Catherine the Great (born 1729, ruled from 1762-1796) was one of Russia's greatest leaders. Regarded as both an Age of Enlightenment reformer and a frivolous opportunist, she ruled Russia for 34 years, one of the longest reigns in Russian history, even though she wasn't even Russian, had no legal claim to the throne and seized power by killing her husband, the tsar Peter III. [Source: Erla Zwingle, National Geographic, September 1998]

Catherine ruled in the age of Cossacks, diamonds and French ideas. She came to Russia as a 15 year-old from Prussia to marry Peter III, and later staged a coup and had herself crowned as empress. She did more to advance real reform than Peter the Great but also cruelly crushed a serf rebellion and drove her country into debt.

Historians have debated Catherine's sincerity as an enlightened monarch, but few have doubted that she believed in government activism aimed at developing the empire's resources and making its administration more effective. Initially, Catherine attempted to rationalize government procedures through law. In 1767 she created the Legislative Commission, drawn from nobles, townsmen, and others, to codify Russia's laws. Although the commission did not formulate a new law code, Catherine's Instruction to the Commission introduced some Russians to Western political and legal thinking. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Book: “Great Catherine” by Carolly Erickson.

Catherine the Great's Early Life

Catherine the Great was born Princess Sophie Friederike Augusta von Anhalt-Zerbst. The daughter of an unrenowned German prince, with ties to the Russian royal family, she was born on April 21, 1729 (in the Julian calendar) and raised in Stettin, a German principality in what is now Poland.

Charming and energetic but not beautiful, Sophie was regarded as a tomboy and was known by the nickname Fike. Her father was aloof and her mother ignored her and gave her attention to Sophie's two brothers, especially the younger one. Catherine's younger brother Wilhelm Christian, died at the age of 12. Catherine was largely raised by her governess Babette.

Sophie was educated by tutors. She studied religion with a military chaplain, but she questioned much of what he taught her. She also learned three languages: German, French and Russian. As she grew up, her mother came to see her daughter as a means of improving her social situation. Sophie’s mother wrangled an invitation to St. Petersburg from the Empress Elizabeth; Elizabeth had once been engaged to Sophie’s uncle, who died of smallpox. Sophie arrived in Russia with her mother in the winter of 1744, when she 15, and hated it. She considered Moscow barbaric and frowned up the Asian influences.

Catherine the Great's Marriage to Peter III

Because she was intelligent, spirited and held the promise of beauty, Catherine was approved as a suitable wife for Grand Duke Peter (later the Tsar Peter III), the heir to the Russian throne, by his aunt the empress. Sophie became Catherine when she converted to Russian Orthodoxy. In a sumptuous ceremony at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan in St. Petersburg on August 21, 1745, 16-year-old Catherine married Duke Karl Peter Ulrich of Holsein-Gottorp, the grandson of Peter the Great.

A sickly young man who was disfigured by smallpox, Grand Duke Peter was, by some descriptions, a weak, cruel, feebleminded and unstable man who enjoyed playing with dolls and toy soldier well into adulthood. On their wedding night, Peter stayed up late drinking with his servants and didn't show up in the bedroom until the next morning and then fell asleep. Catherine didn't produce her first child until nine years after the wedding. Later she said, "I believe the Crown of Russia attracted me more than his person."

Catherine was married to Peter for 16 miserable years. She was looked down on and insulted by her husband and eyed by her suspicious aunt, the empress. Shortly after the wedding, Peter took a mistress. In her memoir Catherine wrote, "My heart predicted nothing agreeable; only ambition sustained me, I had in my heart a strange certainty that one day I should, by my own efforts, become Empress of Russia."

Catherine and Peter spent most their time in separate palaces. Peter favored a two-story building at Oranienbaum, where he often hosted all night drinking parties. With her court activities sharply limited, Catherine spent much of her time reading, often choosing French enlightenment writers like Voltaire and Montesquieu, and riding her horse. She refused to ride side saddle and once wrote, "The more violent this exercise the more I loved it."

Describing Catherine at the time, one court spy wrote, she "is romantic, ardent and passionate. She has a bright glassy hypnotic look like that of a wild animal...She is thoughtful and friendly and yet, when she approached me I automatically back away. She frightens me." To alleviate her boredom and inattention, Catherine had an affair with Sergei Saltykov, a handsome court chamberlain. After two miscarriages she gave birth to a son who was most likely fathered by Saltykov but was acknowledged as Peter's.

