Portrait of Catherine II (1729-1796), Empress Consort of Russia (1761-1762), Empress of Russia (1762-1796)
Catherine II (Russian: Екатерина II. Императрица и Самодержица Всероссийская; born: Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst; 2 May 1729 – 17 November 1796, most commonly known as Catherine the Great, was Empress of Russia from 1762 until 1796—the country's longest-ruling female leader. She came to power following a coup d'état that she organised—resulting in her husband, Peter III, being overthrown. Under her reign, Russia was revitalised; it grew larger and stronger, and was recognised as one of the great powers of Europe and Asia. In her accession to power and her rule of the empire, Catherine often relied on her noble favourites, most notably count Grigory Orlov and Grigory Potemkin. Assisted by highly successful generals such as Alexander Suvorov and Pyotr Rumyantsev, and admirals such as Fyodor Ushakov, she governed at a time when the Russian Empire was expanding rapidly by conquest and diplomacy. In the south, the Crimean Khanate was crushed following victories over the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish wars, and Russia colonised the territories of Novorossiya along the coasts of the Black and Azov Seas. In the west, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, ruled by Catherine's former lover, King Stanisław August Poniatowski, was eventually partitioned, with the Russian Empire gaining the largest share. In the east, Russia started to colonise Alaska, establishing Russian America. Catherine reformed the administration of Russian guberniyas, and many new cities and towns were founded on her orders. An admirer of Peter the Great, Catherine continued to modernize Russia along Western European lines. However, military conscription and the economy continued to depend on serfdom, and the increasing demands of the state and of private landowners intensified the exploitation of serf labour. This was one of the chief reasons behind several rebellions, including the large-scale Pugachev Rebellion of Cossacks and peasants. Catherine decided to have herself inoculated against smallpox by Thomas Dimsdale, a British doctor. While this was considered a controversial method at the time, she succeeded. Her son Pavel later was inoculated as well. Catherine then sought to have inoculations throughout her empire and stated: "My objective was, through my example, to save from death the multitude of my subjects who, not knowing the value of this technique, and frightened of it, were left in danger". By 1800, approximately 2 million inoculations (almost 6% of the population) were administered in the Russian Empire. The period of Catherine the Great's rule, the Catherinian Era, is considered the Golden Age of Russia. The Manifesto on Freedom of the Nobility, issued during the short reign of Peter III and confirmed by Catherine, freed Russian nobles from compulsory military or state service. Construction of many mansions of the nobility, in the classical style endorsed by the empress, changed the face of the country. She enthusiastically supported the ideals of the Enlightenment and is often included in the ranks of the enlightened despots. As a patron of the arts, she presided over the age of the Russian Enlightenment, including the establishment of the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe. Catherine was born in Alt-Stettin, Pomerania, Kingdom of Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland) as Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. Her father, Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, belonged to the ruling German family of Anhalt but held the rank of a Prussian general in his capacity as governor of the city of Stettin. 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. Catherine was regarded as a tomboy and was known by the nickname Fike. Her childhood was quite uneventful. She once wrote to her correspondent Baron Grimm: "I see nothing of interest in it." Although Catherine was born a princess, her family had very little money. Her rise to power was supported by her mother's wealthy relatives, who were both nobles and royal relations. The 300 or so states of the Holy Roman Empire, many of them quite small and powerless, made for a highly competitive political system as the various princely families fought for advantage over each other, often via political marriages. For the smaller German princely families, an advantageous marriage was one of the best means of advancing their interests, and the young Sophie was groomed throughout her childhood to be the wife of some powerful ruler in order to improve the position of the von Anhalt family. Besides her native German, Sophie became fluent in French, the lingua franca of European elites in the 18th century. The young Sophie received the standard education for an 18th-century German princess.
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