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Catherine the Great’s name wasn’t Catherine, and she wasn’t even Russian.
The woman whom history would remember as Catherine the Great, Russia’s longest-ruling female leader, was actually the eldest daughter of an impoverished Prussian prince. Born in 1729, Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst enjoyed numerous marital prospects due to her mother’s well-regarded bloodlines. In 1744, 15-year-old Sophie was invited to Russia by Czarina Elizabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great who had assumed the Russian throne in a coup just three years earlier. The unmarried and childless Elizabeth had chosen her nephew Peter as heir and was now in search of his bride. Sophie, well trained by her ambitious mother and eager to please, made an immediate impact on Elizabeth, if not her intended husband. The marriage took place on August 21, 1745, with the bride (a new convert to Orthodox Christianity) now bearing the name Ekaterina, or Catherine.

Elizabeth died in January 1762, and her nephew succeeded to the throne as Peter III, with Catherine as his consort.

On July 9, just six months after becoming czar, Peter abdicated, and Catherine was proclaimed sole ruler

This lecture tells the remarkable story of how an obscure German princess fended off accusations of illegitimacy and rose to become one of the most illustrious monarchs in history. Along the way she transformed the Russian Empire, which by the time of her death in 1796 was the largest the world had seen since the fall of Rome, into one of the great powers of Europe.  She created a brilliant court and led a scandalous personal life, taking a succession of ever-younger lovers. She was a ruthless despot and a peerless collector of art: the enormous Hermitage museum in St Petersburg is a lasting testament to her legacy.

The lecturer for the day is Rosamund Bartlett,she has a Doctorate from Oxford and has held senior university posts, most recently at the European University Institute in Florence and is currently writing a book on the Russian Avant-Garde and European Modernism. Author of several books, including biographies of Tolstoy and Chekhov, whose works she has also translated for Oxford World's Classics. Extensive experience lecturing in Russian cultural history at venues such as the V&A, the National Theatre and Covent Garden, and broadcasts regularly on the BBC. Often invited to lecture on tours, and is founding Director of the Anton Chekhov Foundation, set up to preserve the writer's house in Yalta.


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