Catherine II of Russia, “Catherine the Great” (reigned 1762 – 1796)
An unhappy marriage catapulted Catherine II of Russia into power. When her husband, Peter III, was crowned, he quickly alienated the nobility by pushing reforms that helped the poor. He went on to end the war with Prussia, which angered the upper military class. Catherine, who never got along with Peter, allied herself with these factions, working with them to arrest Peter and seize power for herself. Catherine was able to expand her territory while fending off uprisings, wrote legal codes, improve education, wrote operas and children’s fairy tales, and promote the arts. Yet when she tried government reforms, she was often thwarted by her bureaucrats. Catherine’s death sparked colorful rumors about how she died, but the reality was much mundane. She died in bed after suffering a stroke.