Things To Remember About Catherine the Great

I listened to Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie. It was more than 23 hours long–perfect for holing up inside during the dark cold days of December.

Here are a few things I’d like to remember about Catherine the Great:

Catherine was self-taught. 

When Catherine was the Grand Duchess of Russia, her only job was to produce an heir for the Grand Duke Paul. Since Paul wasn’t that into her, the marriage wasn’t consummated for sixteen years.  She passed the time reading books on philosophy, economics, history, and statesmanship. 

Catherine loved to laugh. 

Catherine’s library also included the best comedies of the time. Her wit shines through in her letters. 

“Madame, you must be gay; only thus can life be endured. I speak from experience for I have had to endure much, and have only been able to endure it because I have always laughed whenever I had the chance.”

Catherine was a writer.

Catherine had command of several languages and an ability to write with wit, pointedness, and supplication. She engaged some of the greatest minds of the Enlightenment through personal letters. She also wrote a memoir which was exceedingly uncommon for women of that time.

Unidentified painter – Public Domain

Catherine was an art collector.

Catherine leveraged her pen-pal relationships to acquire some of Europe’s finest art collections. In her letters, she’d ask Voltaire, Diderot, and other people of influence to keep an eye out for any grandmasters that could be bought at a bargain.  The Hermitage in St. Petersburg was started as Catherine’s personal art collection. 

Photo by Serge Vin on

Catherine had intellectual audacity. 

Catherine wrote an entire code of law based on her reading of Enlightenment philosophers. Early in her reign, she presented it for consideration to the “Grand Commission,” a group she summoned to St. Petersburg that included representatives from all of Russia’s classes and nationalities. The debate went on for nearly two years. In the end, they could not agree on a new legal code.  Catherine dismissed the Grand Commission and carried on as Russia’s autocrat. 

 Oil on canvas portrait of Empress Catherine the Great by Russian painter Fyodor Rokotov

Catherine insisted on getting the smallpox inoculation.  

Smallpox inoculation was a new and controversial procedure in Catherine’s day. She lived in fear of getting smallpox. Even though it was risky, she was determined to get the cure and, in doing so, hoped it would inspire others to get in line. It worked.  More than 2 million Russions were inoculated by 1800.

Catherine banned torture as a means to extract confessions. 

She said it was ineffective and cruel.

“The use of torture is contrary to sound judgment and common sense. Humanity itself cries out against it, and demands it to be utterly abolished.”

Despite good intentions, Catherine could not bring to bear the principles of Enlightenment to all the people

Catherine thought that serfs should be granted rights and have a pathway to freedom. These sensibilities were tempered over time as she came to see how serfdom was the foundation of Russian political, economic, agricultural, and industrial systems. 

“You philosophers are lucky men. You write on paper and paper is patient. Unfortunate Empress that I am, I write on the susceptible skins of living beings.”

It is not dissimilar to the discussion of slavery in the role of the American constitution during this same time period. The serf’s were not emancipated until 1861, the same year the Civil War started in the U.S.

Reading of the Emancipation Manifesto, painting by Boris Kustodiev


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