Catherine the Almighty: An Investigative Analysis on the Policies and Characteristics of Catherine the Great
By Jacqueline Sechler
Tsarina Catherine II of Russia, later known as Catherine the Great, earned her nickname through her authoritative characteristics, her ambitious attitude, and her drive for power. Catherine was originally born in Germany as Sophia, but moved to Russia when she was fifteen at the invitation of Empress Elizabeth. After Catherine moved, she began studying French philosophy as well as Russian literature. She began to have a great passion for the ideals of the Enlightenment, especially from France and sought to change the norms in her new country.
This passion helped pave the way for her future as tsarina. After Empress Elizabeth died in December 1761, her son (and Catherine’s husband) Peter III became tsar. It soon became clear to those in the government that Peter was an incompetent leader. While Peter was acting as tsar, Catherine was hard at work in the background trying to gain supporters in order to overthrow him. After a short six months, she succeeded him in the coup d’état of 1762. Catherine quickly established a new government called the Legislative Commission. Notably, this new government lacked serfs, non-Russians, and clergymen.
During her first few years as tsarina, she created the Bolshoi Nakaz, or the Great Instructions, which detailed the government’s responsibilities, her ideas on serfdom, and her views on education. This was Russia’s first real form of a constitution. Within the Bolshoi Nakaz, Catherine made her views on serfs and serfdom clearly known by stating that she believed that serfs were human beings. Her views were radically different than tsars before her who had condoned serfdom. Unfortunately, during the latter half of her reign, she continued to restrict serf freedom.
At the beginning of her rule, Catherine's ideas and reformation policies reflected those popularized during the Enlightenment, including Denis Diderot, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. Despite these influences, Catherine’s rule became as autocratic as her predecessor’s due to fear of a revolt similar to the French Revolution.
As her reign continued, the once liberal beliefs she held onto ceased to exist. It is important to remember that these conservative views did not reflect her whole being. She rightfully earned her title ‘the Great’ through seeing what was needed in her country and remaining a powerful and distinguished figure of her time.