Encyclopedia Womannica

Leaders: Catherine the Great

Episode Summary

Catherine the Great (1729-1796) was the Empress of Russia.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard.

This week of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by HelloFresh. Go to hellofresh.com/encyclopedia10, and use code encyclopedia10 during HelloFresh’s New Year’s sale for 10 free meals including free shipping.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

As we dive into a new year and new decade, we’re taking this month to talk about leaders from throughout history . 

Today we’re talking about a woman whose reign ushered in a new era in her country. She reorganized and added to the territory of the Russian Empire. She replenished the country’s coffers and attempted to enact reforms before doubling down on the system of serfdom, increasing the plight of her nation’s poor.  Let’s talk about Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. 

Sophie Friederike Auguste, Prinzessin von Anhalt-Zerbst was born on May 2, 1729, in Prussia. She was the daughter of a minor German Prince and her mother was related to the dukes of Holstein. 

After a relatively unexciting childhood, Sophie’s life took a turn when, at age 14, she was chosen to become the wife of Karl Ulrich. Karl’s grandfather was Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, and Karl was his heir. 

In 1744, Sophie arrived in Russia and took on the title of Grand Duchess Catherine Aleseyevna. The following year, she married Karl, who was known as the Grand Duke Peter. The marriage was wildly unsuccessful when it came to a loving partnership, but it put Catherine in extremely close proximity to power. 

When Catherine and Peter got married, Russia was ruled by Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth. She was Czaress for 20 years. She stabilized rule over the empire, and worked to create a court in Russia akin to those in the rest of Europe. 

Catherine was intelligent, charming, and extremely ambitious. After Elizabeth’s death and her husband’s ascension to power, Catherine set in motion a plan to remove Peter and install herself as ruler. 

Under Elizabeth’s rule, Russia was allied with France and Austria in the Seven Years’ War against Prussia. When Elizabeth died, Peter withdrew from that war and allied himself with Prussia, officially switching sides mid-fight. Peter foolishly made obvious the fact that he loved his native Germany and disliked Russia, the country over which he ruled. He had very few fans among his people. 

Catherine, meanwhile, had gained the affections of the Russian army, royal court, and the public in Moscow and in St. Petersburg. At that time, she was thought of as “enlightened” due to her liberal opinions. On June 28, 1762, Catherine led troops into St. Petersburg and proclaimed herself empress. Her husband Peter abdicated. He was killed 9 days later. 

In September 1762, Catherine was crowned in Moscow and began her reign. She would go on to rule Russia for 34 years. 

Catherine’s goals as ruler were to make Russia prosperous, powerful, and forward looking. She hoped to spread justice and education throughout the empire and wanted a grand court in the French style . Before rising to power, she even planned to emancipate the serfs, who were essentially slaves who worked the land and were owned by landowners.

Unfortunately , Catherine’s vision didn’t become reality. She quickly realized that her liberal reforms were too far a leap from Russia’s status quo and would cause significant discontent, especially among her supporters in the Russian gentry. She did, however, make other significant moves.

In 1762, Catherine filled the state’s previously empty treasury by taking property from the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church had owned a full third of the land and serfs in Russia, so it was a massive reorganization of power and capital

Five years later, Catherine gathered a commission of people from different provinces and socioeconomic classes to write a Russian constitution. But after  much debate and frustration, the cause was abandoned. 

Fresh off the failure of her enlightenment-centered goals, Catherine changed tact and instead focused on expanding the grandeur of Russia.

 In 1768, she went to war with the Ottoman Empire. The Russians and Ottomans had been enemies for centuries, so the Russian people were enthusiastic about the conflict. Things were looking good after Russia won a significant naval battle. 

But on the home front, trouble was brewing. First, a plague broke out in Moscow. The sickness compounded the hardships of living in a country at war. People were agitated and in 1773, a man named Yemelyan Pugachov seized on their dissatisfaction to bolster his attempt to overthrow Catherine’s rule. Yemelyan pretended to be the dead emperor Peter. He was one of many royal pretenders throughout Catherine’s reign. He gathered followers in the Ural Region and then throughout Russia’s southeastern provinces. In June of 1774, his troops prepared to march on Moscow. 

On the international front, Russia had succeeded in beating the Ottomans, so Catherine called back her troops in order to end the domestic rebellion. The uprising was crushed and Yemelyan was beheaded the following year. 

The revolt changed the way that Catherine thought about her people. Beforehand, she saw them as people to be pitied and freed. Afterwards, they were to be feared and kept in chains. Rather than freeing the serfs, she actually strengthened the system that kept them enslaved. She gave lands that were previously owned by the crown to people she liked. Peasants living on such lands became the new owners’ serfs. She also fostered serfdom in Ukraine where those people had previously been free. 

All that unpaid labor helped to finance Catherine’s immense economic, military, and cultural projects. She built more than 100 new towns and expanded others. She developed a spectacular royal court that was visited by great minds from across Europe. She reorganized provinces under a new administrative reform plan. Trade flourished. She founded schools, wrote literary reviews, and invested in the sciences. She expanded the Russian Empire. 

In 1774, the same year Russia defeated the Ottomans, a man named Grigory Potemkin became Catherine’s lover and was appointed minister. In 1783, the duo decided to annex Crimea from the Ottoman Turks. Occupation of that region gave Russia access to the Mediterranean.  

As Catherine’s perspective on power became more inclined towards the despotic, the sentiment in certain parts of Europe was moving in the other direction. It was the time of the French Revolution and despite Catherine’s earlier belief in enlightenment ideals, she -- like many other royals of Europe -- disdained the actions of the French. 

When the people of Poland attempted to follow the French example and develop a liberal constitution, Catherine sent in troops and annexed most of western Ukraine as a threat. After an uprising in 1794, Catherine went so far as to wipe Poland off the map. She divided the territory between Russia, Prussia and Austria.

On November 16, 1796, Catherine died of a stroke. By the time of her death, Russia was 200,000 square miles bigger than it had been before her ascension to the throne. Catherine had four children and her descendants can be found in the royal families of Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Spain. She is a source of pride for some, particularly in Russia, and a symbol of authoritarianism for others. Regardless, she is remembered for defining the era in which she ruled.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another leader. 

This week of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by HelloFresh. It’s hard to be a good leader if you’re not well fed. HelloFresh makes it easy. As you may have heard yesterday, I’m trying to cook more in 2020. In the past, my biggest challenge was carving out time to find recipes, go to the grocery store, prep and cook. Then I tried HelloFresh. The recipes are delicious and fun to make. I don’t have to worry about finding recipes or going to the grocery store -- everything I need is delivered. Plus I feel good about the fact that the packaging is almost entirely made from recyclable and/or recycled materials. HelloFresh now starts at just $5.66 per serving. Go to hellofresh.com/encyclopedia10, that’s hellofresh.com/Encyclopedia 1-0 and use code encyclopedia10 during HelloFresh’s New Year’s sale for 10 free meals including free shipping.

Special thanks to my favorite sister and co-creator, Liz Kaplan.

Talk to you tomorrow!