Peter I - Catherine II
(1689 - 1796 )

Peter the Great
(b. 1672; co-tsar 1682-1689; reign, 1689 - 1725)

Have a look at the Youtube video clip below on the life and reign of Peter I, The Great;
produced by the Discovery Channel, it provides an excellent overview of Peter's reign
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***Here's a humorous Youtube clip on Peter's reforms--have a look***
Narrator makes a "slip of the tongue" when he says "1945" when he means "1725."
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scene of streltsy failed coup from Peter the Great made-for-TV movie
advance cursor to 6:50
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Peter the Great--Tyrant Reformer--these are gone/try to re-find
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advance cursor to 3:00 to begin "biography"
to 7:43 for Peter, 1789; to continue
Go to episode 3 for Azov, GNW
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Russian National Anthem, "God Save the Tsar"
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An epic, gigantic figure, Peter the Great strode across Russia and Russian history making an impact as vast as that of Ivan IV. Western, Russian, and Soviet historians continue to grapple with his goals, policies, and achievements. In his own day, he inspired passionate hostility and devoted loyalty. Paradoxically, the Petrine Revolution altered much of Russia but at the same time left much unchanged. His territorial annexations of Livonia, Estonia, Karelia, and Ingria gave Russia an outlet to the Baltic and a "window on the West"--St. Petersburg. A prodigeous "gatherer," "binder," and "westernizer," Peter dispensed with the conception of the sanctified state, preferring instead a model more familiar to the later enlightened despots of the 18th century. Peter introduced the merit system and later the Table of Ranks. Applying the rubric that the next ruler should earn the position, Peter proclaimed the Succession Law of 1722 that provided for "succession by appointment." Like Ivan IV, Peter must take responsibility for the death of his son--the Tsarevich Alexis--and the dynastic turmoil that followed his epochal reign. Peter and his perennial henchman, Menschikov, probably murdered the Tsarevich in 1718. Later, when Peter died without naming a successor, and endeavoring to preserve his own privileged position, Alexander Menschikov--"pie-seller to a prince"--staged a palace coup with the help of the "toy soldiers" (Guards Regiments) and placed Peter's second wife, Catherine I (née Martha/Marfa Skavronska) on the throne.

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The Land of the Tsars continues the story:
Sophia's manipulation of the situation during and after the reign of Fedor III;
see first two video clips below for excellent summary and explanation

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The next episode of The Land of the Tsars depicts the Great Northern War
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The next clip illustrates Peter's conflict with his son, the Tsarevich Alexis
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[ More Peter ]

Catherine I

Peter's Succession Law broke the glass ceiling, setting the stage for the tsaritsas of the 18th century. Almost immediately upon her ascension to power, Catherine (and Menshikov) set about preserving the status of the Petrine nobility and undoing the spirit of Peter's reforms (merit system.) Granting concessions to her favorites and expanding the institution of serfdom, Catherine I launched the "golden age of the Russian aristocracy" that would reach its apogee later in the century under Catherine II, the Great. Catherine I appointed as her successor the young Peter Alexeivich, son of the unfortunate Tsarevich Alexis. Due to the youth of the Grand Duke, Catherine I named a Supreme Secret/Privy Council to rule during his minority, ostensibly headed by the ubiquitous Aleksandr Menshikov.

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Portrait of Empress Catherine I .Unknown painter, Russian School.
19th-century replica of an 18th-century original by Jean-Marc Nattier. Oil on canvas. 152x108

A few more words on the unlikely Tsaritsa-Empress Catherine I: Martha/Marfa Skavronskaia came from a humble peasant background, born in 1684 in what is present-day Latvia. She was, by all accounts, a beautiful young woman who had an eight-day marriage to a young Swedish officer in 1702. He has disappeared into the cobwebs of history, probably killed in the Great Northern War. Apparently, she worked in the household of victorious Russian General Sheremetev, where she met Alexander Menshikov, who then introduced her to Peter. Their relationship probably began in 1703. She converted to Orthodoxy (taking the name Catherine) and secretly married Peter in 1707.


Peter II

The unlucky Peter II succeeded Catherine I to the throne in 1727. He was the son of Peter's first son, Alexis Petrovich. Alexis was the fruit of Peter's first , mutually unhappy marriage to Eudoxia Lopukhina. Alexis was, by rumor, murdered in the cellars of the Peter Paul Fortress by Peter himself, assisted by Menshikov. Catherine I, advised by Menshikov, appointed Peter's grandson her successor (i.e. Peter Alexeivich.) He died of smallpox shortly after his coronation but before his marriage. His council (without recourse to the Toy Soldiers) invited Anna Ivanovna (daughter of Ivan V [co-tsar with Peter I/Great,]) hoping because she was a foreigner and a "long shot," that they would be able to dominate her and Russia to their own ends.

