Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Despot?

Catherine the Great is considered an enlightened despot, but was she enlightened? Was she a despot? In her 34-year reign, her fondness for the arts and philosophy influenced her rule.

Aug 3, 2022By Stephanie Jelks, MPhil History, MA History, BA Political Science

catherine the great portrait smolny institute


Catherine the Great was born an obscure German princess but became the Russian Empire’s longest-ruling female leader who ruled in her own right. Determined to govern Russia from an early age, she plotted a coup against her own husband to seize the throne. Governed by her love of philosophy, she oversaw significant cultural changes in Russia as well as leading foreign policy and domestic reforms. Catherine the Great was a paradox of being open to foreign ideas while at the same time never enacting radical reforms.


From Princess Sophie to Empress Catherine the Great

catherine the great time wedding
Catherine the Great around the time of her wedding, by George Christopher Groot


Catherine the Great was born in 1729 in Stettin, Prussia (today Szczecin, Poland), which was then part of the Holy Roman Empire. Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst described her childhood as being of little interest and she received an education typical of that of the German ruling classes. Her education included etiquette, French, and Lutheran theology.

Although she was born a princess, her family had little money. Sophie’s mother had wealthy relatives which included nobles and royalty, and given that many of the over 300 sovereign entities of the Holy Roman Empire were small and powerless, political marriages were one way for princely families to gain an advantage in the highly competitive political system.


Sophie first met her husband who would become Tsar Peter III of Russia when she was just 10. At the time, she disliked him. Peter was a German prince whose mother was Peter the Great’s daughter. In 1744, Russian Empress Elizabeth, Peter’s aunt, invited Sophie to Russia when she was just 15. Upon arrival, Sophie strived to gain her future aunt-in-law’s approval as well as that of her intended husband and the Russian people. She dedicated herself to learning the Russian language, and even at that tender age she decided to do whatever was necessary to be able to wear the crown of Russia.


catherine the great peter iii
Catherine the Great with her husband, the future Peter III

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


While her father opposed Sophie’s conversion from Lutheranism to Eastern Orthodoxy, Sophie became a member of the Russian Orthodox Church on June 28, 1744, adopting the new name of Catherine (Ekaterina) Alexseyevna. Her engagement was announced the next day and the marriage took place on August 21, 1745, in Saint Petersburg. The bride and groom were 16 and 17.


The marriage between Catherine and Peter was not a particularly happy one. Both had several extramarital affairs, and the paternity of Catherine’s children was often doubted. Their son, who would go on to become Tsar Paul I of Russia, was born nine years after his parents’ wedding. It was alleged that the marriage was not consummated until years after the wedding took place. Paul was accepted as Peter’s son (although rumors persisted), but of the two children Catherine later had, one is widely accepted as a love child and the other is officially acknowledged as the son of Count Grigory Orlov.


Empress Elizabeth died in January 1762 after a twenty-year reign. Catherine’s husband became Tsar Peter III and Catherine was his empress consort. However, Peter III’s reign lasted a mere six months. Peter’s pro-Prussian inclinations saw him end Russian operations against Prussia despite the fact that Russia and Prussia had been on opposing sides during the Seven Years’ War. This move proved to be unpopular with Russia’s military class. Furthermore, Peter’s progressive domestic reforms proved to be unpopular with the lower nobility.


peter iii coronation portrait
Tsar Peter III’s coronation portrait, via Smithsonian


Catherine was said to have been plotting against Empress Elizabeth as early as 1749, with the aim of also disposing of her husband. By the time her husband ascended to the throne, she had gained the support of the military with the help of Grigory Orlov and his four brothers. On the night of July 8, 1762, Catherine discovered that one of her co-conspirators had been arrested by her estranged husband. She decided it was time to put all her plans into action.


On the following day, she delivered a speech to the Ismailovsky regiment, where she asked the soldiers for protection from her husband. She then went to the Semenovsky Barracks, where the clergy was waiting to ordain her as the only possessor of the Russian throne. When Peter realized that the naval fleet, army, and senate were loyal to Catherine, he was arrested and had no choice but to abdicate. He died eight days later; the official cause was hemorrhoidal colic and an apoplectic stroke, but many believed he was assassinated and that the autopsy results were falsified.