Catherine Takes the Throne As Peter III is Killed

In December 1761, when Catherine was 32, he husband ascended to the Russian throne as Peter III while his aunt Empress Elizabeth lay on her death bed. Everyone knew that he planned to make his mistress Empress and he made it clear he preferred the company of Germans to Russians. Six months after Peter III became tsar, while he was at Oranienbaum, a swift and efficient coup was carried out by a small group led by Satlykov's brother. Within hours Catherine was declared empress and St. Petersburg was secured. The next day Peter signed an abdication. Seven days later he was dead. "Fate is not as blind as one imagines," Catherine wrote.

The circumstances of Peter's death are still unclear. According to one account he was strangled at dinner while being watched by palace guards loyal to Catherine, who received a note from one guard that read: "How could we have dared to lay hands on the Emperor? And yet, Majesty, the tragedy happened, He had begun to argue with prince Fyodor during the meal and before we could separate them he was no longer!"

Catherine became tsarina Catherine II. In addition to having the support of the palace guards she had the tacit endorsement of the church, aristocracy and army—all groups that Peter had insulted one time or another. Catherine was liked and regarded as thoroughly Russified. Because she was a woman and a foreigner she needed the support of the army and goodwill of the aristocracy to retain power. Unlike Peter the Great, Catherine attempted to use persuasion and instruction rather than intimidation and terror to implement her reforms. Monarchs throughout Europe were disturbed by what happened to Peter III and predicted a short reign for Catherine.

Catherine the Great's Character and Habits

Catherine was beautiful and intelligent. Even though she seemed stately and imposing in some of her portraits, she was barely five feet tall and she was described as friendly and approachable and had "a great desire to please". She had a deep maternal instinct for ruling her country but she also believed that Russians needed a firm hand.

Among the signs posted outside a room at the Winter Palace where she entertained guest were: "pretensions founded on the prerogatives of birth, pride or other sentiments of a like nature, must also be left at the door" and "Speak with moderation, and not too often, in order to avoid being troublesome to others."

Catherine liked to laugh and was kind to her servants and sometimes insisted that plays be rewritten with a happy ending. To help her sleep at night, Catherine like to have her hair brushed while she relaxed in bed. When her favorite pet dog died she had it stuffed. She could also be vein and paranoid. She was so paranoid about leaks that she wore a wig, she kept her hairdresser confined to an iron cage in her room for three years so that he was unable to gossip about it.

Catherine used to say that her motto was to be "useful." She usually woke up early and started her day with strong coffee and an ice cube rubbed on her face. She wrote letters and took care of paperwork in the morning, met with her ministers in the early afternoon and had her main meal at 2:00pm. She entertained herself in the evening with card games, conversation and theater and music and usually went to bed early. Catherine reportedly like to play cards in the famous Amber Room at her summer palace. According to some accounts she always won. Catherine suffered from excruciating headaches and stomach problems. She was a finicky eater who often ate boiled beef for dinner and drank alcohol only when her Scottish doctor told her to.

Catherine the Great's Homes

Unlike Peter the Great, who favored Baroque palaces, Catherine liked neo-classical buildings, which were all the rage during the Age of Enlightenment. At her mansion at Sliding Hill she had a roller coaster built in the front yard for the amusement of her friends.

The Winter Palace (now the Hermitage museum) in St. Petersburg is associated with Catherine the Great. She revamped the interior in a classical style and entertained European intellectuals and romped with her lovers there. The floors were inlaid with floral designed made from rare woods and the walls were adorned with ivory and gold. Seemingly to address the amount of ornately-carved furniture and gold-encrusted arcades in the palace, Catherine once said "I have a whole labyrinth of rooms...and all of them are filled with luxuries." The Marble Palace (between the Hermitage and the Summer Gardens) was the 18th-century aristocratic residence given by Catherine the Great to her lover Grigory Orlov.

Petrodvorets (20 miles southeast of St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland) is Russia's most popular tourist attraction. Also known as Pertof or Peterhof, it was Peter's favorite palace and occupied off and on by Catherine the Great. The two wings and upper story were designed by Rastrelli. Petrodvorets means Peter’s Palace. The main rooms are smothered with gold leaf and huge paintings. The heavy golden cupolas in the corner of palace give it a strange squat appearance. The “fountains of yellow facades” is the most famous of the palace’s 129 fountains. Some fountains have water-spewing gilded figures. Others are arranged along marble tiers and resemble sprouting waterfall. Some of the "trick" fountains lie dormant until they are set off by an unsuspecting victim. The Samson fountain shoots water 66 feet into the air.

