Catharine II., empress of Russia, born in Stettin, May 2, 1729, died in St. Petersburg, Nov. 17, 1796. She was the daughter of Christian August, governor of Stettin, who was afterward reigning prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, and field marshal general of Prussia. Her mother was a princess of Holstein-Gottorp. Her parents gave her the names Sophia Augusta, and a careful education. At an early age she was chosen by the empress Elizabeth, at the suggestion of Frederick the Great, to become the wife of her nephew and successor, Peter III. Her mother brought her to the court of Russia, where she adopted the Greek creed, received the name of Catharine Alexievna, and was married in September, 1745. But all the expectations she may have formed of a life of magnificence, influence, and delight as future empress of the greatest monarchy of the world, soon vanished under the indifference and repulsive treatment of her husband, who, though not incapable of good emotions, was rude, dissolute, and passionate. Her fiery and lively temper could not be contented with the consolation of continued studies, in the long retirement in which she lived during the life of Elizabeth, and she indulged in amorous connections which were no secret to any one.
Among the persons who surrounded Peter and herself, Soltikoff won her liveliest affection by his spirit and good looks, and lost it only when favor and envy had sent him as ambassador to foreign courts. At that time Catharine became mother of Paul, afterward her successor in the empire. The handsome and highly accomplished Poniatowski won the place of Soltikoff at his first appearance at the court, and was protected in her favors by the empress Elizabeth, who caused Augustus III., king of Poland, to appoint him as his ambassador; but he was soon persecuted by intrigues of representatives of other courts, who saw in his sympathies for England, and in his influence over Catharine and Peter, a danger for the French-Russian-Austrian alliance. He was recalled, and Gregory Orloff became the object of her favors. When Peter succeeded Elizabeth, Jan. 5, 1762, the ill feeling between him and Catharine became still more embittered, and the conduct of both, particularly the gross public amours of Peter, gave each sufficient cause for hatred. Catharine was threatened with repudiation by her husband, and the Orloffs and their friends were ready to save and revenge her.
The hetman Razumovski, Count Panin, and Princess Dashkoff, a hold and enterprising woman, became their chief assistants in the conspiracy against Peter, which was greatly promoted by the general antipathy created in the nation and army by the Prussian predilections and discipline, as well as by the character and policy of the unfortunate monarch, and was eagerly joined by malcontents, romantic adventurers, and ambitious courtiers. But the plot was nearly detected and one of the conspirators imprisoned, when they hastened its execution. In the night of July 8-9, 1762, Catharine came over from Peterhof to St. Petersburg, a part of the way on a peasant's wagon, and appeared before the guards, who hailed her as empress, though, according to the original plan, her son Paul was to be declared emperor and herself regent; but this had been changed by the Orlofts, and the future senator Teploff read, instead of the prepared manifesto, a new one in the Kazan church. Peter was soon seized, and after a few days strangled in prison.
The sooner to gain pardon for her part in the crime, Catharine made the most splendid promises to the nation, flattered its prejudices, exhibited great devotion to the national religion and its priests, was crowned with great pomp at Moscow, and made a show of extraordinary zeal for improvements in industry, commerce, and the navy, and for reforms in the administration of justice, as well as in the management of the external affairs of her vast empire. Courland was compelled to depose its duke, Charles of Saxe, and to submit again to the rule of Biron, who had made himself hateful by his cruelty. Her influence prevailed in Poland after the death of Augustus III. (1763), in the election of her favorite Poniatowski as king under the name of Stanislas Augustus, from whose affection and weakness she justly expected the extension of her influence over the neighboring state, distracted as it was by religious and civil dissensions. But this happy commencement could not allay the hatred of national malcontents; attempts against the empress were plotted at Moscow and St. Petersburg, with the aim of setting upon the throne of the czars Ivan, son of Anna Carlovna, who had already atoned by 24 years of imprisonment under Elizabeth and Catharine for having worn as a child, for a few months, the imperial title before the accession of the former.
The violent death of Ivan, in his prison at Schliisselburg (1764), put an end to these schemes, and Catharine could now enjoy more easily the pleasures and festivities of her court, troubled but little by its intrigues about favors and favorites. The convocation at Moscow of representatives from all the provinces of the empire for discussing the reorganization of justice, was a new manifestation of her political activity, as were the rules elaborated by her, and read in the first session, of her political wisdom. But the rude Samoyeds spoke of oppression by their governors, and a proposition for the enfranchisement of the serfs was soon made. Catharine was afraid of the consequences, and hastily dissolved the assembly, who declared her mother of the country. Greater were the results of her external diplomacy. Poland, undermined by her intrigues and her protection bestowed on the dissidents, soon became a prey to its neighbors. The confederation of Bar (1768), under the Pulaskis, Potocki, and other patriots, the weak opposition of France to Russia, and a declaration of war by the Turks, could not save that unhappy country; and its first division by Russia, Austria, and Prussia ensued in 1772, and Catharine received a proportionate share.
