Russia Under Catherine the Great

The reign of Catherine II (1762–96) opened with prospects of extensive reform, but ended with unrelieved reaction. The change occurred not in the basis of her authority, for she had always insisted on maintaining her autocratic powers intact, but in the nature of her aspirations. The purpose of her absolutism was, at first, the introduction of certain policies inspired by the Enlightenment, but it eventually became merely the preservation of the status quo. The main reason for this change of direction was that she was subject to a long process of Russification. Before her accession in 1762 she had succeeded in implanting the Russian language and Russian customs upon her own German upbringing; but not until she had been in power for some time was she fully affected by the force of Russian tradition and conservatism. Increasingly, she had to adapt politically as well as socially, a process which made her re–examine her basic beliefs.

This transformation took place in four main stages. First between 1762 and 1767 she had to concentrate on political survival after her seizure of power, and this certainly modified her youthful idealism; she still intended, however, to introduce extensive reforms, as her Instructions to the 1767 Commission show. Second, after 1767, she had to reduce her reform proposals as the interests represented by the Commission revealed the strength of Russian conservatism and hostility to change. Catherine was by now somewhat bemused, but still hoped to persuade the nobility to agree to some reforms and to improve the conditions of the serfs. Third, after the Pugachev Rebellion of 1773 she came to the conclusion that her priority was to protect the existing social structure against revolution; the changes which followed were, therefore, based on conservative rather than progressive principles. Finally, after 1790, she adopted a more rigid and dogmatic approach, condemning all forms of radicalism, both inside and outside Russia.

Catherine commenced her reign with a compromise between certain ideals which were influenced by the Enlightenment, and hard-headed realism derived from her experience of a palace coup.

She had developed her links with the Enlightenment during her youth in Germany, and she sustained her interest in the writings of ancient and contemporary philosophers even after adopting Russia as her motherland. She corresponded regularly with the French representatives of the Enlightenment, particularly with Montesquieu (until his death in 1775), Voltaire, Diderot, d'Alambert and the Encyclopédistes. She was described in 1745 as ‘a philosopher at fifteen’ and considered that her mind was ‘of a philosophic nature’. There is also reason to suppose that her political views were progressive and she even referred, on occasions, to her ‘âme républicaine’.

When Catherine seized power in 1762 these philosophical influences were diluted by a large measure of pragmatism, based on an instinct for survival. After all, no Russian ruler could feel completely safe, especially after deposing a predecessor. As Herzen later observed: ‘The inhabitants of St Petersburg, when retiring at night, knew not under what government they should awake in the morning.’1 Catherine therefore had to establish herself securely and to manoeuvre politically to maintain her prerogatives without losing the essential backing of the court nobility and the bureaucracy. She felt that she had to be flexible, and wrote: ‘I have not based my hopes for success on any one mode of action.’2

Thus, between 1762 and 1767, Catherine maintained a grip on the throne by pursuing the normal court intrigues while, at the same time, trying to introduce something new into Russia. The combined influences of the Enlightenment and tradition were evident in the summoning of a Commission in 1767 to rationalize the imperial laws. This was backward-looking in that it reverted to seventeenth-century procedure, whereby the Zemskii Sobor had been consulted by the Tsar over the codification of law. But a complete innovation occurred when Catherine issued her Nakazor Instructions.These contained principles for the guidance of the delegates of the Commission and show that Catherine was determined that there should be a strong theoretical basis for any discussion on future reforms and changes.

The content of the Instructions indicated a careful balance between the fulfilment of certain ideals and the maintenance of undiminished autocracy. Catherine acknowledged that much of the Instructions was influenced directly by Montesquieu's L'Esprit des Lois but she also made sure that the basis of her own power structure was secure. For example, Montesquieu could well have stated: ‘What is the true End of Monarchy? Not to deprive People of their natural Liberty; but to correct their Actions, in order to attain the Supreme Good.’ (Article 13 of the Instructions.) But Article 9 owes nothing to the Enlightenment: ‘The Sovereign is absolute.’ Nor does Article 19: ‘.the sovereign is the source of all imperial and civil power.’ There is some discrepancy in Catherine's concept of the role and rule of law. Article 34 proclaims, with the philosophers: ‘The Equality of the Citizens consists in this: that they should all be subject to the same Laws.’ Article 57, however, emphasizes the force of tradition: ‘The Legislation ought to adapt its Laws to the general Sense of a Nation.’ This came to include the continuation of existing inequalities before Russian law.

