We can hardly doubt the good intentions of Catherine in the early years of her reign.

In her copy of Fénelon’s Télémaque were found these resolutions:

Study mankind, learn to use men without surrendering to them unreservedly. Search for true merit, be it at the other end of the world, for usually it is modest and retiring.

Do not allow yourself to become the prey of flatterers; make them understand that you care neither for praise nor for obsequiousness. Have confidence in those who have the courage to contradict you, … and who place more value on your reputation than on your favor.

Be polite, humane, accessible, compassionate, and liberal-minded. Do not let your grandeur prevent you from condescending with kindness toward the small, and putting yourself in their place. See that this kindness, however, does not weaken your authority nor diminish their respect. … Reject all artificiality. Do not allow the world to contaminate you to the point of making you lose the ancient principles of honor and virtue. . . .

I swear by Providence to stamp these words into my heart.46

She informed herself assiduously on every relevant subject, and wrote detailed instructions on a thousand topics from army training and industrial operations to the toilette of her court and the production of operas and plays. Said one of her earliest and least friendly biographers:

Ambition extinguished not in Catherine’s soul an ardent relish for pleasure. But she knew how to renounce pleasure, and to make the transition to employments the most serious, and application the most indefatigable to the affairs of government. She assisted at all the deliberations of the Council, read the dispatches of her ambassadors, and dictated, or indicated … the answers to be returned. She entrusted her ministers with only the details of business, and still kept her eye on the execution.47

The task of governing her vast area was made almost impossible by the number (ten thousand), diversity, contradictions, and chaos of existing laws. Hoping to play Justinian to Russia, and to consolidate her power, Catherine, on December 14, 1766, summoned to Moscow administrative agents and legal experts from every part of the empire, to undertake a thorough revision and codification of Russian law. In preparation for their coming she personally prepared a Nakaz , or Instructions , describing the principles uponwhich the new code should be formed. These reflected her reading of Montesquieu, Beccaria, Blackstone, and Voltaire. She began by declaring that Russia must be thought of as a European state, and should have a constitution based upon “European principles.” This did not, in her understanding, mean a “constitutional government” subordinating the sovereign to a legislature chosen by the people; the educational level of Russia would not permit even so limited an electoral franchise as existed in Britain. It meant a government in which the ruler, though ultimately the sole source of law, ruled in obedience to law. Catherine upheld the feudal system—i.e., the system of mutual loyalty and services between peasant and vassal, vassal and liege lord, lord and sovereign—as indispensable to economic, political, and military order in the Russia of 1766 (a land of communities almost isolated from one another, and from the center of government, by difficulties of communication and transport); but she urged that the rights of masters over their serfs should be defined and limited by law, that serfs should be allowed to own property, and that the trial and punishment of serfs should be transferred from the feudal lord to a public magistrate responsible to a provincial court responsible to the sovereign.48All trial should be open, torture should not be used, capital punishment should be abolished in law as well as in fact. Religious worship should be free; “amongst so many different creeds the most injurious error would be intolerance.”49 The Nakaz, before being printed, was submitted by her to her advisers; they warned her that any sudden change from existing custom would plunge Russia into disorder; and she allowed them to modify her proposals, especially those for the gradual emancipation of the serfs.50

Even as so bowdlerized the Instructions , published in Holland in 1767, stirred the European intelligentsia to enthusiastic praise. The Empress sent a copy direct to Voltaire, who made his usual obeisance. “Madame, last night I received one of the guarantees of your immortality—your code in a German translation. Today I have begun to translate it into French. It will appear in Chinese, in every tongue; it will be a gospel for all mankind.”51 And he added in later letters: “Legislators have the first place in the temple of glory; conquerors come behind them.... I regard the Instructions as the finest monument of the century.”52 The French government forbade the sale of the Instructions in France.

The modified Nakaz was presented to the “Committee for Drafting a New Code,” which met on August 10, 1767. It was composed of 564 members elected by various groups: 161 from the nobility, 208 from the towns, 79 from the free peasantry, 54 from the Cossacks, 34 from non-Russian tribes (Christian or not), and 28 from the government. The clergy was not represented as a class, and the serfs were not represented at all. In some ways the Committee corresponded to the States-General that was to meet in Paris in 1789; and, as in that more famous assembly, the delegates brought to the government lists of grievances and proposals for reform from their constituents. These documents were transmitted to the Empress, and they offered her and her aides a valuable survey of the condition of the realm.

The Committee was empowered not to pass laws, but to advise the sovereign on the state and needs of each class or district, and to offer suggestions for legislation. The delegates were guaranteed freedom of speech and inviolability of person. Some of them proposed the emancipation of all serfs, some asked that the right to own serfs be more widely extended. In December, 1767, the Committee recessed; in February, 1768, it moved to St. Petersburg; altogether it held 203 sessions; on December 18, 1768, it was adjourned sine die because the outbreak of war with Turkey called many delegates to the front. The task of drafting proposed legislation was deputed to subcommittees, some of which continued to meet till 1775; but no code of laws was formulated. Catherine was not altogether displeased with this inconclusive result. “The Committee,” she said, “. . . has given me light and knowledge for all the Empire. I know now what is necessary, and with what I should occupy myself. It has elaborated all parts of the law, and has distributed the affairs under heads. I should have done more had it not been for the war with Turkey, but a unity hitherto unknown in the principles and methods of discussion has been introduced.”53 Meanwhile she had shown the nobles on how broad a base her power rested. The Committee, before adjourning, proposed to confer upon her the appellation “Great”; she refused, but consented to be called “Mother of the Country.”

