Russia 1725-1762
Domestic Policy

Russia under Catherine the Great (1762-1796) : Domestic Policy

Catherine had been born as Sophia Augusta Frederika of Anhalt-Zerbst, the daughter of a petty German prince and general in the Prussian army; she had been converted to Russian Orthodox christianity and married to Peter III. in 1745. When Czarina Elizabeth died in 1762, Peter III. succeeded, and created havoc by ordering the Russian army to switch sides in the SEVEN YEARS WAR. Catherine ousted her husband in a palace coup d'etat; Peter III. was killed the day after.
Catherine wanted to modernize Russia. She called in settlers from Germany and elsewhere (1763ff) to settle the sparsely populated regions on Russia's border to the Ottoman Empire (and later to settle the vast, newly conquered regions in the south). She contemplated the improvement of the lot of the Russian serfs (she avoided the word 'emancipation') and the abolition of torture in the NAKAZ, a reformed law code she wrote and suggested. PUGACHEV'S REBELLION (1773-1774) caused her to rethink it, ad it was reedited by her advisers. The Nakaz was influenced by Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws and by Beccaria's On Crimes. A LEGAL COMMISSION, consisting of representatives from the various social as well as ethnic groups of the country, met to discuss the Nakaz (1767, committees continuing until 1774).
Catherine planned to develop Russia's economy. She promoted the mining industry by establishing the School of Mines at St. Petersburg; here geologists were trained which would explore the land for mineral deposits. A decree of 1762 permitted everybody to open factories (thus challenging the privileges of guilds). Craftsmen were brought in from abroad to modernize Russian manufacture, particularly porcelein, textile, leather industry etc.
In 1768 the TREATY OF KYACHTA was signed with China.
Catherine ordered a census and a survey of the country, ordered the road network to be improved and extended, had a network of schools (1782) and hospitals established. During her reign the SMOLNY INSTITUTE was established in St. Petersburg to provide higher education to girls; Russians were encouraged to study at universities abroad, as Russia had few universities yet. Catherine had smallpox vaccination introduced and volunteered herself to convince sceptics.
Under Catherine RELIGIOUS TOLERATION was introduced (1773); career opportunities, though limited, were opened for qualified women.
In 1764 Catherine secularized church lands, thus considerably increasing state revenue. In 1775 she reformed the administration, extending the system of provinces, 50 of them, of 300,000 inhabitants each. In 1785 she signed a CHARTER OF THE NOBILITY, freeing her from the obligation to enter state service, from corporal punishment and direct taxation.

Catherine regarded herself as an enlightened monarch. She bought DIDEROT's library and hired him as librarian; she also purchased Voltaire's library. She had the WINTER PALACE, with the HERMITAGE in St. Petersburg finished, and TSARSKOE PALACE built, outside of the city. She collected paintings, was an ardent reader, wrote comedies, tragedies, essays in French and Russian, a History of Russia, and even tried writing operas. For the first time, operas were performed in Russian language. She was notorious for her numerous, widely published, but often exaggerated love affairs.

Catherine's reforms and attempted reforms were well-intended. Yet Pugachev's rebellion indicates that the mass of the peasants fely little to no benefit from the reforms; they suffered from oppressive burdens. As the Orthodox church felt neglected by Catherine's policy, it did little to calm down the masses. The fact that Catherine brought in many foreigners, as settlers, as craftsmen, as military officers, as state officials also contributed to alienating Russians.
The Russian government punished the rebels harshly; serfdom was not abolished, but enforced - here Catherine compromised her enlightened ideals. She also did so when promoting her many lovers to influential positions, valuing personal affection over qualification and rewarding them at state expense.

Biography : Tsarina Catherine the Great, from Dr. Pavlac's Women's History Site at King's College; extensive biography from Ursula's History Web focusses on her wedding, rise to power, on her reforms; little on her foreign policy
Charles Cameron Architect, from Alexander Palace Association
Crimea under Russian Rule, by H.B. Paksoy, on Crimean Tatar Home Page, scroll down (on Catherine)
DOCUMENTS Coins : Catherine the Great, 1770, 1790, from Coins from Famous People in History
Documents on Catherine the Great, from Modern History Sourcebook
Manifesto of the Empress Catherine II issued July 22, 1763, from Jake's Home Page
The Instructions of Catherine II to the Legislative Commission of 1767, from Documents in Russian History
Alexander Radishchev, Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow. 1790, from Documents in Russian History
Documents on the Pugachev Rebellion, from Documents in Russian History
Assignat issued 1769, over 25 roubles, from Vad Nensberg's Home Page
Coins issued under Catherine the Great, by S. Sekine's Collection
Portraits of Catherine II., by Alexey Antropov, 1760 (as princess), from Alexey Antropov, 1866 (as empress), by Vladimir Borovikovsky, 1794 from Olga's Gallery
Russian Medals - Catherine the Great, from Medal web, Collection Benjamin Weiss
REFERENCE Simon Dixon, The Modernisation of Russia 1676-1825, Cambridge : UP 1999
Melvin K. Wren, The Course of Russian History, Prospect Heights 1994, Chapter 11 : Catherine the Great, pp.181-206

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2000, last revised on August 24th 2006

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