Peter III was thirty-four years old when he succeeded to the throne. Although it was twenty years since his aunt Elizabeth sent for him from Holstein, he was more of a German than a Russian, and had an intense admiration for Frederick the Great. He at once reversed Russia's policy, ordered the commander-in-chief of the Russian armies to leave his Austrian allies, and made peace with the King of Prussia to whom he restored all Russia's conquests. Then he entered into an alliance with Frederick, which was the means of saving Prussia.
Peter relieved the nobles of the duty of serving the state, for which they were so grateful that they proposed to erect his statue in gold; he heard of it, and forbade their doing so. He abolished the Secret Court of Police, and showed great kindness to the raskols and permitted many of them to return from Siberia. A host of other exiles were recalled, and he thought of relieving the hard lot of the moujiks.
For all this, he was unpopular and disliked. His disregard for old Russian customs and his mode of life gave deep offense. He was married to Sophia of Anhalt, who had assumed the name of Catherine; she was a woman of decided ability and strong character. Peter wanted a divorce. She heard of it and contrived a conspiracy among the high nobles and officers of the army and navy. Peter had no thought of danger, when he ordered the arrest of Passek, a young officer and favorite of Catherine. Thinking that the conspiracy had been discovered, she left her palace in the outskirts and came to St. Petersburg where the three regiments of Foot Guards declared in her favor, and Peter's uncle was arrested by his own regiment of Horse Guards. When Catherine entered the Winter Palace, she was sure of the army and navy; Cronstadt was seized by her supporters, and she issued a proclamation assuming the government. At the head of 20,000 men, she marched upon the Palace, where the czar, her husband, was residing.
Peter fled to Cronstadt and sought the Admiral. "I am the czar," he said. "There is no longer a czar," was the reply, and all Peter could do was to return to his palace, where he abdicated "like a child being sent to sleep," as Frederick the Great expressed it. He then called on his wife, "after which," Catherine tells us, "I sent the deposed emperor, under the command of Alexis Orlof accompanied by four officers and a detachment of gentle and reasonable men, to a place called Ropcha, fifteen miles from Peterhof, a secluded spot, but very pleasant." Four days later Peter III was dead. Catherine declared that he died of colic "with the blood flying to the brains."
But one was living with just and strong claims to the throne. Ivan VI, the infant czar sent to prison by Elizabeth in 1741, was now twenty-one years old. It was reported that he had lost his reason, which may have been true or false. Catherine disposed of him. She said: "It is my opinion that he should not be allowed to escape, so as to place him beyond the power of doing harm. It would be best to tonsure him (that is, to make a monk of him), and to transfer him to some monastery, neither too near nor too far off; it will suffice if it does not become a shrine.'' She did not desire that the people should make a martyr of a descendant of Peter the Great, while she, a foreign woman, was occupying the throne. Poor Ivan was murdered by his keepers two years later, when a lieutenant of the Guards was trying to effect his escape. After that, Catherine had no rival for the crown, except her son Paul, whom she disliked.
At first it seemed as if Catherine would reverse her husband's policy with regard to Prussia. She gave orders to the army to leave the Prussian camp, but she did not command active hostilities; since the parties felt the exhaustion of a seven years' struggle, peace negotiations were begun and concluded successfully.
Catherine made Russia a party to the System of the North; that is, she entered into an alliance with England, Prussia, and Denmark, as against France and Austria. Nearly all Europe was deeply interested in the severe illness of the King of Poland, because of the election which must follow his death. Unhappy Poland was bringing destruction upon itself. A lawless nobility kept the country in anarchy, and religious persecution, which had disappeared elsewhere, was still rampant. It was the gold distributed by interested powers, that controlled the vote of the Diet, and since it was merely a question of the highest bidder, Frederick the Great and Catherine came to an understanding. They decided to elect Stanislas Poniatofski, a Polish noble. France and Austria supported the Prince of Saxony, who was also the choice of the Court party. After the death of Augustus III, the Diet assembled and elected the French and Austrian candidate. Members of the Diet asked for Russian intervention and, supported by Catherine's army, Poniatofski was placed on the throne.
