Although Catherine did not descend from the Romanov dynasty, her ancestors included members of the Rurik dynasty, which preceded the Romanovs. She succeeded her husband as empress regnant, following the precedent established when Catherine I succeeded her husband Peter the Great in 1725. Historians debate Catherine's technical status, whether as a regent or as a usurper, tolerable only during the minority of her son, Grand Duke Paul.
The choice of Princess Sophie as wife of the future tsar was one result of the Lopukhina Conspiracy in which Count Lestocq and Prussian king Frederick the Great took an active part. The object was to strengthen the friendship between Prussia and Russia, to weaken the influence of Austria and to ruin the chancellor Aleksey Petrovich Bestuzhev-Ryumin, on whom Russian Empress Elizabeth relied, and who was a known partisan of the Austrian alliance. The diplomatic intrigue failed, largely due to the intervention of Sophie's mother, Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Historical accounts portray Johanna as a cold, abusive woman who loved gossip and court intrigues. Her hunger for fame centred 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 II of Prussia. Empress Elizabeth knew the family well: She had intended to marry Princess Johanna's brother Charles Augustus (Karl August von Holstein), but he died of smallpox in 1727 before the wedding could take place. Despite Johanna's interference, Empress Elizabeth took a strong liking to Sophie, and her marriage to Peter eventually took place in 1745.
Catherine II (born Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst; 2 May 1729 – 17 November 1796 ), most commonly known as Catherine the Great, was the last reigning Empress Regnant of Russia (from 1762 until 1796) and the country’s longest-ruling female leader. She came to power following the overthrow of her husband, and second cousin, Peter III. Under her reign, Russia grew larger, its culture was revitalized, and it was recognised as one of the great powers of Europe.
Princess Sophie's father, a devout German Lutheran, opposed his daughter's conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy. Despite his objections, on 28 June 1744, the Russian Orthodox Church received Princess Sophie as a member with the new name Catherine (Yekaterina or Ekaterina) and the (artificial) patronymic Алексеевна (Alekseyevna, daughter of Aleksey), so that she was in all respects the namesake of Catherine I, the mother of Elizabeth and the grandmother of Peter III. On the following day, the formal betrothal of Catherine and Peter took place and the long-planned dynastic marriage finally occurred on 21 August 1745 in Saint Petersburg. Sophie had turned 16; her father did not travel to Russia for the wedding. The bridegroom, known as Peter von Holstein-Gottorp, had become Duke of Holstein-Gottorp (located in the north-west of present-day Germany near the border with Denmark) in 1739. The newlyweds settled in the palace of Oranienbaum, which remained the residence of the "young court" for many years. From there they governed the duchy (which occupied less than a third of the current German state of Schleswig-Holstein, even including that part of Schleswig occupied by Denmark) to obtain experience to govern Russia.
When Sophie arrived in Russia in 1744, she spared no effort to ingratiate herself not only with Empress Elizabeth, but with her husband and with the Russian people as well. She applied herself to learning the Russian language with zeal, rising at night and walking about her bedroom barefoot, repeating her lessons. When she wrote her memoirs, she said she made the decision then to do whatever was necessary and to profess to believe whatever was required of her to become qualified to wear the crown. Although she mastered the language, she retained an accent.
According to Alexander Hertzen, who edited a version of Catherine's memoirs, Catherine had her first sexual relationship with Sergei Saltykov while living at Oranienbaum as her marriage to Peter had not been consummated, as Catherine later claimed. But Catherine left to Paul I the final version of her memoirs explaining why Paul had been the son of Peter III. Sergei Saltykov was used to make Peter jealous and relations with Saltykov were platonic. Catherine wanted to become an empress herself and did not want another heir to the throne. But Empress Elizabeth blackmailed Peter and Catherine that they both had been involved into a plot of Russian military in 1749 to execute the will of Catherine I and to crown Peter together with Catherine. Elizabeth requested her legal heir from Catherine. Only when a new legal heir, the son of Catherine and Peter, survived and appeared to be strong had Elizabeth allowed Catherine to have real sexual lovers because Elizabeth probably wanted to leave both Catherine and her accomplice Peter III without any rights for a Russian throne in revenge for the participation of the pair in military plots to have themselves crowned in her stead.
Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, the British ambassador to Russia, offered Stanislaus Poniatowski a place in the embassy in return for gaining Catherine as an ally. Poniatowski, through his mother's side, came from the Czartoryski family, prominent members of the pro-Russian faction in Poland; Poniatowski and Catherine were eighth cousins, twice removed, by their mutual ancestor King Christian I of Denmark, by virtue of Poniatowski's maternal descent from the Scottish House of Stuart. Catherine, 26 years old and already married to the then-Grand Duke Peter for some 10 years, met the 22-year-old Poniatowski in 1755, therefore well before encountering the Orlov brothers. In 1757, Poniatowski served in the British Army during the Seven Years' War, thus severing close relationships with Catherine. She bore him a daughter named Anna Petrovna in December 1757 (not to be confused with Grand Duchess Anna Petrovna of Russia, the daughter of Peter I's second marriage).
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, Catherine and he had become lovers; no one told Catherine's husband, the Grand Duke Peter. Catherine saw Orlov as very useful, and he became instrumental in the 28 June 1762 coup d’état against her husband, but she preferred to remain the dowager empress of Russia rather than marrying anyone.
In 1759, Catherine became pregnant with her second child, Anna, who only lived to 14 months. Due to various rumours of Catherine's promiscuity, Peter was led to believe he was not the child's biological father and is known to have proclaimed, "Go to the devil!", when Catherine angrily dismissed his accusation. She thus spent much of this time alone in her private boudoir to hide away from Peter's abrasive personality. In the first version of her memoirs, edited and published by Alexander Hertzen, Catherine strongly implied that the real father of her son Paul was not Peter, but rather Saltykov. Catherine recalled in her memoirs her optimistic and resolute mood before her accession to the throne:
After the death of the Empress Elizabeth on 5 January 1762 (OS: 25 December 1761), Peter succeeded to the throne as Emperor Peter III and Catherine became empress consort. The imperial couple moved into the new Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. The emperor's eccentricities and policies, including a great admiration for the Prussian king, Frederick II, alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated. Russia and Prussia had fought each other during the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), and Russian troops had occupied Berlin in 1761. Peter, however, supported Frederick II, eroding much of his support among the nobility. Peter ceased Russian operations against Prussia, and Frederick suggested the partition of Polish territories with Russia. Peter also intervened in a dispute between his Duchy of Holstein and Denmark over the province of Schleswig (see Count Johann Hartwig Ernst von Bernstorff). As Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, Peter planned war against Denmark, Russia's traditional ally against Sweden.
Catherine made public health a priority. She made use of the social theory ideas of German cameralism and French physiocracy, as well as Russian precedents and experiments such as foundling homes. She launched the Moscow Foundling Home and lying-in hospital, 1764, and Paul's Hospital, 1763. She had the government collect and publish vital statistics. In 1762 called on the army to upgrade its medical services. She established a centralised medical administration charged with initiating vigorous health policies. Catherine decided to have herself inoculated against smallpox by Thomas Dimsdale, a British doctor. While this was considered a controversial method at the time, she succeeded. Her son Pavel later was inoculated as well. Catherine then sought to have inoculations throughout her empire and stated: "My objective was, through my example, to save from death the multitude of my subjects who, not knowing the value of this technique, and frightened of it, were left in danger". By 1800, approximately 2 million inoculations (almost 6% of the population) were administered in the Russian Empire. Historians consider her efforts to be a success.
In 1762, to help mend the rift between the Orthodox church and a sect that called themselves the Old Believers, Catherine passed an act that allowed Old Believers to practise their faith openly without interference. While claiming religious tolerance, she intended to recall the believers into the official church. They refused to comply, and in 1764, she deported over 20,000 Old Believers to Siberia on the grounds of their faith. In later years, Catherine amended her thoughts. Old Believers were allowed to hold elected municipal positions after the Urban Charter of 1785, and she promised religious freedom to those who wished to settle in Russia.
The Qianlong emperor of China was committed to an expansionist policy in Central Asia and saw the Russian empire as a potential rival, making for difficult and unfriendly relations between Beijing and Saint Petersburg. In 1762, he unilaterally abrogated the Treaty of Kyakhta, which governed the caravan trade between the two empires. Another source of tension was the wave of Dzungar Mongol fugitives from the Chinese state who took refuge with the Russians. The Dzungar genocide which was committed by the Qing state had led many Dzungars to seek sanctuary in the Russian empire, and it was also one of the reasons for the abrogation of the Treaty of Kyakhta. Catherine perceived that the Qianlong emperor was an unpleasant and arrogant neighbour, once saying: "I shall not die until I have ejected the Turks from Europe, suppressed the pride of China and established trade with India". In a 1790 letter to Baron de Grimm written in French, she called the Qianlong emperor "mon voisin chinois aux petits yeux" ("my Chinese neighbour with small eyes").