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The second tsaritsa to benefit from Peter's Succession Law, Anna, came to Russia at the invitation of the Supreme/Privy Council, Peter II having not named a successor at the time of his premature death. She was one of the five daughters of Ivan V (co-tsar with young Peter I) and had been married off to the Duke of Courland by Peter the Great in 1710. The council hoped that because she was a foreigner and a "dark horse," so to speak, they could manipulate her and rule through her as their puppet. Anna, instead, courted the Toy Soldiers and staged a palace coup, securing her power in 1730. She possessed a strange and cruel nature, delighting in humiliating those who displeased her in odd or bizarre ways. Her ministers, however, attended to affairs, leading Russia into the War of Polish Succession and in penetration of the rich black dirt to the South and Central Asia to the East. Unmarried (after the death of the Duke) and unpopular, Anna named the infant grandson of her sister Catherine to succeed her as Ivan VI.

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Anna 's life was unhappy. She was herself "majestic" in appearance, perhaps a euphimism for "fat." One contemporary described her looks as "repulsive" ("Royal Russia and Gilbert's Royal Books"). The marriage arranged by Peter proved to be shortlived as the bridegroom died before the newlyweds reached Courland. She, however, on the Tsar's orders ruled the duchy as the duchess dowager. She constantly begged Peter to allow her to return to St. Petersburg but was not able to do so until the death of Peter II and the all-important Council invitation of 1730, under their specified "conditions." These, she tore up, with the support of the Imperial Guards/Toy Soldiers. Anna endeared herself to no one. Not only did she solicit aid from the Toy Soldiers to disband the Council (thus ending budding constraints upon imperial authority,) but she surrounded herself with foreigners, notably the hateful Baron Biron, whom the Russian court generally despised and resented. In 1740, she suffered extreme pain from kidney stones, fainted at lunch, and died eleven days later. To everyone's disgust, she appointed Biron to rule during the minority of the youthful Ivan VI.

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Ivan VI

Ivan VI, shown here with his mother and sometime regent Anna Leopoldovna, became titular Tsar at two months, was overthrown at two-and-a-half months. Alas, he never enjoyed either authority or power; overthrown by Peter the Great's younger daughter, Elizabeth, in yet another palace coup, young Ivan--from infancy--spent most of his life locked up in a variety of prisons, finally meeting his death in Schlusselberg Fortress, in 1764 at the age of about twenty-four (reappear the Toy Soldiers, this time upon the orders of triple usurper and double murderer, Catherine II.)

(b. 1709; reign, 1741-1761)

The Land of the Tsars presents the coup and reign of Tsaritsa Elizabeth
fast forward to about 57 second in
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At the age of thirty-two, Peter the Great's daughter (by Martha/Marfa/Catherine) Elizabeth ascended the throne in a palace coup staged by the Guards Regiments/Toy Soldiers, segments of which chaffed under the "dark decade" of Anna Ivanovna and her German clique (Voice of Russia). Like her mother, she donned military attire (the bottle green of the Preobrazhensky?) and arrested the regents and protectors of infant Tsar Ivan VI. She staged her coup d'état in November, 1741, imprisoning but not murdering Ivan. Indeed, she outlawed the death penalty.

Portrait of Elizabeth by German artist Georg Christoph Grooth
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Opulently beautiful--her mother's daughter--Elizabeth was, by contemporary accounts, smart, playful and a very able woman..." (Voice of Russia). Originally intended for a French marriage (to Louis XV?) she "Frenchified" the Petersburg court, launching a tradition that would last 150 years. Fond of the arts, Elizabeth founded an academy in St. Petersburg for the study of painting, sculpture, and music. She sponsored balls, masquerades, and herself enjoyed dancing to minuets and polonaises. She was vain to an extraordinary degree, amassing a fantastic wardrobe of 15,000 dresses. Some historians think that she selected her morganatic husband (if indeed she had one) from the Court singers, one Alexei Rozum, whom she raised to be Count Razumovsky.

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Empress Elizabeth founded Lomonosov Moscow University and brought Bartolomeo Rastrelli to St. Petersburg to beautify her father's capital with its signature pastel neo-classical buildings and palaces. She presided over a period of artistic and architectural brillance. Continuing to grant favors to the westernized gentry, she both reduced their obligations and elevated their status, wealth, privilege, at the expense of the growing legion of serfs. Allied for the most part with Austria (Maria Teresa,) Elizabeth led Russia into the continental theatre of operations during the Seven Years War (Great War for Empire of the 18th Century.) Without an heir of her body and adhering to Peter I's Succession Law of 1722, Elizabeth named her successor.


