Catherine the Great, Russia’s longest-ruling female leader, was born in 1729, as Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst in Stettin, in the Kingdom of Prussia, now in Poland. She was the daughter of an obscure German prince, but her mother’s family had a well-regarded bloodline and her relatives were both wealthy nobles and royal relations. According to the prevailing custom maintained in those days, Sophie received her early education mainly from her French Governess and teachers. During her early years she was regarded as a tomboy and known by the nickname Fike.
Sophie was related through her mother to the dukes of Holstein and at age 14 she was chosen to be the wife of Karl Ulrich, the duke of Holstein-Gottorp, grandson of Peter the Great of Russia. In 1744, she was invited to Russia by Czarina Elizabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great, who had assumed the Russian throne in a coup just three years earlier. As the Czarina was unmarried and childless, she had chosen her nephew Peter of Holstein-Gottorp as her heir and decided to get him married to Sophie.
Upon arriving Russia in 1744, Sophie became fluent in Russian and converted to Orthodoxy from her childhood Lutheran practices. She married her young cousin on 21 August 1745 and assumed the title of Grand Duchess Catherine Alekseyevna.
However, the marriage was a failure. It was a marriage of mutual insult, humiliation, mistrust and adultery. Some believe Peter was unable to consummate the marriage, while others think he was infertile. Catherine was not a very beautiful woman, but she possessed a graceful and dignified charm, a lively intelligence, and extraordinary energy, while Peter was a child in a man's body. It was known that during the sixteen years of their residence in Oranienbaum, Catherine took numerous lovers, while her husband did the same, at least in the beginning. If the hints given by Catherine are to be believed, none of her children was fathered by her husband. It is believed that, Catherine had 22 male lovers throughout her life and she took many young lovers, even while she was old. Prince Zubov, the last of her lovers, was 40 years her junior. Whenever she broke off one of her affairs, it was always on good terms and she always rewarded her ex lovers lavishly with titles, land, estates, palaces, homes, and even serfs. After her affair with her lover and adviser Gregori Alexandrovich Potemkin ended in 1776, he allegedly selected a candidate-lover for her, who had the physical beauty and mental faculties to hold her interest. It is rumoured that, Alexader Dmitrev- Mamonov, one of such lovers, eloped from the 60-year-old Empress with a 16-year-old maid and married her. To take revenge, the insulted Empress sent policemen disguised as women to whip her in her husband's presence.
After the demise of Czarina Elizabeth on 5 January 1762 (OS 25 December 1761), her heir and nephew, Peter succeeded to the throne as Peter III, with Catherine as his consort. According to the memoirs of Catherine, Peter was an idiot and a drunkard, prone to brutal practical jokes and interested only in playing soldier. His allegiance was toward his homeland and Prussia and he hated being in Russia, cared nothing about Russia's people and hated the Orthodox Church.
Once on the throne, Peter III reversed his aunt's foreign policy, ended Russia’s participation in the Seven Years War and concluded an alliance with Frederick II of Prussia, Russia's eternal enemy, which eroded much of his support among the nobility. He also started to wage war against Denmark and gain back his native land of Holstein. The move was seen as a betrayal of Russian war sacrifices and alienated him politically among the military and powerful court. His programme of liberal domestic reforms aimed at improving the lives of the poor also alienated members of the lower nobility. These unhappy factions turned to Catherine, who was also apprehensive of Peter’s intentions. As tensions mounted, a plan to overthrow Peter took root.
In the month of July 1762, barely six months after becoming emperor, Peter took a holiday with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives to Oranienbaum, leaving his wife in the palace. However, on the night of 8 July (OS 27 June 1762), Catherine was informed by her man that one of her co-conspirators had been arrested by Peter and that all they had been planning must take place at once. Immediately, on the next day, Catherine left the palace, delivered speeches to different regiments, gained their support and arranged for the arrest of her husband. On July 9, just six months after becoming Czar, Peter was abdicated and was assassinated eight days later. He was killed by Alexei Orlov, younger brother of Grigory Orlov, one of the lovers of Catherine. However, there is no evidence to support that, Catherina herself ordered to kill him.
