About the means of achieving and maintaining support: she relied like any previous monarch in 18th century after Peter I on support from guard regiments. After seizing the throne her reign may be categorized into several periods, but what was constant was her reliance on nobility. She didn’t rescind Manifesto of nobles’ liberty (1762) which was created by her husband. In 1765 she allowed nobles to banish their serfs into penal servitude in Siberia.
In 1767 she forbidden serfs to complain about their masters. She called Legislative Commission in 1767 but (you can read her appeal to Legislative Commission to understand her philosophical and political views in this period) it got bogged down into debate between liberal and conservative nobility about serfdom and because the latter were in majority nothing came of it. She clearly understood the mood of nobility.
Pugachev’s rebellion was a very significant event which influenced her policy. During the siege of Kazan by Pugachev she proclaimed herself as Landlord of Kazan (Казанская помещица) to show her solidarity with nobles which were targeted by Pugachev. Woman who had harbored some illusions about enlightenment, freedom and human dignity turned into staunch defender of serfdom and she completely aligned herself with nobility. In 1783 serfdom was introduced in Left-bank Ukraine.
In 1785 she issued Charter to Nobility and Charter to cities. First document expanded privileges of nobility which were granted by Peter III even more. Second document created several rigid social categories in which urban population was placed. After French Revolution her policy became more and more reactionary. Woman who shared values of Enlightenment, corresponded with Voltaire, published satirical magazines in her previous years became vengeful and reactionary monarch. She persecuted and ordered arrest of the first russian journalist Nikolay Novikov and writer Alexander Radishchev for his book “Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow” in which he criticized serfdom and autocracy.
As for the question about “golden age” of Russia. As you can see her domestic policy is controversial and some may say reactionary, but her foreign policy was very successful – Russia obtained huge amount of lands during partitions of Poland and russo-turkish wars. Russia finally had access to Black sea and Crimean khanate which raided and enslaved russian population for centuries was liquidated.
As for your premise about defying gender stereotypes: she was 4th female empress of Russian Empire, she had numerous favorites during her reign, she lavished them with colossal amount of “gifts” from state treasury and awarded them with various orders. One gender stereotype she broke for sure – she made her favorite 22 years old Platon Zubov while she was 60 years old.
- Massie, Robert K. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.
- Kliuchevskii, Vasilii. A course in Russian history.
- Pavlenko, Nikolay. Catherine the Great.UrbanKC: I think it entirely depends on what one would consider a “golden age” to be.
Catherine the Great and Peter the Great’s reigns were periods of mass Westernization of Russian society and culture. So to many in the West, that is what makes them deserve the title of “Great” and why one might consider those periods to be “golden ages” of Russian history.
But… those periods also marked a destruction of a significant portion of traditional Russian culture and indigenous traditions. Often, the efforts to Westernize came at the expense of what made Russia unique, and what defined it culturally.
Therefore you’ll find many in Russia who don’t consider Peter or Catherine to be all that “Great”, and consider much of their periods to be an invasion of a foreign culture, and a subjugation of true Russian culture.
As an example, on the religious end, the Russian Orthodox Church has a flourishing tradition of monophonic Chant, very similar to their Eastern Roman cousins down in Greece, Romania, Bulgaria etc… this tradition was eventually suppressed and superseded in favor of polyphonic, choral music inspired by Italian, German and French composers. Russian composers like Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Bortniansky were all examples of composers who adopted the more Western style of composition and music.
Many tried to adapt the older monophonic styles into their new style of composition, but others like Tchaikovsky, did more whole-sale composition that was much more directly inspired by French composition, to such a degree that his music was, and still is banned for liturgical use in Russia.
To hear an example of traditional Russian monophonic chant, see here:
The same hymn, as composed by Dmytro Bortniansky (1751-1825):
Again, the same hymn, here as composed by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)::
Same, as composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908):
As in those examples, you can hear a definite shift from the older monophonic style popular in the Russian Orthodox Church (which has a main melody line, and an underlying drone note), to the western polyphonic style that became popular in Roman Catholic & Protestant Churches in the preceding period. However, while many in Russia may prefer the “newer” styles, still many also prefer the older monophonic style, considering it to be more faithful to the overall Orthodox Christian music tradition. So one group might consider the period, especially in the arts, to be a “Golden Age” in Russia. While the other may consider it to be sort-of a “Dark Age” because of the suppression of traditional Russian culture & traditions, and supplanting of such by foreign cultural elements.
Traditional Russian dress and grooming also started changing. Peter was infamous for hating the long beards of traditional Russian men so much, that he would become so angry that he’d try to physically rip the beards off of Russian peasants who had beards. So, many Russians (especially the aristocracy) started shaving and sporting western mustaches. They’d also try to conform to western styles of dress.
Those periods really helped modernize and industrialize Russian society, helping to make Russia the “Great Power” that it became. But it also came at the expense of Russia traditional culture and society. So it depends on who you are, and why you define as “Golden Age”.
Many Russians might consider the period between the overthrow of the Mongols, up to Peter the Great’s rule to be the true Russian “Golden Age”. But then you’ll find others who consider Peter to Catherine the Golden Age. Then still others may consider the Soviet period to be its Golden Age… such a title is so subjective and hard to define.