Catherine II of Russia (1729-1796) was one of history’s most unlikely rulers. She was the most renowned and the longest-ruling female leader of Russia, reigning from 9 July 1762 until her death on 17 November 1796 at the age of sixty-seven. Her reign was called Russia’s golden age.
The woman whom history would remember as Catherine the Great, Russia’s longest-ruling female leader, was actually the eldest daughter of an impoverished Prussian prince. Born in 1729, Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst enjoyed numerous marital prospects due to her mother’s well-regarded bloodlines. In 1744, 15-year-old Sophie was invited to Russia by Czarina Elizabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great who had assumed the Russian throne in a coup just three years earlier. The unmarried and childless Elizabeth had chosen her nephew Peter as heir and was now in search of his bride. Sophie, well trained by her ambitious mother and eager to please, made an immediate impact on Elizabeth, if not her intended husband. The marriage took place on August 21, 1745, with the bride (a new convert to Orthodox Christianity) now bearing the name Ekaterina, or Catherine.
Their marriage was not successful and both of them indulged in extra-marital affairs. Elizabeth died in January 1762, and her nephew succeeded to the throne as Peter III, with Catherine as his consort. Eager to put his own stamp on the nation, he quickly ended Russia’s war with Prussia, an act that proved deeply unpopular to Russia’s military class. A program of liberal domestic reforms aimed at improving the lives of the poor also alienated members of the lower nobility. These unhappy factions turned to Catherine, who was also fearful of Peter’s intentions. As tensions mounted, a plan to overthrow Peter took root. When the conspiracy was uncovered in July 1762, Catherine moved quickly, gaining the support of the country’s most powerful military regiment and arranging for her husband’s arrest. On July 9, just six months after becoming czar, Peter abdicated, and Catherine was proclaimed sole ruler. However, what had began as a bloodless coup soon turned deadly. On July 17 Peter was murdered by Alexei Orlov, the brother of Catherine’s current lover Gregory. Though there is no proof that Catherine knew of the murder before it happened, it cast a pall over her reign from the start.
Catherine’s reign was marked by vast territorial expansion, which greatly added to Russia’s coffers but did little to alleviate the suffering of her people. Even her attempts at governmental reforms were often bogged down by Russia’s vast bureaucracy.She wrote numerous books, pamphlets and educational materials aimed at improving Russia’s education system. She was also a champion of the arts, keeping up a lifelong correspondence with Voltaire and other prominent minds of the era, creating one of the world’s most impressive art collections in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace.
Given the empress’ shocking reputation, it’s perhaps not surprising that gossip followed her wherever she went, even to the grave. After her death on November 17, 1796, her enemies at court began spreading various rumors about Catherine’s final days.Though her enemies would have hoped for a scandalous end, the simple truth is that Catherine suffered a stroke and died quietly in her bed .