Between love and war, statesmanship and diplomacy, this astonishing woman found time for philosophy. We get a measure of the high repute won by the French philosophes when we see the two ablest rulers of the eighteenth century proud to correspond with them, and competing for their praise.
Long before her accession Catherine had relished the style, wit, and irreverencies of Voltaire, and had dreamed of becoming the “enlightened despot” of his dreams. She must have liked Diderot too, for in September, 1762, she offered to print the Encyclopédie in St. Petersburg if the French government continued to outlaw it. Only one letter survives of those that she wrote to Voltaire before 1765; it replied to some lines that he had sent her in October, 1763:
For the first time I regret that I am not a poet, and that 1 must answer your verses in prose. But I may tell you that since 1746 I have been under the greatest obligations to you. Before that period I read nothing but romances, but by chance your works fell into my hands, and ever since then I have never ceased to read them, and have had no desire for books less well written than yours, or less instructive.... So I return continually to the creator of my taste as to my deepest amusement. Assuredly, monsieur, if I have any knowledge I owe it to you. I am now reading the Essai sur l’histoire générale, and I should like to learn every page of it by heart.31
Throughout her life, or till their deaths, Catherine corresponded with Voltaire, Diderot, d’Alembert, Mme. Geoffrin, Grimm, and many more French notables. She contributed to the funds Voltaire raised for the Calas and the Sirvens. We have seen how she ordered large shipments of watches from Ferney, and of stockings knitted by Voltaire’s workers, sometimes (if we may believe the old fox) by Voltaire himself. It was a feather in his skullcap that crowned heads should so honor him, and he repaid Catherine by becoming her press agent in France. He exonerated her from complicity in the death of Peter III; “I know,” he wrote, “that Catherine is reproached with some bagatelle about her husband; but these are family matters in which I do not mix.”32 He pleaded with his friends to support him in supporting Catherine; so to d’Argental:
I have another favor to ask of you; it is for my Catherine. We must establish her reputation in Paris among worthy people. I have strong reasons for believing that MM. the Dukes of Praslin and Choiseul do not regard her as the most scrupulous woman in the world. Nevertheless I know … that she had no part in the death of that drunkard of hers. … Besides, he was the greatest fool that ever occupied a throne. … We are under obligations to Catherine for having had the courage to dethrone her husband, for she reigns with wisdom and with glory, and we ought to bless a crowned head who makes religious toleration universal through 135 degrees of longitude. … Say, then, much good for Catherine, I pray you.33
Mme. du Deffand thought this exculpation of the Empress quite shameful; Mme. de Choiseul and Horace Walpole denounced it.34 Praslin and Choiseul, who were directing the foreign relations of France, could not be expected to admire an Empress who was opposing French influence in Poland and defying it in Turkey. Voltaire himself had occasional doubts; when he learned that Ivan VI had been slain, he admitted sadly that “we must moderate a little our enthusiasm” for Catherine.35 But soon he was praising her legislative program, her patronage of the arts, her campaign for religious liberty in Poland; now (May 18, 1767) he gave her the title of “Semiramis of the North.” When she went to war with Turkey he interrupted his attack upon l’infâme (the Catholic Church) to applaud her crusade to save Christians from Mohammedans.
