In the last few years, Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, has become a popular historical figure with the 2019 miniseries Catherine the Great as well as the 2020 Hulu series The Great. I recently watched The Great, which is a satirical retelling of the rise of Catherine the Great. Soon after I started, I had to google her, as you do. I found that the story told by the show was vastly different than the actual story of the rise of Catherine the Great. This made me wonder, who was Catherine, and what was her story?
Empress Catherine II was born Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst in 1729 in the Kingdom of Prussia. While she did have the title of princess, her family was not very wealthy. Because of this, her mother groomed her from a very young age to marry into a powerful family. And boy did she. At the age of 10, Catherine was introduced to Peter III, who was in line to become Emperor of Russia. Upon meeting, Catherine states in her memoirs that she disdained Peter for his raucous habits. This did not stop them from marrying, though Catherine’s mother almost ruined the betrothment. At 16, Catherine married Peter, who was 17, in 1745. The two had a tumultuous marriage, wherein both took multiple lovers. Catherine would bare four children, two boys, and two girls. Her daughter Anna would die very young and her other daughter Elizabeth was not acknowledged by Catherine. In her memoirs, Catherine would make statements regarding the fathers of the children, alluding to Peter not being the father of any of her children.
It would not be until 1762 that Catherine would throw a bloodless coup against her husband, taking the throne as Empress of Russia. Shortly after this, Peter died mysteriously under unknown circumstances, though there are of course rumors. She reigned from 1762 to 1796 where she died from what is presumed to be natural causes though some think she may have been assassinated. Catherine’s rule is considered to be a golden age in Russian history and still has a lasting effect on Russian society to this day.
For each notable person, I believe there are lessons to be learned from them. What are the lessons we can learn from Catherine the Great?
-Ambition and Self-Discipline
While Catherine was a princess, her family did not have much in the ways of financial means. This meant that Catherine’s mother, Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, raised and groomed her daughter to have a high level of ambition. Accounts say that Catherine’s mother was cold and abusive as well as obsessed with gaining fame and fortune from her daughter.
From a young age, Catherine was set to betroth Peter III of Russia, in line to the throne. While Catherine despised Peter from the moment she met him, she worked diligently to become the person she would later evolve into. She studied Russian daily, including waking in the middle of the night to review her Russian lessons. On top of learning Russian, she worked hard to integrate herself into the court and to adopt Russian culture.
Her planned marriage to Peter was almost ruined by her mother. Johanna’s behavior caused the Empress at the time, Empress Elizabeth who was Peter III’s aunt, to ban her from the court. While this could have ruined Catherine’s chances of marrying into power, Empress Elizabeth had taken a great liking to Catherine. All of Catherine’s work trying to become a true Russian had paid off and the marriage was allowed.
From a young age, Catherine was taught to be ambitious and she developed strong self-discipline when it came to her goals. Holding fast onto her goals, she worked behind the scenes for many years until she was able to become Catherine the Great. Being able to hold onto your goals and continuously work on them is a skill that anyone who wants to accomplish great things in their life will need. Keep in mind what you want and why you want it to remind yourself regularly of what you are striving for.
Most that have heard of Catherine the great have also probably heard the rumor that was spread during her time in Russia. While there were probably many rumors, the most prevailing through history involved Catherine and her “love” of horses. Though she may not have been popular with the royal court or her husband, Catherine worked to gain a trusted network of confidants and acquaintances that would aid her in her coup against her husband. As stated in the previous lesson, Catherine worked hard to integrate herself into the Russian people.
She regularly communicated with great philosophers, artists, and political leaders. This would help her in her ascension to the throne. As empress consort, she worked hard to cultivate a network of coconspirators and supporters.
While networking isn’t everyone’s favorite thing to do, it is an invaluable skill and practice. Networking opens many opportunities and opens your net to collaborators. Take the time to do a bit of hob-knobbing and schmoozing to see what great benefits can come from it.
-Education and Reading
One of Catherine’s goals was to spread art and literature throughout Russia. While Empress, Catherine had the Hermitage built, which held upwards of 38,000 books. She was known to read three types of books, those for education, philosophy, and pleasure. She was also known to be an avid writer and patron of the arts. As a follower of Western education and philosophy, Catherine worked from the beginning of her reign as Empress Consort to Empress to educate the Russian people.
Catherine even tried to put together a public-school system. She endeavored to educate many of Russia’s children, including young girls. This resulted in a less than successful program but was a start to bringing the Russian people forward in terms of education.
Much of Catharine’s ambition for greatness was aided by her strong desire for knowledge and education. Much of her life she was an avid reader and lover of philosophy which helped shape her ideas. Everyone can benefit from the constant self-improvement that comes from reading. Even reading fiction can result in a better understanding of oneself. Learning more about yourself and the world will help in your goals of pursuing greatness.
Much of Catherine’s story is told through her memoirs as she was an avid writer. Though while I was reading up on Catherine, a common sentiment was that a piece of information could not be verified due to the fact that it comes from her memoirs. Essentially, she’s not trusted as an entirely reliable narrator.
The paternity of her children is under question due to the fact she openly questioned the paternity of the kids in her memoirs, claiming some of her lovers were the fathers of her kids. Historians though call in to question her claims of paternity. Much of the information about their marriage and Peter himself also comes from her memoirs, much of which are very negative towards Peter and paint Catherine in a much better light. While this very well may be true and corroborated by other accounts, it paints Catherine as an unreliable storyteller who writes with pettiness and spite.
Whenever someone is known for pettiness or being spiteful, it can change the way we perceive what they are telling us. It’s not only a negative trait to harbor within yourself, it bleeds into people’s trust of you along with your story. This exaggeration of trivial matters can be the cause of deterioration in relationships and collaborations.
-Practice What You Preach
While Catherine was someone who worked to forward the Russian people and culture with progressive ideals of freedom and education, it wasn’t something that extended to all Russian people. Most of her policies seem to have affected the upper classes of Russia while doing very little for the serfs that were still a part of the Russian class system. A serf was someone who could by force or necessity fall into serfdom, where they worked in agriculture while being owned under their lord’s estate.
Catherine herself owned approximately 500,000 serfs, with 2.8 million serfs owned by the Russian State. Under Catherine’s rule, serfs did not benefit from many of her progressive policies, including education.
Her viewpoints on philosophy did not seem to match up with her treatment of all Russians. Instead, her viewpoints only seemed to benefit those that were like her and her court. From my readings, it did not appear that Catherine thought much of assisting the serfs in bettering their lives.
While we all may unintentionally “do as I say, not as I do”, being aware of how your actions and words match up can make you more trustworthy and genuine. It works the same way as with pettiness and spitefulness. If you do not practice what you preach, others will not trust what you do and say.
It can also keep you aware of what you are working towards and why. If you find that what you say is not matching up with your actions, a review of why you are doing these things may be in order.
No historical figure is perfect. Even the greats have their flaws and negative traits. We can all learn though, from their stories and their accomplishments.
I hope this was a fun, interesting article for you to read. Please let me know if I got a fact wrong or if you know some more historical tidbits about Catherine the Great. Also, let me know if there is anyone you would like to see a post about.