Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great of Russia and Education Reform

Catherine the Great is one of the most interesting female figures in history. She led an eventful but fruitful life, and she was a strong advocate for Enlightenment thinking. In this blog article, we take a look at her studious character and her influence on the educational reforms of Russia. During her unhappy marriage to Peter III, Catherine passed the time reading. She was particularly interested in works on political philosophy, literature, and history. She devoured the works of thinkers such as Plato and Voltaire, which Is how she became introduced to the French Enlightenment.


Throughout her reign, Catherine collected a vast array of art pieces by many famous European artists, which, at the time of her death, amounted to some 4,000 pieces. The collection is now housed at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, once the Winter Palace. She was often depicted as Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, the arts, and strategy in war (equivalent to the Greek goddess Athena). Her court became the epicentre of cultural life in Russia in the late eighteenth century. A native of Prussia (in an area now part of Poland), she dedicated herself to learning the Russian language. After a coup to depose her husband, Catherine declared that she would do her best to help her people, vowing to serve them with goodness and care.


She vowed to turn Russia’s people into citizens through the improvement of laws and education and she built hospitals and schools. Scholarships to foreign countries were paid for by the state and she made sure there was a secondary school in every province. Above all, she made sure that these schools offered a secular education and one that was not influenced by the church. The schools offered a well-rounded education, with the focus on mathematics, science, history, geography and languages. In 1764, the Moscow Orphanage, also known as the Foundling Home, was established, and offered to help educate the very poor.  Catherine also believed that women should have the same access to education as men, however, the opportunity was not available to absolutely every woman.


One of the first schools she established was the Smolny Institute for Noble Girls (or Maidens) in Saint Petersburg (pictured), founded in 1764. This school was only open to girls of noble birth, and they were taught singing, painting, and science. Women of low birth, Catherine thought, should be taught differently from those of higher birth. To her, education was not a means to improve one’s station, but to create model citizens of the station they were born into. This way, the whole population was to be well educated at every level, and willing to serve their state. This is of course, very different to how we view education today.


Catherine the Great was a forward-thinking monarch and attempted to change attitudes towards education in her adopted country. Although her reforms are seen as very limited by today’s standards, they were revolutionary for her time, and they were nevertheless created with good intentions. Her artistic interest and patronage have left its mark on Russia, and many beautiful neoclassical buildings still stand today.


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