Diderot was equally fascinated by beauty on the throne, and with substantial reasons. When Catherine heard that he was planning to sell his library in order to raise a dowry for his daughter, she instructed her Paris agent to buy it at whatever price Diderot should ask; he asked and received sixteen thousand livres. Then she requested Diderot to keep the books till his death, and to be their custodian for her at a salary of a thousand livres per year; moreover, she paid his salary twenty-five years in advance. Diderot overnight became a rich man and a defender of Catherine. When she invited him to visit her he could hardly refuse. “Once in a lifetime,” he said, “one must see such a woman.”36
Having arranged the finances of his wife and daughter, he set out, aged sixty (June 3, 1773), on the long, rough journey to St. Petersburg. He dallied two months in The Hague, sipping fame; proceeded via Dresden and Leipzig; carefully avoiding Berlin and Frederick, about whom he had made some barbed remarks. Twice on the trip he fell violently sick of colic. He reached St. Petersburg on October 9, and was received by the Czarina on the tenth. “Nobody knows better than she,” he reported, “the art of putting everyone at his ease.”37 She invited him to speak frankly, “as man to man.” He did, and gestured in his accustomed way, driving points home by slapping the imperial thighs. “Your Diderot,” Catherine wrote to Mme. Geoffrin, “is an extraordinary man. I emerge from interviews with him with my thighs bruised and quite black. I have been obliged to put a table between us to protect myself and my members.”38
For a while he tried, like Voltaire with Frederick, to play the diplomat, and turn Russia from alliance with Austria and Prussia to alliance with France;39 she soon diverted him to topics nearer to his trade. He told her in some detail how Russia could be transformed into Utopia; she listened gaily, but remained skeptical. Later she recalled these conversations in a letter to Comte Louis-Philippe de Ségur:
I talked much and frequently with him, but with more curiosity than profit. If I had believed him everything would have been turned upside down in my kingdom; legislation, administration, finance—all would have been turned topsyturvy to make room for impractical theories. … Then, speaking openly to him, I said: “Monsieur Diderot, I have listened with the greatest pleasure to all that your brilliant intellect has inspired. With all your high principles one would make fine books, but very bad business. … You work only upon paper, which endures all things; … but I, poor Empress as I am, work on the human skin, which is irritable and ticklish to a different degree.” … Thereafter he talked only about literature.40
When she came upon some notes that he had made “On the Instructions of her Imperial Majesty … for the Drawing up of Laws,” she described them (after his death) as “veritable babble, in which one could find neither knowledge of realities nor prudence, nor insight.”41 Nevertheless she enjoyed his vivacious conversation, and talked with him almost every day during his long stay.*
After five months of ecstasy in her friendship, and discomfort at her court, Diderot turned homeward. Catherine ordered a special carriage built for him, in which he could recline at ease. She asked him what gifts she should send him; he answered, None, but he reminded her that she had not yet kept her promise to reimburse him for the expenses of his trip; he calculated these at fifteen hundred rubles, she gave him three thousand and a costly ring, and assigned an officer to accompany him to The Hague. On his return to Paris he eulogized her gratefully.
Catherine made no approaches to Rousseau, who was painfully antipodal to her in temper and ideas. But she cultivated Melchior Grimm, for she knew that his Correspondance littéraire reached influential Europeans. He took the first step by offering (1764) to send her his periodical letters; she agreed, and paid him fifteen hundred rubles per year. He first saw her when he went to St. Petersburg (1773) in the retinue of the Prince of Hesse-Darmstadt to attend the marriage of the Prince’s sister to Grand Duke Paul. Catherine found him much more realistic than Diderot, and very usefully informed on all aspects of that Parisian world which fascinated her with its literature, philosophy, art, women, and salons. She invited him to chat with her almost every day during the winter of 1773-74. About these meetings she wrote to Voltaire: “M. Grimm’s conversation is a delight to me; but we have so many things to say to each other that thus far our interviews have been marked by more eagerness than order or sequence.” In the ardor of these conversations she had repeatedly to remind herself that (as she put it) she must return to her gagne-pain —earn her bread by attending to the business of government.43 Grimm came back to Paris dripping with enthusiasm for Catherine as “the nourishment of my soul, the consolation of my heart, the pride of my mind, the joy of Russia, and the hope of Europe.”44 He visited St. Petersburg again in 1776, and saw her almost daily for a year. She begged him to remain and supervise the reorganization of education in Russia, but he became lonesome for Paris and Mme. d’Épinay. Catherine was not jealous; when she learned that Mme. d’Épinay was in financial straits she sent her, with delicate indirectness, enough to meet her wants.45 From 1777 Grimm served as Catherine’s agent in France for art purchases and confidential missions. His friendship for her lasted untroubled till her end.
What were the results of this flirtation between autocracy and philosophy? Insofar as she cultivated the philosophes as her press agents in France, the political effect was nil; French policy, and consequently French historians, remained bitterly hostile to a Russia that was balking French aims in Eastern Europe. But her admiration for the heroes of the French Enlightenment was sincere, having begun long before her accession to power; if it had been an affectation it would not have borne such long confrontations with Diderot and Grimm. Her liaison with French thought helped to Europeanize literate Russia, and to modify the Western view of Russia as a colossal brute. Many Russians followed Catherine’s lead, corresponded with French writers, and felt the influence of French culture, manners, and art. A growing number of Russians visited Paris, and though many spent their time in sexual adventures, many frequented the salons, the museums, and the court, read French literature and philosophy, and brought back with them ideas that shared in preparing the outburst of Russian literature in the nineteenth century.