Sunday, August 5, 2007

Catherine the Great (Catherine II) (1729-1796)

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I praise loudly, I blame softly.


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Catherine II of Russia (1729-1796), also known as Catherine the Great, was empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796.

Life before becoming empress

Originally named Sophie, she was born to Christian Augustus, the prince of Anhalt-Zerbst in Germany. In 1744, Tsarina Elizabeth chose Sophie as the wife for her son, Peter. Sophie changed her name to Catherine when she accepted the Orthodox faith. Catherine soon became popular with powerful political groups which opposed her husband. Largely ignored, she read a great deal, including Voltaire and Montesquieu, and kept up to date on the current events in Russia. In 1762, Peter succeeded to the throne, but his eccentricities and policies alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated trust with. Grigori Orlov, Catherine's lover at the time, headed a conspiracy that proclaimed Catherine the ruler, and Peter was murdered not 6 months after taking the throne, in June of 1762.

Internal policies

Using the writings of Beccaria and Montesquieu, Catherine drew up a document to reform the code of laws. A legislative commission that represented all classes except the serfs was created to make this document the law, but she disbanded the commission before it took effect, possibly having turned more conservative as a result of a peasant uprising in 1773-1774. Catherine reorganized the provincial administration, allowing the government to have greater control over rural areas because of the peasant revolt. This process was completed in 1775. This reform created provinces and districts, better able to be managed by the government. In 1785 a charter was issued that allowed the gentry to petition the throne as a legal body, freed the nobles from state service and taxes while making their status hereditary, The charter also gave the nobles full control over their serfs and lands. In addition, she gave land in the Ukraine to favored nobles and granted them serfs. Catherine also encouraged the colonization of Alaska and conquered areas.

Foreign affairs

In 1764 she placed Stanislaus Poniatowski, a former lover, on the Polish throne. Russia gained the largest part of Poland when it was partitioned between Russia, Austria and Prussia. She made Russia the dominant power in the Middle East after her first war with the Ottoman Empire from 1768-1774. She attempted to partition the Ottoman Empire's European holdings in a manner similar to what happened in Poland, but achieved far less success. The Crimea was annexed in 1783, a mere nine years after it had been granted independence from the Ottoman Empire as a result of her first war with it. The Ottomans started the second war during Catherine's reign. This war lasted from 1787-1792, but the war ended with the Treaty of Jassy that gave Russia legitimate claim to Crimea. In the European theatre, Catherine played a large role during her reign, acting as a mediator in the War of the Bavarian Succession between Prussia and Austria. In 1780, she created a group designed to defend independent ships from Great Britain during the American Revolution. All told, she added about 200,000 square miles to Russian territory.

Arts and Culture

Not only was she successful in internal and external political actions, she became known as a patron of the arts, literature and education. She wrote comedies, fiction and her memoirs, while making the acquaintance of Voltaire, Diderot and D'Alembert, all French encyclopedists who later cemented her reputation in their writings. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Catherine the Great.]

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