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Catherine the Great,Domestic & Foreign Policies
In the winter of 1744 the young Sophie Augusta Fredricka of Anhalt-Zerbst arrived in Russia at the invitation of Empress Elizabeth, who was looking for a suitable wife for her nephew, the future Tsar of Russia, Karl Peter Ulrich. Sophie had met her second cousin, Karl Peter in 1739 at Eutin on a visit to her mother’s elder brother, Adolf Friedrich, the Prince Bishop of Lubeck. Karl Peter was the son of Peter the Great’s eldest daughter, Anna Petrovna and Duke Karl Friedrich (nephew of the childless Charles XII of Sweden) and was in line to inherit the throne of Sweden. Elizabeth in February of 1742 had brought the young Peter to St. Petersburg and declared him her heir to the throne of Russia. This move not only secured the succession in Russia but forced Peter to renounce his claim to the throne of Sweden, which passed to Sophie’s uncle, Adolf Friedrich of Holstein-Gottorp, opening the door for her scheming mother to cultivate her relationship with the Empress Elizabeth, who had been engaged to another of her brothers, Karl August, before he died of smallpox in 1727. And so the young princess from one of the poorest and most insignificant principalities in Germany, House of Anhalt, arrived in Russia and began her journey to greatness, Sophie, who would become Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alexeyevna and eventually known to the world as Catherine the Great of Russia. Catherine II, the woman who would push Russia to become more like the modern western world, more so than any other monarch of Russia before or sense, except for Peter the Great.
Catherine came to power in an almost bloodless coup, with the support of the Russian Guard in 1762. Peter III, her husband had angered the Russian Guards on his assent ion to the throne by his resolve to dissolve the guard and replace them with the Holstein troops, to change his religion to Lutheran and to marry Elisabeth Vorontsov and shut away Catherine in a nunnery. The people of Russia sided with the Guards and Catherine, even those sent to plead Peter’s cause to the guard and Catherine, joined her ranks. Catherine herself said that, “…Be assured, too, that hatred of foreigners was the leading principal of the whole affair, and that Peter III himself passed for a foreigner.” This acknowledged by a woman, who was also of German heritage, but who had since her arrival in Russia immersed herself in the language and traditions of the country.
Catherine found that she had inherited an empty treasury, the army in Prussia unpaid for months, no credit abroad, huge state debts, thousands of peasants and workers on strike or in revolt, rampart ignorance and incompetence among the officials. She had inherited a government in chaos and near paralysis, yet in the years to come her political genius and glorious reign would stand out as the work of a brilliant woman. When Catherine met with the Senate for the first time at the Summer Palace she was amazed to find that the budget showed a deficit of seventeen million rubles. No one knew what the revenues of the treasury were and there were complaints of corruption, extortion and injustice everywhere. She is said to have asked the Senate how many towns there were in Russia and no one knew. She suggested looking at a map. There was no map. She took five rubles from her purse and sent a clerk to the Academy of Sciences to buy the latest map of Russia. The clerk returned and the towns were counted. Catherine had at that moment realized she headed a country that was appallingly backwards compared to its European neighbors. She decided to concentrate on increasing Russia’s wealth by improving the use of the land and educating the general populace.
Catherine decided early on that the way of attacking the debt was to improve the use of the land through agricultural techniques. She sent experts to study the soils and recommend suitable crops; she made grants to landowners to learn the ways which were being utilized in England and to buy machines that were being invented there. She also encouraged the introduction of modern methods to breed sheep and cattle, along with the promoting of horse breeding. In order to cultivate the underpopulated areas she advertized in foreign newspapers, mostly German, for settlers offering attractive terms and incentives. Thousands took the road that Catherine herself had taken twenty years before to start a new life in Russia. She appointed Grigory Orlov as President of the Chancellery of Guardianship of Foreigners showing the significance she attached to the scheme.
