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Profiles in Power

Catherine the Great -

Enlightened Ennpress?
Simon Henderson places a key figure into the context of modern Russian history.

Catherine in her teens with her

fiance Peter Fedorovich. He
became Emperor as Peter III in
1762 but died later that year, after
Catherine's coup.

the relationship between the Empress

and the Enlightenment, In 1847 the
historian Wilhelm Roseler coined the
term 'enlightened absolutism' to
refer to the policies followed by
certain European rulers from 1760
to 1790, including administrative
centralisation, religious toleration and
the subordination of the church to the
state. The most prominent of these
monarchs, Frederick II of Prussia,
Joseph II of Austria and Catherine II of
Russia, also held an interest in the
philosophy and culture of the
Enlightenment, and professed some
degree of commitment to its values.
The Empress belongs among these
enlightened absolutists and, whilst
she maintained that the Russian
Empire needed autocratic rule in order
to keep her strong and safe from
external threat, she did not believe this
rule had to be despotic.
The 'enlightened', 'republican'
image cultivated by Catherine was
questioned by few in 18th-century
Europe, Nor was the compatibility of
this republicanism with absolute
Isabel de Madariaga, Catherine's COIiUeiniiduuM. ll [b urily luLently t h a t monarchy. The term 'republican' did
greatest biographer, has written, historians have sought to resurrect her not carry the same democratic
'Since I first took Catherine seriously image, replacing contempt with connotations as it came to have after
as a ruler, some forty years ago, I have praise and understanding. the French Revolution, Herein lies the
grown to like her very much,' Yet heart of the matter, Catherine's ideals
many historians have not allowed the Catherine and her Critics and policies were products of the 18th
Empress to grow on them. She has Much of the debate concerning century; her pretensions to be
elicited strong and passionate Catherine's reign has revolved around 'enlightened' were specific to Russia

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She was a dynamic, energetic, thoughtful monarch, sometimes generous,
sometimes cruel, always vain, always tenacious, but with an unswerving
commitment to modernising Russia.