The Russian Empire’s Foreign Policy Under Catherine the Great

catherine the great coronation portrait
Catherine the Great’s coronation portrait by Vigilius Eriksen, via Smithsonian


Catherine was crowned empress regnant of the Russian Empire on September 22, 1762. During her reign, she was active in foreign policy, economics, government organization, and the treatment of Russian serfs. She was also very active in arts and culture, with interests in education and religious affairs.


Regarding foreign policy, the borders of the Russian Empire were extended by some 520,000 square kilometers (200,000 square miles), mostly at the expense of the Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774, Russia gained access to the Black Sea and much of what is now modern-day Ukraine. In 1770, the Russian State Council announced a policy that favored eventual Crimean independence, although Catherine went on to annex the Crimea in 1783. Another Russo-Turkish War occurred between 1787 and 1792, which legitimized Russia’s claim to the Crimea and granted even more land to the Russian Empire.


Catherine was also involved in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth throughout her reign. She placed one of her lovers on the Polish-Lithuanian throne in 1764, thwarted an anti-Russian uprising, the Confederation of Bar, between 1768 and 1772, established a system of government throughout the Commonwealth that was fully controlled by the Russian Empire, and oversaw Russian victory in the Polish-Russian War of 1792. Russia completed the partitioning of Poland in 1795, dividing the remaining Commonwealth territory with Prussia and Austria.


map western russian empire 1789
Map of the western Russian Empire, 1789, via


Under Catherine the Great’s reign, Russia sought to act as a mediator in European conflicts west of the territory claimed by the Empire. Catherine did not place an army in Germany, and she acted as a mediator in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778-1779) which was fought between Prussia and Austria. Under the League of Armed Neutrality that she established, she aimed to prevent the British Royal Navy from searching neutral shipping during the American Revolutionary War. Russia fought the Russo-Swedish War from 1788 to 1790, which resulted in all conquered territories returning to the respective owners. Peace in this region lasted for a further 20 years.


During her reign, Catherine also fought against the Persians while opening trade with the Japanese after expanding fur trapping eastward in Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands. The Russians became the first Europeans to colonize Alaska, creating Russian America. Saint Petersburg also maintained difficult relations with Beijing at this time. China had an expansionist policy in Central Asia at the time which Russia sought to reduce, while Dzungar Mongol fugitives sought safe haven from China in Russia at the start of Catherine’s reign which proved to be another bone of contention. Despite all of this, Catherine’s foreign policy was not viewed later as an overwhelming success by her grandson Nicholas I, in part because of the territories ceded to Prussia and Austria.


Domestic Reforms Under Catherine the Great

25 assignation rubles 1769
25 Assignation rubles from 1769, via


On the domestic front, Catherine’s economic policies yielded mixed results. Russia’s economic development was not up to western European standards. While there was a start to industry, Russia had no free peasantry, no sizeable middle class, and no legislation that was conducive to private enterprise. Catherine tried to impose a system of state regulation of merchants’ activities, but this failed. Her encouragement of the migration of Volga Germans was more successful in modernizing wheat production and milling, tobacco, sheep raising, and small-scale manufacturing.


In 1769, the Assignation Bank opened in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, where paper money was handled for the first time. These banknotes were used until 1849. Money was needed to fund foreign wars, and the “Constitution for the Administration of Governorates of the Russian Empire” of November 1775 defined the functions of financial institutions. By 1781, the government had its first approximation of a state budget.


catherine the great smallpox vaccination letter 1787
Letter from Catherine the Great strategizing a nationwide smallpox inoculation scheme, 1787, via Smithsonian Magazine


Catherine the Great also undertook administrative reforms. With an interest in public health, in the first half of the 1760s, she asked the army to upgrade its medical services, launched Paul’s Hospital and the Moscow Foundling Home, made the government collect and publish vital statistics, and established a centralized medical administration. She was also an early proponent of vaccination, inviting an English physician to her court in 1768 to inoculate her and her son against smallpox. Two decades later, she was planning how to introduce an inoculation scheme nationwide.


