Catherine the Great: A Life on Womanhood and Leadership

From primary school up to college, girls outperform boys academically. Then, upon entering the real world, they fall behind boys in the race to the top of the food chain due to a confidence gap: boys tend to be more confident than girls even when they are incompetent and unqualified; for girls, often over-competent and over-qualified, competence does not necessarily lead to confidence. Too commonly praised for being simply “good,” instead of being praised for their efforts, girls develop the perception that abilities are innate and unchangeable, and tend to give up more quickly when facing difficult tasks and grow up to be adults far too hard on themselves.

Boys are typically praised for breaking the rules. Just look at the popularity of Boris Johnson, the incompetent, lying, opportunistic candidate for 10 Downing Street who possesses an “I’ve got nothing” brain but wins voters repeatedly with his personality. In contrast, Theresa May, the ultimate political good girl, fought a losing battle surrounded by bad boys who put their personal interests ahead of their nation’s fate. May voted Remain, but nevertheless carried out the people’s will faithfully, even offering to sacrifice her own career. The bad boys, having broken too many rules, have lined up unscathed behind May to cash in on their own ambitions.

Our times are changing. Across the world we see a yearning and a resolve for women’s rights, for an future without discrimination or harrassment, and for an equality based on opportunity and competency. As we witness so many bad-boy shows in Britain, the United States (remember Trump?), and across the world, it is very timely to look at the life, career, and character of Catherine the Great, a German who seized the Russian throne in a coup d’etat and went on to become one of the longest ruling women in history, competing with outstanding peers such as Frederick the Great and Maria Theresa of Austria.

Having read Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great, I wrote this post as the first one focusing on a female leader in Plutarch. Is Catherine the Great a good girl, bad girl, or both? Can all of us, men and women, learn something valuable from her life?

Catherine the Good Girl

Catherine the Great was born as Sophia Friederike Auguste, daughter to Prince Christian August von Anhalt-Zerbst and Princess Johanna Elizabeth von Holstein-Gottorp. Johanna, unsatisfied with the unpromising career of her husband (who was 22 years older than her) in the Prussian army and the life of the boring town of Stettin, always yearned for more. Marrying her daughter Sophia off to a prominent family was Johanna’s only chance to gain title and status. For Sophia, marrying herself off was also the only chance to be rid of her mother for Johanna disliked Sophia’s independent spirit, criticizing her lack of physical beauty by telling her how ugly and impertinent she was. Sophia obeyed Johanna silently and maintained respectful. She would later obey Elizabeth of Russia, even when court life became unbearable and when Elizabeth selfishly took away her newborn children from her.

The geopolitics of Sophia’s time somehow turned to her favor. Intending to secure neutrality of Elizabeth to continue fighting Maria Theresa of Austria, Frederick II of Prussia (later the Great) managed to marry Sophia to Elizabeth’s nephew, Peter Ulrich, born and raised in Holstein (northern Germany) but transferred secretly to Russia as a teenager to become the heir to the Romanov throne. The good girl would obey Elizabeth and disappoint her own father by converting from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy and took a new name, Catherine (Yekaterina Alekseyevna). She also learned Russian diligently, knowing that one day she might co-rule the vast empire.

Fully aware of her lack of physical beauty, Catherine was determined “that I must therefore strive to show inward virtues and intelligence.” With a habit for books, Catherine would become “the daughter of the Enlightenment” and cultivated a lifelong friendship with Diderot and Voltaire, two of the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment. Once in power, she drafted a new legal code, Nakaz, based on Enlightenment principles, aiming to address inefficiency and corruption in government as well as transforming Russian society. For example, intellectually opposed to serfdom, she attempted to address this notorious form of slavery with the bad boys in her Legislative Commission, an initiative that was ahead her time. Catherine’s contemporary American leaders would own slaves while penning the line that “all men are created equal.”

Perhaps the most “good girl” behavior of Catherine was during the early years of her relationship with Peter Ulrich, the traumatized man-child who was underdeveloped both in body and mind. Despite being the heir to the Russian throne, he hated Russia, admired Prussia and Frederick the Great, and often dressing up in Prussian military uniform to provoke his aunt Elizabeth. (Once he hanged a rat in his room according to his imagined “laws of war”). He also never developed physical attraction to Catherine, courting instead her maids of honor in the court and openly flirted with the idea of being a cuckold. Therefore, Catherine arrived in St. Petersburg when she was 13 and remained a virgin long after her marriage to Peter. Because of Elizabeth’s frustration that an heir was not secured, the 25-year-old Catherine was forced by her governess to lose her virginity and engage in extramarital sex with Sergei Saltykov, a well-known playboy who taught Catherine the activities in bed and subsequently broke her heart when he pursued other women.

Catherine the Woman

But it would be too simplistic to imagine the young Catherine as solely a good girl, for she had already harbored great ambitions when she was betrothed to Peter. Despite all Peter’s flaws, young Sophia knew she wasn’t marrying a face but the heir of a vast empire. As she grew, she learned how to navigate among the power plays the royal circle, how to rally support from sympathizers, how to turn former enemies into allies, and how to manage the interests different groups that support her. Her allies proved instrumental in deposing Peter from his 6-month of chaotic rule as an emperor, pushing her to the peak of power. Subsequently, she skillfully surpassed her young son, Paul, to secure her own position as the empress instead of serving as a regent.