at that time. Historians who have meanings, we should analyse supported by the Guards Regiment.
concentrated great effort on Catherine's intentions and policies Cathenne was certainty relieved when,
scrutinising how closely Catherine's and the constraints which she faced. It in 1764, she heard of the
words matched her actions, how true is to be argued here that Catherine assassination of Ivan VI, who had been
she was to the Enlightenment as the Great was indeed distinguished. deposed as an infant in 1741. It is not
expressed by the ideas of philosophers She was a dynamic, energetic, surprising, given this context, that
such as Voltaire, Diderot, and thoughtful monarch, sometimes Catherine actively cultivated a forceful
Montesquieu, have rather missed the generous, sometimes cruel, always image of power; she needed to deflect
point. The Enlightenment was not a vain, always tenacious, but with an attention from her questionable
political manifesto and did not provide unswerving commitment to legitimacy. Yes, the Empress was vain,
a blueprint for action, ln fact Diderot modernising Russia. but she was also very skilful. Her
told Catherine that 'he did not like to correspondence with Voltaire,
treat serious matters in a systematic Catherine's Coup Diderot, Grimm and others was part
way'. Born in 1729, as Princess Sophia of of a public relations offensive in
19th-century Russian liberal Anhalt Zerbst, Catherine was the Europe. She consciously crafted the
historians, such as Alexander Herzen, daughter of a minor German prince. In image of an enlightened mother of
accused the Empress of seeking 1774 she married the grandson of Russia. She cruised down the Volga in
merely power, not progress or an Peter I. The match was not a good 1767, constructed awe-inspiring
improvement in social welfare. They one, and there were problems from celebrations following victory in war
claimed that Catherine's professions the beginning. Peter was a most with the Turks, and emerged from
of enlightenment were a mere sham, difficult and boonsh man, who once crowds in towns on her way to the
adopted to present an attractive court-martialled a rat caught in his Crimea in 1787 with rouge covered
facade to the West. Soviet historians wife's bedchamber and then executed cheeks from kissing the bourgeois
labelled her a hypocrite, proclaiming It. it is not surprising that Catherine ladies.
liberal and enlightened ideals on the found comfort in the arms of several Catherine the Great was a keen
one hand but practising oppressive lovers, and it is still not known student of the presentations of power.
despotism on the other. Her reign was whether her son, the future Tsar Paul, Her policies were wholly
viewed as a defence of the ruling was fathered by Peter or Sergey understandable and were consistent
class's interest and an oppression of Saltykov, Peter III ascended the throne with the projection of power in the
the peasantry concealed by a following the death of Elizabeth in Russian court. Peter the Great had
profession of concern for progress and 1761. He had little of the flair for used Roman imagery extensively
enlightenment. It is claimed that the leadership that wouid be shown by his during his reign and replaced Tsar with
Empress's reign saw the apogee of wife. the title 'imperator'. She used very
serfdom, a stinging indictment for a Peter allowed his admiration for deliberate and powerful symbolism in
ruler professing to be 'enlightened'. Prussian militarism to alienate the displaying a move towards greater
Others have moved away from Guards Regiment when he snatched westernisation, the most visual and
criticising the gap between the an unfavourable peace from the jaws striking example being St Petersburg.
projected image and the policy reality, of victory over Prussia in 1762. He Cathenne's accession to power and
and argued that in fact her words then alienated many with his overt her deliberate cultivation of a
were not particularly 'enlightened' in disrespect for the Orthodox Church. In powerful and distinct imagery of rule
the first instance. the spring of 1762 a whisper of can be seen as examples of continuity.
Much of this criticism of Catherine change was heard in the corridors of In her 1762 coup she trod in the
belongs to a period when her major power, and, led by the Oriov brothers, footsteps of many predecessors,
internal reforms were viewed from the Catherine was proclaimed Empress painting herself as the enlightened
perspective of liberal, populist or and received the support of a group of matriarch, just as Peter had been the
Soviet historians, who were sceptical Guards Officers. Peter, absent at the dynamic westerniser.
as to whether any good could have time of the coup, was arrested on his
ever come from a Tsar. They were pre- return and, conveniently, died shortly Instructing the Nobility
occupied with showing that Catherine afterwards. Given this context, Cathenne's Great
was not an 'enlightened' ruler. Yet, This was certainly a murky episode, Instruction of 1767 emerges more
rather than viewing Catherine as a yet it is characteristic of the politics of clearly. !t should be viewed as part of
hypocrite and analysing the gap St Petersburg in the 18th century. an attempt by the Empress to cement
between her words and actions from Peter the Great's decree in 1722 that her power; it was the product of her
the perspective and ideals of a the Emperor was entitled to name his impressive reading and literary
different era, with different values and successor, led to a series of coups expression, but also a statement of

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Yes, the Empress was
vain, but she was
also very skilful.

