They did not expect her to evolve into a ruler of any significance. They were wrong.
Catherine moved quickly to consolidate her power after taking the throne. She studied policy and reached out to consultants and political actors who would both aid her and prove trustworthy. She ruled with a lighter touch, perhaps, than her husband, but she was certainly no push-over. Alexander writes that "Her style of governance was cautiously consultative, pragmatic, and 'hands-on,' with a Germanic sense of duty and strong aversion to wasting time."
She had absolute power, but she acted with a certain reserve, at least initially, which belied the fact that she would eventually become known in history as a toughened despot. Perhaps this notion of Catherine the Great as a despot was introduced due to her later years when she seemed to indicate an unwillingness to allow her son to ascend the throne, or perhaps it is because she was never committed to helping to improve the condition of the masses. But initially, at least, Catherine was a reserved but firm ruler.
Her first major accomplishments consisted of foreign policy efforts. From the very beginning, she set out to establish Russia as a great power by working with other European nations in both a military and a consultative capacity. For example, Russia allied with Prussia in 1764, just a short time after she had taken the throne, to intervene in a Polish conflict with Lithuania. This effort was designed to establish Poland as an outpost of the Russian state. Catherine desired to extend Russian territorial influence as well as cultural, economic, and political influence, and the move to annex Poland showed Catherine willing to use force in an interventionist manner in order to promote the state's interests.
Catherine also reached out to Europe in a number of capacities that were diplomatic rather than military. Russia mediated the end of the war of Bavarian Succession, and formed an alliance with Austria against the Ottoman Empire. As Alexander points out "Catherine engineered the Armed Neutrality of 1781, a league of northern naval powers to oppose British infringement of the commercial rights of neutrals amid the conflicts ending the American Revolution."
In terms of political culture, Catherine also showed herself to be a relatively forward thinker. Alexander claims that "Drawing on the published advice of German cameralist thinkers and corresponding regularly with Voltaire, Diderot, Grimm, and other philosophers, she promoted administrative efficiency and uniformity, economic advance and fiscal growth, and 'enlightenment' through expanded educational facilities, cultural activities, and religious tolerance."
While she never indicated any expression of interest in enhancing the plight of the poor, at least publicly, she "privately despised" serfdom even as she knew that "it could not be easily changed."
The Empress was the most educated and intellectual of all Russian rulers. She founded a society whose sole purpose was to translate books into Russian. She established the Hermitage and began the great national collections of art that endow it today. She established theatres festivals and other cultural events where Russians could gather in a sprit of equality and experience the growth of culture.
Of course, all was not perfect. Specifically, in 1772 and 1773, a Kossack uprising led by Emelian Pugachev was on its way to reaching Moscow, while the Russian army was tied up in a conflict with the Ottoman Empire. Fortunately, the uprising was defeated when Pugachev was captured and executed, but the fact that people had rallied against her rule, and more importantly had used her ex-husband's name as a rallying point, showed that her concentration on the world of intellect and international prestige had failed to move the masses to love her. This lesson stayed with her throughout her reign, and she was always somewhat weary of the masses.
Additionally, Catherine the Great, although she ruled with firmness and an engagement that surprised those who had installed her, never figured out how to conquer the problem of the nobility. When she died, she left the court in a condition in which the nobility were stronger than they had been when she ascended. Part of this was by design, as she courted the nobility greatly after the Pugachev affair in order to ensure that the masses never rallied again.
But the strength of the nobility left the masses oppressed, as they were ruled by the landed class with a strong approach that left little room for improving their conditions. It also left her son weakened when he assumed power, as he had to deal with a resurgent nobility class.
Legacy and Historical Influence
Catherine the Great, along with Peter the Great, was one of Russia's greatest rulers. She led Russia through a period of development during the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and the Russian Enlightenment when the influence of new ideas and new ways of living were taking hold. By reaching out to Europe, she brought the Russian state into the community of leading nations on that continent in a way that tied their interests to Europe in later generations. Her ruling philosophy was enlightened and beneficial. She was quoted as saying that "It is in the interests of the state, the laws of which must always remain sacred to monarchs, because they last forever while the subjects and rulers disappear, that men should be judged according to the law."
This espousal of the rule of law was significant, as it sent Russian government down a path to enlightened political institutions that would eventually serve the interests of the masses as well as the ruling class.
While Catherine's legacy was not without flaws, it was impressive in the scope of its applications and the depth of its commitment to intelligent solutions. Far from being flustered schoolgirl or a viral vixen, she proved herself to be an enlightened ruler, who occasionally tilted her hand a little too hard, who occasionally turned her head a little too soon, but whose heart and mind were in the right place for more than a quarter of a century during Russia's most impressive cultural and political flowering. Her story is hardly the stuff of window dressing, and historians owe her a better assessment.
Alexander, John T. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1989).
Alexander, John T. "Catherine II." Encyclopedia of Russian History. (Cincinnati: Gale/Cengage, 2003).
Catherine II. Memoires of the Empress Catherine II, Written by Herself (New York: D. Appleton and Co, 1859)
De Madariaga, Isabel. Catherine the Great: A Short History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002,
Ericson, Carolly. Great Catherine: The Life of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia (New York: St. Martin's, 1994).
Troyat, Henri. Catherine the Great, Translated by Joan Pinkham. (New York: Penguin, 1994).
Henri Troyat, Catherine the Great. Translated by Joan Pinkham. New York: Penguin, 1994.
Catherine II. Memoires of the Empress Catherine II, Written by Herself. New York: D. Appleton and Co, 1859, p.17.
Ibid, p. 260.
Carolly Ericson, Great Catherine: The Life of Catherine the Great, Empress of Rusia New York: St. Martin's, 1994, pp.1-2.
John T. Alexander, Catherine the Great: Life and Legend, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 3-4.
John T. Alexander, "Catherine II." Encyclopedia of Russian History, Cincinnati: Gale/Cengage, 2003, p206.