initially, Catherine ignored the rebellion. Eventually, though, she responded with massive force. Pugachev’s supporters deserted in the face of the Russian army, and the so-called resurrected Peter III was publicly executed in 1775.
Catherine directly influenced Poland’s monarchy as well.
Catherine Helped Her Lover Become The King Of Poland
Unlike her spouse, Catherine the Great remained loyal to her lovers even after the relationship ended. One member of the Polish nobility, Stanislaw Poniatowski, reaped incredible benefits from her support. In 1763, a year after their relationship ended, Catherine helped Poniatowski become King of Poland.
However, she assisted the new king with an ulterior motive, expecting him to act as a puppet to Russian interests. When Poniatowski reinforced his country’s independence, their relationship crumbled. Catherine forced Poniatowski to abdicate, and dissolved his newly formed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Catherine’s only possible child with Peter hardly even met her…
Paul Met The Same Fate As His Father
Although Catherine the Great intended to make Paul’s children the heirs to the throne, she died before she could officiate her ruling. Paul, afraid that the public would eventually uncover the document, confiscated it. Paul became the new Czar–and ended up becoming as erratic and unpopular as Catherine feared.
Paul I reigned for four years, during which he viewed the nobility as decadent and corrupt and aimed to change their chivalry. He was assassinated in 1801. Just as Catherine wished, Paul’s son, Alexander I, ascended to the throne and ruled for 24 years.
Catherine II Granted Equality in Trials
For two years, Catherine the Great worked on the Nakaz, a Russian Legislative Commission that translates to “Instruction.” In it, she declared that all citizens would receive equal treatment under the law regarding crime, trial, and punishment. She also condemns torture as a punishment.
Her emphasis on incorporating a judge, jury, and witness in trails was considered radical at the time. While drafting the Nakaz, she briefly debated abolishing serfdom. However, she decided that that would be too radical for the public to handle.
Catherine’s Mother Showed Little Interest In Her
Catherine’s mother was Johanna Elizabeth, princess of the House of Holstein-Gottorp and friend of Czarina Elizabeth. Apart from enforcing her etiquette, she paid little attention to her first child. Catherine instead learned from her Governess Babette, who taught her three languages, history, and religion.
Only after her brother, Wilhelm Christian, died did her mother display interest in Catherine. Johanna saw her daughter as a means to improve her own situation, and initially set up a marriage with the Czarina’s brother Charles Augustus. The fiance died of smallpox before the wedding could occur, so Elizabeth picked out a new husband, Peter.
She Considered Herself An Enlightened Ruler
Catherine considered herself to be one of the most enlightened rulers in Europe. In terms of the arts, historians agree. She wrote numerous books and pamphlets to encourage Russia’s education system. She also maintained a lifelong friendship with Voltaire and gathered the country’s most prominent art collection in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace (now part of the Hermitage Museum).
Even so, Catherine’s citizens may not have cared. They revolted at least 12 times during her reign, organizing the largest peasant revolts in Russian history. Despite her liberal ideals, the lower classes felt unhappy under her rule.
Catherine Alienated Her Eldest Son
Shorty after giving birth to her first son, Paul, Catherine sent the boy away. Paul grew up with the former Czarina, Elizabeth, who tended to his education. After she ascended to the throne, Catherine feared that Paul would take revenge on his father’s death, and kept him as far away from the palace as possible.
Eventually, their relationship rotted so horribly that Paul believed his mother was plotting his death. She wasn’t, but she did take control of Paul’s children’s upbringing, aiming to make them her heirs and bypass Paul.
The Jewish community received unique treatment under Catherine’s rule.
Faking For Approval: The Potemkin Villages
In the field of politics and economics, a Potemkin Villages addresses any construct used to trick people into thinking the situation is better than it is. This phrase originated from a tactic used to deceive Catherine the Great.
One of Catherine’s lovers, Grigory Potemkin, built several villages in Crimea that appeared clean, pretty, and filled with happy farmers. He guided Catherine through a tour of these villages to deceive her into believing that her policies were more effective than they were. Historians debate over whether this story has been falsified or exaggerated.