to conceal its desperate weakness' as

well as to camouflage the actual
power wielded by the nobles. For
some historians, the reign of
Catherine saw both a 'golden age' for
the nobility and, consequently, the
apogee of serfdom. It has been
argued that the nobles erased what
they pleased from Catherine's
Instruction. Certainly the Empress's
advisors recommended she remove
some of her observations on serfdom.
In 1907 the suppressed sections of
Chapter XI were discovered, and
revealed that Catherine had
suggested that serfs should be entitled
to purchase their freedom, or that
servitude shouid be limited to a penod
of six years. Some have interpreted
this omission as early evidence of the
Empress's reliance on the nobility.
After all, here was a ruler who had
come to power largely as a result of a
conspiracy headed by leading noble
This portrait illustrates Catherine recognised, therefore, that the
families. Powerful nobles, already
writing the Instruction, in which Instruction grew out of Catherine's
relieved of the obligation to sen/e the
she set out her principles for love of literature, and it was
monarch by Peter III, were in no mood
governing Russia. stylistically indebted to Montesquieu's
to surrender their privileged place in
L'Esprit des Lois. The Empress had no
the social order. The Charter of the
concrete plan of action, but she did
Nobility of 1785 has been seen as a
have a reforming impulse, and she
veritable 'Bill of Rights' for the nobles,
modernising intent. Deputies were to loved to read, write and inspire
and, coming ten years after the
be elected to the Legislative debate. She was also conscious of the
Provincial Reforms, completed the
Commission, which would be need to solidify her position by
handover of power in the provinces to
composed of over 600 men drawn distancing herself from her dead
the landed nobility.
from the nobility, state peasantry and husband, by instigating a move
other social groups. The Instruction towards her own ideas for reform. But
spells out Catherine's views on the what grew out of this reforming Catherine and the Serfs
social, political, judicial and economic impulse? Clearly this interpretation of the
issues in Russia and starts by Since at least the 16th century, the power relations in Russia under
proclaiming that the nation is a constellation of power in Russia Catherine did not bode well for the
European state. There was certainly revolved around the interlocking peasantry. Blum has argued that the
considerable vanity and self- relationship between the Tsar, the Empress turned over 800,000
indulgence in the Instruction and church (until the late seventeenth peasants to private proprietors. The
Catherine's contact with the century), the nobility, and the 1763 law limiting freedom of
philisophes was central to the image peasantry. Any attempt at reform movement by requiring the peasant to
of power which she consciously would necessarily be played out within get a permit from the landlord before
projected, but her commitment to this complex socio-political construct, he could leave the property has been
study and to intellectual debate was and it is with reference to these power cited as evidence that Catherine
genuine. Unlike Frederick II, Catherine relationships that historians have enserfed peasants in the name of
did her own writing, and she was criticised Catherine most severely. It fiscal expediency. The state, it is
prolific. She also encouraged others to has been argued that after 1762 the argued, abandoned the peasant to
read and think. Annual expenditure Russian monarchy became the virtual supervision by the nobility, so that the
on books dunng Catherine's reign was prisoner of the nobility. According to Russian serf became barely
80,000 roubles, and she established a Richard Pipes, 'The trappings of distinguishable from a chattel slave.
library for her palace staff. It must be imperial omnipotence served merely The death penalty was meted out by

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Peter was a most difficult and boorish man, who
once court-martialled a rat caught in his wife's
bedchamber and then executed it.

