Catherine the Great
Probably the doyen of powerful women in politics and war was Catherine the Great, and no list of great women would be complete without her. Born in 1729 to a Prussian noble family, she married into the Russian royal family, the Romanovs, and came to power in coup that unseated her husband. An enormously ambitious and capable woman, Catherine cemented her rule with ruthless efficiency and a complete lack of scruple. Her thirty-four-year reign saw great political and social advances in Russia, but it was overshadowed by a scandal-ridden private life, more salacious than almost any other great leader in history.
Among her achievements, aside from the simple longevity of her rule, was her successful leadership of Russia in the âRusso-Turkish Wars‘, the expansionist agenda of the Russians attempting to gain a foothold on the Black Sea. For Russia, this was a vital strategic acquisition, the only access to the Mediterranean and the southern oceans.
It was under her reign, indeed, that Russia emerged as one of the great European powerhouses, and through a process of war and diplomacy, she expanded the Russian Empire to its greatest extent. It was also under Catherine that Russia began to gain its credentials as a center of high culture, widespread education and literacy. It was she who established the first centers of female education in Russia, and it was she who set up the first, modern, Western-style system of government and administration. As such, she played a central role in what was later described as the Russian Enlightenment.
All of this, however, has been edged off the stage in popular myth by the scandals that surrounded Catherine’s life. She was certainly known for her sexual liberty and appetite, and in fact, when she died at age sixty-seven, it was rumored that it was in the middle of copulating with a horse. However, although prolific until her death, her sex life was somewhat more conventional. She was, however, clearly extremely driven, and had made a collection of pornographic furniture that has become rather iconic. She had public affairs with at least twenty-two men, all younger than she, and obviously a great many more on the side.
But nonetheless, Catherine the Great was arguably the most powerful, the most successful and the most enigmatic of all the great female figures of history.
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