In Catherine's time, Russian places sometimes looked great but they were often poorly built and had less than adequate sewage systems. One she wrote, "It is not unusual to see emerging from an enormous courtyard deep in sludge and horrors of every sort...a superbly dressed woman covered in jewels, in magnificent carriage drawn by six miserable nags in filthy harnesses."

Summer Palace of Catherine the Great

The Summer Palace of Catherine the Great (in Tsarkoye Selo outside St. Petersburg) is one of the grandest palaces in Russia. It boasts five glorious gilded domes and features a half-kilometer-long blue and white pilastered facade, with dark green ornaments on a ground floor that originally was gilded. There are also pavilions and royal baths.

The summer palace was originally constructed as a gift from Peter the Great to his wife. It was expanded by his daughter, the Empress Elizabeth and Catherine the Great into a Russian version of Versailles. The facade and many of the rooms, including the Green Pilaster Room and the Golden Enfilade, were designed by the Italian architect Bartolommeo Francesco Rasterelli. By the time Nicholas I lived there it contained a collection of art with 30,000 paintings, sculptures, French porcelain, and silver place settings.

Catherine Hall is the size of a high school gymnasium. It has inlaid floors and 12 spacious windows, each framed with gold decorations. In the ballroom is the recently recreated 9000- square-foot "Triumph of Europe," the largest ceiling painting in Europe.” Restorers also restored another huge painting, "Marriage of Bacchus and Ariane", using techniques that have changed little since Michelangelo's time.

Catherine the Great's Collections

The Hermitage's collection was started by Peter the Great, as part of his "Window on Europe" campaign, and swelled under the free-spending Catherine the Great, who received advise from friends like the French intellectuals Diderot and Voltaire. She purchased entire collections, including 600 works from a French baron and 225 works from a Prussian king. Among Catherine's acquisitions were works by Frans Hals, von Aachen, and Rubens. She was especially fond of Rembrandt and bought his art whenever she could. By 1783, she had acquired 2,658 paintings, 10,000 sculptures and carvings and 10,000 drawings.

Catherine was no great expert on art but she new the value of it. She hired experts to find the best collections of art and purchase them in their entirety. Large gems were all the rage among the Russian aristocracy in Catherine’s time. One English visitor wrote, "many of the nobility were almost covered with diamonds...and a diamond-star upon the coat was scarcely distinction." Catherine was an avid shell collector. One of her most prized possessions was a 2½ inch precious wentletrap from the Philippines. This shell sold for $20,000 in the 1960s.

Catherine the Great, Culture and Voltaire

The intellectual westernization of the Russian elite started by Peter the Great continued during Catherine's reign. Catherine patronized poets and writers in Russia. She is credited with helping to foster a unique Russian literature. She read a great deal and made a few stabs at writing history and drama. An increase in the number of books and periodicals that occurred during her reign also brought forth intellectual debates and social criticism.

Catherine considered herself a daughter of the French enlightenment. Fluent in French, she required her court to adapt French manners and corresponded regularly with the French intellectuals Voltaire and Diderot. Voltaire called her "flighty." Diderot described her as a woman "with the soul of Caesar and the seductiveness of Cleopatra."

The 40-something Catherine shamelessly manipulated the 80-something Voltaire with gifts and flattery and wrote flirtatious letters to him. He returned the gesture by defending Catherine and Russia in Europe. Catherine bought Voltaire's and Diderot's library, which are both still in Russia.

Catherine the Great's Lovers and Sex Life

Catherine once wrote, "My misfortune is that my heart cannot be happy, even for an hour, without love." She reportedly gave herself totally to her lovers, who she worshipped. Catherine had between 10 and 20 official lovers. But contrary to the impression that she viewed them as mere boy toys, she in fact had fairly long term relations with them, ranging in length from one year to twelve years.

In addition to Grigory Orlov, Catherine’s lovers included Stanislaw Poniatowski (whom she made king of Poland and then dumped him), Alexandre Lanskoi and Prince Grigory Alexandravich Potemkin (1739-91). Potemkin helped Catherine seize power in the coup and served as her prime minister and aide. He reformed the army, built roads, founded universities and negotiated the annexation of the Crimea but is best known for creating Potemkin "villages" (alleged facade villages reportedly set up to impress Catherine on a tour of the Crimea).

