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Catherine the Great (1729-96) became Empress of Russia in 1762, after deposing her husband Peter III. She was not Russian at all. She was born into a poor but noble Prussian family. Like many women at the time, she recognized that marriage was the only career open to her. So Catherine married the heir to the Russian throne in 1745. Peter III became tsar in 1762. He was a weak man and Catherine despised him.

Six months after the coronation, he was killed in a brawl. The rightful new tsar was Catherine's son Paul, but she declared herself empress and ruled in his place. She was an intelligent and energetic ruler, and was said to be influenced by the Enlightenment philosophers Voltaire and Montesquieu. In 1766 she allowed religious freedom in Russia. She tried to model her country on France, yet continued to rule autocratically. She carried her private ruthlessness into public life. She won new lands for Russia through wars with the Ottoman empire in 1774 and 1792 and Sweden in 1790. She also seized most of Poland when it was partitioned (divided up).

Her other main achievements included the development of industry and trade, reform of local government, and the spread of education, particularly that of women. A writer herself, Catherine encouraged literature, the arts, the press, and European culture generally. She contributed to the 28-volume Encyclopˇdie (encyclopaedia). In 1787 she encouraged publication of an Imperial Russian Dictionary. It contained 285 words in 200 languages.

But Catherine was also terribly cruel. Courtiers were flogged and peasants who dared to complain about their miserable conditions were punished. She brutally crushed a peasant revolt in 1773. Its leader, Pugachev, was a man who claimed to be her dead husband.

Her retention of serfdom, and her complicity in the partitioning of Poland, were among the actions for which she was most criticized. Many poor people faced starvation, yet Catherine continued to collect heavy taxes to pay for her wars and extravagant lifestyle. When Catherine travelled through Russia in 1787 to see how her subjects lived, the streets of the towns were lined with healthy, well-dressed actors. The real peasants were hidden from view. Although she planned to improve the education system, and to reform old Russian laws, these changes never took place. Many schools were opened but they were mainly for the nobility. Her achievement was to carry on the work of Peter the Great, transforming Russia into a powerful state.

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