Catherine The Great Finally Gets Her TV Reign — But What Happened When She Ruled Russia?

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
It is about time Catherine the Great got her TV moment. Catherine took the throne in 1762 at 33 and held it until her death in 1796, making her the longest-running woman to rule the country. Catherine is mostly remembered for what could only be described as an unconventional rise to power — she had her husband arrested, and he was subsequently murdered. She was, however, also a complicated and savvy ruler. Born in Prussia, she brought Western culture, arts, and the political philosophy of the Enlightenment to Russia, leaving a long-standing cultural legacy. Her reign is known as the Cathernian era and is considered the golden age of Russian cultural development.
Catherine’s adversaries at the time — and many historians today — have focused on her ex-lovers and extramarital affairs. Rumors about her relationships and sex life followed her throughout her reign and after, with some of her enemies even speculating she died trying to have sex with a horse. HBO’s new miniseries, starring Helen Mirren as Catherine, focuses on the empress’s long-running relationship with Russian military leader Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke) and her triumphs and shortcomings as a leader, particularly towards the end of her reign. Before Catherine the Great premieres on October 21, here is everything to know about Catherine’s 18th-century reign — and her legacy.

1762: Catherine Comes Into Power

After Elizabeth’s death, Catherine’s husband — Elizabeth’s nephew, Peter III — took the throne. Peter was immediately unpopular with Russia’s military class and, as a result, Catherine launched a coup, pushing Peter to abdicate just months after becoming czar. This left Catherine in power as empress.

1763: Catherine Picks A New Polish King

Catherine was known throughout her reign for expanding Russian borders. When she came into power, Poland, which was coveted by several neighboring empires, had no clear boundaries. Catherine solved this problem by placing her ex-love Stanislaw Poniatowski on the Polish throne, believing that he would back Russian interests out of loyalty. When Poniatowski used this position to lead a series of reforms meant to strengthen Poland’s independence, Catherine forced him to abdicate. (Sensing a pattern?)

1764: Catherine Founds The Hermitage Museum & Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg

Catherine valued arts and education during her reign. She founded St. Petersburg’s Smolny Institute, the first educational establishment for noble Russian women, followed by the Novodevichy Institute for common women a year later. She also founded St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, which would later host her personal art collection. It currently has the largest art collection in the world.

1767: Catherine Tries For Reform

Of course, no leader succeeds on every count. In 1767, Catherine commissioned a group of delegates from all social classes (excluding serfs) to create a new constitution and code of laws based on her “Instruction.” She was critical of serfdom and torture and hoped to restructure the class system in Russia, promoting equality under Russian control, but was met with pushback from other leaders. Catherine’s “Instruction,” which proposed that all men have equal rights under the law, was deemed too liberal: the commission debated reforms for several months, but ultimately failed to produce any tangible results and disbanded. The document did, however, influence Russian political thought and discussion for decades to come.

1768: The Russo-Turkish War Begins

The wars between Russia and the Ottoman Empire were ongoing for centuries and peaked in 1768 during Catherine’s reign. Turkey demanded that Russia stay out of Poland’s internal affairs, and instead, Catherine went to war against the Turks, seizing Azov, Bessarabia, and, most notably, Crimea. This brought most of modern-day Ukraine, previously under Polish control, into Russia.

1770-1771: The Plague In Moscow

During Catherine’s reign, she faced a resurgence of the bubonic plague in 1770, with the disease hitting an all-time peak in 1771. More than 20,000 Russians died, leading to a plague riot that attempted to derail Catherine’s rule.

1773-1775: Pugachev's Rebellion/The Peasants' War

Russian lieutenant Yemelyan Pugachev, leading an organized army, created an alternate government in an attempt to challenge Catherine — he claimed that he was actually Peter III, and that the throne was his. With thousands of supporters by his side, Pugachev was ultimately matched with brutal force, and executed in 1775.

1774: The Russo-Turkish War Ends

After facing defeat, the Turks sought peace with the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, a pact providing Russia with control and with the rights to establish consulates anywhere in the Ottoman Empire. Crimea was granted nominal independence, and Russia was finally able to extend its borders to access the Black Sea.

1775: Statute for the Administration of the Provinces of the Russian Empire 

Following the Peasants’ War and the Russo-Turkish War, Catherine created reforms to better organize the Russian government. With the statute, she decentralized the government and formed provinces, making it easier to manage such a rapidly expanding country.

1781: Alliance with Austria

Under Catherine’s rule, Russia allied with Austria to fight the Turks. This helped Russia gain control over the Danube River, and prompted the later Treaty of Jassy, in which the Turks officially ceded the Black Sea region.

1783: Catherine Annexes The Crimean Peninsula

Catherine was determined to further expand Russia’s borders. After meetings with French, British, and Austrian monarchs, she released a manifesto that she would be annexing Crimea to the Russian Empire. The Tartars, Crimea’s natives, protested, but Catherine insisted she was protecting them from misgovernment.

1786: Russian Statute of National Education

By 1786, Russia had no organized, standard school system — but this changed with Catherine’s Statute of National Education. Under this policy, free public schools were established for Russians of all social classes.

1788-90: War With Sweden

Led by Gustav III, Sweden went to war against Russia in an unsuccessful attempt to recapture provinces in modern-day Finland — and to displace Catherine. Under her rule, Russia accumulated a power that was feared by many other European countries, setting a precedent that would last for centuries.

1796: Catherine Dies

After a 34-year rule, Catherine died in bed from a stroke at the age of 67.
Catherine the Great premieres October 21 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.

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