Under the Governorate Reform of 1775, new cities such as Odessa, Dnipro, and Sevastopol were formed while the administrative-territorial division of the entire Empire was reformed. The main purpose of the reform was to adapt the new administrative structure to fiscal and police matters, but it was also carried out to consolidate power within the gentry to stop peasant uprisings. The Governorate Reform also transformed the Russian Empire’s judicial system.


Serfdom in the 18th Century Russian Empire 

pugachev administering justice population
Pugachev Administering Justice to the Population by Vasily Perov, 1875, via


Both military conscription and the Russian economy continued to depend on serfdom during Catherine the Great’s reign. Catherine inherited a system where serfs were not exactly slaves; they had very limited rights. Some serfs were able to accumulate wealth and buy their freedom, but this was technically not allowed.


Catherine initiated a few changes, but these did not lead to large-scale reform. Catherine made it possible for serfs to file complaints against the nobles who “owned” them, but in return she removed their right to appeal directly to her. She also gave serfs legitimate bureaucratic status. During Catherine’s reign, a greater number of serfs were able to attend school and work in businesses that paid wages. She also reduced the ways in which people could become serfs while also preventing already-freed serfs from returning to serfdom. However, she also gave landowners the ability to sentence serfs to hard labor in Siberia, a punishment which had previously only been reserved for convicted criminals.


catherine the great
Portrait of Catherine the Great, via


Pugachev’s Rebellion, or the Rebellion of the Cossacks, was the largest-scale revolt seen in Russia before the early 20th century. Starting in 1773 and ending in 1775, at its peak around one million people were involved in the revolt against the Empire’s authorities. It was so great that Catherine’s government sought a faster resolution of the Russo-Turkish War (1768-1774) to be able to quell the rebellion at home.


Pugachev was a Cossack who defected from the Imperial Russian Army. He initially protested against the government’s revocation of special privileges that Cossacks had enjoyed as part of their military service obligations. Pugachev declared himself to be Emperor Peter III (who had died a decade earlier) and in July 1774 he issued a manifesto declaring peasants’ freedom and the right to own the land they cultivated. Pugachev’s manifesto also freed the serfs from taxes and duties while granting them the same legal status as Cossacks. He went further and encouraged his followers to “catch, execute, and hang” any noblemen who might oppose him.


Pugachev was able to form an army of tens of thousands. At the Battle of Kazan in July 1774, the rebels burned down most of the town, although they were later defeated by government forces. By the end of 1774, the Russian government was able to crush Pugachev’s Rebellion and Pugachev himself was beheaded in 1775. After the revolt, Catherine reduced Cossack privileges further and created more garrisons across Russia.


Why Is Catherine the Great Considered an Enlightened Despot?

enlightened despotism europe
Enlightened Despotism in Europe


Embraced by rulers in 18th century Europe like Catherine the Great of Russia, Maria Theresa of the Austrian Empire, and Frederick the Great of Prussia, enlightened despotism provided a philosophy of government that motivated rulers to pursue political changes, forever breaking any ties with the monarchies of the past.


“At its basis, enlightened despotism attempted to apply the rational spirit of the Enlightenment to guide governance, pushing them forward from the superstitions and sometimes barbarous practices of past centuries. It embraced not only what we would call now a progressive view of government but also the sciences and the arts.


Catherine the Great is considered an enlightened despot by some because of her patronage of arts, literature, and education. An avid reader in her youth, she was fluent in French as well as German before diving into Russian literature. In the early days of her marriage, she first read Voltaire and other French Enlightenment philosophers. Still a teenager, reading the Annals by the ancient Roman historian Tacitus opened her mind to the politics of power. Throughout her life, Catherine read some books for pleasure, some for information, and some to provide her with a philosophy.


The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, which now occupies the whole of the Winter Palace, started as Catherine’s personal collection. She ordered the construction of the Hermitage in 1770 to house her collection of paintings, sculptures, and books, and, by 1790, the Hermitage contained almost 60,000 items. Catherine made an effort to bring intellectuals and scientists to Russia while also writing her own comedies, memoirs, and works of fiction. She also maintained correspondence with Voltaire for 15 years, from her ascension to the throne until his death.


catherine the great court
Catherine the Great’s court, via


In 1766, Catherine called together a Grand Commission in Moscow comprised of 652 members of all classes and nationalities to consider the needs of the Russian Empire and how to satisfy them. She looked to western European philosophers such as Montesquieu and Cesare Beccaria to guide the Commission. However, many of the democratic principles scared her more moderate and experienced advisors, and after more than 200 sittings, the Commission disbanded without ever moving beyond theory.