Within a few months of her accession in 1762, having heard the French government threatened to stop the publication of the famous French Encyclopédie on account of its irreligious spirit, Catherine proposed to Diderot that he should complete his great work in Russia under her protection. Four years later, in 1766, she endeavoured to embody in legislation the principles of Enlightenment she learned from studying 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 prepared the "Instructions for the Guidance of the Assembly", pillaging (as she frankly admitted) the philosophers of Western Europe, especially Montesquieu and Cesare Beccaria.
In July 1762, barely six months after becoming emperor, Peter lingered in Oranienbaum with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives, while his wife lived in another palace nearby. On the night of 8 July (OS: 27 June 1762), Catherine the Great was given the news that one of her co-conspirators had been arrested by her estranged husband and that all they had been planning must take place at once. The next day, she left the palace and departed for the Ismailovsky regiment, where she delivered a speech asking the soldiers to protect her from her husband. Catherine then left with the regiment to go to the Semenovsky Barracks, where the clergy was waiting to ordain her as the sole occupant of the Russian throne. She had her husband arrested, and forced him to sign a document of abdication, leaving no one to dispute her accession to the throne. On 17 July 1762—eight days after the coup that amazed the outside world and just six months after his accession to the throne—Peter III died at Ropsha, possibly at the hands of Alexei Orlov (younger brother to Grigory Orlov, then a court favourite and a participant in the coup). Peter supposedly was assassinated, but it is unknown how he died. The official cause, after an autopsy, was a severe attack of haemorrhoidal colic and an apoplexy stroke.
Catherine was crowned at the Assumption Cathedral in Moscow on 22 September 1762. Her coronation marks the creation of one of the main treasures of the Romanov dynasty, the Imperial Crown of Russia, designed by Swiss-French court diamond jeweller Jérémie Pauzié. Inspired by the Byzantine Empire design, the crown was constructed of two half spheres, one gold and one silver, representing the eastern and western Roman empires, divided by a foliate garland and fastened with a low hoop. The crown contains 75 pearls and 4,936 Indian diamonds forming laurel and oak leaves, the symbols of power and strength, and is surmounted by a 398.62-carat ruby spinel that previously belonged to the Empress Elizabeth, and a diamond cross. The crown was produced in a record two months and weighed 2.3 kg (5.1 lbs). From 1762, the Great Imperial Crown was the coronation crown of all Romanov emperors until the monarchy's abolition in 1917. It is one of the main treasures of the Romanov dynasty and is now on display in the Moscow Kremlin Armoury Museum.
King Augustus III of Poland died in 1763, so Poland needed to elect a new ruler. Catherine supported Poniatowski as a candidate to become the next king. She sent the Russian army into Poland to avoid possible disputes. Russia invaded Poland on 26 August 1764, threatening to fight, and imposing Poniatowski as king. Poniatowski accepted the throne, and thereby put himself under Catherine's control. News of Catherine's plan spread, and Frederick II (others say the Ottoman sultan) warned her that if she tried to conquer Poland by marrying Poniatowski, all of Europe would oppose her. She had no intention of marrying him, having already given birth to Orlov's child and to the Grand Duke Paul by then.
