Russia was becoming aware of its intellectual immaturity. A host of authors humbly copied foreign models, or translated works that had won fame in France, England, or Germany. Catherine allowed five thousand rubles from her privy purse to further this exotic flow; she herself translated Marmontel’s Bélisaire . With Russian enthusiasm for vast enterprises, Rachmaninov, a landowner in Tambov, translated the works of Voltaire, and Verevkin, director of the College of Kazan, turned into Russian the Encyclopédie of Diderot. Others translated the plays of Shakespeare, the Greek and Latin classics, the Gerusalemme liber ata of Tasso . . .
Gavril Romanovich Derzhavin was the most successful poet of the reign. Born lowly in eastern Orenburg, with Tatar blood in his veins, he served for ten years in the Preobrazhensky Regiment, saw Catherine’s ride to power, took part as an officer in suppressing Pugachev’s revolt, and worked his way up to a seat in the Senate. Noting that the Empress had used the name Felitza for a benevolent princess in Prince Khlor , Derzhavin, in a famous ode (1782), gave the same name to “the godlike Queen of the Kirghiz-Kazakh horde,” and begged this sultana to “teach me how to find the rose without thorns, … how to live pleasantly but justly.”92 When the poet apostrophized Felitza as one “from whose pen flows bliss to all mortals,” he was obviously extolling Catherine. When he reproved himself for “sleeping till noon, smoking tobacco, drinking coffee, … and making the world tremble with my looks,” or indulging in “sumptuous feasts at a table sparkling with silver and gold,” all the court knew that this was a hit at Potemkin. Derzhavin rose to raptures in praising the “Empress” Felitza, who “creates light from darkness,” injures no one, treats small faults forgivingly, lets people speak freely, “writes fables for the instruction” of her people, and “teaches the alphabet to Khlor” (grandson Alexander). And the poet concluded: “I pray the great prophet that I may touch the dust of your feet, that I may enjoy the sweet stream of your words and your look. I entreat the heavenly powers to extend their sapphire wings and invisibly guard you, … that the renown of your deeds may shine in posterity like the stars in the sky.”93 Derzhavin protested that he wished no reward for bringing so much honey, but Catherine promoted him, and soon he was so close to her that he could see her faults; he wrote no more lauds. He turned to a higher throne and indited an “Ode to the Deity,” congratulating Him on being “three-in-one,” and on keeping the heavens in such good order. At times he descended to metaphysics, and echoed Descartes’ proof of God’s existence: “Surely I am, hence Thou too art.”94 This ode remained for half a century unrivaled in popularity until Pushkin came.
Denis Ivanovich von Visin startled the capital with two lively comedies: The Brigadier and The Minor . The success of the latter was so complete that Potemkin advised the author to “die now, or never write again”—i.e., anything further would dim his fame.95Visin rejected the advice and saw its implied prophecy come true. In his later years he traveled in Western Europe and sent home some excellent letters, one of which contained a proud prediction: “We [the Russians] are beginning; they [the French] are ending.”96
The most interesting figure in the literature of Catherine’s reign was Nikolai Ivanovich Novikov. Dismissed from the University of Moscow for laziness and backwardness, he developed into a man of incessant intellectual activity. At the age of twenty-five (1769), in St. Petersburg, he edited a magazine, The Drone , impishly so called to counter Sumarokov’s periodical, The Industrious Bee . In lively style Novikov attacked the corruption prevalent in the government; he assailed the Voltairean irreligion of the upper classes as destructive of morals and character; he lauded by contrast what he supposed to have been the unquestioning faith and exemplary morals of the Russians before Peter the Great. “It is as if the old Russian rulers had foreseen that, through the introduction of arts and sciences, the most precious treasure of the Russians—their morality—would be irretrievably lost”;97 here too Rousseau was at war with Voltaire. Catherine gave The Drone some sour looks, and it ceased publication in 1770. In 1775 Novikov joined the Freemasons, who in Russia were turning to mysticism, Pietism, and Rosicru-cian fancies while their brothers in France were playing with revolution. In 1779 he moved to Moscow, took charge of the university press, and published more books in three years than had come from that press in twenty-four. Financed by a friend, he acquired additional presses, formed a publishing house, opened bookstores throughout Russia, and scattered broadcast his gospel of religion and reform. He established schools, hospitals, and dispensaries, and model housing for workingmen.
When the French Revolution turned Catherine from an enlightened into a frightened despot, she feared that Novikov was subverting the existing order. She directed Platon, the Metropolitan of Moscow, to examine Novikov’s ideas. The prelate reported: “I implore the all-merciful God that there may be, not only in the flock entrusted to me by God and you but throughout the world, such Christians as Novikov.”98 Suspicious nevertheless, the Empress ordered Novikov’s imprisonment in the fortress of Schlüsselburg (1792). There he remained till Catherine’s death. Released by Paul I, he retired to his estate of Tikhvin, and passed his remaining years in works of piety and charity.
A worse fate fell to Alexander Nikolaevich Radishchev. Sent by Catherine to the University of Leipzig, he picked up some works of the philosophes , and was especially moved by Rousseau’s Social Contract and Raynal’s exposure of European brutality in colonial exploitation and the slave trade. He returned to St. Petersburg fired with social ideals. Put in charge of the customshouse, he learned English to deal with British merchants, took up English literature, and was especially influenced by Sterne’s Sentimental Journey . In 1790 he published one of the classics of Russian literature, Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow . It professed orthodoxy, but denounced the impositions of priests upon popular credulity; it accepted monarchy but justified revolt against a ruler who violated the “social contract” by overriding the law. It described the dismemberment of families by conscription, and the abuse of serfs by masters; at one place, said Radishchev, he had been told of a landlord who had violated sixty peasant maidens. He denounced censorship, and pleaded for freedom of the press. He did not advocate revolution, but he asked for a merciful understanding of its advocates. He appealed to the nobles and the government to end serfdom. “Let yourselves be softened, you hardhearted ones; break the fetters of your brethren, open the dungeons of slavery. The peasant who gives us health and life has a right to control the land which he tills.”99
Strange to say, the book was passed by the censor. But Catherine in 1790 was fearful that her people might imitate the French Revolution. She made note to punish the violator of sixty virgins, but she ordered Radishchev to be tried for treason. Passages were found in his book about the storming of fortresses and the uprising of soldiers against a cruel czar; and there were eulogies of the English for resisting an unjust king. The Senate condemned the author to death; the Empress commuted this to ten years in Siberia. Emperor Paul I allowed Radishchev to return from exile (1796); Alexander I invited him to St. Petersburg (1801). There, a year later, thinking, without reason, that he was to be banished again, he killed himself. His fate and that of Novikov are among the many blots on a brilliant reign.