Russia and Prussia were not satisfied; they wanted part of the kingdom and the prevailing anarchy on their frontiers justified them. But Catherine made a pretext out of Poland's religious intolerance; although the same existed in Russia. In 1765, Koninski, the Bishop of the Greek Church presented to the King a petition asking redress for a number of grievances which he enumerated. The King promised relief and submitted the matter to the Diet of 1766. The majority would not hear of any tolerance, although Russia had on the frontier an army of 80,000 men ready to invade Poland. The Diet of 1767 showed the same foolish spirit, but it was broken when two of its members, both Catholic bishops, were arrested under Russian orders, and carried into Russian territory. The Diet did not appear to resent this violation of a friendly territory but entered in 1768 into a treaty with Russia, in which it was agreed that Poland would make no change in its constitution without Russia's consent. The Russian army was withdrawn from Warsaw, and a deputation from the Diet was sent to St. Petersburg to thank Catherine.
Two hostile parties soon appeared in arms. The Catholics raised the banner "Pro religione et libertate!"—as if they understood what liberty meant! France helped with money, and urged the Sultan of Turkey to declare war against Russia, so that Catherine would be compelled to withdraw her troops. Russia was inciting those of the Greek and Protestant religions to whom assistance was promised.
In the winter of 1768, the Tartars of the Crimea, aided by the Turks, invaded Russia, and Catherine dispatched an army of 30,000 men,—all she could spare. In the following year, the Russians attacked and defeated the enemy 100,000 strong at Khotin on the Dnieper, and in 1770 the Khan of the Crimea met the same fate. In the same year at the battle of Kagul, 17,000 Russians defeated 150,000 Turks commanded by the Grand Vizier. In the same year the Russians destroyed the Turkish fleet in the port of Chesmé. In 1771, the Tartars of the Crimea were put to rout, and the Russians took Bessarabia and some forts on the Danube. They were, however, too late to take possession of the Dardanelles, which the Turks had put into a state of defense.
Austria was becoming alarmed at Russia's victories, and lent a willing ear to the suggestion of Frederick the Great that it would be safer to permit Russia to gain territory belonging to Poland, provided Austria and Prussia should receive their share. On February 17, 1771, a treaty was concluded between Russia and Prussia, and accepted by Austria in April, whereby Poland was deprived of a good part of its territory. Catherine secured White Russia with a population of 1,600,000; Frederick the Great took West Prussia with 900,000 inhabitants, and Austria received Western Gallicia and Red Russia with 2,500,000 people. This was the beginning of the end of Poland.
The peace negotiations with Turkey were broken off, and war was resumed. Being busy elsewhere, Catherine could not prevent a coup d' etat in Sweden, which saved that country from the fate of Poland. Besides suffering from these constant wars, Russia was visited by the plague, which in July and August, 1771, daily carried off a thousand victims in Moscow alone. The Archbishop, an enlightened man, was put to death by a mob for ordering the streets to be fumigated. Troops were necessary to restore order.
The condition of the country was dreadful. Alexander Bibikof was sent to suppress a dangerous insurrection, he wrote to his wife after arriving on the spot, that the general discontent was frightful. It was for this reason that Catherine concluded peace with the sultan in 1774; besides an indemnity, she received Azof on the Don and all the strong places in the Crimea, and was recognized as the protector of the sultan's Christian subjects. In 1775, she finally broke the power of the Cossacks.
Through the mediation of France and Russia, a war between Prussia and Austria concerning the succession in Bavaria, was narrowly averted. During the American War of independence, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Prussia, and Portugal, proclaimed armed neutrality, and Holland declared war, because British warships caused endless trouble to vessels under neutral flags. This celebrated act declared "that contraband goods" included only arms and ammunition. Most countries agreed to this, with the exception of England.
In 1775 Catherine annexed the Crimea, on the plea that anarchy prevailed. Turkey protested and threatened war but France meditated and the sultan recognized the annexation by the Treaty of Constantinople in 1783.
In 1787, a remarkable secret agreement was signed between Russia and Austria. It is known as the Greek Project, and was nothing less than a scheme to divide Turkey between the two powers. The plot as proposed by Russia, was to create an independent state under the name of Dacia, to embrace Moldavia, Wallachia, and Bessarabia, with a prince belonging to the Greek Church at the head. Russia was to receive Otchakof, the shore between the Bug and the Dnieper, and some islands in the Archipelago, and Austria would annex the Turkish province adjoining its territory. If the Turk should be expelled from Europe, the old Byzantine Empire was to be reestablished, and the throne occupied by Catherine's grandson Constantine, "who would renounce all his claims to Russia, so that the two empires might never be united under the same scepter." Austria agreed on condition that she should also receive the Venetian possessions in Moldavia, when Venice would he indemnified by part of Greece.