Catherine appointed Ivan Betskoy as her advisor on educational matters. Through him, she collected information from Russia and other countries about educational institutions. She also established a commission composed of T.N. Teplov, T. von Klingstedt, F.G. Dilthey, and the historian G. Muller. She consulted British education pioneers, particularly the Rev. Daniel Dumaresq and Dr John Brown. In 1764, she sent for Dumaresq to come to Russia and then appointed him to the educational commission. The commission studied the reform projects previously installed by I.I. Shuvalov under Elizabeth and under Peter III. They submitted recommendations for the establishment of a general system of education for all Russian orthodox subjects from the age of 5 to 18, excluding serfs. However, no action was taken on any recommendations put forth by the commission due to the calling of the Legislative Commission. In July 1765, Dumaresq wrote to Dr. John Brown about the commission's problems and received a long reply containing very general and sweeping suggestions for education and social reforms in Russia. Dr. Brown argued, in a democratic country, education ought to be under the state's control and based on an education code. He also placed great emphasis on the "proper and effectual education of the female sex"; two years prior, Catherine had commissioned Ivan Betskoy to draw up the General Programme for the Education of Young People of Both Sexes. This work emphasised the fostering of the creation of a 'new kind of people' raised in isolation from the damaging influence of a backward Russian environment. The Establishment of the Moscow Foundling Home (Moscow Orphanage) was the first attempt at achieving that goal. It was charged with admitting destitute and extramarital children to educate them in any way the state deemed fit. Because the Moscow Foundling Home was not established as a state-funded institution, it represented an opportunity to experiment with new educational theories. However, the Moscow Foundling Home was unsuccessful, mainly due to extremely high mortality rates, which prevented many of the children from living long enough to develop into the enlightened subjects the state desired.
In 1764, Catherine placed Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, her former lover, on the Polish throne. Although the idea of partitioning Poland came from the King Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine took a leading role in carrying it out in the 1790s. In 1768, she formally became the protector of political rights of dissidents and peasants of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, which provoked an anti-Russian uprising in Poland, the Confederation of Bar (1768–72), supported by France. After the rebels, their French and European volunteers, and their allied Ottoman Empire had been defeated, she established in the Commonwealth a system of government fully controlled by the Russian Empire through a Permanent Council, under the supervision of her ambassadors and envoys.
Not long after the Moscow Foundling Home, at the instigation of her factotum, Ivan Betskoy, she wrote a manual for the education of young children, drawing from the ideas of John Locke, and founded the famous Smolny Institute in 1764, first of its kind in Russia. At first, the institute only admitted young girls of the noble elite, but eventually it began to admit girls of the petit-bourgeoisie as well. The girls who attended the Smolny Institute, Smolyanki, were often accused of being ignorant of anything that went on in the world outside the walls of the Smolny buildings, within which they acquired a proficiency in French, music, and dancing, along with a complete awe of the monarch. Central to the institute's philosophy of pedagogy was strict enforcement of discipline. Running and games were forbidden, and the building was kept particularly cold because too much warmth was believed to be harmful to the developing body, as was excessive play.
She made a special effort to bring leading intellectuals and scientists to Russia. She worked with 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 in 1765. She recruited the scientists Leonhard Euler and Peter Simon Pallas from Berlin and Anders Johan Lexell from Sweden to the Russian capital.
Catherine agreed to a commercial treaty with Great Britain in 1766, but stopped short of a full military alliance. Although she could see the benefits of Britain's friendship, she was wary of Britain's increased power following its complete victory in the Seven Years' War, which threatened the European balance of power.
From 1768 to 1774, no progress was made in setting up a national school system. However, Catherine continued to investigate the pedagogical principles and practice of other countries and made many other educational reforms, including an overhaul of the Cadet Corps in 1766. The Corps then began to take children from a very young age and educate them until the age of 21, with a broadened curriculum that included the sciences, philosophy, ethics, history, and international law. These reforms in the Cadet Corps influenced the curricula of the Naval Cadet Corps and the Engineering and Artillery Schools. Following the war and the defeat of Pugachev, Catherine laid the obligation to establish schools at the guberniya—a provincial subdivision of the Russian empire ruled by a governor—on the Boards of Social Welfare set up with the participation of elected representatives from the three free estates.
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 gifts of serfs and large estates. The percentage of state money spent on the court increased from 10% in 1767 to 11% in 1781 to 14% in 1795. Catherine gave away 66,000 serfs from 1762 to 1772, 202,000 from 1773 to 1793, and 100,000 in one day: 18 August 1795. Catherine bought the support of the bureaucracy. In 1767, Catherine decreed that after seven years in one rank, civil servants automatically would be promoted regardless of office or merit.
Catherine enlisted Voltaire to her cause, and corresponded with him for 15 years, from her accession to his death in 1778. He lauded her accomplishments, calling her "The Star of the North" and the "Semiramis of Russia" (in reference to the legendary Queen of Babylon, a subject on which he published a tragedy in 1768). Although she never met him face to face, she mourned him bitterly when he died. She acquired his collection of books from his heirs, and placed them in the National Library of Russia.
