Browse Exhibits (12 total)

Catherine the Equestrian

Exhibit Author: FV

Mounted on her majestic horse, Catherine the Great prepares to capture the dethroned Peter III in Vigilius Eriksen's famous portrait.[1] Surrounded by her loyal Preobrazhensky regiment, the painting captures not only Catherine’s triumph, but also her conscious effort to legitimize herself as Empress of Russia. With only a tenuous claim to the throne through her estranged husband and underage son, Paul, Catherine carefully constructed her image as a woman capable of adopting masculine tendencies, and as a ruler eager to carry on Peter the Great’s legacies. A look at more conventional images of Catherine dressed in exquisite court dress will further reveal her the full extent of her power, but Eriksen’s image continues to stand out. The portrait depicts, with the shadowy regiment in the background, much about Catherine’s tenuous power situation in the early years of her reign and her desire to actively legitimize her rule. Though Catherine’s manner of succession traditionally faced more challenges abroad than at home,[2] the Empress, aware of the power and influence of appearances and ceremonies, strived to be depicted as a legitimate Russian ruler in the line of Peter the Great. It is this connection and legitimacy that Eriksen’s painting depicts.  

[1] Vigilius Ericksen, Equestrian Portrait of Catherine the Great. Post-1762. Oil on canvas.        

[2] Simon Dixon, Catherine the Great (London: Pearson Education Limited, 2001), 34-35.



Catherine the Great and Religion

Exhibit Author: HY

On June 28, 1744, Princess Sophia Augusta Fredericka was baptized into the Orthodox faith as Ekaterina, or Catherine, a name chosen for her by Empress Elizabeth of Russia.[1] While historians have always suspected the sincerity of Catherine the Great’s conversion and ostentatious piety, religion was inextricably tied to her reign. The wealth and power of the Orthodox Church was a tangible force in eighteenth century Russia that Catherine set out to bring under her control, even as she staged dramatic pilgrimages. Religious conflict gave her the pretext she needed to intervene in, and ultimately partition the kingdom of Poland with Prussia and Austria.[2]

Religion also impacted her personal life. It became yet another way in which her mother and her stubbornly German husband, Peter III, estranged themselves from the Russian court. It was a subject that fascinated her most influential lover, Prince Gregorii Potemkin. Most importantly, it defined young Sophia’s determination to shed her German heritage and identify with her new Russian subjects when, as she lay bedridden with pneumonia before the most important political figures of Russia, she deliberately requested an Orthodox priest to attend to her.[3]

[1] Robert Massie, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (New York: Random House, 2011), 69.

[2] Isabel de Madariaga, Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 196-203.

[3] Catherine the Great, The Memoirs of Catherine the Great, trans. Markus Cruse and Hilde Hoogenboom (New York: Random House, 2006), 11.

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Catherine the Great's "Greek Project"

Exhibit Author: CW

According to Hugh Ragsdale, European powers have regarded Russia with suspicion ever since Russia’s Westernization and establishment as a major political power; they interpreted every political move as an attempt to expand.[1] During the reign of Catherine the Great, the annexation of the Crimea was seen as evidence that Catherine was executing her “Greek Project.”  The Greek Project, a plan drafted by her secretary Bezborodko in a letter to Joseph II of Austria, outlined an ambitious proposal to restore the Greek Orthodox Empire.[2]  According to the terms of this grandiose vision, Austria and Russia would take split Turkey.  Catherine’s grandson, Constantine, would become the Emperor of Greece while a trusted person—presumably Potemkin—would rule the kingdom of Dacia.  O. P. Markova and Edgar Hosch believed that this was never intended to be a concrete plan but Ragsdale asserted that even if Catherine never expected to execute the project, it represented an ideal that informed Catherine’s foreign policy.  However, one could also argue that the idea of the Greek Project was an extreme approach publicized by Catherine so that she had room to “compromise” and gain only the lands she felt Russia truly needed.

[1] Hugh Ragsdale, “Evaluating the Traditions of Russian Aggression: Catherine II and the Greek Project,” The Slavonic and East European Review 66 (1988): 92.

[2] Simon Dixon, Catherine the Great (London: Pearson Education Limited, 2001), 166.  The Greek Empire referred to in the Greek Project was the Eastern half of the former Roman Empire, ruled from Byzantium (Constantinople).