Two of Catherine’s recommendations became law: the abolition of torture and the establishment of religious toleration. This was widely extended: it allowed the Roman Catholic Church to compete with the Greek Orthodox; it protected the Jesuits even after the dissolution of their order by Pope Clement XIV (1773); it permitted the Volga Tatars to rebuild their mosques. Catherine admitted the Jews into Russia, but she subjected them to special taxes, and (possibly for their safety) confined them to specific areas. She left the Raskolniki—religious dissenters—free to practice their rites unhindered; “we have indeed,” she wrote to Voltaire, “fanatics who, as they are no longer persecuted by others, burn themselves; but if those of other countries did the same, no great harm would result.”54

The philosophes were especially pleased by Catherine’s subordination of the Russian Church to the state. Some of them complained that she still attended religious services (so did Voltaire); the older of them recognized that her attendance was indispensable to retaining the allegiance of the people. By a decree of February 26, 1764, she turned into state property all the lands of the Church. The salaries of the Orthodox clergy were henceforth paid by the state—so ensuring their support of the government. Many monasteries and nunneries were closed; those that remained were forbidden to accept more than a prescribed number of novices, and the legal age for taking vows was raised. The surplus revenues from ecclesiastical institutions were applied to the foundation of schools, asylums, and hospitals.55

Both the clergy and the nobility opposed the extension of popular education, fearing that the spread of knowledge among the masses would lead to heresy, unbelief, and factionalism, and would imperil social order. Here, as elsewhere, Catherine began with liberal aspirations. She appealed to Grimm:

Listen a moment, my philosophical friends: you would be charming, adorable, if you would have the charity to map out a plan for young people, from ABC to university.... I, who have not studied and lived in Paris, have neither knowledge nor insight in the matter.... I am very much concerned about an idea for a university and its management, agymnasium [secondary school] and an elementary school. … Until you accede to my request I shall hunt through the Encyclopédie. Oh, I shall be certain to draw out what I want!56

Meanwhile she was moved by the pedagogical enthusiasm of Ivan Betsky, who had traveled in Sweden, Germany, Holland, Italy, and France, had frequented the salon of Mme. Geoffrin, had studied the Encyclopédie , and had met Rousseau. In 1763 she organized at Moscow a school for foundlings, which by 1796 had graduated forty thousand students; in 1764 a school for boys was opened in St. Petersburg, and in 1765 a school for girls; in 1764 the Smolny Monastery was transformed into the Smolny Institute for girls of the nobility—an echo of Mme. de Maintenon’s St.-Cyr; Catherine was the first Russian ruler to do anything for the education of women. Baffled by the dearth of qualified teachers, she sent Russian students to study pedagogy in England, Germany, Austria, and Italy. A teachers’ college was founded in 1786.

She admired Joseph II’s reforms of education in Austria, and asked him to lend her someone familiar with his procedure. He sent her Theodor Yankovich, who drew up for her a plan which she promulgated as a “Statute of Popular Schools” (August 5, 1786). An elementary school was established in the chief town of each county, and a high school in each of the principal cities of twenty-six provinces. These schools were open to all children of any class; corporal punishment was not allowed in them; teachers and textbooks were provided by the state. The project was largely frustrated by the reluctance of the parents to send their children to school rather than use them for labor at home. In the ten years between their foundation and Catherine’s death the “popular schools” grew slowly from forty to 316; the teachers from 136 to 744; the pupils from 4,398 to 17,341. In 1796 Russia was still far behind the West in public instruction.

Higher education was scantily provided by the University of Moscow, and by special academies. A School of Commerce was founded in 1772, an Academy of Mines in 1773. The old Academy of Sciences was enlarged and was provided with ample funds. In 1783, on urging by Princess Dashkova, and under her presidency, a Russian Academy was organized for the improvement of the language, the encouragement of literature, and the study of history; it issued translations, published periodicals, and compiled a dictionary which appeared in six installments between 1789 and 1799.

Appalled by the high death rate in Russia, and the primitive character of public sanitation and personal hygiene, Catherine brought in foreign physicians, established a College of Pharmacy at Moscow, and provided funds for the production of surgical instruments. She opened in Moscow three new hospitals, a foundling asylum, and an insane asylum, and in St. Petersburg three new hospitals, including a “Secret Hospital” for venereal diseases.57 In 1768 she introduced into Russia inoculation for smallpox, and quieted public fears by serving, aged forty, as the second Russian subject of the treatment; soon Catherine reported to Voltaire that “more people had been inoculated here in one month than in Vienna in a year.”58 (In 1772 Naples had its first inoculation, and in 1774 Louis XV, un inoculated, died of smallpox.)

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