Potemkin was Katherine the Great’s military strategist, diplomat, art collector, literary advisor and lover. He gave his name battleships and films in addition to villages. Potemkin and Catherine were reportedly only lovers for two years but they remained confidants until her death. He reportedly served as her pimp, supplying her with a series of young lovers. She in turn, ignored his incestuous relationship with his nieces. The youngest and most beautiful of these nieces had been chosen by Catherine as future wife for her son but these plan were scuttled when the niece became pregnant by her uncle when she was 15.

When Lanskoi died suddenly of diphtheria, Catherine wrote a friend, "My happiness is gone. I have thought of dying myself...My room which until now was so pleasant has become an empty cavern into which I drag myself like a ghost. I cannot see anybody without being choked by sobs. I cannot sleep, nor eat. Reading bores me and writing exhausts me."

Catherine reportedly had an enormous sexual appetite and advocated having sexual relations six times a day and said that sex helped relieve her insomnia. It was said Catherine fantasized about making love with her horse. She reportedly had a "special” harness created. A lot of the claims about her love life appeared to have been attempts by rivals to smear her.

Nicknamed by some of her critic as "Messalina of the North," after the famed Roman nymphomaniac and wife of Claudius, Catherine is said to have regularly taken lovers from the Imperial Guard and placed them in an imperial aide-de-camp assigned to her bedroom. Before she would sleep with them she had them physically examined by her doctors and ran them through a series of performance tests administered by the Countess Bruce and Mme. Protassov. Sometimes Catherine observed prospective lovers in action before selecting them.

Book: “Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin” by Sebag Montefiore (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, 2002)

Catherine the Great's Reforms

Catherine the Great greatly admired Peter the Great and the social and political reforms he made. Taking up where Peter the Great left off, she drafted a new legal code, limited the use of torture, reorganized the municipal system, supported religious tolerance, introduced Western culture, and patronized the arts (particularly those from France).

Catherine wanted to be considered a reformer who ruled for "the good of each and all." She sometimes pictured herself as a mother to the family of the Russian people or as Minerva the Triumphant, the Roman goddess of wisdom. Despite all this, she came up short making reforms that threatened her power or that significantly improved the lives of serfs.

Catherine opened up free national schools and orphanages and sent talented students abroad to study. "People were careful not to talk of art or science, because they were ignorant about them," she wrote. "one could bet that half the company could not read, and I am sure whether even a third could write."

In effort to combat small pox, Catherine ordered herself and her 14-year-old heir to be inoculated against the disease as an example followed by her subjects. She also helped reduce diseases in the cities by cleaning up the water supply and founding clinics to treat people with venereal disease. Catherine attempted to liberalize the legal code by setting up a commission comprised of people from all walks of life expect serfs. The effort was ultimately undermined by squabbling between various groups. The only thing they agreed on was adding "the Great" to Catherine's name.

Catherine attempted to organize society into well-defined social groups, or estates. In 1785 she issued charters to nobles and townsmen. The Charter to the Nobility confirmed the liberation of the nobles from compulsory service and gave them rights that not even the autocracy could infringe upon. The Charter to the Towns proved to be complicated and ultimately less successful than the one issued to the nobles. Failure to issue a similar charter to state peasants, or to ameliorate the conditions of serfdom, made Catherine's social reforms incomplete. Her laws ended up benefitting few people and straddled the country with a 200 million ruble debt. During her reign the number of noblemen increased and their privileges were extended.

Pugachev Serf Rebellion and Its Impact

In 1773, an obscure Don Cossack named Yemelyan Pugachov (Emel'yan Pugachev), who claimed he was Peter III, lead Russia’s greatest serf uprising. The nearly successful peasant revolt spread from the Urals to the Caspian Sea along the Volga in 1773-74. Hundreds of thousands of followers attracted by promises of ending serfdom and taxation responded. They ravaged estates, massacred noblemen and captured cities. They were not stopped until a great famine struck Russia and they were cut down by Catherine's army outside the gates of Moscow.