In 1768, the Assignation Bank was given the task of issuing the first government paper money. It opened in Saint Petersburg and Moscow in 1769. Several bank branches were afterwards established in other towns, called government towns. Paper notes were issued upon payment of similar sums in copper money, which were also refunded upon the presentation of those notes. The emergence of these assignation rubles was necessary due to large government spending on military needs, which led to a shortage of silver in the treasury (transactions, especially in foreign trade, were conducted almost exclusively in silver and gold coins). Assignation rubles circulated on equal footing with the silver ruble; a market exchange rate for these two currencies was ongoing. The use of these notes continued until 1849.
Peter the Great had succeeded in gaining a toehold in the south, on the edge of the Black Sea, in the Azov campaigns. Catherine completed the conquest of the south, making Russia the dominant power in south-eastern Europe after the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–1774. Russia inflicted some of the heaviest defeats ever suffered by the Ottoman Empire, including the Battle of Chesma (5–7 July 1770) and the Battle of Kagul (21 July 1770). In 1769, a last major Crimean–Nogai slave raid, which ravaged the Russian held territories in Ukraine, saw the capture of up to 20,000 slaves.
However, Catherine promoted Christianity in her anti-Ottoman policy, promoting the protection and fostering of Christians under Turkish rule. She placed strictures on Catholics (ukaz of 23 February 1769), mainly Polish, and attempted to assert and extend state control over them in the wake of the partitions of Poland. Nevertheless, Catherine's Russia provided an asylum and a base for regrouping to the Jesuits following the suppression of the Jesuits in most of Europe in 1773.
Catherine was a patron of the arts, literature, and education. The Hermitage Museum, which now occupies the whole Winter Palace, began as Catherine's personal collection. The empress was a great lover of art and books, and ordered the construction of the Hermitage in 1770 to house her expanding collection of paintings, sculpture, and books. By 1790, the Hermitage was home to 38,000 books, 10,000 gems and 10,000 drawings. Two wings were devoted to her collections of "curiosities". She ordered the planting of the first "English garden" at Tsarskoye Selo in May 1770. In a letter to Voltaire in 1772, she wrote: "Right now I adore English gardens, curves, gentle slopes, ponds in the form of lakes, archipelagos on dry land, and I have a profound scorn for straight lines, symmetric avenues. I hate fountains that torture water in order to make it take a course contrary to its nature: Statues are relegated to galleries, vestibules etc.; in a word, Anglomania is the master of my plantomania".
The Russian victories procured access to the Black Sea and allowed Catherine's government to incorporate present-day southern Ukraine, where the Russians founded the new cities of Odessa, Nikolayev, Yekaterinoslav (literally: "the Glory of Catherine"; the future Dnipro), and Kherson. The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, signed 10 July 1774, gave the Russians territories at Azov, Kerch, Yenikale, Kinburn, and the small strip of Black Sea coast between the rivers Dnieper and Bug. The treaty also removed restrictions on Russian naval or commercial traffic in the Azov Sea, granted to Russia the position of protector of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire, and made the Crimea a protectorate of Russia. Russia's State Council in 1770 announced a policy in favour of eventual Crimean independence. Catherine named Sahin Girey, a Crimean Tatar leader, to head the Crimean state and maintain friendly relations with Russia. His period of rule proved disappointing after repeated effort to prop up his regime through military force and monetary aid. Finally Catherine annexed the Crimea in 1783. The palace of the Crimean Khanate passed into the hands of the Russians. In 1787, Catherine conducted a triumphal procession in the Crimea, which helped provoke the next Russo-Turkish War.
The peasants were discontented because of many other factors as well, including crop failure, and epidemics, especially a major epidemic in 1771. The nobles were imposing a stricter rule than ever, reducing the land of each serf and restricting their freedoms further beginning around 1767. Their discontent led to widespread outbreaks of violence and rioting during Pugachev's Rebellion of 1774. The serfs probably followed someone who was pretending to be the true tsar because of their feelings of disconnection to Catherine and her policies empowering the nobles, but this was not the first time they followed a pretender under Catherine's reign. Pugachev had made stories about himself acting as a real tsar should, helping the common people, listening to their problems, praying for them, and generally acting saintly, and this helped rally the peasants and serfs, with their very conservative values, to his cause. With all this discontent in mind, Catherine did rule for 10 years before the anger of the serfs boiled over into a rebellion as extensive as Pugachev's. The rebellion ultimately failed and in fact backfired as Catherine was pushed away from the idea of serf liberation following the violent uprising. Under Catherine's rule, despite her enlightened ideals, the serfs were generally unhappy and discontented.
