In an age when upper class women were all meant to be fluttering, Jane Austen type figures in big dresses, one woman stands out for her supreme intelligence, tough-mindedness and ability. Catherine the Great of Russia (Empress regnant 1762-1796) was one of those figures who truly lives up to the name bestowed on her by history.
Born in 1729 as Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, she came to the throne of Russia by one of those circuitous paths of marriage alliance which dropped her into the bed of Tsar Peter III. It wasn’t long before she discovered that the husband wasn’t up to the job, being more interested in toy soldiers and alcohol. Ousting him in a coup, she took the reigns of governance herself, having previously joined the Eastern Orthodox Church under the very Russian name of Ekaterina.
And what years she gave her adopted country. The list of all her accomplishments is too long to recite here, please click to the Wikipedia link below. Fans of the Enlightenment will be proud to know that she counted such luminaries as Diderot, Voltaire, Euler and d’Alembert among her collaborators. There were pioneering attempts at reforms to serfdom, small indeed but jaw-droppingly audacious in such a backward country as Russia. There was even an attempt at an early Parliament, as an attempt to see how one worked and how all classes might work together. (Catherine closed it down for being too much of a talking shop.) In foreign affairs she presided over major expansions of Russian power and influence, pushing her empire deep into the Ukraine and Black Sea. Nothing new there, you might say. But in the eighteenth century rulers were judged by how many people they could conquer. And Catherine played the game much better than most of the boys could.
She had her faults, being both a bit of a snob, and sexually a little too accomplished for someone who was supposed to be an Enlightenment Philosopher. We’ve picked one quote to illustrate her intelligent, lively mind
I used to say to myself that happiness and misery depend on ourselves. If you feel unhappy, raise your self above unhappiness, and so act that your happiness may be independent of all eventualities.
If you think it sounds like Marcus Aurelius, it probably does. But we think Catherine was far more than that undeniably worthy but slightly dull man. She sounds like she was fun.
#russia #history #enlightenment #eighteenth century