The Empress looked for ways to bolster the economy of her nation and sent geologist to access the ores in the seemingly barren lands of Russia. She fostered mining with the first School of Mines in St. Petersburg. She was particularly interested in the mining of silver. She found in her first years of rule that the workers of the mines and metal works in the Ural Mountains were in unrest so sent Prince Alexander Viazemskii to get to the bottom of the difficulty and to resolve the problems. This he did with such success that Catherine was impressed enough with him to recall him in 1763 and name him procurator-general.She opened the country to free commerce by declaring that anyone could start a new factory anywhere except in the two capitals. A large range of industries emerged: linen, pottery, leather goods and furniture. Catherine also brought in experts from overseas to help setup more technical ventures. The number of factories during her reign increased from 984 to 3161.
Export duties were abolished by the Treaty of Kyakhta which was signed in 1768, opening up trade with Manchuria. Russia exported furs, leather and linens to China and imported cottons, silks, tobacco, silver and tea from China. By all accounts by 1765 the budget deficit had been turned into a surplus.
Catherine issued a decree in 1764 to all governor-generals instructing them to compile an accurate census, map their provinces and report on agriculture and trade in the district. She formally entrusted them with the welfare of the provinces they ruled, with the duty to improve the economic, social and judicial conditions and they were encouraged to submit proposals for reform to the Empress herself.
A great worry to Catherine at this time was the chaotic state of Russian law. She sought to update and see to the codification of the laws which had not been codified since 1649. The result was that neither the courts nor the Russian subjects knew what the law in force actually was. Law had been neglected in Russia. There were no law schools or other form of traditional training until the founding of Moscow University in 1755, when the teaching of jurisprudence began.Catherine brought together a Legislative Commission, composed of deputies from the nobility, the towns, the free peasants, the Cossacks and the non-Russian tribes, the government departments and the Church to draft a new code of laws. Catherine presented them with a rather lengthy “instructions” written by her to guide them in their endeavors. She drew very liberally on the writings of the French philosopher, Montesquieu (The Spirit of the Laws, 1748) and the works of an Italian jurist, Cesare Beccarie (On Crimes and Punishment, 1763) in this paper. Even if Catherine’s instructions were not original in content they were original in the arrangement of material and the intent of usage. Her basic concept was that Russia was an absolute monarchy where “Liberty was defined as ‘the right to do whatsoever the laws allow’. Equality consisted in that ‘the citizens should all be subjected to the same laws’.”
Catherine was appalled at the lack of education in Russia and sought to provide a means to educate the general public by issuing the Statue for Schools for all of Russia in August of 1786. It provided for the establishment of a high school in each provincial capital and a primary school in each district town. The schools were co-educational and children of all classes were admitted, although the children of serfs could attend only with the permission of their landowners. Tuition was free and attendance was not compulsory. A high school teacher could after twenty-two years of teaching claim a hereditary title of nobility. Although on close examination it seems that Catherine did little toward compulsory education in Russia she did however lay the foundation on which Alexander I was later able to build a solid educational system.
Catherine’s social policies can best be seen in the issue of the twin charters to the towns and nobilities. The Charter to the Towns dealt with self government and regulations of the urban craft guilds. It also set up a complicated system of town government, a duma composed of representatives from the six registered groups to be elected every three years to the town assembly. It was their duty to supervise the activities of the community in trade, public order and decency, food supply and so on.
The Charter to the Nobility confirmed a number of personal rights which had never been spelled out before in one single law. It granted no new privileges to the nobility, simply redefining the ones they had always enjoyed. It confirmed their rights to own serfs, but went no further on that subject.
