Browse Exhibits (3 total)

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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The Rise of the Russian Intelligentsia

Exhibit Author: FV

Catherine’s proclaimed dedication to enlightened ideals is evident through her correspondence with various French philosophes, and her political treatise, the Nakaz. Though the Empress was often labeled as an “enlightened despot,” she nonetheless views herself as a just and tolerant ruler who worked to establish rational rules for her subjects. Equally as controversial as Catherine’s enlightened tendencies, is the question of whether the emergence of a noble “intelligentsia” constituted an evolution in the Russian public sphere. Though Western ideals began to make their way into Russia under Peter the Great in the earlier 18th century, Catherine, an enthusiastic patron of the arts and academia, tentatively encourages the wider growth of public ideas. Burgeoning 18th century Russian intelligentsia thus began to develop intellectual pursuits, but they remained relatively unsophisticated and largely an extension of the state. The public exchange of intellectual ideas was limited both by the systemic issues in Russian politics and society, as well as by the autocratic nature of Catherine’s rule.

The Russian nobility’s ventures into intelligentsia pursuits were fragile because little progress could be made in the public sphere without Catherine’s approval. Although Russia continued its modernization and Westernizing trend throughout Catherine’s reign, the lack of separation between the state and public sphere prevented the generous proliferation of writers and thinkers that were so prominent in Western Europe. Instead, the limited intellectual pursuits of the 18th century nobility could only set the stage for the formation of the so-called authentic intelligentsia of later decades.  

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