Once crowned, her rising status and power consolidation was accompanied by a more colorful love life. Not able to live a day without love, Catherine was a romantic who sought after not only physical pleasure but intelligent, loving companions. A late bloomer, she had a total of 12 lovers throughout her life, including Poniatowski, a future King of Poland, and Grigory Potemkin, the statesman whose achievements include the annexation of the Crimea and the victory of the Second Russo-Turkish War. Yet these love relationships sometimes reveal Catherine’s ruthlessness once in power: while deeply in love with Poniatowski as a young adult, Catherine would later coerce him and insert him as a puppet King to the Polish throne in order to reinforce Russia’s influence over Poland. In her later years, Catherine was known to be accompanied by a younger male lover, or a favorite, for the noble cause “that these young men were so extraordinary that she was obliged to give them opportunity to develop their talents”. 

A fan of the Enlightenment as a youthful lady, Catherine would eventually realize that the distance between “an Enlightenment philosopher’s definition of an ideal monarchy and the immediate problems of everyday life in rural Russia was simply too great.” In her attempt to address serfdom, Catherine wanted to break down the traditions, prejudices, and ignorance of both the serfs and the slave owners. She knew that if the cruelty and intolerable human conditions of serfs were not lessened, one day the serfs would rise up against the wealthy. A “good girl,” like Theresa May, would pursue only what was “right,” regardless of the consequences. Yet not such a simple-minded person, Catherine learned to compromise intellectual ideals and the balance of power: it was the landowning nobility who put her to power and she could only reward them with wealth, which meant serfs. Morally troublesome, but politically pragmatic. Alas, it would be too easy for later generations to criticise her in hindsight.

Catherine would become convinced that the Enlightenment could not be bestowed on an empire of illiterates until its people had been prepared for it by education, so she favored absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy in Russia. Having taken the Russian throne in a coup d’etat and being blamed for the murder of Peter, Catherine was also concerned about opposition, conspiracy, and rebellion. She would crack down Pugachev’s Rebellion, the largest peasant revolt in Russian and very much a class war, without offering any reforms for the peasants. Amid the French Revolution, which would eventually led to the death of Louis XVI and The Terror, and two simultaneous wars with the Turks and Sweden, Catherine also censored books, such as Radishchev’s book criticising serfdom in 1790 (she wrote that the book “could not be tolerated”). But if liberal no more, Catherine at least showed Enlightenment values in her crackdowns and censorship. She showed humanity to her enemy and refrained from torturing Pugachev, the leader of the peasant rebellion. She would also commute Radishchev’s death sentence to a 10-year sentence to Siberia.

One of her major achievements as the empress was the acquisition and expansion of Russian territory. Not only did Catherine orchestrated all three Polish partitions, but she also successfully campaign against the Ottoman Empire in two Russo-Turkish Wars, winning the annexation of the Crimean peninsula with an access to the Black Sea. If not a Romanov by blood, Catherine was indeed the heir carrying the mantle of Peter the Great. But it was not just in war that she excelled. With a strong hand, her health policy changed Russia for the better, especially with regards to smallpox, for by 1780, 18 years into her reign, Catherine had inoculated 2 million Russians against smallpox. In her own words, Catherine was also an art “glutton” who brought Western art and culture to Russia and an “alcoholic” builder who erected monuments and castles. A patron for arts, literature, and education, Catherine sent Russians abroad for studies and sowed the seed for the rise of artists and writers like Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy.

New Catherines Arising

So what is Catherine the Great, and how can leaders today learn from her? Should female leaders be good girls or bad girls? That is perhaps the wrong way to look at the problem. A bad girl would never rise to the top in our contemporary society due to gender prejudice and bias. A good girl like Theresa May would not be able to handle the complex problems which require more fox-like rather than tortoise-like attitude. What Catherine the Great illustrates is that any leader can hold certain fundamental values at heart while learning to adapt to their present situation, solving problems not by an absolute set of black-and-white ideological beliefs, but rather with dexterity, flexibility, and pragmatism. Real progress that benefit us never come overnight and can only be achieved with patience and planning.

Despite being born a German, Catherine the Great saw herself as a true Russian. She was certainly one of the greatest Russian leaders ever to govern that vast land. Yet history has its dark humors and whims, because Catherine’s successor, Paul, who had a strained relationship with his mother, made sure that Russia would not take a female leader ever again. From then on until the death of Nicholas II, Russia would only be ruled by Romanov men, not any German (or Danish) princesses. The Bolsheviks came, the communists failed, yet Russian has not seen a female leader on its top leadership position ever since.

If Russia has become a barren land for female leaders since Catherine, Germany, her homeland, has flourished with female leaders. Angela Merkel is the longest serving female chancellor in Germany. Ursula von der Leyen has been proposed by the European Council as the President to the European Commission. And it is not just in Germany but across Europe where female leaders have arisen. For instance, there is the well-respected Margrethe Vestager, who has been leading the European Commission for Competition, Mette Frederiksen, the new Prime Minister of Denmark, and Christine Lagarde, who will run the European Central Bank. While the Economist shows that Europe is a long way from gender equal representation in politics, we should be proud of the progress made and look ahead with optimism and determination to further improve equal rights and opportunities for everyone.

There will be more Catherine the Greats in Europe, perhaps even ones who are known not for being good girls but for breaking conventional rules. But like Catherine, who waited two decades to lead her country, these future women leaders might not climb to the top overnight. We must change it with a lotta good heart, a lotta patience, and a bit of pragmatism.