Catherine used ideas she had read about in the creation of 1775’s “Constitution for the Administration of Governorates of the Russian Empire,” as well as incorporating them into 1785’s Charter to the Nobility. The Charter to the Nobility increased the rights of the nobility, but in the same year she also issued a Charter of the Towns in an attempt to create a middle estate and thus limit the power of the nobles. In 1777, Catherine wrote to Voltaire to say that her legal innovations were progressing “little by little.”


smolny institute today
The Smolny Institute today, via


Catherine the Great was also a great believer in education. She wanted to modernize Russian education to develop individuals both intellectually and morally. A commission that she established in 1764 recommended a general system of education for all Russian Orthodox subjects aged 5 to 18, but this never came to fruition. The Moscow Foundling Home was one of Catherine’s attempts to provide education to the disadvantaged. In 1764, she also founded The Smolny Institute, a finishing school for aristocratic girls. Catherine continued to study other countries’ education systems and in 1786 the Russian Statute of National Education was finally created. Catherine’s endeavors to improve education had limited success, but she did achieve more than her predecessors.


Religion Under Catherine the Great’s Reign


In addition to her fondness for the arts and her advocacy of education, Catherine held mixed views on religion. She nationalized church lands to pay for her wars, emptied the monasteries, and forced many of the remaining clergymen to find other ways to earn a living. Going to church became even less important to the nobility. She suppressed religious dissent after the start of the French Revolution and did not permit dissenters to build chapels.


catherine the great legalizes muslim religion
Catherine the Great legalizes the Muslim religion, 1773, via


She continued this mixed approach towards Islam. Between 1762 and 1773, Muslims were not allowed to own serfs. However, in 1773, she issued an Edict on the “Toleration of All Faiths” which allowed Muslims to build mosques and practice all of their traditions. She even created the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly. In Catherine’s view, this was an attempt to control the nomadic people who ventured through southern Russia. In 1786, she assimilated the Islamic schools into the Russian public school system under government regulation.


While Jews were treated differently than Muslims, an influx of Jews arrived in the 1770s after the First Partition of Poland. Jews were separated from the Orthodox population and offered tax incentives and social class incentives if they converted to the Orthodox faith. In order to assimilate Jews into Russia’s economy, she included them under the rights and laws of 1782’s Charter of the Towns, but in 1785, she officially declared Jews to be foreigners, and in 1790, she banned them from the middle class.


By 1786, Catherine had excluded all religious and clerical studies from lay education. By separating church from the state, she incorporated some of her “enlightened” Western philosophies in her governance of Russia. In doing so, she removed the power that the Orthodox clergy had previously held over the state, instead forcing them to depend on the state for compensation.


Catherine the Great’s Legacy

catherine the great map
Catherine the Great in later life, via


Sadly, Catherine the Great died of natural causes in 1796. Even though she was born in modern-day Poland, she was determined from a young age to rule the Russian Empire. She oversaw the Empire’s territorial expansion, and under her reign Russia gained greater prominence as a European power.


She was well known for championing the arts and was a prolific writer; the fairy tales she wrote for her grandchildren became the first children’s literature published in Russia. She attempted large-scale domestic reforms and was able to quell over a dozen uprisings during her reign. She assured her subjects that the smallpox vaccination was safe and encouraged an inoculation campaign.


Catherine the Great was the Russian Empire’s longest-ruling female leader, and during her reign, Russia experienced a renaissance of culture and sciences. While her reforms did not extend as far as they did in some western European countries, she was certainly not as regressive as many of her predecessors and successors.

Author Image

By Stephanie JelksMPhil History, MA History, BA Political ScienceStephanie is currently a writer based in Montevideo. She earned her MPhil and MA in History from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, as well as a BA in Political Science (with a minor in International Studies) from Truman State University in the US. In her free time she enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with friends.