Catherine, like rulers throughout the ages, would have explained that since men must die in any case, why should not genius be employed by statesmen to direct those harassed lives and certain deaths to making the country strong and its cities great? Years of power, the challenges of revolt and war, the fluctuations of victory and defeat, had accustomed her to bear unflinchingly the sufferings of others, and to turn aside from the exploitation of the weak by the strong as beyond her means to cure.
Disturbed by a dozen conspiracies to unseat her, and frightened by Pugachev’s revolt, she was terrified by the French Revolution. She bore with it complacently when it promised to be only the overthrow of an idle aristocracy and an incompetent government; but when a Paris mob forced Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to leave Versailles and live in the Tuileries amid an unchained populace—when the Constituent Assembly declared itself supreme, and Louis consented to be merely its executive officer—Catherine shuddered at the encouragement so given to those who sought similar action in Russia. She allowed the clergy to forbid the publication of her once beloved Voltaire’s works (1789);111 she herself soon proscribed all French publications; she had the busts of Voltaire removed from her chambers to a lumber room (1792).112 She banished the idealistic Radishchev (1790), imprisoned the public-spirited Novikov (1792), and established an inquisitorial censorship over literature and plays. When Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined (1793) she broke off all relations with the French government, and urged the European monarchies to form a coalition against France. She herself did not join in that coalition; she used it to keep the Western powers busy while she completed her absorption of Poland. “Many of my enterprises are unfinished,” she told one of her diplomats; “the courts of Berlin and Vienna must be occupied so as to leave us unfettered.”113
Some vestiges of her early liberalism survived till 1793. In that year a courtier reported to her that Frédéric-César de Laharpe, who had been tutoring her grandsons, was an unregenerate republican. She sent for him and told him of the report; he answered: “Your Majesty knew, before entrusting me with the education of the Grand Dukes, that I was a Swiss, and therefore a republican.” He asked her to examine his pupils, and from their conduct judge his work. But she already knew how well he had taught them. “Monsieur,” she said, “be a Jacobin, a republican, or what you please; I believe you are an honest man, and that is enough for me. Stay with my grandchildren, retain my complete confidence, and instruct them with your wonted zeal.”114
Amid the turmoil she took her last lover (1789). Platon Zubov was twenty-five, she was sixty-one. She wrote to her amant-en-titre , Potemkin: “I have returned to life like a fly that the cold had benumbed.”115 Her new “pupil” proposed a three-pronged attack upon Turkey: a Russian army under his twenty-four-year-old brother Valerian was to cross the Caucasus into Persia and shut off all overland trade between Turkey and the East; another army, under Suvorov, was to go through the Balkans to besiege Constantinople; and Russia’s new Black Sea Fleet, led by the Empress herself, was to capture control of the Bosporus. After years of preparation this epic enterprise was begun (1796); Derbent and Baku were taken; and Catherine looked forward to victories that would complete her program and crown her career.
On the morning of November 17, 1796, she seemed as gay as ever. After breakfast she retired to her room. As time passed and she did not reappear, her female attendants knocked at the door. Receiving no answer, they entered. They found the Empress stretched out on the floor, the victim of the rupture of an artery in the brain. She was twice bled, and for a moment recovered consciousness, but she could not speak. At ten o’clock that evening she died.
Her enemies felt that she had not deserved so merciful a death. They never forgave her the contradictions between her liberal professions and her absolutist rule, her intolerance of opposition, her failure to carry out her proposed reform of Russian law, her surrender to the nobility in her extension of serfdom. Families impoverished by high taxes, or mourning the loss of sons in her wars, did not thank her for her victories. But the people as a whole applauded her for expanding Russia to wider and safer boundaries. She had added 200,000 square miles to Russia’s area, had opened new ports to Russia’s trade, had raised the population from nineteen to thirty-six million souls. She had been unscrupulous in her diplomacy—perhaps, in her absorption of Poland, a little more so than most other rulers of that time.
Her greatest achievement lay in carrying on the efforts of Peter the Great to bring Russia into Western civilization. Whereas Peter had thought of this chiefly in terms of technology, Catherine thought of it principally in terms of culture; by the force and courage of her personality she drew the literate classes of Russia out of the Middle Ages into the orbit of modern thought in literature, philosophy, science, and art. She was ahead of her Christian compeers (excepting the un-Christian Frederick II) in establishing religious toleration. A French historian compared her favorably with Le Grand Monarque:
The generosity of Catherine, the splendor of her reign, the magnificence of her court, her institutions, her monuments, her wars, were precisely to Russia what the age of Louis XIV was to Europe; but, considered individually, Catherine was greater than this Prince. The French formed the glory of Louis; Catherine formed that of the Russians. She had not, like him, the advantage of reigning over a polished people; nor was she surrounded from infancy by great and accomplished characters.116
In the estimate of an English historian Catherine was “the only woman ruler who has surpassed England’s Elizabeth in ability, and equaled her in the enduring significance of her work.”117 “She was,” said a German historian, “every inch a ‘political being,’ unmatched by anyone of her sex in modern history, and yet at the same time a thorough woman and a great lady.”118 We may apply to her the magnanimous principle laid down by Goethe: her faults were an infection from her time, but her virtues were her own.