Catherine the Great

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Catherine the Great, also known as Catherine II, was the Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796, making her the longest reigning woman in Russia. She was born on May 2, 1729 in Stettin, Prussia into a royal family with the birth name Sophie Friederike Auguste. Her father was a prince of their village where she grew up, Anhalt-Zebst. He was mainly known for her military career, serving as a general under Frederick William I of Prussia. As a child, Catherine’s mother, Johanna, had little interest her and instead focused on her brother, who died at age 12. After her son’s death, Johanna started to take interest in Catherine, however only for the use as a social tool.

In 1744, Catherine and her mother travelled to Russia to visit their friend, the Russian Empress and to see if she thought that Catherine was fitting enough to be married to her son, Grand Duke Peter. Catherine later became engaged and then married to him, gaining her new name ‘Catherine’ and also converting to Russian Orthodox faith. This was not a happy marriage as Peter had many mistresses. After his mother’s death in December 1761, Peter took the throne and became Peter III, with Catherine also taking the title of Empress Consort. During his reign, Peter alienated many people, including Catherine and other members of his government. After 6 months of his rule, Catherine led a successful coup that overthrew Peter. Following this she assumed power herself, making her the Empress of Russia.

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Catherine the Great had many achievements during her reign. She is known for being the longest reigning female leader in the Russian Empire as well as one of the greatest Russian rulers. She gained her name ‘Catherine the Great’ from her long reign as well as her many achievements. The time of her reign is known as the ‘Catherinian Era’ or the ‘Golden Age of the Russian Empire’. Some of her many achievements include successfully leading Russia against the Ottoman Empire, helping to rapidly expand the Russian Empire and establishing the Free Economic Society.

In terms of women’s history, Catherine the Great made a lot of steps forward for women in Russia. She established the first institutes for female education in Russia. She increased the number of public and private schools and founded many boarding schools and foundling hospitals. She also passed a decree in 1764 which established the Smolny Institute in St Petersburg which was the first educational institution and first state-financed higher education institution for women in Russia, being known as the institute for girls of the nobility. She also founded in Moscow the Novodevichy Institute for the daughters of commoners. Catherine the Great made many strides for women’s education in Russia but also showed how women could do great things in positions of power.

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Smolny Institute