Soon after this the sultan declared war against Russia. This took Catherine by surprise. Other enemies sprang up: the King of Prussia wanted Dantzig, the King of Sweden, South Finland. The latter invaded Russia and might have marched upon St. Petersburg, for all Catherine could collect was an army of 12,000 men. A mutiny in the camp of Gustavus III, compelled him to return to Stockholm, and the opportunity was lost. He defeated the Russians in the naval battle of Svenska Sund, but a second engagement was to the advantage of Russia. The French Revolution caused him to make peace, and to enter into an alliance with Russia against the French.
In the south Russian arms were more fortunate. The Turks were defeated in 1789, and 1790, on which occasions a young general named Souvorof distinguished himself. Upon the death of Joseph II of Austria, his successor Leopold made peace with Turkey at Sistova. (1791.) It was the French revolution, which seriously alarmed every crowned head in Europe, and which induced Catherine to follow Leopold's example at Jassy, in January, 1792, Russia kept only Otchakof and the shore between the Bug and the Dniester.
Poland, meanwhile, had made an earnest effort at reform. Thaddeus Kosciusko had returned from the United States, where he had fought for liberty and was trying to save his own country. Born in 1752, he entered a military school founded by the Czartoryskis at the age of twelve, and distinguished himself by attention to his studies and duties. His father was assassinated by exasperated peasants, and he himself was scornfully ejected by a powerful noble whose daughter he was courting. Attracted by the struggle of a handful of colonists against powerful England, he went to America and served with distinction in the War of the Revolution. After seeing Great Britain humbled and a new republic established in the New World, he came back to Poland and was soon among the foremost reformers,—a man in whom the patriotic Poles justly trusted. But traitors were found to accept Russian bribes, and for the second time Poland was despoiled. Russia annexed the eastern provinces with 3,000,000 inhabitants, and Prussia took Dantzig and Thorn. Austria was told that she might take from the French Republic as much as she wished,—or could.
Manfully and indefatigably did Kosciusko labor to stem the tide of his country's ruin. His patriotism aroused even that of the poor, down-trodden serfs, who had no interests to defend, yet stood by him in battle when the nobles on horseback fled, and wrenched a victory out of defeat. Well might Kosciusko thereafter dress in the garb of a peasant; a gentleman's dress was a badge of dishonor.
It was in 1794, that this battle took place and gave the signal, too, for an effort to restore Poland. But Austria, Prussia, and Russia combined, and Poland was lost. Heroic children were made to pay for the sins of their fathers. Poland expired in 1795. Prussia took Eastern Poland, including Warsaw; Austria annexed Cracow, Sandomir, Lublin, and Selm, and Russia took what remained. The patriots dispersed; most of them took service with the French, hoping for an opportunity to revive their country.
Catherine took especial pains to prevent the ideas, which alone made the French revolution possible, from entering into Russia. There was no occasion for this prudence. The great majority of the Russian people did not know of any world beyond Russia; most of them knew nothing beyond the narrow horizon of their own village, and could neither read nor write. The harrowing tales brought by the fugitive French nobles did not tend toward inspiring the Russian aristocracy with sympathy for Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.
Satisfied that Russia was beyond the sphere of what she regarded as pernicious doctrines, Catherine determined to make the greatest possible profit out of the disturbed condition of Europe. She never ceased to incite Prussia and Austria against the French Republic, but carefully refrained from spending a dollar or risking a man. She pleaded first her war with Turkey, and afterwards the Polish insurrection. She said to Osterman, one of her ministers: "Am I wrong? For reasons that I cannot give to the Courts of Berlin and Vienna, I wish to involve them in these affairs, so that I may have my hands free. Many of my enterprises are still unfinished, and they must be so occupied as to leave me unfettered."
While Europe was engaged in the hopeless task of establishing and maintaining the divine rights of kings, Catherine began a war with Persia. One of her "unfinished enterprises" was interrupted by her death in November, 1796, at the age of sixty-seven. She left the throne to her son Paul.