Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, was born in Stettin, Pomerania, Prussia on 2 May 1729 as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. She reigned as Empress of Russia from 9 July 1762 after the assassination of her husband, Peter III, just after the end of the Seven Years’ War until her death on 17 November 1796.
Under her direct auspices the Russian Empire expanded, improved its administration, and continued to modernize along Western European lines. Catherine’s rule re-vitalized Russia, which grew stronger than ever and became recognized as one of the great powers of Europe. She had successes in foreign policy and oversaw sometimes brutal reprisals in the wake of rebellion (most notably Pugachev’s Rebellion).
Catherine embraced a life of enlightened ideals. She held western European philosophies and culture close to her heart and she wanted to surround herself with like-minded people within Russia. She believed a ‘new kind of person’ could be created by inoculating Russian children with proper European education. Catherine believed education could change the hearts and minds of the Russian people, and turn them away from inherent backwardness. This meant developing individuals both intellectually and morally, providing them knowledge and skills, and fostering a sense of civic responsibility. Catherine appointed Ivan Betskoy as her adviser on educational matters. Through him, she collected information from Russia and other countries about educational institutions. In addition to appointing Betskoy as her educational adviser, she established a Commission composed of T.N. Teplov, T. con Klingstedt, F.G. Dilthey, and the historian G. Muller. She also sought advice on her educational projects from British education pioneers, particularly Rev. Daniel Dumaresq and Dr. John Brown. In 1764, Catherine sent for Dumaresq to come to Russia and then appointed him to the educational Commission. The Commission studied the reform projects previously installed by I.I. Shuvalov under Elizabeth and under Peter III. They then submitted their own recommendations for the establishment of a general system of education for all Russian orthodox subjects from the age of 5 to 18, excluding serfs. However, no action was taken on any recommendations put forth by the Commission due to the calling of the Legislative Commission. In July 1765 Dumaresq wrote to Dr. John Brown about the commission’s problems and received a long reply containing very general and sweeping suggestions for education and social reforms in Russia. Dr. Brown argued that in a democratic country, education ought to be under the state’s control and based on an education code. He also placed great emphasis on the “proper and effectual education of the female sex,” which was bound to impress Catherine because, two years prior, she had commissioned Ivan Betskoy to draw up the General Program for the Education of Young People of Both Sexes. This work emphasized the fostering of the creation of a ‘new kind of people’ raised in isolation from the damaging influence of a backward Russian environment. The Establishment of the Moscow Foundling Home (Moscow Orphanage) was the first attempt at achieving that goal. It was charged with admitting destitute and illegitimate children in order to educate them in any way the state deemed fit. Since the Moscow Foundling Home was not established as a state funded institution, the Home represented an opportunity to experiment with new educational theories. However, the Moscow Foundling Home proved not to be very successful mainly due to the extremely high mortality rates preventing many of the children from living long enough to develop into the enlightened subjects the state desired.
Not long after the Moscow Foundling Home, Catherine established the Smolny Institute for Noble Girls to educate females. The Smolny Institute emerged as the first of its kind in Russia. At first the Institute only admitted young girls of the noble elite, but eventually it began to admit girls of the petit-bourgeoisie as well. The girls that attended the Smolny Institute, Smolyanki, were often accused of being ignorant of anything that went on in the world outside the walls of the Smolny buildings. Within the walls of the Institute they were taught impeccable French, musicianship, dancing and complete awe of the Monarch. At the Institute, enforcement of strict discipline was central to its philosophy. Running and games were forbidden and the building was kept particularly cold because it was believed that too much warmth was harmful to the developing body, just like excess play.
During the years 1768-1774, there was no progress made in setting up a national school system. However, Catherine herself continued to investigate educational theory and practice in other countries. She made many educational reforms despite the lack of establishment of a national school system. The remodeling of the Cadet Corps 1766 initiated her many educational reforms. It then began to take children from a very young age and educate them until the age of 21. The curriculum was broadened from the professional military curriculum to include the sciences, philosophy, ethics, history, international law, etc. This policy in the Cadet Corps influenced the teaching in the Naval Cadet Corps, and in the Engineering and Artillery Schools. After the war and the defeat of Pugachov, Catherine laid the obligation to establish schools at the guberniya—a provincial subdivision of the Russian empire ruled by a governor—on the Boards of Social Welfare set up with the participation of elected representatives from the three free estates. By 1782, Catherine arranged another advisory commission to study the information gathered about various models of educational systems in many different countries. A system produced by a mathematician, F Aepinus stood out in particular. He was strongly in favor of the adoption of the Austrian three tier model of trivial, real and normal schools at village, town and provincial capital level. In addition to the advisory commission, Catherine established a Commission of National Schools under P.I. Zavadovsky. This commission was charged with organizing a national school network, training the teachers and providing the textbooks. Finally, on August 5, 1786, the Russian Statute of National Education was promulgated. The Statute established a two-tier network of high schools and primary schools in guberniya capitals that were free of charge, open to all of the free classes (non-serfs), and co-educational. It also regulated, in detail, the subjects to be taught at every age and the method of teaching it. In addition to the textbooks translated by the Commission, teachers were provided with the Guide to Teachers. This work, divided into four parts, dealt with teaching methods, the subjects taught, the behavior of the teacher, and the running of a school.
Judgment of the 19th century was generally critical claiming that Catherine failed to make enough money to support her educational program. Two years after the implementation of Catherine’s educational program, a member of the National Commission inspected the institutions being established. Throughout Russia, the inspectors encountered a patchy response. While the nobility put up appreciable amounts of money for these institutions, they preferred to send their children to private, more prestigious institutions. Also, the townspeople tended to turn against the junior schools and their pedagogical methods. When all was said and done, it is estimated that about 62,000 pupils were being educated in some 549 state institutions near the end of Catherine’s reign. This was only a miniscule amount of people compared to the size of the Russian population.