serf owners under the guise of Empress eroded the methods by countryside. Catherine attempted to
punishment: if the serf was not able to which people could be enserfed bring the rule of law to the provinces,
withstand the blows of the lash, that (though the extension of the poll tax with boards of welfare and education,
was not the master's fault. to the Ukraine in 1783 did result in the courts and police offices that were
Certainly Catherine had to rely on expansion of serfdom). Catherine's partly staffed by elected members of
the nobility to aid her in ruling Russia memoirs show her deep concern over the local nobility and urban
and in supervising the provinces. This the treatment of the serfs and her population. Of course, much of the
was especially so following the disappointment at the lack of support day-to-day administration of the
Pugachev revolt of 1773-4. Claiming her initiatives received at the provinces was left to the nobility, and
to be Peter III, Pugachev led the largest Legislative Commission. In 1767 it was their own interpretations of
upheaval in Russia prior to the 1905 forbidden for foster parents to enserf Catherine's edicts. However, there
and 1917 revolutions, and left a illegitimate children. In 1781 was a tentative move towards the
'spectre to haunt future generations enserfment of prisoners of war was creation of an educated bureaucracy.
of landlords and officials'. The revolt prohibited and a law passed that saw The Empress herself worried about
engulfed the whole basin of the marriage of a free man to a serf the lack of competent officials, but
middle Volga, together with the Yaik woman emancipate the woman. some did exist, and they brought new
Valley and the southern and central Catherine is known to have ideas of legality to the provinces.
Urals. The insurgence was part of the investigated and then bought out Catherine therefore was keen to
conflict between the rise of serfdom landowners who were reported to ill- foster greater education. Not only did
and autocracy, but was also a sectional treat their serfs. Furthermore, taken as she love literature, she was a great
conflict between the expanding centre a percentage of the population, the sponsor of the theatre and collector of
and the receding frontier. Certainly proportion of the peasantry that were art. She moved to bring greater
the Pugachev revolt emphasised the serfs remained the same between the education to her people. In 1786 the
symbiotic relationship between beginning and end of her reign, and Russian Statute of National Education
Catherine and the nobility. The nobles the number of legally free state was promulgated and attempted to
looked to Cathenne for protection peasants increased. set up a national school system.
against the raging rebellion, whilst Catherine was ahead of her time in
Catherine declared herself the 'first decreeing that corporal punishment
Crossroads of Change
landowner' of Russia and relied on the was not to be used in the schools,
In terms of the socio-political
nobility to keep order. though brutality to children
development of Russia, Catherine's
Those who seek to defend reign is a crossroads of change. From continued. Importing an Austrian
Catherine from her critics cite the the vantage point of Catherinian system implemented by Jankovic, she
Pugachev revolt as evidence of the Russia we can look back to the did choose a school structure which
great constraints faced by the solidification of the service state, and was non-disruptive to empire and built
Empress, and show the mutual forward to the nse of the bureaucracy. on authority. However, by the
reliance between Catherine and the The reign of the Empress both saw the standards of the 1780s Russian
nobility as reason for her tentative apogee of serfdom and set in motion schools were undeniably modern and
approach to social reform. Rather than the process that led to its destruction. advanced when compared with the
seeing her as insincere in her concern Following the Pugachev revolt, rest of Europe. Catherine was also the
for the peasantry, historians have Catherine set about reforming the founder of the first girls' school in
recently highlighted what Catherine provinces. The provincial reforms of Russia, for the daughters of the
did achieve, and what she might have 1775 were a calculated attempt to nobility and bourgeoisie. Catherine
achieved had circumstances been bring greater co-ordination and was, therefore, responsible for the
different. Catherine has been accused efficiency to the Russian provinces. By emergence of a provincial
of making grants of settled estates as setting up local councils and government structure committed to
rewards to servitors or favourites, thus assemblies and giving nobles who efficiency and the rule of law, which
converting many state peasants into served the state a place in them, was cemented by the genesis of a new
private serfs. In fact, her land grants Catherine bound the nobility to each education system. These reforms had
were from territories annexed from other and the state. In some respects a slow but significant impact upon
Poland after the three partitions, and the 1762 decision by Peter III to socio-political relations in Russia.
she made very few grants from abolish compulsory state service saw What we see in the reign of
Russian state peasants- the state emancipating itself from the Catherine is the beginning of the
Catherine was well aware of, and nobility. The local assemblies ensured crumbling of the Petrine state, a
criticised, the harsh conditions faced the nobles served a useful purpose process which was accelerated in the
by serfs. Throughout her reign the rather than loafing around in the first half of the 19th century. In the

History Review Murth 200S 17

The Empress had no concrete plan of action, but she did have a
reforming impulse, and she loved to read, write and inspire debate.