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Catherine's Triumph

Exhibit Author: SM

Catherine came to the throne in a way that did not make her legitimacy easy to prove.  Because Catherine was not actually the heir to the throne, and there was suspicion around the death of her husband, the former tzar, Catherine needed to prove her right to the throne through reasons that most leaders at this time did not have to provide.  One very powerful method that Catherine used to reinforce her legitimacy was portraiture.  Through this type of source, which in the time before photography was often the only image the people of Russia would have of their ruler, Catherine could manipulate her image to convey exactly what she wished people to view her as.

In Catherine’s portraits, she depicts herself as a successful ruler, and one that is loved by her people.  Instead of a birth right to the throne, she is the tsarina due to the fact that she is the most capable ruler of her country.  She is depicted as a strong ruler, providing her people with life’s necessities.  Often, these portraits also show favor from the heavens, whether in the form of Peter the Great or of God himself.


Dmitrov: Tale of Two City Projects

Exhibit Author: EW

Catherine the Great struggled to create an image of herself as a rational ruler of the Enlightenment. In her memoirs, she emphasizes the regularity of her days and attempts to prove that reasoned deliberation drove all of her actions. This image was not entirely constructed—many of the policies Catherine enacted as Empress can be interpreted as a striving toward this rationality. She distilled this vision of a rational Russia into the Nakaz to the Legislative Commission of 1767 in which she imagined a nation without torture or capital punishment, with fair trials and ordered territories. As a document alone the Nakaz represented a progressive step for a Russian ruler: it was not a list of mandated laws, but rather a set of provocative statements designed to engage citizens in political debate.[1] Although the Nakaz and its corresponding Commission represented an attempt to include the populace in political activity, a look at city planning in the Catherinian period suggests that the empress held a less sympathetic attitude toward community and collaboration than she espoused. The tale of two city projects in the town of Dmitrov reveals the disparity between Catherine’s public advocacy for participatory politics and the reality of her political decisions.

[1] Gareth W. Jones, “The Spirit of the ‘Nakaz’: Catherine II’s Literary Debt to Montesquieu,” The Slavonic and East European Review 76, no. 4 (October 1, 1998): 666.

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Iaitskii Gorodok -- The Rise and Fall of the Pugachev Rebellion

Exhibit Author: CW

The town of Ural’sk, located on the Ural River, was once named Iaitskii Gorodok, and the Ural River was known as the Iaik River.  Iaitskii Gorodok was home to the Iaik Cossacks but the town, the river, and the people were renamed by Catherine the Great in 1775.  Catherine’s decree was issued at the end of the Pugachev Rebellion and erased the identity of the Cossacks who had supported a pretender to the throne.  Emelian Pugachev, a Don Cossack, had claimed to be the former tsar Peter III and called on the disempowered sectors of Russian society (other Cossacks, serfs) to join him in overthrowing his “wife.”  Iaitskii Gorodok played a critical role in Pugachev’s rise and fall.  According to Alexander Pushkin, the writer of the first history about the Pugachev Rebellion, it was malcontent Iaik Cossacks who chose Pugachev to be their puppet leader.  The desire to rise up against Catherine’s officials was already there—all the oppressed needed was someone to lead them.  Pugachev’s first march as “Peter III” was on Iaitskii Gorodok, where he officially released a manifesto proclaiming himself to be the true tsar.  He ultimately took control of the town and returned to it multiple times throughout the rebellion.  The rebellion would also end at Iaitskii Gorodok, as it was where Pugachev’s supporters turned him over to the forces from Moscow.  Iaitskii Gorodok was not only a symbol of the development of the rebellion; it also played a causal role in its very unfolding.

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Imperial Gardening

Exhibit Author: AS

Over the course of Catherine the Great’s long life, she forthrightly confessed to only two passions, one being her grandson Alexander I, and the other being English Gardens.[1] As a traditional noble gift for the birth of her first grandson, Catherine bequeathed 1000 hectares along a picturesque stream by her Tsarskoe Selo palace to her son, the future Paul I.[2] Upon this land, the future Pavlovsk Gardens, she constructed a magnificent landscape with the help of British designers. The use of foreign sources demonstrates the influence of Western, specifically British, culture and economic thought on the Russian court. These gardens were intended to be used by Catherine as a teaching model for her subjects in their economic lives as well: they demonstrated how commerce should run according to “natural” principles. Her center of rule demonstrated not only how the world at large was built, but provided a model for the rest of society. She was merely following precedence in this regard, mimicking past tsars in their emulation of the West, while at the same time using this emulation as a model for the rest of Russia. The scope and dynamics of this cultural borrowing are best exemplified through the use of gardening. Gardeners learned from Catherine, but also set the tone for economic growth and stratified society by wealth and social status in doing so.

