History of Catherine the Great for Kids

Bedtime History

Close your eyes and imagine you are living in Russia in the 1700s. It’s a warm September day and you are with your family in the beautiful city of Moscow, Russia. There are many buildings, palaces, and beautiful churches. You have lived in Russia your entire life and are excited about the events of the day. People have gathered from all around. Music is being played in the streets. Everyone has gathered to watch Catherine be crowned Empress of Russia. Suddenly the crowds quiet down and you turn to see her carriage ride through the street. You see Catherine sitting tall and proud in the back of the carriage. You follow the crowds to the tall, beautiful church and watch as they place a crown on her head and make her queen of all of Russia. You are proud of your new queen and are hopeful, like others, that she will make your country a better place.

The woman who became known as Catherine the Great had a different name at birth. It was Sophie Friederike Augsta von Anhalt-Zerbst but everyone just called her Sophia. She was born July 9 1752 in the country of Prussia, which is now Poland.  At birth Sophie became a princess because her father was a prince but interestingly the family had very little money because they weren’t really in charge of anything and hadn’t inherited any wealth. Growing up, Sophie loved to be active and wasn’t your typical princess. She learned how to fight with a sword and when she was taught poetry or etiquettes (which means being proper), she would yawn widely and say, “I see no interest in these.”

When Sophie turned 15, she was sent to Russia to marry Empress Elizabeth’s nephew who was to inherit the throne since she didn’t have kids. When Sophie reached the new country, she thought that she would have a happy life with the Prince named Peter. But instead, Peter was nosy, stubborn and spoiled. He was rude and did immature things to everyone. This wasn’t Sophie’s way. She was embarrassed by his actions and cared about the people of Russia.

When Empress Elizabeth died, Peter became the King. Instead of taking the job seriously, he was still very childish. Sophie saw that her husband wasn’t fit for the job and had no respect for laws. This is often what happens when someone becomes king or queen. Her husband’s aunt, Empress Elizabeth, had been a stronger ruler and Sophie wanted to continue what she started. While her husband was ruler, Sophie attended meetings, read and prepared herself for the day she might rule the country. The people of Russia liked Sophie, now named Catherine, and could tell she cared about them and wanted to make the country a better place. Peter, on the other hand, didn’t care and instead focused on making friends with other countries and their people and putting their interests over his own people. As things worsened, Peter could tell the people liked her better and had other reasons for not having her be his wife. He could tell she was ambitious and wanted to replace him as king. 

In June 1762, Catherine called on her biggest supporters in the government and the military, and they along with the Russian people who supported her gathered in St. Petersburg. There, they declared Catherine the new Empress instead of Peter as the King. Peter, seeing that she had more support, gave up the throne and Catherine was crowned Queen and Empress of Russia in Moscow on September 1762.

As Queen, Catherine was determined to do a better job than her husband. She wanted Russia to be bigger, stronger and more like other countries in Europe. To fulfill her plans, she dreamed of taking the land of the Ottoman Empire and establishing Christianity in what is Turkey today. 

During her reign, Catherine fought two wars with the Ottoman Empire. Even though she didn’t defeat the Ottoman Empire, she did win parts of the northern Black Sea with navigation Rights in the waters of Turkey. This gave Russia more trade and military power. Over time, she began to earn her title, Catherine the Great, as she expanded the total land of Russia by more than 200,000 square miles.

Along with being bigger and stronger, Catherine also wanted Russia to be more cultured. Cultured means more educated and focusing on advancements like art and architecture, which means building design. 

As she got older, Catherine developed a deep love of reading. Over the years she read hundreds of books on subjects such as philosophy and politics. Because of her love of books, Catherine encouraged the publishing of more books and improving architecture and theater in Russia. Not only that, she also started the first-ever girls’ schools in Russia where girls could get the same education that the boys did. She also introduced a system of Elementary schools where kids could learn to love books and other topics like she did. This allowed more and more kids to get an education. The rich nobles started hiring private tutors for their kids and the trend of private schools started in Russia, too. 

Catherine was also a skilled businesswoman and had a strong understanding of finance. Finance means an understanding how money works. She used the country’s money to build hundreds of new towns. What happened to the old towns? Well, they were fixed up and made more modern and were expanded so that more people could live their lives comfortably. Under her reign, Catherine founded 29 more provinces with modern ways of living rather than the old and outdated villages that were a part of Old Russia. 

Catherine also saw the importance of agriculture. Agriculture means farming and raising animals. She knew that if the fertile land of Russia was used in the best way, the country could benefit as a whole. Under her leadership, Russia’s farming power improved with a large harvest and plenty of food for everyone. Even though this brought more food for the country, Russia was still behind the other countries because it was still using animals and humans in the fields instead of machines. 

Catherine made some good choices for Russia but also some poor ones that didn’t help a large number of the people. One of those poor choices was to continue serf labor. Serf labor is when a feudal landlord could keep many peasants or poor laborers under his rule. He could make them work however much he wanted much like a slave. This made the serfs’ lives very hard and many people in Russia were serfs. Catherine didn’t do anything to make their lives better and in fact changed the laws so there  could be even more serfs.

One of Catherine’s other goals was to improve trade in her country. So, she used the country’s money to make new roads to connect the different parts of Russia with the rest of the world. She made exports (the things people send out of the country) tax-free, which made trade easier. As a result, there was more trading and Russia became more connected to other countries. Russia exported oil and petroleum products, coal, and natural gas. Along with that, Russia was known to sell timber, fertilizers, and armor. Its major imports (things that come into the country) were wine, sugar, silk, woolen products, dyes, sailcloth, linen, leather, pig iron, and much more.

To this day, many Russians admire Catherine the Great with devotion and national pride. Under her rule, Russia’s land expanded and their military grew stronger and more powerful. She introduced more literature and arts to the country and set it up for future growth and success. She updated many things such as the villages, schools, and roads and made it more modern and competitive in a world that was changing rapidly.

Like we said before, Catherine also made poor choices and often was so competitive that it harmed other people in her country. She wanted to be a powerful queen instead of sharing her powers and often made choices that weren’t in the peoples’ best interests. She tried hard to modernize Russia but with it came problems, too. 

But Catherine was a strong woman with great energy and the will to do even greater things for her country. She made plans and prepared herself to be great. She read a lot and stayed focused. She was determined to do great things and make her country better and in many ways she did, making Russia a more powerful player on the world stage. 

Take the time to think about things that Catherine did right and Catherine did wrong. This is often the case with history, that people who have great ambitions and goals often go about them in the wrong way. But in other ways, they are helpful. Like Catherine you can prepare yourself when you are young by reading and learning as much as you can. You can also care for those around you. You can also set goals and make plans to do big things. But remember, those big things start with the small things you can do each day. Think of how you can make life better for those around you. Like Catherine, how can you add more culture to your life. This might be by looking at beautiful art, reading good books, watching movies that lift you up. 

If you want to learn more about Catherine the Great, with your parents help lookup pictures or videos online or check out books about her or Russia.

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