The “Pugachev Uprising” occurred during the 1768-74 war with the Ottoman Empire (See Below). Cossacks, various Turkic tribes that felt the impingement of the Russian centralizing state, and industrial workers in the Ural Mountains, as well as peasants hoping to escape serfdom, all joined in the rebellion. Russia's preoccupation with the war enabled Pugachev to take control of a part of the Volga area. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

Afterwards, embarrassed by how the rebellion affected her image in Europe, Catherine had Pugachev executed and ended Cossack autonomy. Instead of attempting to improve the conditions that led to led to the rebellion she brutally repressed the serfs. She explained to Voltaire, the rebellion was led by "good-for-nothings of whom Russia has thought fit to rid herself over the past 40 years, rather in the same spirit in which the American Colonies have been populated."

The Pugachev Uprising bolstered Catherine's determination to reorganize Russia's provincial administration. In 1775 she divided Russia into provinces and districts according to population statistics. She then gave each province an expanded administrative, police, and judicial apparatus. Nobles no longer were required to serve the central government, as they had since Peter the Great's time, and many of them received significant roles in administering provincial governments. *

Catherine the Great and Foreign Policy

In 1762, a year after Catherine became empress, she invited German farmers and crafts people to Russia to help modernize her country, giving them land, religious freedom, exception from military service and tax exemptions. Many of them settled in the Ukraine and lower Volga region, where they retained many of their German customs and continued to speak German.

The German-born Catherine regarded Germans as orderly and disciplined. Some 30,000 showed up in the first wave between 1764 and 1767 and they had a profound impact on improving Russia's agricultural output. More started coming after 1789 and they kept coming until 1863.

During the French Revolution, Catherine tried to drum up support for the French monarchy. After the guillotining of Marie Antoinette she tried to rally the monarchies of Europe against France but was only partly successful.

Expansion of Russia Under Catherine the Great

Catherine II's reign was notable for imperial expansion, which brought the empire huge new territories in the south and west, and for internal consolidation. Catherine added one forth of Europe to Russia by taking advantage of the declining power of Poland and Ottoman Turkey. She expanded the borders of Russia in all directions in seven wars.

Catherine won Russia access to the Black Sea and the right to send ships through the Bosporus and the Dardenelles to the Mediterranean with a naval victory over the Ottoman Turks at Çeşme in the eastern Mediterranean in 1774 during a war with the Ottoman empire. From the Ottomans she also won a "protectorship" of Christian territory that later provided an excuse for incursions into the Balkans.

Following a war that broke out with the Ottoman Empire in 1768, the parties involved agreed to the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji in 1774. By that treaty, Russia acquired its outlet to the Black Sea, and the Crimean Tatars were made independent of the Ottomans. In 1783 Catherine annexed Crimea. From that time on the Black Sea was no longer an Ottoman lake and the new Russian port of Odessa became a major trading center.

The annexing of the Crimea helped spark Russia’s next war with the Ottoman Empire, which began in 1787. By the Treaty of Jassy in 1792, Russia expanded southward to the Dnestr River. The terms of the treaty fell far short of the goal of Catherine's reputed "Greek project"— the expulsion of the Ottomans from Europe and the renewal of a Byzantine Empire under Russian control. The Ottoman Empire no longer was a serious threat to Russia, however, and was forced to tolerate an increasing Russian influence over the Balkans. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Catherine the Great and the Partitioning of Poland

Russia's westward expansion under Catherine was the result of the partitioning of Poland. Catherine installed one of her former lovers as a king in Poland and then presided over the break up of Poland between Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1772, 1793 and 1795, which eliminated Poland until it was reborn in 1918. The break up gave Russia: Lithuania, Belarus and the western Ukraine.