Grigory Potemkin was involved in the coup d'état of 1762. In 1772, Catherine's close friends informed her of Orlov's affairs with other women, and she dismissed him. By the winter of 1773, the Pugachev revolt had started to threaten. Catherine's son Paul had started gaining support; both of these trends threatened her power. She called Potemkin for help—mostly military—and he became devoted to her.
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. Potemkin quickly gained positions and awards. Russian poets wrote about his virtues, the court praised him, foreign ambassadors fought for his favour, and his family moved into the palace. He later became the de facto absolute ruler of New Russia, governing its colonisation.
Catherine began issuing codes to address some of the modernisation trends suggested in her Nakaz. In 1775, the empress decreed a Statute for the Administration of the Provinces of the Russian Empire. The statute sought to efficiently govern Russia by increasing population and dividing the country into provinces and districts. By the end of her reign, 50 provinces and nearly 500 districts were created, government officials numbering more than double this were appointed, and spending on local government increased sixfold. In 1785, Catherine conferred on the nobility the Charter to the Nobility, increasing the power of the landed oligarchs. Nobles in each district elected a Marshal of the Nobility, who spoke on their behalf to the monarch on issues of concern to them, mainly economic ones. In the same year, Catherine issued the Charter of the Towns, which distributed all people into six groups as a way to limit the power of nobles and create a middle estate. Catherine also issued the Code of Commercial Navigation and Salt Trade Code of 1781, the Police Ordinance of 1782, and the Statute of National Education of 1786. In 1777, the empress described to Voltaire her legal innovations within a backward Russia as progressing "little by little".
Other than these, the rights of a serf were very limited. A landowner could punish his serfs at his discretion, and under Catherine the Great gained the ability to sentence his serfs to hard labour in Siberia, a punishment normally reserved for convicted criminals. The only thing a noble could not do to his serfs was to kill them. The life of a serf belonged to the state. Historically, when the serfs faced problems they could not solve on their own (such as abusive masters), they often appealed to the autocrat, and continued doing so during Catherine's reign, but she signed legislation prohibiting it. Although she did not want to communicate directly with the serfs, she did create some measures to improve their conditions as a class and reduce the size of the institution of serfdom. For example, she took action to limit the number of new serfs; she eliminated many ways for people to become serfs, culminating in the manifesto of 17 March 1775, which prohibited a serf who had once been freed from becoming a serf again.
Catherine paid a great deal of attention to financial reform, and relied heavily on the advice of Prince A. A. Viazemski. She found that piecemeal reform worked poorly because there was no overall view of a comprehensive state budget. Money was needed for wars and necessitated the junking the old financial institutions. A key principle was responsibilities defined by function. It was instituted by the Fundamental Law of 7 November 1775. Vaizemski's Office of State Revenue took centralised control and by 1781, the government possessed its first approximation of a state budget.
After her affair with her lover and adviser Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin ended in 1776, he allegedly selected a candidate-lover for her who had the physical beauty and mental faculties to hold her interest (such as Alexander Dmitriev-Mamonov and Nicholas Alexander Suk). Some of these men loved her in return, and she always showed generosity towards them, even after the affair ended. One of her lovers, Pyotr Zavadovsky, received 50,000 rubles, a pension of 5,000 rubles and 4,000 peasants in Ukraine after she dismissed him in 1777. The last of her lovers, Prince Zubov, was 40 years her junior. Her sexual independence led to many of the legends about her.
Catherine shared in the general European craze for all things Chinese, and made a point of collecting Chinese art and buying porcelain in the popular Chinoiserie style. Between 1762 and 1766, she had built the "Chinese Palace" at Oranienbaum which reflected the chinoiserie style of architecture and gardening. The Chinese Palace was designed by the Italian architect Antonio Rinaldi who specialised in the chinoiserie style. In 1779, she hired the British architect Charles Cameron to build the Chinese Village at Tsarskoe Selo (modern Pushkin, Russia). Catherine had at first attempted to hire a Chinese architect to build the Chinese Village, and on finding that was impossible, settled on Cameron, who likewise specialised in the chinoiserie style. She wrote comedies, fiction, and memoirs.