Catherine was crowned with great ceremony in September 1762, in Moscow, the ancient capital of the czars and thus began a reign that was to span long 34 years as empress of Russia under the title of Catherine II.
During her reign, Catherine extended the borders of the Russian Empire by annexing Crimea, Belarus, Lithuania, Novorossiya (denoting a region north of the Black Sea), and Northern Caucasus and she did it at the expense of two great powers, namely the Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
According to a Treaty of 1783, Russia agreed to protect Georgia against any invasion. However, as Persia under Agha Mohammad Khan invaded Georgia, established Persian rule in 1795 and expelled the newly established Russian garrisons in the Caucasus, Catherine waged a new war against Persia in 1796.On 10 May 1796, the Russian troops under Count Valerian Zubov stormed the key fortress of Derbent and by the middle of June, overran most of the territory of modern-day Azerbaijan, including Baku, Ganja and Shenekha, without any resistance. Though the army was poised to attack mainland Persia, they were ordered to retreat to Russia, as the Empress died in November 1796.
In 1764, Catherine placed one of her former lovers, Poniatowski on the throne of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. But, alerted by the French Revolution in 1789, Catherine apprehended resurgence in the power of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the growing democratic movements inside the Commonwealth. As these factors might become a threat to the European monarchies, Catherine decided to intervene in Poland. She supported a Polish anti-reform group and after defeating Polish loyalist forces in the Polish-Russian War of 1792, Russia completed the partitioning of Poland, with the Russian Empire gaining the largest share and dividing all of the remaining Commonwealth territory between Prussia and Austria (1795).
During her reign a terrible plague broke out in Moscow and along with the hardships imposed by the war, it created a climate of disaffection and agitation among the commoners. Under those circumstances, Yemelyan Pugachov, a former officer of the Don Cossacks, claimed that he was actually the deposed (and believed to be dead) Peter III, and therefore the rightful heir to the Russian throne. Within a year, he gathered thousands of supporters and starting in the Ural region, the movement extended rapidly through the vast southeastern provinces. Soon, his troops captured a large amount of territory, including the city of Kazan and were preparing to march on Moscow. In the meantime, the war with Turkey ended in a Russian victory and Catherine sent her crack troops to crush the rebellion. Faced with the mighty Russian army, Pugachev’s supporters eventually deserted him, while he was captured and publicly beheaded in January 1775.
Catherine considered herself to be one of Europe’s most enlightened rulers, but she did little to alleviate the sufferings of her people. Her attempts at governmental reforms were often bogged down by Russian bureaucracy. During her reign, the landowning noble class owned the serfs, who were bound to the agricultural land they tilled. Children of serfs were born as serfs and worked the same land their parents had. Though the serfs were not slaves, they had very little rights and a landowner could punish his serfs at his discretion, except to kill them. They were the property of the masters and the symbol of their power and position. Catherine intended to emancipate the serfs. Confronted with the realities, Catherine realized that the proposal of emancipation of the serfs would never be tolerated by the owners, on whom she depended for support. Any action to proceed in the matter would create disorder and she would lose her support. Unwillingly, she had to step back, but gave the serfs their right to file complaints against his master by following the proper channels of law. Thus, she gave the serfs a legitimate bureaucratic status, which they had lacked before.
Catherine was a fervent admirer of the Western culture. As a young woman, she had travelled all over Europe and had gulped French Literature and philosophy passionately. She was an ardent patron of the arts, literature, and education. She corresponded with Voltaire for 15 years, till her death. She herself wrote comedies, fiction, and memoirs, established literary reviews, encouraged the sciences, and founded schools.
On 16 November [OS 5 November] 1796, Catherine rose early in the morning, had her usual morning coffee and then started to work on papers at her study. Sometime after 9:00 that morning, she went to her dressing room and collapsed from a stroke and fell into a coma from which she never recovered. Her body lay in state for six weeks in a large and magnificently decorated room in the castle, which was kept lit day and night.