Catherinian period, and after, the continuity and gradual change for the peace of Kuchuk Kainardzhi of
nobles' importance to the state Russia. The Empress herself played an 1774 brought with it not only the
infrastructure was declining, and an active role in foreign affairs, just as she success of the independence of
ever more powerful bureaucracy did in ali other spheres of government. Crimea but further Austrian and
achieved dominance. In 1861 the serfs Indeed, despite reliance on a close Prussian interference in Poland.
were emancipated. The group of advisers, she insisted on It is in her dealings with Poland and
professionalised, 'enlightened' seeing every dispatch- Furthermore, in her response to the French
bureaucrats were the dnving force the impressive image of authority that Revolution that many histonans have
behind emancipation; the role of Catherine projected made a criticised Catherine, Those who wish
Alexander )l was to give them their memorable and significant impact on to show the limits of Catherine's
head, by denying serfdom a stay of visiting foreign envoys. She furthered 'enlightened' stance point to her
execution. When we look beyond the the extent to which Russia was condemnation of the French
distraction of weighing up how involved in European affairs, and rivals Revolution and to the partitions of
genuine Catherine was in her were increasingly unable to deny this Poland, It is worth stating, however,
approach to the relationship between influence. Even the French eventually that Russia was the last of the
lord and peasant, we see a more accepted Cathenne's imperial titie in European powers to go to war with
subtle phenomenon emerging. The 1772, France, While the other powers were
Empress' reign was witness to the The Empress operated within the indeed fighting the French
crossroads of a significant shift in this traditional constraints of foreign (unsuccessfully at this point) Catherine
relationship, as the Petrine state relations, attempting to protect attempted to take advantage in
began to dissolve- Russia's interests in the Baltic, Poland Poland, By 1795, the year before her
Again, in foreign relations, we can and the Crimea- Intervention in Poland death, the third partition of Poland
locate the Catherinian era on a line of in 1768 led to war with the Turks, and had been concluded, Catherine
strengthened Russia's position at the
expense of her traditional enemies,
profiting in Poland whilst the Western
powers played out their rivalries -
rivalries which Catherine kept Russia
out of.

With the issue of Poland, we return to
where we began, with the assessment
of Catherine's great biographer. De
Madariaga states that she finds the
treatment of Poland and Stanislas
Poniatowski unforgivable, 'The
destruction of Poland was carried out
with ruthlessnessand an undercurrent
of raillery which is extremely
unpleasant and Catherine's bullying
of Stanislas himself was downright

The Cake of Kings': this cartoon

illustrates the plans being cooked
up by Catherine and the monarchs
of Austria (Joseph II) and Prussia
(Frederick II) to partition Poland in

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From the Catherinian era we can look back to the Petrine state and
forward to its crumbling at the onslaught of bureaucratisation - and
what is most interesting is the role played by Catherine in this process.

Yet what seems 'enlightened' in Issues to Debate Simon Henderson teaches

one epoch may not in another, and o Was Catherine the Great's history at Teesdale
questions of how 'enlightened' 'enlightenment' a sham? Comprehensive School in
Catherine was are futile, Catherine o What roles did the nobility play Barnard Castle, Co. Durham. He
herself believed that politics was during Catherine's rule? won the Guardian Award for
founded on three words: o How important a figure was Outstanding New Teacher in
'circumstance, conjecture and Cathenne the Great in modern the North East and Cumbria in
conjuncture'. It has been argued Russian history? 2003.
above that we must see Catherine
pnmarily in the context of
developments in Russian history in the
18th and 19th centuries. Her
patronage of the arts and sponsorship
of education saw a continuing process
of westernisation, and her relationship
with the nobility saw the acceleration
of the unravelling of the service state.
From the Catherinian era we can look
back to the Petnne state and forward
to its crumbling at the onslaught of
bureaucratisation - and what is most
interesting is the role played by
Catherine in this process.

Further Reading
J, Blum, Lord and Peasant in Russia
(Princeton University Press, 1961)
S, Dixon, Catherine the Great
(Longman, 2001)
A, Lentin, Enlightened Absolutism,
1760-1790 {A\/em, 1985)
I- de Madariaga, 'Catherine the Great -
A Personal View,' History Today.
51(11) (November 2001) and
Catherine the Great: A Short History
(Yale University Press, 2nd edn, 2002)
M- Raeff (ed,) Catherine the Great - A
Proffle (Macmillan, 1972}
R. Pipes, Russia under the Old Regime
(Penguin, 2nd edn,, 1995)

A portrait of an ageing Catherine

the Great. She died in 1796, at the
age of 67.

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