Yesterday, I noticed the CSUSM library was selling books, and even though my shelves are already overflowing, I could not resist. Most of the books were old, but I saw one much older than the rest: an edition of The Memoirs of Catherine the Great, who was czarina of Russia from 1762 to 1796. I was thrilled, because she was an amazing woman of her time and I yearned to know more about her.
Before we go further, I’d like to clear something up right away: Contrary to a popular rumor, she did not have sex with a horse.
Catherine the Great was born Princess Sophia (nicknamed “Figchen”) of Anhalt-Zerbst, a small German province.
Though she was royal, she was also poor, obscure, and both physically and verbally abused by her mother. Figchen quickly realized the only way her mother would be happy with her, was if she married a man of prestige. Pragmatic and ambitious, she resolved to do whatever it took to become a powerful queen or empress.
When Figchen was fourteen, her mother arranged a marriage for her with Grand Duke Peter of Russia, who was to become Czar Peter III. Peter was mentally dull, immature, and unpleasant, yet Figchen resigned herself to marrying him. After all, Russia was a large (if somewhat “backward”) country with many subjects.
She studied the Russian language and history, quickly becoming proficient, and converted to Orthodox Catholicism (the religion of Russia) in order to please Peter’s aunt, Czarina Elizabeth. When she was baptized into the Catholic church, she was renamed Catherine.
In 1761 Czarina Elizabeth died. As Czar, Peter was an absolute failure. He ceded many lands to Prussia and adopted their strict military system, which outraged the Russian army because they’d just suffered many losses in a war with that country. He refused to convert to Orthodox Catholicism and alienated the government.
As a husband, Peter made Catherine miserable by flaunting his mistresses before her. It did not take long for her to become unfaithful as well. With the help of her lover, Gregory Orlov, she convinced the Russian army to support her in overthrowing Peter—no difficult task, as they cared for her as much as they detested him. Seven days later, he died. It was suspected that either Orlov, Catherine, or the Russian army had killed him. Thus, in 1762 Catherine became sole ruler and Czarina of Russia.
Nobody expected her to succeed, being a woman and born to a small province. Against all odds, Catherine pulled the entire country of Russia out of bankruptcy through agricultural reform and factory building. She granted freedom of worship, placed a school and a hospital in every town, and promoted the arts. As a voracious reader, she accumulated many books for the royal library and helped start a dictionary. She built an art museum called the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. And she promoted a vaccine for smallpox, one of the most deadly diseases, by being the first inoculated.
Catherine was offered the title of “the Great,” but throughout her lifetime continually refused it.
In summary, Catherine the Great was a strong woman who empowered herself to be one of the most influential rulers of all time. The bestiality rumors were fabricated by those who thought that to be a woman and a great leader, she must have had something wrong with her. No female could be so powerful and still be normal. Those who know her real story know better. Catherine the Great was one of the first advocates of social justice, and I’m looking forward to reading all about it in her own words.