From the start of her reign Catherine made all of the main decisions in foreign affairs.Immediately after the coup she moved to assert herself in this particular political pastime. She proclaimed a policy of peace by canceling the war that Peter III had declared on Denmark and denouncing his alliance with Prussia. A few months later she began to meddle in policies of her western neighbors, Poland and Kurland. She wrote promising to support her friend Stanislas Poniatowski in his candidacy for Poland’s elective kingship which was expected to become vacant in the near future. Around the same time she moved to restore to the duchy of Kurland, Ernst Johann Biron. Both actions were aimed at strengthening Russian influence over the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
The Turks declared war on Russia, 25 September/6 October 1768 when the Russian envoy was locked in the Castle of the Seven Towers when he refused to remove Russian troops from Poland. Thus Catherine’s policy in Poland led to a civil war that provoked was with Ottoman Turkey. Though Catherina expressed her surprise at the Turkish declaration of war, she was eager for martial glory against what she considered a weak foe. In July 1774, Field Marshal Rumiantsev and the Turkish representatives signed a peace treaty at an obscure Bulgarian village, known as Kuchuk-Kainardji. Ratification of the treaty formally ended the first foreign policy crisis of Catherine’s reign. She had blundered into it by her meddling in Polish politics which had increased her dependence on Prussia and provoked war with the Turks. It gave to Russia more territory than Catherine had ever dared to dream of, opening the Black Sea to Russian commerce.
In June 1788, Gustavus III of Sweden declared war on Russia. Thinking that Russia was too involved in the south with Turkey he advanced his troops into St. Petersburg only to be met by the Russian navy which was still in the Baltic. Denmark in accordance with her treaty with Russia declared war on Sweden. At this time Britain put pressure on Denmark forcing her to agree to an armistice with Sweden which under attack by both Denmark and Russia had been driven almost to the wall. There was a plot against Gustavus by a group of Finnish officers in the Swedish army, a plot which was secretly encouraged by Catherine. Russia suffered a disastrous naval defeat in July 1790 at the hands of Sweden. The Swedish fleet was destroyed and Gustavus III was anxious for peace. The two powers signed a peace treaty in August 1790.
The British were irritated in 1787 by the Franco-Russian commercial treaty that undermined Britain’s longstanding domination of the Russian trade; William Pitt was further alarmed by the Empress’s gains at the Turks’ expense. In 1791, spurred on by his ambassador in Berlin, the prime minister demanded an end to the war and a return to the status quo ante. Catherine refused; Pitt threatened to send a fleet to the Baltic with Prussian support. Catherine held her own and public opinon in Britain encouraged by Pitt’s rival Charles Fox and the Russian Ambassador forced the prime minister to back down.
Catherine II refused the title of “the Great” during her lifetime but she step forward and in so doing brought her adopted country forward with her into the modern world. In doing this I think she more than earned the title. She was mother to her country for thirty-four years.
 (S. Dixon 2009, 35)
 (Oliva 1971, 41)
 (Alexander 1989, 63)
 (U. G. Dixon 1996)
 (S. Dixon 2009,129)
 (U. G. Dixon 1996)
 (S. Dixon 2009, 145)
 (Alexander 1989, 85)
 (U. G. Dixon 1996)
 (Cronin 1978)
 (Madariaga 1990, 25)
 (Ibid, 26)
 (Ibid, 27)
 (Ibid, 29)
 (Ibid, 110)
 (Alexander 1989, 196)
 (Ibid, 194)
 (Ibid, 122)
 (S. Dixon 2009, 185)
 (Alexander 1989, 140)
 (Madariaga 1990, 166)
 (S. Dixon 2009, 298)
Alexander, John T. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Coughlan, Robert. Elizabeth and Catherine. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1974.
Cronin, Vincent. Catherine, Empress of All the Russians. Great Britain: william Collins Sons and Company, Ltd., 1978.
Dixon, Simon. Catherine the Great. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.
Dixon, Ursula Grasser. The Reign of Catherine II. November 1996. http://thehistoryweb.net/CGREAT7.HTM (accessed August 19, 2010).
Madariaga, Isabel de. Catherine the Great, A Short History. New haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990.
Oliva, Lawrence Jay, ed. Catherine the Great. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, inc., 1971.
Rounding, Virginia. Catherine the Great; Love,Sex, and Power. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006.
Troyat, Henri. Catherine the Great. Translated by Joan Pinkham. New York: E.P. Dutton Publishing co., 1980.