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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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