Catherine Viewed Jews As A Separate Entity
Although Catherine the Great knew that Judaism existed in Russia (albeit in small numbers), she and her advisers had no real definition of “Jew.” Nonetheless, she treated them as a separate entity placed under legal restrictions. She levied a tax on Jewish people, and unless they converted to Orthodoxy, they had to pay double what Orthodox Christians did.
Catherine did try to incorporate more Jewish people into the economy with the Charter of the Towns in 1782. By 1790, though, she banned Jews from Moscow’s middle class. In 1785, she declared that Jews would legally be foreigners, denying them of citizens’ rights.
She created more nobility… and more serfs. Learn how.
She Worked With Japan For A While
In 1783, Japanese sea captain Daikokuya Kōdayū landed on the Aleutian Islands after a harsh storm. At the time, the islands belonged to Russia, and local authorities helped his party. The nobility had already been fur trapping in the Kuril Islands and Kamchatka, so government officials decided to use him as an envoy.
By 1792, Catherine dispatched a trade mission to Japan. Even after her envoy’s audience at Tsarskoye Selo, negotiations failed. Afterward, she seemed to give up her task of trading furs and food from Japan.
She Created Russia’s Golden Age
Not only was Catherine the Great Russia’s longest ruler (34 years long), but she is also regarded as one of the country’s greatest ruler. Along with collecting works for one of the largest and oldest museums in the world, she poured financial support into Russia’s education.
Catherine also established the first educational establishment for women in Russia in 1764. She even conducted some operas of her own. On top of improving the arts, she also lead conquests against the Ottoman Empire and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that expanded Russia’s territory by 200,000 square miles.
She Gave The Nobility More Power
In 1785, Catherine enacted the Charter to the Gentry, or the Charter of the Nobility. In it, she granted many rights to the gentry, including exemption from taxes and corporal punishment, and gaining more serfs.
This charter caused a divide between the old aristocracy, who inherited their titles through family, and the new nobility, who were given their status for their service to the Russian government. It also forced many citizens into serfdom to account for these new nobles.
No, Catherine II’s death has nothing to do with horses.
She Acted Humbly For An Artist
Catherine the Great described herself as an art “glutton,” who financed the operas, collected many paintings, and even sketched architectural designs to give to the palace’s architect. Even so, she would downplay her talents to appear humble and stay on good terms with artists in the political realm.
While she garnered an impressive art collection, she claimed that she “knew less than a child” about artistic talent. And despite conducting her own operas, she described herself as tone deaf, calling her own music “an infernal noise.”
Contrary To Myth, She Suffered A Mundane Death
Even in death, gossip trailed the Russian Empress. After she died in November 1796, nobles in the court spread various rumors about her final hours. Some claim that she died on the toilet, while others asserted that she died while engaging in sexual acts with an animal, namely a horse.
Of course, none of these rumors were true. Catherine the Great suffered from a stroke,and fell into a coma from which she never recovered. She peacefully in her bed on November 17th.
She Wanted Nothing To Do With The American Revolution
As the American Revolution broke out, Britain actually asked Catherine the Great for help in defeating their unruly colonies on the other side of the Atlantic. However, Catherine refused to help them.
British diplomats continued tirelessly to establish an alliance with Russia so that Catherine would send aid for British troops in America. At the very least, they hoped she would influence France into abandoning the American cause. Catherine was having none of it despite the fact that she attempted to mediate an end in 1780 out of the interest for Russian shipping in the Atlantic.
She Started Colonizing The West
Despite Catherine’s lack of action to ease American and British tensions, she did already have stakes on the North American continent. Since 1741, Russian explorers had already traversed their way onto the Alaskan territory. In 1784, a merchant named Grigory Shelikhov established the Three Saints Bay Colony on Kodiak Island.
Four years later, he traveled back to St. Petersburg to ask Catherine to give his company a monopoly on the fur trade, which she denied. Instead, she thanked him for “[discovering] new lands and peoples for the benefit of the state.”