To secure the dynasty, she chose her sister's son Peter, i.e. her nephew, whom she brought to Russia from Holstein in about 1743 or 1744 to train in the responsibilities of governing the vast Russian Empire (Peter was, after all, a grandson of Peter.) To this end, she arranged a marriage between teenaged Grand Duke Peter and an insignificant young princess from the German duchy of Anhalt Zerbst, Sophie Frederika. The marriage was a disaster, and Peter III lasted a scant year on the throne before being overthrown (yes, again, the "toy soldiers" and a palace coup) by his disaffected wife who seized the throne and reigned as Catherine II, the Great (see your handout for details.)

Here's a last look at Empress Elizabeth. Note how she resembles both her father, Peter, and her mother, Marfa/Martha/Catherine I. Often overlooked by historians, sandwiched as she is between Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, she is not without interest for students of Russian history!

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Peter III
(b. 1729; reign, 1762)

This youtube captures the weirdness of Grand Duke Peter, Catherine's bridegroom,
as well as his Prussophilia in the Land of the Tsars series
and proceeds into the early days of Catherine II's reign
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Peter III, grandson of Peter the Great got his 15 minutes of fame, to quote Andy Warhol (actually he got 6 months on the throne.) "Mentally immature" is what some historians kindly call him. Peter inherited the duchy of Holstein from his father but was brought by Empress-Tsaritsa Elizabeth in 1742 to be heir presumptive to the throne of "all the Russias." Conventional sources have routinely condemned Peter for his cruel practical jokes, his detestation for all things Russian, including his Russophilic wife, Catherine. Some speculated that when he ascended the throne in 1762, upon the untimely death of the Empress, he intended to enforce Protestantism on a uniformly Orthodox Russia. Recently, Harvard historian Carol Leonard has encouraged a revisionist view of Peter in her Reform and Regicide: The Reign of Peter III of Russia.

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Unfortunately, Peter III was no match in talent, ability, or ambition for his wife Catherine and died in the coup led by Catherine and the now ubiquitous Guards Regiments in 1762.

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Catherine II--the Great
(b. 1729; reign, 1762-1796)

Land of the Tsars (13) continues the reign of Catherine II
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Documentary Catherine II, the Great
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Catherine's coronation (featuring Julia Ormond as Catherine in Young Catherine)

1934 b/w film classic, The Rise of Catherine the Great
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Another 1934 b/w classic starring Marlene Dietrich, The Scarlet Empress
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If you cruise around on youtube, you'll find several made-for-tv movies on Catherine:
one starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, one (Young Catherine) starring Julia Ormond, plus a few others.

Young Sophie Fredrika, aged about fourteen, came to Russia from the tiny German principality of Anhalt-Zerbst to marry the heir presumptive, Grand Duke Peter. She adopted Orthodoxy, becoming Catherine (Yekaterina) and embraced all things Russian. She cultivated the handsome young officers of the Guards Regiments, especially the Orlov brothers. However, rumors that Sergei Saltykov fathered her son, Paul, are just that, rumors. Paul so closely resembed his father in appearance and personality that his paternity has not been seriously questioned. After the birth of Grand Duke Paul in 1754, she--according to legend--had a son by Gregory Orlov in 1762. He was given the surname Bobrinsky, graduated from the Cadet Corps, and apparently had fairly friendly relations with his half-brother, Paul. (Dixon)

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Like her predecessors, she donned military garb (Preobrazhensky? Izmailovsky?) and rode at their head to unseat (and then allow the murder of) her husband, Tsar-Emperor Peter III. She reigned as Catherine II from 1762-1796. Historians like to delve into the more salacious aspects of Catherine's reign, i.e. her scandalous parade of lovers--some years even decades younger than she--and the way she hid her several illegitimate children. To lay one rumor to rest, she died of a stroke at the age of 67, in 1796, discovered in her bedroom by her maid. (Dixon)

Equestrian portrait of Catherine by Danish artist Vigilius Erichsen.
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An early threat to Catherine's reign and hold on power came with the great peasant/serf uprising, Pugachev's Rebellion, led by a Don Cossack who claimed to be her husband, the True Tsar, Peter III (False Peter.) Peasant revolts erupted periodically and frequently, 1762-1772, but in 1773, Pugachev "organised the insurrection of the Yaik Cossacks, which ignited the flames of a full-blown insurrection" that spread to the lower Volga and elsewhere in the rich black dirt of the southern steppe ("Yemelyan Pugachev"). Pugachev's emancipation proclamation (see link below,) issued in the name of Peter III, electrified rural Russia. Pugachev's hordes seized Kazan, before the regular army "inflicted a crushing defeat upon the rebels near Tsaritsyn..." ("Yemelyan Pugachev"). General Suvurov, to earn later fame in the wars of the French Revolution, "had him placed in a metal cage and sent to Moscow for a public execution..." ("Yemelyan Pugachev").

