Catherine II (b. 1729), Empress of Russia from 1767-1796, presided over the Golden Age of the Russian Empire. At the time of her reign, Catherine was not just the most powerful woman in the world, but the most powerful woman who had ever lived. No other female ruler—not Queen Elizabeth I, not Eleanor of Aquitaine, not even Cleopatra—wielded as much control over as many subjects or as much territory.
Born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg in 1729, a German-speaking Prussian princess, Catherine assumed the throne upon the death of her husband, Tsar Peter III, under mysterious circumstances. A prodigious lover and canny tsarina, Catherine was a formidable presence, both within her empire and beyond. Her sweeping reforms revitalized the country, turning Russia into a force to be reckoned with. She was, in every way, Catherine the Great.
She played a quiet but vital role in the American Revolution, which she predicted would succeed as early as 1776. “The colonies,” she wrote to a friend, “have told England goodbye forever.” Catherine detested the England of King George III, regarding it as an inept operation. She rebuffed numerous requests by England to help put down the Revolution, either by sending troops or funds. She also refused to mediate the conflict between England and France, exacerbating tensions between those two powers that would come to a head a generation later.
In 1780, Catherine organized the so-called League of Armed Neutrality, declaring that Russian would protect neutral shippers, which were being harassed by the British navy. Russia was soon joined by Prussia, Portugal, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, as well as France, Spain, and the fledgling United States. This was neutral in name only; in effect, she was taking sides against the British Crown. Had Catherine decided to assist the British, King George could have concentrated his full energies on squashing the rebellion. Instead, his attentions, and his armies, were divided between the colonies and the Continent. Catherine’s subtle but vital statecraft, and the might of her navy, helped birth the United States of America.
Her sweeping reforms revitalized the country, transforming Russia into a nation as “great” as its empress. Her coins, outsized as they are, are a fitting monument to her memory.
CATHERINE’S GREAT COIN It is appropriate that an Empress so mighty should issue the largest copper coin ever used in regular circulation. Weighing in at a massive 51 grams on average, these enormous 5-kopek copper coins are almost twice as heavy as U.S. silver dollars of the same period. Catherine’s influence was so great that her extra-large design was copied by the King of England; the British “cartwheel” twopence, a similarly large coin, was issued in 1797, a year after Catherine’s death.
The Revolutionary Coin of Catherine the Great
Shown in high grade
Kopek derives from the Russian word for spear—the image of St. George brandishing a spear appeared on Russian coinage since Muscovy captured Novgorod in 1478. The first kopek was issued in 1534, during the short reign of Elena Glinskaya, the mother of Ivan the Terrible. Although the oversized 5 kopek coin originated with Empress Elizabeth in 1758, Catherine’s issues were larger, heavier, and better designed. The kopek, 1/100th of a ruble, was a unit of currency in Russia for 479 years before being discontinued in 2013.