Catherine's caution was best expressed in Article 513: ‘The Supreme Art of governing a state consists in the precise Knowledge of that Degree of Power, whether great or small, which ought to be exerted according to the different Exigences of Affairs.’3 Yet, with this reservation, Catherine had a strong desire to introduce major reforms. She hoped that the Commission would be an agent for social change which would include an improvement in the conditions of the serfs and the economic development of a strong middle class. She believed, in short, that 1767 would see the beginning of an extensive legislative programme inspired by a politically experienced philosopher ruler.

The result was extremely disappointing. Although the Commission was broadly representative of the population (excluding the serfs) and handled a total of 1,441 petitions from all classes, it soon became clear that it was not an appropriate vehicle for progressive reform. Many of the petitions contained requests for the confirmation of the existing privileges of the nobility, while the bourgeoisie showed strong interest in acquiring property rights over the serfs. The Commission appeared hopelessly divided in its opinion and was eventually ended in 1768. Its most important effect was to convey to Catherine an impression of the rigidity of Russian society. She became increasingly aware of the need to maintain the support of the dvorianstvo (nobility); and her instinct for political survival now warned her against attempting to introduce progressive measures against the will of the upper levels of society. The period after 1767 actually saw some evidence of retreat by Catherine. The serfs, for example, were deprived by decree of the right to petition against abuses committed by the nobility, on pain of corporal punishment or exile to Siberia. Nevertheless, Catherine did not, at this stage, yield totally to the demands of the nobility. She still had some reservations about the exploitation of the serfs and hoped to secure modifications in the social structure. She still regarded herself as a potential reformer, even though, in the Commission, she had encountered the obstacle of traditionalism. There was still a possibility that she might find another means of persuading the nobility to accept limited changes for the benefit of the serfs and the administration.

The Pugachev Revolt (1773–5) brought about a major change in Catherine's policies. When the Cossack leader threatened the existence of Catherine's Régime by combining a series of social demands on behalf of the serfs with his own candidature to the throne, Catherine came to realize that her own security depended entirely on the support of the nobility and that she might actually jeopardize this by attempting to alleviate the burdens of the other classes. The revolt was eventually overcome with aristocratic co-operation, and the reprisals which followed were an indication of Catherine's further departure from the Enlightenment. Her social conscience now virtually disappeared. She no longer accepted that serfdom and exploitation were problems, and she now decided that all future reforms should be based on the traditional patterns of dvorianstvo request.

This change was illustrated by a series of interviews which Catherine agreed to give Diderot between 1773 and 1774. In response to searching questions posed by Diderot about the nature of Russian society, Catherine provided a number of evasive platitudes and grossly inaccurate details. She observed, for example: The bread which nourishes the people, the religion which consoles them, these are the only ideas of the people. They will be always as simple as nature.’4 When challenged about the conditions of the serfs, she claimed that in most areas they dined regularly on chicken and had even developed a taste for goose!