As Poland became increasingly weak in the eighteenth century, each of its neighbors — Russia, Prussia, and Austria — tried to place its own candidate on the Polish throne. In 1772 the three agreed on an initial partition of Polish territory, by which Russia received parts of Belorussia and Livonia. After the partition, Poland initiated an extensive reform program, which included a democratic constitution that alarmed reactionary factions in Poland and in Russia. Using the danger of radicalism as an excuse, the same three powers abrogated the constitution and in 1793 again stripped Poland of territory. This time Russia obtained most of Belorussia and Ukraine west of the Dnepr River. The 1793 partition led to an anti-Russian and anti-Prussian uprising in Poland, which ended with the third partition in 1795. The result was that Poland was wiped off the map. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Although the partitioning of Poland greatly added to Russia's territory and prestige, it also created new difficulties. Having lost Poland as a buffer, Russia now had to share borders with both Prussia and Austria. In addition, the empire became more ethnically heterogeneous as it absorbed large numbers of Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Jews. The fate of the Ukrainians and Belorussians, who were primarily serfs, changed little at first under Russian rule. Roman Catholic Poles resented their loss of independence, however, and proved to be difficult to integrate. Russia had barred Jews from the empire in 1742 and viewed them as an alien population. A decree of January 3, 1792, formally initiated the Pale of Settlement, which permitted Jews to live only in the western part of the empire, thereby setting the stage for anti-Jewish discrimination in later periods. At the same time, Russia abolished the autonomy of Ukraine east of the Dnepr, the Baltic republics, and various Cossack areas. With her emphasis on a uniformly administered empire, Catherine presaged the policy of Russification that later tsars and their successors would practice. *

Catherine the Great's Shortcoming

Although she claimed to be a product of the "Age of the Enlightenment," Catherine the Great sent writers who wrote about poverty and corruption to Siberia. She also ruled her court with an iron fist and sent people who opposed her off to Siberia. In 1790 Aleksandr Radishchev published “Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow”, a fierce attack on serfdom and the autocracy. Catherine, already frightened by the French Revolution, had Radishchev arrested and banished to Siberia. Radishchev was later recognized as the father of Russian radicalism.

To win brownie points with the aristocracy, whose support she needed to stay in power, Catherine gave the aristocracy privileges that made life miserable for the serfs. With her extravagant collections and building projects, Catherine also drove Russia deeply into debt for the first time in its history.

Catherine has been sharply criticized for undermining the powerful Orthodox church by appropriating church property, making bishops de facto state employees and closing monasteries.

Catherine the Great's Death

Catherine once claimed she would live to be 80 years old but by the time she was in her late sixties she was overweight and having serious health problems.

As the end approached, her family life was a mess. One daughter had died as an infant. Another daughter avoided the Russian court. Her heir, Paul, didn't bother to disguise his contempt for his mother and, like Peter III, was regarded as cruel and mentally unbalanced. She reportedly intended to make her grandson Alexander her legal heir.

Catherine suffered a mild stroke after hearing that King Gustov of Sweden publicly broke off his engagement with her granddaughter Alexandra. On November 5, 1796, she suffered a massive stoke and collapsed on the floor of her bathroom. She died the next day. She was 67.

Paul knew that Catherine had planned to install Alexander as her heir. After she died he sealed her study and an act of succession was never found. He later had Peter III exhumed and had his body placed in state next to Catherine's underneath an inscription that read "Divided in Life, United in Death." They were buried side by side in the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Catherine the Great's Legacy

One of Catherine’s critics wrote, "The ideas of her century passed over her like a beam of light to the surface of a pool, without warming the depths below." One of her supporters wrote: "Should we compare all the known epochs of Russian history, virtually all would agree that Catherine's epoch was the happiest for Russian citizens; virtually everyone would prefer to have lived then than at any other time."

Catherine brought many of the policies of Peter the Great to fruition and set the foundation for the nineteenth-century empire. Russia became a power capable of competing with its European neighbors on military, political, and diplomatic grounds. Russia's elite became culturally more like the elites of Central and West European countries. The organization of society and the government system, from Peter the Great's central institutions to Catherine's provincial administration, remained basically unchanged until the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and, in some respects, until the fall of the monarchy in 1917. Catherine's push to the south, including the establishment of Odessa as a Russian port on the Black Sea, provided the basis for Russia's nineteenth-century grain trade. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Despite such accomplishments, the empire that Peter I and Catherine II had built was beset with fundamental problems. A small Europeanized elite, alienated from the mass of ordinary Russians, raised questions about the very essence of Russia's history, culture, and identity. Russia achieved its military preeminence by reliance on coercion and a primitive command economy based on serfdom. Although Russia's economic development was almost sufficient for its eighteenth-century needs, it was no match for the transformation the Industrial Revolution was causing in Western countries. Catherine's attempt at organizing society into corporate estates was already being challenged by the French Revolution, which emphasized individual citizenship. Russia's territorial expansion and the incorporation of an increasing number of non-Russians into the empire set the stage for the future nationalities problem. Finally, the first questioning of serfdom and autocracy on moral grounds foreshadowed the conflict between the state and the intelligentsia that was to become dominant in the nineteenth century. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.