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Catherine II, or Catherine the Great, empress of Russia (1762 - 96), did much to transform Russia into a modern country. Originally named Sophie Frederick Augusta, she was born in Szczecin, Poland, on May 2, 1729. She was the daughter of the German prince of Anhalt-Zerbst. At the age of 15 she went to Russia to become the wife of Peter, who is a nephew and a heir of Empress Elizabeth. Elizabeth died on Dec. 25, 1761, and Catherines husband succeeded as Peter III.
The new ruler soon made himself unpopular, especially with his army officers. Led by Aleksei Orlov, the officers plan a revolt in June 1762. Peter was deposed and also murdered, and Catherine became the absolute ruler of Russia. Catherine was not only an Empress with ambitions, she was a powerful and a smart Empress. She knew whom to use for a specific job and they respected her for those reasons.
Filled with brilliant ideas, Catherine aimed at completing the job started by Peter I, westernizing Russia. However, she was planning on using different methods from Peter the Great. Unlike Peter, she did not force her citizens to be westernized, but she gave more options to them and encouraged them to pursue their own interest. It was successful to most of the noble families, but it took no effect on the huge population of serfs. To learn more about the needs of the country, she held assemblies, but didn t really help her that much. In 1773, Yemelian Pugachev led Cossacks, peasants, and others to a revolt that engulfed large chunks of eastern Russia.
The revolt, ruthlessly crushed by the army in 1775, warned Catherine about the necessity for reforms. In 1775, she reorganized the local administration, combined the Cossacks with the regular army, and put the serfs belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church under the administration of the state. In 1785, she issued two charters, to the towns and to the nobility, to try to mix the educated class with the uneducated. In a similar spirit, Catherine established the Free Economic Society that encouraged development of agriculture and industry in 1765. She promoted trade and the development of under-populated regions by inviting foreign settlers such as the Volga Germans, and she founded new towns such as Odessa, and enterprises on the Black Sea. Being a writer herself, Catherine frequently encouraged arts and letters, and permitted the establishment of private printing presses, and made the censorship rules not as strict.
Under her guidance, the University of Moscow and the Academy of Science became internationally recognized as centers of learning. She also increased the number of state and private schools. As a result, the Russian nobility and some townspeople also began to organize associations for the promotion of schools and publications. Catherine, who did not want to give up her control over social and cultural policy, viewed these activities with suspicion. Finally, Catherine vastly expanded the Russian Empire.
Following two successful wars against Turkey (the Russo-Turkish Wars of 1768 - 74 and 1787 - 92), Russia secured the Crimea establishing itself on the north shore of the Black Sea which used to be a dream. The fertile lands of the Ukraine were also opened for settlement and soon became the granary of Europe. Catherine also participated in the partitions of Poland (1772, 1792, and 1795), bringing a large part of that country under Russian rule. By the time of Catherines death in Nov. 17, 1796, modern Russian society was organized and its culture had stabilized.
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