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Pugachev's Proclamation < > Darn! it's gone!
The love of Catherine's life was Grigory Potemkin. He participated in the coup that brought her to power, and by all contemporary accounts their affair was one of deep mutual affection. One legend associated with Potemkin relates the story of the "Potemkin Villages" that he allegedly had built to demonstrate to the Empress that he had wisely invested the money she gave him in the development of southern Ukraine and the Crimea. The story goes that as Catherine sailed on her barge down the Dnieper River, peasants held up false fronts of prosperous villages and then raced downstream to show the same facades to a credulous Empress.


Many of the trends of the 18th century Russia reached their height in the reign of Catherine the Great: the degradation of the serfs to virtual slavery, the triumph of the nobility in the "golden age of the Russian aristocracy" thanks to Catherine's 1785 Charter of Nobility, the expansion of Russian territory to include the Crimean Peninsula and access to the Straits. Westernization and beautification--of St. Petersburg and Moscow--also emerged as hallmarks of Catherine's reign. She fancied herself quite the enlightened despot, in a league with Frederick the Great of Prussia and Maria Theresa of Austria/HRE, but her reforms never touched or even approached the sacrosanct institutions of autocracy and serfdom.

1782 portrait of Catherine by Danish painter Vigilius Erichsen

In foreign policy, Catherine presided over and participated in the demise of Poland (Partitions of 1772, 1793, 1795); she humiliated the Ottomans with the Treaties of Kuchuk-Kainardjii (1774) and Jassy (1793). Her reign witnessed as well the collapse of the commercial-diplomatic connection with Britain as the global balance of power could not tolerate two "whales."

Dimitry Grigorevich Levitsky (1735-1822). Portrait of Empress Catherine II . Late 18th century.
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Catherine II subdued Pugachev, tamed the Cossacks, presided over "stunning territorial annexations." The French Revolution shocked her, as did Alexander Radishchev's A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow. This slim volume, which escaped the censors disguised as a travel narrative, marked the opening salvo of a Russian gentry/intelligentsia condemnation of the crippling institutions of autocracy and serfdom. Intelligent, articulate, patriotic, and a beneficiary of all the accoutrements of Russian gentry life, Radishchev crtiticized those institutions that made his education and lifestyle possible. Catherine responded to the literary bombshell by confiscating and destroying copies of the book and condemning Radishchev to death. Catherine later commuted his sentence to Siberian exile. His hopes for change were raised when Alexander ascended the throne in 1801. Frustrated and disappointed by what he deemed empty promises for reform, Radishchev ended his life in suicide in 1802. See below for an excerpt from Journey.

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Radishchev: Journey excerpt < > Darn! It's flown into cyberspace
Maybe google and see if you can find. See below for some excerpts

Catherine was profoundly shocked by the violence of the French Revolution's Reign of Terror, ordering her court into deep mourning for six weeks when she learned of the executions of Louis XVI in 1793 and of Marie Antoinette a few months later (Dixon)


Everyone at court expected Catherine to by-pass her son, Grand Duke Paul, in the succession and name in his place her much loved grandson Grand Duke Alexander. As is often the case (Peter the Great, Queen Elizabeth I,) she left the matter of the succession to the last second, allowing the accession to the throne of her son Paul whom she had never un-named. The stroke that took her life struck before she changed her will. Thus, her angry and embittered son, Grand Duke Paul ascended the throne of All the Russias in 1796.

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Okay, now that you are authorities on Catherine the Great.
Go to and see if you can locate clips (I could not) of
her cinematic life--Catherine Zeta-Jones was a sexy Catherine;
Julia Ormond was an earnest Catherine.

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"Anna of Russia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Online available.
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Atchison, Bob. "Palace Biographies: Empress Catherine II, 'the Great.'" Alexander Palace Association: Alexander Palace Time Machine, 1995-2001.
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Background, "Bronze Horsemen©Copyright 1995, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved. "The Bronze Horseman" by Falconet, a gift to St. Petersburg by Catherine the Great honoring her heroic predecessor, Peter the Great. Virtual Creators Studio, "The Most Authoritative Guide to St. Petersburg," 1998. Online Available.

Dixon, Ursula Grosser. "Frequently Asked Questions: Catherine the Great." Online Available.

Levykin, Alexei I. The Moscow Kremlin Museums, 1995. Online Available.

Lloyd, Brigitte. "R." WorldRoots Genealogy Archive. Online Available.
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"Peter III of Russia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Online Available.
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Royal Russia and Gilbert's Royal Books. "Anna Ivanovna Romanova." Online available.
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State Museum at Tzarskoje Selo. Site administrator Design: © ZiMiNstudio, 1998. Online Available.

Voice of Russia. "Music at the Court of Empress Elizabeth." Online Available.
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"Yemelyan Pugachev." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Online Available.
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