Catherine II the Great (1729–1796) was born in Pomerania, Germany as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. She reigned as Empress of Russia from 1762, after the assassination of her husband Peter III, until her death. Under her direct auspices the Russian Empire expanded, improved its administration, and continued to modernise along Western European lines. Catherine’s rule re-vitalized Russia, which grew stronger than ever and became recognised as one of the great powers of Europe. She had successes in foreign policy and oversaw sometimes brutal reprisals in the wake of rebellion.
Sophie married Peter the Grand Duke of Holstein-Gottorp in 1745 when she converted to Russion Orthodox church and was renamed Catherine. In January 1762 Peter became Tsar but he reigned for only six months before being overthrown after alienating the Russian nobility; apparently he seemed rather glad to have rid himself of the throne, and requested only a quiet estate and his mistress – instead he was assassinated. Catherine, although not descended from any previous Russian emperor, succeeded her husband as Empress Regnant – she had much better relations with the nobility than her Russian husband.
During her reign Catherine extended the borders of the Russian Empire southward and westward as far as the Crimea, and Lithuania at the expense of the Ottoman Empire and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. All told, she added some 200,000 miles² to Russian territory. She pioneered for Russia the role that Britain later played through most of the nineteenth and early twentieth century as an international mediator in disputes that could, or did, lead to war. After the French Revolution of 1789, Catherine rejected many principles of the Enlightenment that she had once viewed favourably. In 1795 she completed the partitioning of Poland, sharing all its territory with Prussia and Austria.
Catherine had a reputation as a patron of the arts, literature and education. Her patronage furthered the evolution of the arts in Russia more than that of any Russian sovereign before or after her; the Hermitage Museum, which now occupies the whole Winter Palace, began as her personal collection.
Throughout her long reign she took many lovers, often elevating them to high positions for as long as they held her interest, and then pensioning them off with large estates and gifts of serfs – one was placed on the throne of Poland in 1764, another received 50,000 rubles, a pension of 5,000 rubles, and 4,000 peasants in the Ukraine after being dismissed in 1777. After her affair with her lover and capable adviser Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin ended in 1776, he allegedly selected a candidate-lover for her who had the physical beauty and mental faculties to hold her interest. The last of her lovers, Prince Zubov, was 40 years her junior. Her sexual independence led to many of the legends about her.