[1] Dmitry Shvidkovsky, A
Grandmother’s Garden for the Heir to the Imperial Throne, in Garden History,
vol. 24, no. 1 (1996), 107.

[2] Dmitry Shvidkovsky, The Empress
and the Architect (New Haven, Yale University Press: 1996), 117.

Moscow, the Capital of Catherinian Russia

Exhibit Author: AS

Moscow began its existence as the capital of a Grand Duchy, a veritable city-state amongst competing principalities. As such, it remained the capital of the expanding state until Peter the Great made Petersburg the capital of the Russian empire in the early 1700s.[1] While Petersburg was the official political capital and generally associated with Westernizing trends it was also the very seat of the monarchy, which resulted in strict autocratic control. Moscow’s distance from Petersburg, combined with the existence of a university, an organ of independent thought, allowed it to contribute very significantly to Russian civil society during the reign of Catherine the Great. At the same time Moscow was more important than Saint Petersburg in terms of economic strength, and had a larger population and a burgeoning civil society. Thus, it was the real capital of Russia during this period. Though Catherine believed that Moscow was backward, against the Enlightenment, and generally symbolic of all that was wrong with Russia, [2] in some ways it’s better characterized as an opposition center to her rule from Petersburg because of its concentration of forces arrayed against her interests, including such accoutrements of civil society as a press, university, and learned societies.

[1] St Petersburg was made the capital in 1704, but it switched back and forth with Peter the Great’s successors, with the final switch occurring under Empress Anne in 1732. This schizophrenia can perhaps be read as a larger conflict within the country over modernization while remaining true to Russian values.

[2] Simon Dixon, Catherine the Great: Profiles in Power, (Essex, England: Pearson 2001), 98. 

Orenburg: An Imperial Stronghold on Russia's Multiethnic Frontier

Exhibit Author: HY

Over 1400 kilometers southeast of Moscow, Orenburg stood in the late 18th century as the only significant imperial Russian fortress in the region of southern Ural (the Iaik River prior to 1774). Many of the inhabitants of Orenburg province were ethnic minorities living on the fringes of the empire. Orenburg’s distance from the political and administrative centers of Russia, yet proximity to the Iaik River, bestowed a potent symbolic and political value on it as the military presence of the tsar on the southern frontier. In 1773, the difficulties of organizing and dispatching tsarist troops against the Pugachev Rebellion, an insurgency led mostly by a core host of Iaik Cossacks, revealed to the imperial government the necessity of developing a more stable relationship with its ethnic minorities, which were often majorities on the frontier.[1]

After its central role in the Pugachev Rebellion, Orenburg became, in 1785, the site of a still-experimental model of assimilation, this time carried out with the Muslim Tatar population in its province.[2] As the imperial government’s sole direct point of contact with its southern frontier subjects, Orenburg played a crucial role in the tsarist strategy to consolidate power over ethnic groups within the Russian empire during the reign of Catherine the Great, becoming the conflict-rife interface between the central authority of Moscow and the ethnic minorities it purported to rule.

[1] Alexander Pushkin, Complete Prose Fiction, trans. Paul Debreczeny (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983).

[2] Simon Dixon, Catherine the Great (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2001), 120.

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Potemkin and Yekaterinoslav - "The Garden of the Empire"

Exhibit Author: SM

Many historians, when looking at Catherine’s annexation of the Crimea, focus solely on her motivations for the annexation being a stepping-stone to accomplish other, father-reaching goals.  This historical focus ignores the important role that Catherine had in mind for the Crimea as an end in and of itself.  The Crimea could be used for exhibiting the fact that she was an Enlightened ruler on par with the great European rulers, and that she was creating an Enlightened empire that would not just copy those of the rest of the world, but be a shining example.  That Catherine valued the Crimea for these purposes can be seen by the actions taken by herself and Potemkin, her main adviser, with relation to this area.

This new land allowed Catherine the opportunity to show her abilities to govern in an Enlightened way in many different aspects.  The more pleasant climate, landscape, vegetation, and the supposed “barbarity” of inhabitants left her ample ways to create her ideal paradise city.  Both Catherine and Potemkin worked hard to create this exemplary city in her conquered territory and make sure that the rest of the world knew of their efforts and accomplishments.

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