Catherine longed for recognition as an enlightened sovereign. She refused the Duchy of Holstein-Gottorp which had ports on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, and refrained from having a Russian army in Germany. Instead she pioneered for Russia the role that Britain later played through most of the 19th and early 20th centuries as an international mediator in disputes that could, or did, lead to war. She acted as mediator in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–1779) between the German states of Prussia and Austria. In 1780, she established a League of Armed Neutrality, designed to defend neutral shipping from being searched by the Royal Navy during the Revolutionary War.
In 1780, Emperor Joseph II, the son of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, toyed with the idea of determining whether or not to enter an alliance with Russia, and asked to meet Catherine. Potemkin had the task of briefing him and travelling with him to Saint Petersburg. Potemkin also convinced Catherine to expand the universities in Russia to increase the number of scientists.
In the Far East, Russians became active in fur trapping in Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands. This spurred Russian 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 28 June 1791, Catherine granted Daikokuya an audience at Tsarskoye Selo. Subsequently, in 1792, the Russian government dispatched a trade mission to Japan, led by Adam Laxman. The Tokugawa shogunate received the mission, but negotiations failed.
Orlov died in 1783. Their son, Aleksey Grygoriovich Bobrinsky (1762–1813), had one daughter, Maria Alexeyeva Bobrinsky (Bobrinskaya) (1798–1835), who married in 1819 the 34-year-old Prince Nikolai Sergeevich Gagarin (London, England, 1784–1842) who took part in the Battle of Borodino (7 September 1812) against Napoleon, and later served as ambassador in Turin, the capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia.
In 1785, Catherine approved the subsidising of new mosques and new town settlements for Muslims. This was another attempt to organise and passively control the outer fringes of her country. By building new settlements with mosques placed in them, Catherine attempted to ground many of the nomadic people who wandered through southern Russia. In 1786, she assimilated the Islamic schools into the Russian public school system under government regulation. The plan was another attempt to force nomadic people to settle. This allowed the Russian government to control more people, especially those who previously had not fallen under the jurisdiction of Russian law.
In 1785, Catherine declared Jews to be officially foreigners, with foreigners' rights. This re-established the separate identity that Judaism maintained in Russia throughout the Jewish Haskalah. Catherine's decree also denied Jews the rights of an Orthodox or naturalised citizen of Russia. Taxes doubled again for those of Jewish descent in 1794, and Catherine officially declared that Jews bore no relation to Russians.
In addition to the advisory commission, Catherine established a Commission of National Schools under Pyotr Zavadovsky. This commission was charged with organising a national school network, as well as providing teacher training and textbooks. On 5 August 1786, the Russian Statute of National Education was created. The statute established a two-tier network of high schools and primary schools in guberniya capitals that were free of charge, open to all of the free classes (not serfs), and co-educational. It also stipulated in detail the subjects to be taught at every age and the method of teaching. In addition to the textbooks translated by the commission, teachers were provided with the "Guide to Teachers". This work, divided into four parts, dealt with teaching methods, subject matter, teacher conduct, and school administration.
From 1788 to 1790, Russia fought a war against Sweden, a conflict instigated by Catherine's cousin, King Gustav III of Sweden, who expected to overrun the Russian armies still engaged in war against the Ottoman Turks, and hoped to strike Saint Petersburg directly. But Russia's Baltic Fleet checked the Royal Swedish navy in the tied battle of Hogland (July 1788), and the Swedish army failed to advance. Denmark declared war on Sweden in 1788 (the Theatre War). After the decisive defeat of the Russian fleet at the Battle of Svensksund in 1790, the parties signed the Treaty of Värälä (14 August 1790), returning all conquered territories to their respective owners and confirming the Treaty of Åbo. Russia was to stop any involvement in internal affairs of Sweden. Large sums were paid to Gustav III. Peace ensued for 20 years in spite of the assassination of Gustav III in 1792.
During Catherine's reign, Russians imported and studied the classical and European influences that inspired the Russian Enlightenment. Gavrila Derzhavin, Denis Fonvizin and Ippolit Bogdanovich laid the groundwork for the great writers of the 19th century, especially for Alexander Pushkin. Catherine became a great patron of Russian opera. Alexander Radishchev published his Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1790, shortly after the start of the French Revolution. He warned of uprisings in Russia because of the deplorable social conditions of the serfs. Catherine decided it promoted the dangerous poison of the French Revolution. She had the book burned and the author exiled to Siberia.