The Turks were humbled by her armies under Rumiantzetf, on the Pruth and on the Kagul (1770), by the conquests of Khotim and Bender, as well as by her fleet under Alexis Orloff, which won the great naval victory of Scio, and burned the Turkish fleet in the bay of Tchesme; and the last disasters compelled the Porte to accept the peace of Kutchuk-Kainarji (1774), and to cede Kinburn, Azov, Yenikale, Kertch, and both Kabardas to Russia. The Crimea was made independent, soon to become a prey to Russia. Having happily subdued and severely punished the revolt of the Cossack Puga-tcheff, a pseudo-Peter, in the eastern provinces (1771-4), she now formed the plan of expelling the Turks from Europe, and founding a new Byzantine empire under a prince of her house. This scheme, favorably regarded by some philosophers of France, was eagerly promoted by her new favorite, the ambitious Potemkin, who ruled her no less arrogantly than he did the empire. One of the gates of Moscow received this inscription, "Way to Constantinople;" one of her grandsons the name of Constantine; and plans were made on the banks of the Neva for the restoration of Sparta and Athens. After a journey through the eastern provinces which had been the scene of the revolt, she undertook a new one, in 1787, through the southern parts of her empire, to the lately conquered Taurida (in part the ancient Tauris). Potemkin made this a most magnificent triumph.
The eyes of the empress were dazzled by enchantments; palaces rose on desert prairies, to shine for a day; villages and cities, of which only the walls were real, were seen from afar, covering the barren plains of the Tartar nomads; masts and flags rising above the sands showed fictitious canals; festivities and bonfires followed each other; and dances and songs, got up by official order, were supposed to show the happiness of a population of a hundred nationalities. Catharine, who delighted in the applause of the French philosophers, amused herself and her court at the same time with translating Marmontel's Belisaire, but still pursued her diplomatic schemes. Poniatowski, who came to see her after 23 years, near the frontiers of his dismembered state, was repaid with kind promises for ancient personal affection and new political fidelity. Joseph II. of Austria, who came to Kherson, was won for a common war against Turkey, which ended for Austria with his death (1790), and without gain, and for Russia, after the conquest of Otchakov by Potemkin, after the great victories of Suvaroff, and his bloody conquests of Ismail and Bender, with the peace of Jassy (1792), and the acquisition of Otchakov and the country between the Bog and Dniester. This result, so slight in comparison with the expected overthrow of the Turkish empire, was owing in part to a war with Gustavus III. of Sweden, who marched against St. Petersburg, but was happily checked in Finland by his officers refusing to advance, and was thus compelled to make peace (1790); in part to the opposition of England and Prussia; but principally to the bravery of the Turks in defence of their country.
The progress and victories of the French revolution, though giving her a kind of satisfaction by the humiliation of several states once mighty, filled Catharine with horror, and made her soon forget all her predilections for France, and her own vaunted liberalism; she assisted the emigres, broke off every communication with the French government, and even made an alliance with England. Poland was in the mean time the chief object of her attention. Catharine, while at war with Turkey, had approved of its new constitution of May 8, 1791, which promised to give union and vigor to the nation, as did also Frederick William II. of Prussia, who was at war with France. But scarcely were these wars ended when Poland was treacherously attacked from both sides. A Russian army of 100,000 men was sent to support the aristocratic faction that had formed the confederation of Targovitza against the constitution. The nephew of the king, the future French marshal, Joseph Poniatowski, in vain led the Polish army against them; Kosciuszko proved in vain to be a worthy disciple of Washington. The king, persuaded by Catharine, deserted them, and went over to the confederation, and the second partition of Poland followed, executed by Russia and Prussia alone.
The Russian cannon compelled the diet of Grodno to sanction it (1793). The great rising of the betrayed nation in the following year commenced with the massacre of the Russians, and with glorious victories under Kosciuszko as dictator, but ended with his defeat at Maciejowice (Oct. 10,1794), and with the taking of Praga (Nov. 3) by Suvaroff, who repeated there the slaughter of Ismail and Bender. "Bravo, field marshal!" was Catharine's answer to his report, "Hurrah, Praga - Suvaroff." The three great neighbors of Poland now took the whole of it, and destroyed even its name (1795). A year before Catharine had annexed Courland to Russia. She next undertook a war against Persia, but died of apoplexy, after an agony of 30 hours, leaving her empire, so greatly enlarged, to her son Paul. - Catharine was possessed of great talents, susceptible of great ideas, and showed often a manly spirit and energy; her ambition appeared grand; but at the same time she was a woman in caprice, a slave of her sensuality and vanity, extremely selfish, and sometimes cruel.
Her numerous favorites, some of them her tools and some her masters, were elevated by their official situation in the palace, by privileges, promotions, and presents, to dignity in the state; while she was, on the other hand, prompted by the love of glory to flatter the representatives of public opinion, particularly in France, to invite Voltaire to her court, to call D'Alembert to complete the French Encyclopedic in St. Petersburg, to suffer the familiarities of Diderot, to have a regular literary agent (Grimm) in Paris, and to write herself several books in French; to promote literature and art, industry and agriculture, in her empire; to reform its laws, and attempt the abolition of many abuses; to build fortresses, cities, canals, hospitals, and schools; to organize exploring expeditions on land and sea; to annex and to conquer. She had the satisfaction of being called the Semiramis of the North, of being ranked by philosophers with Lycurgus and Solon, of hearing the words of Voltaire, "Light comes now from the North." But her fame was only a transient applause; her reforms, undertaken for show, vanished without result; most of her works came to nothing before she died; and her civilization did more to corrupt Russia than to elevate it. - Lives of Catharine II. were written by Castera, J. G. von Struve, and Tannenberg; and Hertzen published in London (1859) Memoires de l'impe-ratrice Catherine II. ecrits par elle-meme et precedes d'une preface.