June 28, 1762, marked the beginning of the long and fruitful reign of Empress Catherine II – the Great – one of Russia’s best-known rulers. She oversaw countless reforms, granted self-government to the nobility and municipalities, supported the development of trade and industry, and enabled the emergence of a middle class. During her reign the country’s borders expanded and the sciences and arts flourished. Education was modernized and new institutions of higher learning were established. Catherine herself was glorified by Russia’s greatest poets and artists. She corresponded with Voltaire, one of the first to recognize the scale of her accomplishments with the appellation “Catherine la Grande,” and she befriended another towering figure of the Enlightenment, the French philosopher and critic Denis Diderot.
Of course her reign also had a dark side: serfdom, which she could not quite bring herself to abolish, despite a strong desire to do so; the brutal repression of the Pugachev Rebellion; the arrest of Radishchev, who dared write a book about the suffering of the peasants; the imprisonment of journalist, philanthropist, and publisher Nikolai Novikov in the Shlisselburg Fortress for suspected involvement in a plot to overthrow Catherine in favor of her son (who was growing tired of waiting to ascend to power) and ties to Freemasons.
Then again, nobody’s perfect.
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