Powerful women in history and the ordinary everyday women are what my blog is about. Many have been featured in the link provided. Many more will be sprinkled in over time. This one is about Catherine the Great and the phenomenal Helen Mirren. Who better to portray the great empress of Russia than Ms. Mirren, who has also portrayed the contemporary Queen Elizabeth?
Catherine’s story is fascinating. I hope you think so too. Catherine was not so named, but rather was born Sophie von Anhalt, in what today is Poland, to an impoverished Prussian Prince. She was invited, at age 15, to visit Russia by Czarina Elizabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great, who had assumed the throne. And since she was childless, she had chosen her nephew Peter, as her heir, and was in search of his bride. After converting to Orthodox Christianity and changing her name to Catherine, she and Peter married.
Not a happy marriage and both engaged in extramarital affairs. After eight years, Catherine gave birth to a son, Paul, who may have been illegitimate. Rumors prevailed. There was little debate over the paternity of her three additional children, none fathered by Peter.
She came to power following a coup d’état that she organized—resulting in her husband, Peter III, being overthrown. Under her reign, Russia was revitalized; it grew larger and stronger, and was recognized as one of the great powers of Europe.
Catherine decided to have herself inoculated against smallpox by a British doctor, Thomas Dimsdale. While this was considered a controversial method at the time, she succeeded. Her son Pavel was later inoculated as well. Catherine then sought to have inoculations throughout her empire and stated: “My objective was, through my example, to save from death the multitude of my subjects who, not knowing the value of this technique, and frightened of it, were left in danger”. By 1800, approximately 2 million inoculations (almost 6% of the population) were administered in the Russian Empire.
Catherine’s rule is considered the golden era of Russia. She expanded her empire, she reorganized “The Manifesto on Freedom of the Nobility” which freed Russian nobles from compulsory military or state service. She had many military and Noble lovers, no doubt influencing her decisions. She was regarded as an enlightened despot and established the Smolny Institute for Nobel Maidens, the first state-financed higher education institute in Europe.
Catherine made many advances in Russia possible, like the German farming settlements in the Volga River Valley, who helped modernize this sector of the Russian economy by many new innovations. She improved the banking system. She brought new privileges to serfs, who were an indentured majority of the noble class and of the government. Serf’s owned by the state had more protections. She allowed and established new trade and learning opportunities for serf’s who were then no longer tied to the land in which they were born. However, she was a distant ruler in all ways and the serf communities were still untrusting of her reign. After a failed serf revolution, Catherine made changes to their liberations and therefore serfs remained unhappy and discontented.
Her military and foreign policies were helped by her many allegiance’s, her many lovers whom she rewarded handsomely. Among them, Prince Grigory Potemkin who was a Russian military leader, statesman, nobleman and favourite of Catherine the Great. He died during negotiations over the Treaty of Jassy, which ended a war with the Ottoman Empire that he had overseen.
Her many talents included being a writer of comedies, fiction and memoirs. She began and built beautiful cultural centers and gardens, including the famed Bolshoi Ballet. She was a friend to Voltaire, recruited brilliant scientific minds from Germany and Britain and philosophers of France. Catherine founded the Moscow Foundling Home, although after many years, it failed, due to mortality rates and lack of funding. Her Smolny Institute continued to educate young women, although her dream of a standardized education program fell short, again due to funding by the nobles who preferred to send their children to private schools in Europe. Regardless, it was a start and did begin to offer free education to all but the serfs, although some were sent to be trained and educated.
The Bolshoi and the Foundling Home
Catherine the Great’s story has been told many times. I have yet to see this version with Helen Mirren but do plan to as I’m a huge fan of Ms. Mirren. Catherine succeeded by being smart and by having good intuition, something Helen is good at as well. Strong women, under difficult circumstances who prevail. So much more to her legacy. I hope they both inspire you as well.