Catherine Ended Up Making Things Worse For Serfs
While Catherine the Great considered herself an “enlightened” ruler, she certainly didn’t do much to help the underrepresented classes under her rule. Despite the fact that she was intellectually opposed to serfdom, she knew the nobility (whose support she depended on) would be upset if she got rid of the idea.
Serfs were peasants who lived in permanent bondage to land owned by upper classes. Around half the population of Russia was subject to serfdom under her reign and because their rights were diminished in the 18th century, they were essentially made into slaves.
Catherine’s Most Dangerous Rebellion
Catherine the Great may have been an influential leader but not everyone seemed to agree with her. In fact, Catherine faced plenty of uprisings during her reign from people who didn’t want to be under her power.
The most dangerous uprising that Catherine had to face came in 1773 when thousands of armed Cossacks and peasants, led by Emelyan Pugachev, rebelled against the poor conditions laid out for Russian serfs. Pugachev also claimed he was the real Peter III, who was believed to be dead. Catherine responded with the full force of the Russian army and Pugachev was executed two years later.
Catherine Made Russia Stronger And Larger
By the time Catherine the Great came into power, Russia and her territories already spanned across much of Siberia. But it was only under Catherine’s rule that Russia became nearly as large as it is today.
Catherine led Russia against the Ottoman Empire during her reign, during which Russia also successfully defeated the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Poland was thus divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria, with Russia obviously taking the largest share. All these acquisitions helped Russian become larger and stronger than it ever was at that point in history.
She Preferred Her Grandson To Her Own Son
Catherine the Great had her own ideas about who should take over once her reign had come to an end. It was common knowledge that Catherine and her eldest son Paul were not on the best terms throughout his life. Once she came into power, she purposefully left him out of state matters and continued to alienate him.
Once Paul had his own son, Alexander, Catherine took an active role in raising her grandson and believed he was a more suitable heir than his father. After her death, it took Paul’s assassination for Catherine’s choice heir to take the throne.
Catherine Advocated Education For Women
One of the reasons that Catherine the Great was regarded as one of Russia’s best rulers was due to the revolutionary ideals that she implemented during her reign. One example of this was her establishing the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens.
The institute is known for being the first establishment that made education available to women in Russia, which only began in the late 18th century. The institute took its name from the nearby Smolny Convent and ran under Catherine’s patronage until the revolution of 1917.
Catherine’s Personal Art Collection Became The Hermitage
You’ve already read that Catherine the Great collected an impressive amount of paintings and other works of art throughout her reign. She put everything in her personal collection into a place that would eventually become the Hermitage Museum.
Much of Catherine’s collection started when she acquired many of her painting from Berlin-based merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky. The Hermitage is in St. Petersburg and is now the second-largest art museum in the entire world. The collections occupy six historic buildings in the Palace Embankment, including the Winter Palace.
Catherine The Great Never Rode Side Saddle
There’s a reason that rumors surrounding Catherine the Great’s death involved a horse. In fact, the empress was a known equestrian and servants would report that she’d spend hours in the stables with her Arabian horses without supervision.
In her free time, Catherine loved riding horses and though she was a lady, she refused to ride side-saddle. She allegedly once said, “The more violent the exercise, the more I enjoyed it.” We’re sure that didn’t do much to quell all the rumors but her love of horses was undeniable.
She Helped Him Become King Then Got Rid Of Him
Of Catherine the Great’s numerous lovers was a man by the name of Stanislaw Poniatowski. As you know, Catherine rewarded her lovers lavishly and Stanislaw was no exception. In fact, even after their trysts ended, Catherine helped Stanislaw rise to the Polish throne as Poland’s new king.
But things didn’t end on a good note between these two lovers after Stanislaw started trying to gain more independence from Poland. At that point, Catherine forced him to abdicate the throne.
Catherine The Great Condemned Torture
In an effort to enact social reform based on her enlightened ideals, Catherine the Great wrote a statement of legal principles called Nakaz. Nakaz, which also means “instruction,” was inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution.
Catherine the Great wrote that all men were equal before the law and she also stated her disapproval of the death penalty and torture. Catherine believed that enacting these principles was strengthening Russian law and institutions, and in turn strengthening the Russian monarchy.
