Today is the International Women’s Day (IWD). I always think of Catherine the Great of Russia on this day as well as the great Queen Elizabeth 1 of England and the incomparable British Queens Victoria, whom the Orange Order tried to prevent ascending the throne, and, of course, the greatest of them all, Elizabeth II . The British Museum was founded by my ancestral relative Sir Hans Sloane of Killyleagh, but another of the World’s great museums, the Hermitage in St Petersburg has just celebrated its 250th anniversary. Founded by Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, today the museum boasts collections of a span and variety that are unparalleled, from prehistory to the 20th century: paleolithic artifacts of the the 22nd millennium BC, Egyptian antiquities, Roman busts, Byzantine coins, Scythian gold, Chinese prints, 19th century Tibetan art , paintings by Leonardo and Picasso, Matisse and Rembrandt Giorgione and Rockwell Kent, porcelain, jewellery and furniture.
Yekaterina Alexeevna or Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great (Russian: Екатерина II Великая, Yekaterina II Velikaya; 2 May [O.S. 21 April] 1729 – 17 November [O.S. 6 November] 1796), was the most renowned and the longest-ruling female leader of Russia, reigning from 9 July [O.S.. 28 June] 1762 until her death in 1796 at the age of 67. Her reign was called Russia’s golden age. She was born in Stettin, Pomerania, Prussia as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, and came to power following a coup d’état and the assassination of her husband, Peter III, at the end of the Seven Years War. Russia was revitalized under her reign, growing larger and stronger than ever and becoming recognized as one of the great powers of Europe.
In both her accession to power and in rule of her empire, Catherine often relied on her noble favouites, most notably Grigory Orlov and Grigory Potemkin. Assisted by highly successful generals such as Pyotr Rumyantsev and Alexander Suvorov, 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 vast 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 manynew cities and towns were founded on her orders. An admirer of Peter the Great, Catherine continued to modernise Russia along Western European lines. However, military conscription and economy continued to depend on serfdom, and the increasing demands of the state and private landowners led to increased levels of reliance on serfs. This was one of the chief reasons behind several rebellions, including the large-scale Pugachev’s Rebellion of Cossacks and peasants.
The period of Catherine the Great’s rule, the Catherinian Era, is often considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire and the Russian nobility. 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. A notable example of an enlightened despot, a correspondent of Voltaire and an amature opera librettist, Catherine presided over the age of the Russian Enlightenment, when the Smolny Institute, the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe, was established.