Catherine II (Russian: Екатерина II Великая, Yekaterina II Velikaya), also known as Catherine the Great (German: Katharina die Große), was born in Stettin, Pomerania, Germany on 2 May [O.S. 21 April] 1729 as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. She reigned as Empress of Russia from 9 July [O.S. 28 June] 1762 after the assassination of her husband, Peter III, just after the end of the Seven Years' War until her death on 17 November [O.S. 6 November] 1796.
Under her direct auspices the Russian Empire expanded, improved its administration, and continued to modernize along Western European lines. Catherine's rule re-vitalized Russia, which grew stronger than ever and became recognized as one of the great powers of Europe. She had successes in foreign policy and oversaw sometimes brutal reprisals in the wake of rebellion (most notably Pugachev's Rebellion).
Catherine took power after a conspiracy deposed her husband, Peter III (1728–1762), and her reign saw the high point in the influence of the Russian nobility. Peter III, under pressure from the nobility, had already increased the authority of the great landed proprietors over their muzhiks and serfs. In spite of the duties imposed on the nobles by the first prominent "modernizer" of Russia, Tsar Peter I (1672–1725), and despite Catherine's friendships with the western European thinkers of the Enlightenment (in particular Denis Diderot, Voltaire and Montesquieu) Catherine found it impractical to improve the lot of her poorest subjects, who continued to suffer (for example) military conscription. The distinctions between peasant rights on votchina and pomestie estates virtually disappeared in law as well as in practice during her reign.
Catherine's father Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst belonged to the ruling family of Anhalt, but held the rank of a Prussian general in his capacity as Governor of the city of Stettin ( Szczecin, Poland). Born as Sophia Augusta Frederica (German: Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, nicknamed "Figchen") in Stettin, Pomerania, Catherine did have some (very remote) Russian ancestry, and two of her first cousins became Kings of Sweden: Gustav III and Charles XIII. In accordance with the custom then prevailing in the ruling dynasties of Germany, she received her education chiefly from a French governess and from tutors.
The choice of Sophia as wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar – Peter of Holstein-Gottorp – resulted from some amount of diplomatic management in which Count Lestocq, Peter´s aunt (the ruling Russian Empress Elizabeth) and Frederick II of Prussia took part. Lestocq and Frederick wanted to strengthen the friendship between Prussia and Russia in order to weaken Austria's influence and ruin the Russian chancellor Bestuzhev, on whom Empress Elizabeth relied, and who acted as a known partisan of Russo-Austrian co-operation.
The diplomatic intrigue failed, largely due to the intervention of Sophie's mother, Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Historical accounts portray Catherine's mother as a cold, abusive woman who loved gossip and court intrigues. Johanna's hunger for fame centered on her daughter's prospects of becoming empress of Russia, but she infuriated Empress Elizabeth, who eventually banned her from the country for spying for King Frederick of Prussia. The empress knew the family well: she herself had intended to marry Princess Johanna's brother Charles Augustus (Karl August von Holstein), who had died of smallpox in 1727 before the wedding could take place. Nonetheless, Elizabeth took a strong liking to the daughter, who on arrival in Russia spared no effort to ingratiate herself not only with the Empress Elizabeth, but with her husband and with the Russian people. She applied herself to learning the Russian language with such zeal that she rose at night and walked about her bedroom barefoot repeating her lessons (though she mastered the language, she retained an accent). This led to a severe attack of pneumonia in March 1744. When she wrote her memoirs, she said she made up her mind when she came to Russia to do whatever was necessary, and to profess to believe whatever required of her, to become qualified to wear the crown.
Princess Sophia's father, a very devout German Lutheran, strongly opposed his daughter's conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy. Despite his objection, on 28 June 1744 the Russian Orthodox Church received Princess Sophia as a member with the new name Catherine (Yekaterina or Ekaterina) and the (artificial) patronymic Алексеевна (Alekseyevna, daughter of Aleksey). On the following day the formal betrothal took place. The long-planned dynastic marriage finally occurred on 21 August 1745 at Saint Petersburg. Sophia had turned 16; her father did not travel to Russia for her wedding. The bridegroom, known then as Peter von Holstein-Gottorp, had become Duke of Holstein-Gottorp (located in the north-west of Germany near the border with Denmark) in 1739.
The newlyweds settled in the palace of Oranienbaum, which remained the residence of the "young court" for many years to come.
Count Andrei Shuvalov, chamberlain to Catherine, knew the diarist James Boswell well, and Boswell reports that Shuvalov shared private information regarding the monarch's intimate affairs. Some of these rumours included that Peter took a mistress (Elizabeth Vorontsova), while Catherine carried on liaisons with Sergei Saltykov, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov (1734–1783), Stanisław August Poniatowski, Alexander Vasilchikov, and others. She became friends with Princess Ekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova, the sister of her husband's mistress, who introduced her to several powerful political groups that opposed her husband.
Catherine read extensively and kept up-to-date on current events in Russia and in the rest of Europe. She corresponded with many of the prominent minds of her era, including Voltaire and Denis Diderot.
After the death of the Empress Elizabeth on 5 January 1762 (OS: 25 December 1761), Peter, the Grand Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, succeeded to the throne as Peter III of Russia, and his wife, Grand Duchess Catherine became Empress Consort of Russia. The imperial couple moved into the new Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg.
The new tsar's eccentricities and policies, including a great admiration for the Prussian king, Frederick II alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated. Besides, Peter intervened in a dispute between his Duchy of Holstein and Denmark over the province of Schleswig (see Count Johann Hartwig Ernst von Bernstorff).
Peter's insistence on supporting Frederick II of Prussia, who had seen Berlin occupied by Russian troops in 1760 but now suggested partitioning the Polish territories with Russia, eroded much of his support among the nobility. (Russia and Prussia fought each other during the Seven Years War (1756–1763) until Peter's accession.)
In July 1762, barely six months after becoming the Tsar, Peter committed the political error of retiring with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives to Oranienbaum, leaving his wife in Saint Petersburg. On 8 and 9 July the Leib Guard revolted, deposed Peter from power, and proclaimed Catherine the Empress of Russia. The bloodless coup succeeded; Ekaterina Dashkova, a confidante of Catherine who became President of the Russian Academy in 1783, the year of its foundation, seems[original research?] to have stated that Peter seemed rather glad to have rid himself of the throne, and requested only a quiet estate and his mistress.
But eight days after the coup, on 17 July 1762 – just six months after his accession to the throne – Peter III died at Ropsha, at the hands of Alexei Orlov (younger brother to Gregory Orlov, then a court favorite and a participant in the coup). Historians find no evidence for Catherine's complicity in the supposed assassination. (Note that at that time other potential rival claimants to the throne existed: Ivan VI (1740–1764), in closed confinement at Schlüsselburg, in Lake Ladoga, from the age of 6 months; and Princess Tarakanova (1753–1775).)
Catherine, although not descended from any previous Russian emperor, succeeded her husband as Empress Regnant. She followed the precedent established when Catherine I (born in the lower classes in the Swedish East Baltic territories) succeeded her husband Peter I in 1725.
Legitimists debate Catherine's technical status: seeing her as a Regent or as a usurper, tolerable only during the minority of her son, Grand Duke Paul. In the 1770s a group of nobles connected with Paul (Nikita Panin and others) contemplated the possibility of a new coup to depose Catherine and transfer the crown to Paul, whose power they envisaged restricting in a kind of constitutional monarchy. However, nothing came of this, and Catherine reigned until her death.