Catherine was born in 1729 in Stettin, Prussia, which is now Szczecin, Poland. Her original name was Sophie Fredericke Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst and she was a German princess. Sophie moved to Russia in 1744 and was married in 1745 to the Grand Duke Peter of Holstein. Sophie converted her religion from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodox, and her husband Peter became Peter III of Russia in 1762. However, her husband was not very well liked and did much to antagonize his people and the courts, so Sophie and the imperial guard overthrew him, and Sophie was declared empress Catherine II.
Much of what Catherine did when she ruled led to improvements in Russia. She won two important wars against the Ottoman Empire, expanding Russia to the Black Sea's shores. Agreements were made with Austria and Prussia that created partitions with Poland, and more area in Europe belonged to Russia. Like Peter the Great, Catherine supported westernization, improving the Russian government through the influence of the west. She bolstered the autocratic government in the Age of Enlightenment with Montesquieu's The Spirit of Laws prayerbook. She also convened the Legislature Commission to try a political reform, but this produced no results.
Probably the greatest hardship in Catherine's reign, the thing that caused the most changes in both government and the Russian's attitude towards Catherine, was the Pugachew Rebellion. This was a rebellion started by a man named Yemelyan Pugachew who claimed he was Catherine's husband, Peter III. In truth, Catherine's husband had been killed by one of her lovers' brothers, but Pugachew played on the doubt that he actually died. Pugachew gained many supporters from many of the different classes in Russia, and took the city of Kazan' and was close to getting Moscow. However, Pugachew and his supporters were no match for the Russian army, and they were defeated. Pugachew was surrendered by his men, tried in Moscow, and executed after being pronounced guilty.
After the Pugachew Rebellion, Catherine instituted many changes of government to try to reunite the Russian classes once more. These changes resolved around decentralization, the distribution of functions and power, gentry's participation. The land units were subdivided into provinces and then into districts to give the local governments more power. The courts and the procedures of the judicial branch of government were further organized. Catherine tried to separate the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, but failed. She extended the serfdom throughout Russia and transfered the church property to the state. She also started colonization of the Volga river and southern Russia.
However, Catherine's main interest was also in culture and education. She established boarding schools like the Smolny Institute for Girls and the Russian Academy of Letters. Public publishing houses were licensed and because works could now be published, journalism flourished. Hospitals and medical colleges were founded, surgical and medical equipment was being made in Russia, and they were leading the war in disease control.
Right when Catherine was preparing to fight France during the French Revolution, Catherine had a stroke and died in 1796. Catherine's son, Paul, took over her throne after her death. Catherine did so much for Russia during her reign that she was called Catherine the Great more often than Catherine II. Her greatness gives her a place in my list.
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