Catherine’s Support Of The Nobility Was Still Problematic
Though Catherine the Great made things worse for serfdom by supporting the nobility, things still weren’t considered perfect under her reign. In 1785, she issued the Charter to the Nobility. Also known as the Charter to the Gentry, this edict increased the power of the nobility and upper-classes.
This sounds good for people in those positions but not everyone was happy. The old aristocracy, those who gained their status by inheritance, were often at war with the new gentry who gained their status by service to the state.
She Supposedly Kept Her Hairdresser In A Cage
There are plenty of rumors surrounding Catherine the Great’s entire existence and many of them have yet to be proven. Of these outlandish rumors, one was that Catherine kept her own hairdresser in a cage to prevent the secret getting out about her wig.
Whether or not the rumor about her holding her hairdresser captive or the one that she wore a wig are true, we wouldn’t be surprised if they were. After all, someone in her power would have the freedom to do something like that.
Catherine Didn’t Really Like Music
She may have expressed her love and appreciation for the arts, but there was one thing that Catherine the Great may not have enjoyed as much. Catherine was a frequent patron of the opera but apparently didn’t like it as much as she let on.
She apparently called herself “tone deaf” in her own memoirs. She didn’t even like music that much and considered it “an infernal noise” that she just couldn’t get into.
Catherine Failed To Pen Her Own Memoir
There’s no better person to tell one’s life story than that person themselves. Catherine the Great attempted on multiple occasions to pen her own memoir, but over the years, she could never complete one. Her longest attempt was abandoned just two years before she kicked the bucket.
At the very least, we have all her unfinished memoirs to go off of when learning about her life. We can only imagine what she would have written had she finished the whole thing!
Catherine Wanted Another Grandson To Rule Byzantine
Shortly after the Byzantine Empire was restored and centered in Constantinople in the late 18th century, Catherine the Great was already making plans to acquire some of that territory for her own progeny.
In what was titled the “Greek Plan” or the “Greek Project,” Catherine decided what she would take from the Ottoman Empire (which she would successfully do). Part of this great plan was to install one of her grandsons, named Constantine, as emperor of the that new territory.
It Took 19 Years For Her To Acknowledge Her Son
While it was believed that all of her children were illegitimate, one of Catherine the Great’s sons was confirmed to be born by another man other than her husband Paul. Aleksey Grigorievich Bobrinsky was born to one of Catherine’s lovers, Count Grigory Orlov.
Aleksey was brought up in the nearby village of Tula guberniya after his birth in 1762 and it took 19 years for Catherine to publicly acknowledge him as her son. When Paul I ascended the throne, he made his half-brother a Count of the Russian Empire and promoted him to General-Major.
Catherine Did Things In Five-Minute Increments
It’s clear that Catherine the Great did a lot for Russia, so it’s safe to assume that she was a pretty busy monarch. In fact, Catherine kept herself so busy that she had her days planned out to a T.
Catherine had her advisers map her days out in five-minute increments. She was sure to get a lot more done if she focused her energy towards one thing for five minutes straight. The only thing that would change on her schedule was her wake-up time, which changed from 5 A.M. to 6 A.M. as she got older.
Catherine The Great And Voltaire Were Pen Pals
Being the intellectual ruler that she was, it’s not surprising that Catherine the Great corresponded with some of the greatest enlightenment thinkers in history. Though they’ve never met, Catherine kept a frequent correspondence with Voltaire through a series of letters.
Voltaire, for one, was supportive of Catherine’s ideas for Russia, including disease prevention and her take over of the Turkish empire. Voltaire himself was fascinated by Russia and even wrote Peter the Great’s biography, so it’s no wonder he loved writing to Catherine.
Her Book Collection Had 44,000 Books
Catherine the Great was known to love art and literature and had started a book collection early on in her life. When she was still a grand duchess, she had her own personal library that had amassed 44,000 books by the time she became the Empress.
At that point, Catherine wanted to extend her personal library into a public library. She believed the Imperial Public Library would be a symbol of an enlightened Russia. With both Russian and foreign language books, courtiers would have the ability to borrow the books at their own will.