In an attempt to assimilate the Jews into Russia's economy, Catherine included them under the rights and laws of the Charter of the Towns of 1782. Orthodox Russians disliked the inclusion of Judaism, mainly for economic reasons. Catherine tried to keep the Jews away from certain economic spheres, even under the guise of equality; in 1790, she banned Jewish citizens from Moscow's middle class.
Catherine worried Potemkin's poor health would delay his important work colonising and developing the south as he had planned. He died at the age of 52 in 1791.
Catherine's undated will, discovered in early 1792 among her papers by her secretary Alexander Vasilievich Khrapovitsky, gave specific instructions should she die: "Lay out my corpse dressed in white, with a golden crown on my head, and on it inscribe my Christian name. Mourning dress is to be worn for six months, and no longer: the shorter the better." In the end, the empress was laid to rest with a gold crown on her head and clothed in a silver brocade dress. On 25 November, the coffin, richly decorated in gold fabric, was placed atop an elevated platform at the Grand Gallery's chamber of mourning, designed and decorated by Antonio Rinaldi. According to Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun: "The empress's body lay in state for six weeks in a large and magnificently decorated room in the castle, which was kept lit day and night. Catherine was stretched on a ceremonial bed surrounded by the coats of arms of all the towns in Russia. Her face was left uncovered, and her fair hand rested on the bed. All the ladies, some of whom took turn to watch by the body, would go and kiss this hand, or at least appear to." A description of the empress's funeral is written in Madame Vigée Le Brun's memoirs.
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, 1772, the three powers split 52,000 km (20,000 sq mi) among them. Russia got territories east of the line connecting, more or less, Riga–Polotsk–Mogilev. In the second partition, in 1793, Russia received the most land, from west of Minsk almost to Kiev and down the river Dnieper, leaving some spaces of steppe down south in front of Ochakov, on the Black Sea. Later uprisings in Poland led to the third partition in 1795. Poland ceased to exist as an independent nation.
In the Treaty of Georgievsk (1783) Russia agreed to protect Georgia against any new invasion and further political aspirations of their Persian suzerains. Catherine waged a new war against Persia in 1796 after they, under the new king Agha Mohammad Khan, had again invaded Georgia and established rule in 1795 and had expelled the newly established Russian garrisons in the Caucasus. The ultimate goal for the Russian government, however, was to topple the anti-Russian shah (king), and to replace him with a half-brother, Morteza Qoli Khan, who had defected to Russia and was therefore pro-Russian.
It was widely expected that a 13,000-strong Russian corps would be led by the seasoned general, Ivan Gudovich, but the empress followed the advice of her lover, Prince Zubov, and entrusted the command to his youthful brother, Count Valerian Zubov. The Russian troops set out from Kizlyar in April 1796 and stormed the key fortress of Derbent on 10 May. The event was glorified by the court poet Derzhavin in his famous ode; he later commented bitterly on Zubov's inglorious return from the expedition in another remarkable poem.
By mid-June 1796, Zubov's troops overran without any resistance most of the territory of modern-day Azerbaijan, including three principal cities—Baku, Shemakha, and Ganja. By November, they were stationed at the confluence of the Araks and Kura Rivers, poised to attack mainland Iran. In this month, the empress of Russia died and her successor Paul, who detested that the Zubovs had other plans for the army, ordered the troops to retreat to Russia. This reversal aroused the frustration and enmity of the powerful Zubovs and other officers who took part in the campaign: many of them would be among the conspirators who arranged Paul's murder five years later.
Though Catherine's life and reign included remarkable personal successes, they ended in two failures. Her Swedish cousin (once removed), King Gustav IV Adolph, visited her in September 1796, the empress's intention being that her granddaughter Alexandra should become queen of Sweden by marriage. A ball was given at the imperial court on 11 September when the engagement was supposed to be announced. Gustav Adolph felt pressured to accept that Alexandra would not convert to Lutheranism, and though he was delighted by the young lady, he refused to appear at the ball and left for Stockholm. The frustration affected Catherine's health. She recovered well enough to begin to plan a ceremony which would establish her favourite grandson Alexander as her heir, superseding her difficult son Paul, but she died before the announcement could be made, just over two months after the engagement ball.