This was an unpopular move on Catherine’s part, since the Orthodox Christians of Kiev insisted that their community was “profaned” by Jewish residency. Nonetheless, Catherine insisted on making a place for the Jewish community because it was better for Russia to have the skilled tradesmen operating within the borders. She had already established in 1772 that Jewish people from Poland and the Ukrainian region could colonize the recently annexed Turkish lands, although they were forbidden from trading within the inner regions of Mother Russia. In 1792 she had expanded Jewish-allowed territories into what would become known as the Pale of Settlement. While she probably cannot be said to have been free from anti-Semitism, she certainly prevented the state-sponsored persecution the Jews faced in many other European countries at the time and gave Jewish communities the ability to form schools and cultural centers to maintain their heritage.
But is Catherine the Great remembered for her forward-thinking decisions regarding the Russian Jewish community? Nope. She’s remembered for having had sex with more than one man over the course of her lifespan. As I point out in The Jezebel Effect, Catherine:
was one of the strongest and most capable rulers Russia, and the world, has ever known. She dragged Russia into its place as a modern European state. She rationalized and reformed Russian law and government. She instituted the Charters of the Nobility and the Townspeople in 1785. The Charters were significant. Although “restricted to the upper and middle classes, the Charters were the first fruit of Enlightenment though about the rights and duties of the citizen to be enacted into Russian law” (Bushkovitch, 2011).
She was profoundly concerned with child health and life expectancy among her subjects. She wrote, “If you go to a village and ask a peasant how many children he has he will say ten, twelve, and sometimes even twenty. If you ask how many of them are alive, he will say, one, two, three, rarely four. This mortality should be fought against” (Massie, 2011). To combat this problem Catherine exponentially increased the number of schools and hospitals in her country, and introduced institutional orphanages in Moscow and St. Petersburg. She founded Russia’s first College of Medicine in 1763 and attempted to lure European doctors to the country by offering them lavish salaries and benefits. Furthermore, Catherine embraced the new technology of vaccination.
The empress made Russia one of the first countries in the world to inoculate its populace. To prove its safety she allowed Dr. Thomas Dimsdale to inoculate her with the smallpox vaccine in 1764. The whole of Russia waited to see what would happen, and after “two weeks of fearful waiting … Catherine did not succumb to the dreadful disease … special prayers of thanksgiving were offered in Russian churches” (Gorbatov, 2006). Catherine’s courageous efforts to popularize inoculations against smallpox saved countless lives.
She was also an able military strategist. Her armies trounced the Ottoman Empire twice, subjugated the Cossacks, and took the Ukraine as well as huge swathes of Poland. Catherine’s able minister, Potemkin, negotiated so well with Turkey that Russia was able annex the Crimea without firing a shot. There, with Catherine’s blessings, Potemkin created prosperous villages and fortified cities. Although these would be mocked by his enemies as “Potemkin Villages” painted on cardboard, the settlements were very real (Massie, 2011). Russian land acquisitions gave the country easy access to the Black Sea; Catherine financed Potemkin’s yen for a naval force, thereby enabling Slavic domination of the area for decades. Russian ships did well in the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea as well, beating the Swedish navy like a drum. During the Russian-Swedish war, Catherine “showed the steel nerves that had brought her to the throne … Hearing the guns of the Swedish fleet from her palace windows, she continued to work without giving them any notice” (Bushkovitch, 2011).
The empress was the “greatest collector and patron of art in the history of Europe” (Massie, 2011). She built the Hermitage Museum and multiple other public works, founded libraries, started academic journals, and won the respect of Voltaire himself. Among the works she acquired were “approximately 4,000 Old Masters, which included 225 painting offered to Catherine after Frederick the Great [of Prussia] could not afford to buy them and the eight Rembrandts, six Van Dycks, three Rubens, and one Raphael in the Pierre Crozat collection. Catherine also bought coins and medals, objets de vertu, applied art and porcelain, of which one of the most spectacular examples was the 944-piece Green Frog Service, 1773-1774 by Josiah Wedgwood, featuring British scenes” (Perrie et al., 2006). The empress not only supported the arts, she made them. Catherine found time to write neoclassical comedies and French dramas, all while fulfilling her role as the autocrat of Russia.
Yet what is this remarkable woman most remembered for? Her lovers.
What a shame that her accomplishments outside the bedroom – which were legion – cannot be celebrated the way the lies about her multitudes of man-toys has been.