In her institutional reforms after 1773 Catherine granted extensive concessions to the nobility, hoping to integrate the dvorianstvo voluntarily into the service of the state, and to form a solid defence for autocracy against future revolution. Catherine was now reverting to the policies of previous Russian rulers and was actually influenced more at this stage by the nobles’ petitions to the 1767 Commission than by her own Instructions for the Commission's guidance. The Edict reforming local government in 1775 stressed the widely popular principle of decentralization, and consequently continued the process of undermining Peter the Great's collegiate system in St Petersburg. The Charter to the Nobility in 1785 confirmed the extensive concessions which had been granted by Peter II in 1762, extending Catherine's ‘solicitude to our loyal Russian dvorianstvo’ .5Noble titles were to be hereditary and more completely protected, the principle of voluntary state service was fully acknowledged, and Associations of Nobles were to be constituted in each district of the provinces as a basic means of representation in local government. During the same period the power of the nobility over the serfs was confirmed and extended; Catherine now abandoned her belief, expressed in the Instructions, that no further enslavement should take place. Indeed, she probably contributed more to intensifying that enslavement than any other ruler in Russian history. It has been estimated that she handed over at least 800,000 state peasants to private ownership, and millions of subjects of the areas added to Russia by her active and successful foreign policy were also brought into the system, especially in Poland and the Ukraine. The grip of traditional Russia on Catherine was now almost complete.

The last stage was Catherine's final ideological alienation from the original sources of her inspiration. This happened during the last six years of her reign, and was due primarily to two shocks which she found even more severe than the Pugachev Revolt: the outbreak of the French Revolution and the opposition of Radishchev.

Events in France after 1789 confirmed Catherine's suspicion that the Enlightenment had become perverted and that it had drifted away from the restraint and caution of Montesquieu and Voltaire. Nothing could have been more abhorrent to her than the challenge to absolute monarchy which developed, after 1792, into republicanism and regicide. As a defensive reaction she began a dogmatic condemnation of any demands for reform, and fully agreed with Grimm's description of the French National Assembly as ‘fools masquerading as philosophers’ and ‘bandits who do not even deserve the title of illustrious criminals’.6 After Louis XVI's abortive flight to Varennes in 1792, Catherine assumed the role of the leading ideological spokesman of the ancien régime, encouraging the autocracies to form coalitions, although unwilling to commit Russia militarily.

The case of the writer Alexander Radishchev showed how far Catherine had moved away from her early progressive ideas. Radishchev and Catherine had been in basic agreement at the beginning of the reign in their attitude to the Enlightenment, and Radishchev had been a highly favoured protégé. But her experience of power and her gradual Russification gave Catherine a very different viewpoint from Radishchev who, devoid of political responsibilities and any need to keep a practical perspective, developed into an opposition spokesman. When he published his Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow in 1790, he was immediately charged with treason and was sentenced to death, although Catherine had this commuted to exile in Siberia. She considered it necessary to write a detailed condemnation of the whole work, to discredit Radishchev's factual accounts of social conditions in the areas which he had visited and, above all, to accuse Radishchev of appointing himself the leader, ‘whether by this book or by other means, in snatching the sceptres from the hands of monarchs’.7

In the process of becoming more dogmatic, Catherine had lost the ability to recognize different types of criticism and opposition, and she thought increasingly in absolute rather than relative terms. In her view Radishchev, far from being an articulate spokesman for the oppressed, was ‘a rebel worse than Pugachev’ and was the Russian manifestation of the French Revolution. In losing her sense of perspective on radicalism, Catherine ended her reign as a typical representative of the Russian monarchy, bent on preserving existing society and institutions. As she observed to Grimm in 1789: ‘I shall remain an aristocrat; that is my metier.‘6


Despite her changing political attitudes, Catherine never gave up her intellectual contacts with the West. At first these were largely philosophical, but gradually, as the Enlightenment proved embarrassing to her in its political context, they became more openly cultural, focusing on painting, music, theatre, opera and architecture. The result was the beginning of the cultural development of modern Russia and, as historians like to assert, the addition of a soul to the body formed by Peter the Great. Nevertheless, even here the social structure had a distorting effect. Encouraged by Catherine, the Russian nobility developed foreign tastes which alienated them from their fellow countrymen without making them more susceptible to progressive political influences from the West. The ultimate paradox of the reign was that, while Russia was imposing its will on its ruler, its most traditional elite was in the process of becoming more familiar with the language and literature of France, even while France was becoming a dangerous ideological enemy.

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